Back in 2008 I was seven years into a career as a magazine advertising designer and writer. I was newly married, and having my first child was still a few years away yet. The job was very repetitive and cyclical: writing duties occupied the first third of each month, and designing duties the rest. I worked for a monthly publication, so it went on like this all year. And on. And on. For the most part, I loved my job and it taught me a huge amount about design and working with clients. But I was beginning to burn out. The hours were often long, the pressure high, and I was craving a change in routine.
Then one day I was sent out on an interview for an upcoming article. I’d done many like it, a simple Q&A. The staff photographer and I headed downtown to the university to interview a professor of chemistry, known for his long, successful teaching career and his many public engagement efforts to communicate the joy of science to people of all ages. The interview went well, I wrote it up, turned it in to my editor, and it was published in the December issue.
A few days after the interview, I got a call from the professor: Might I be interested in helping his research group with some writing projects on a freelance basis? A few website updates from time to time? With my crazy work schedule in mind, I thanked him and declined.
But maybe I might be willing to come down to campus again to discuss the idea further? OK, yes, that I could do.
Somehow it became impossible to say no. I’d previously freelanced as a writing tutor for student-athletes at the university, but I’d phased that out of my schedule, so I had a little room. And this idea of making science palatable—decipherable, interesting… exciting and beautiful, even!—really intrigued me. I’d had a few less-than-stellar science teachers in high school (not you, Mr. Graper, I got an A in freshman biology) who, rather than unlocking the mysteries of science, made it feel like a secret club I didn’t have the password to, like a different language I couldn’t seem to learn. Plus, there was math. Ugh.
High school had drowned out my hopes of succeeding in science, I didn’t enjoy the classes, and I barely made C’s in chemistry and physics. But meeting the professor and his colleagues at the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy (WISL), where I now work, revived my interest again. I’d been invited into the club! I started out doing just as the professor requested, helping with a few written pieces, and updating their website. Then the magazine went under, and I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands. So I filled it with science.
Now it’s eight years later, and my science phobia is long gone. I’m still a bit of an outsider in the department; I always tell people, when they ask, that I work in the chemistry department at UW but I’m not a chemist. When they give me the inevitable puzzled look or trailing question (“So… ?) I go on to explain from there.
I’ve learned so much in the last eight years that I never would have anywhere else: how important clear communication is to the public perception of the sciences, how our entire life is filled with science every single day and most people don’t even realize it, how a single (amazing, dazzling, magical) science demonstration done well can make a science fan out of just about anyone. And I learned that as intimidating as science can be for those who feel left out of the club, it can be just as difficult for scientists to ditch the jargon and explain in simple terms why their work is important. Why they love it. Why we should care about it. (Next time you run into a scientist, ask them these questions. Most of them need the practice, and the answers tend to be very interesting.)
And you know what? There is no secret password to get into the science club, you just need one simple thing: curiosity.
Why do the leaves change color in the fall? Why is chocolate bad for dogs? How do they make fireworks different colors? How do my new LED holiday lights work? Are the medals they give out at the Olympics really made of gold, silver, and bronze? The questions are endless.
I’ve now been at WISL longer than I was at the magazine, and I don’t feel burnt out or fed up. (It helps that I work alongside a person who has been teaching tirelessly at UW for the last 47 years.) On any given day, I might design a logo and plan an event, update the website and look for the perfect stock photo for a new poster, or archive DVDs of old science programs and help the professor organize his course materials. It’s the most eclectic job I’ve ever had and am ever likely to have. It keeps me engaged. It keeps me energized. Above all, it keeps me curious.