Popular Science Writing by a Scientist: An Interview with Rob Dunn

26 November 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Rob Dunn in the lab. Photo by Marc Hall, North Carolina State University

I love science books that are couched in language that is accessible to non-scientists. When done well, they are a joy to read. Most “popular science”(not Popular Science) authors are reporters or former reporters. But what about authors who are scientists themselves?

Ask any nonfiction author and they’ll tell you that it takes an enormous amount of time, organization and effort to crank out a book. It’s a full time job. How do scientists engaged in research find the time to do it? What sort of fall-out do they face in the research community when they write books that people can actually read on the beach?

To get answers to those questions, I interviewed Rob Dunn. Dunn is the author of dozens of popular magazine articles and two books: “The Wild Life of Our Bodies” and “Every Living Thing.” But Dunn is also an active researcher, associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University and author of more than 80 published journal articles. [Full disclosure: Dunn and I both work at NC State.]

Communication Breakdown: What is your science background?

Rob Dunn: I grew up knee-deep in swamps and streams in a post-agricultural landscape in Michigan. We lived on an old farm that a previous generation had sucked the juice out of and then abandoned to regrow.  But as a kid I didn’t know that. I only knew that stubby trees popping up out of the rounded furrows were full of wonderful beasts (beasts I wrongly assumed someone else understood).

So, I grew up chasing beasts. That is my first science background. Then I went to Kalamazoo College, a liberal arts college in western Michigan. I left college convinced that one day I could get a job where one could think about history, literature and science – and, all the while, get a chance here and there to chase beasts. With such a career in mind I went to graduate school at the University of Connecticut where I wanted to be a “tropical biologist.” I didn’t really have the foggiest idea what tropical biology was. I suppose I imagined more exotic beasts. Rob Colwell, my graduate advisor, either didn’t know how clueless I was or took pity on me. Eventually I found a job at North Carolina State University where I’ve actually been able to think about history, literature, art and science. The things they told me about what I could do with my life when I was in college were not, it turns out, lies. Since then I’ve learned from my students and postdocs. They remind me how naïve I still am nearly every day.

CB: Did you have any previous writing experience or training before doing it professionally?

RD: When I was an undergraduate student (at Kalamazoo), I met a beautiful student with whom I wanted to spend more time. She was taking a class called P300 or something like that. I thought it was archery, a physical education course of some sort. It was a poetry class with Conrad Hilberry. I went on to take every one of the classes Conrad offered and married that student, Monica Sanchez. Conrad read at our wedding.

CB: What inspired you to write your first book, “Every Living Thing”?

RD: I am fascinated with what we don’t know about the world, with the beasts that everyone assumes someone else understands (but that no one does). I became interested in the stories of discovery and the people who have really lifted up the veil for the rest of us and, in doing so, shown light into the darkness so that we could rush in and see what is there. We assume we know everything, but we know nothing about the world around us. We are still so incredibly ignorant and that ignorance and its history fascinated me. I wanted to be with the people who were making the big discoveries and share those discoveries with everyone else.

Biologists have such a privileged life. We work among other biologists who do what they love and know more about the private darkness into which their science stumbles than anyone else. I wanted to explore these private stories and quests and share them. My way of doing that was writing about them. As for why I decided to write a book? I’m not sure. At that point I had already pitched books of poetry and so the idea of writing a book was on my radar and also no one ever told me that I shouldn’t. Until people started asking me what inspired me to write a book I had never really thought about the fact that it was/is a bit of an odd thing to do.

CB: Did you have similar motivations for writing your second book, “The Wild Life of Our Bodies”?

RD: Sort of. When I started writing “The Wild Life of Our Bodies,” I was really conscious of the disconnect between our scientific understanding of the ecology of wild places and how we treat our bodies. We treat our bodies as though they are islands, but they are subject to the same raucous ecology that affects old fields, rain forests or any other realm of the living world. I wanted to take my professional lens, that of a community ecologist, and shine it on our daily lives—our bedrooms, our backyards, our belly buttons and all the rest.

This second book was different too in that in the middle of writing it I began to think, “Hey, if this is so cool why am I not studying it?” With “Wild Life” my writing changed but so did my research focus. [Note: Dunn now leads a Your Wild Life research team that focuses on these issues.]

CB: Have your books created any professional opportunities or benefits for you as a researcher?

Rob Dunn (Photo: North Carolina State University)

RD: Yes, in many ways. My writing opens up new perspectives I had been missing. It changes how I think about what matters. I feel an obligation to the public to help people understand the ecology and evolution of the world around us, and I think that this sense of obligation is an opportunity. On a more ordinary level, my writing allows me to engage more and different audiences.

I also find that many young scientists (graduate students and postdocs, for example) are very excited about science communication and that they often want to hear about how one does both writing and science (I don’t know the answer; I just have my own anecdotes). Meeting with young scientists is always an exciting opportunity.

Finally, I am now invited to meetings and events outside my field (on surgical infections, for example, or children and nature). I find such events incredibly stimulating, and they make my science better because they tell me, again and in a new context, what people care about and where we might better be going. They also tend to have better food than the meetings I would normally go to.

CB: Have you experienced any adverse consequences from the research community as a result of your work as an author of popular science books?

RD: No, never. Maybe people think wicked things about me sometimes. But if they do, they don’t say them to my face. And anyway, people were probably thinking wicked things about me before I started writing. I think I’ve been lucky that I’ve had very supportive administrators at NC State from department heads and deans on up to the chancellor.

CB: Are you aware of any broader benefits stemming from your books, such as inspiring young scientists?

RD: I hope those benefits are out there. I don’t see them directly if they are. But I would like to work toward doing writing that sends kids out to chase beasts, to find their own unknown worlds and shine lights into them. I don’t know if I am doing that now, but that is what I would like to do: send great armies of excited readers out into the wild to see what is there, whether that wilderness be the Amazon or the kitchen. It is good to get a question like this because it is a clear reminder of what I would like to accomplish.

CB: What advice do you have for anyone who is considering writing a popular science book?

RD: Ha! For me, it is an excuse to run through the library looking for fun new things to read and think about, call scientists who might never talk to me otherwise, and generally explore the world. I love writing books.

I guess my first piece of advice is really a comment, namely that writing a book can really be a delight. It is something I never dislike. I have never had a bad moment when writing a book. I’ve had better and worse moments, moments when I’m deleting thousands of words, moments when I’ve done something totally wrong, but it is like being left in the dark with a piece of clay and I really do love it, carving out what I am after in words.

The thing I enjoy most about writing a book is being graced with space to wiggle my elbows around. I come from a long line of long talkers. My great, great grandfather was a pastor in Greenville, Mississippi, and we recently came across a letter he had written. His church, upon some anniversary, had asked him to reflect upon the history of his specific church building in Greenville. He started off, “In commenting on the history of our church, I need to begin by commenting on the history of the church in the South more generally. In commenting on the history of the church in the South, I would be remiss if I did not comment on the history of religion.” And so he began, and so I began, and so you can begin if you have a whole book’s worth of space to jump around in.

As for practical sorts of things? I write better in the morning, but hate getting up early. I don’t ever write on paper because I can’t read my own penmanship. I focus a lot on narrative and how to get a reader from one place to another. I think that people are more excited to read about science if they care about the characters, but I also think people are better able to understand science if they care about the characters. Apologize to your husband or wife in advance before you write a book because they are going to have to live with those characters for the duration of the book.

Many of the characters in the new book I am working on are surgeons, and really their stories just shouldn’t be brought to the dinner table (but they are – Sorry, Monica). The other advice I’d share is that advice that sounds stupid and yet matters, the advice to persevere.

I have been lucky with my books in many ways. I was lucky to find a tough and protective agent who is also a good editor. I have been lucky to have a bunch of different editors all of whom have been helpful in one way or another. But part of that luck comes from persevering. I write and write and write and write and when someone does not like something, I write again. I think that one nice thing about being a scientist who writes is that scientists tend to be quite a bit meaner than editors, and so when an editor gets tough with something I’ve written, I’m okay. I’ve had reviewers of papers suggest that I “have someone who speaks English as a FIRST language review my paper.” I’ve never had an editor be quite that mean, but the point is there will be some who are mean and rough and maybe even a tad bit of vicious, but it is all useful even when it is not all right.

[Note: Rob later sent me a note saying “I just received an email from an editor this morning that changes my perspective about the relative niceness of scientists and editors.”]

CB: Do you have any advice specifically for scientists who are considering writing a popular science book?

RD: Go for it. Remember that the things you think are important are very unlikely to be the things that most people think are important. You have a chance to convince your readers that your important things are actually important things, but it is not where the reader will start. You may think fish eggs are the most beautiful things in the world, and you may be able to convince everyone that that is true, but that is not what they will wake up thinking. Remember that people wake up thinking about their aching teeth, their mortgage and how to get their kids to school on time. If you want to get them thinking about fish eggs, you better have a good narrative, some great revelations or some way of convincing everyone that fish ovaries matter to them as much as their mortgage. And, for the record, fish eggs are damn interesting, but I’ll tell you about it some other time.


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