Walks outside with paper and paint, camera, notebook and pen, or just my thoughts and the setting sun have always been a habit of mine. Consequently, the Art Walk and Tour through the J.C. Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University at the Science Online 2012 (SCIO12) Meeting sounded like a delightful way to spend an afternoon. So I packed my camera, some additional watercolors and brushes and wandered the paths of the winter gardens on a cool, damp overcast afternoon along with a troop of other SCIO12 folks who were searching for new ways to communicate science.
Since the SCIO12 meeting, I have followed the #Iamscience discussion with interest. Reading the posts of others made me wonder, how did I become a scientist? When did I become a science writer? Where did the interest start? How did I end up where I am now?
Many people assume that because my big brother is a chemist, I picked up my interest in science from him. I do remember being fascinated by the long, thin tubes of Pyrex glass that he would bring home and take to the basement turning and working in a flame, transforming them into a mouse or a lamppost or other delight. During my rock collecting phase, he mailed me a couple of large, rectangular crystals of sodium chloride, complete with instructions not to eat them. My mother was concerned that they weren’t appropriate for a child. “Oh, Mom,” I said, “It’s just salt”. Certainly the fact my brother had a PhD by the time I was ten made graduate school seem entirely nonthreatening to me (little did I know).
However, the person who really piqued my scientific curiosity was someone who had no intention of doing so. My big sister was taking a required botany course at a local community college when I was seven or eight, and Mom made her take me along during her hunts for plant specimens. (I think I was supposed to be her chaperone.) We spent many afternoons wandering around local wooded areas, creeks and granite outcroppings, identifying and collecting plant specimens and placing them carefully in the plant press. It was delightful, and I fell in love with science, field work, rocks and plants. Science was fun and active.
I grew up in what used to be rural Georgia. We lived on a dirt road where I could pick blackberries on the roadside, get cuttings of Cherokee Roses growing wild in the red-clay ditches, and find amazing pieces of rose quartz with almost no effort. When I was a kid I loved to play school—I was the teacher of course. And, I was constantly digging up plants from the woods—ferns, mosses and other things—and bringing them into the house (much like some children adopt every stray animal they find, I adopted plants). The top of the writing desk in my bedroom was covered with potted plants and terrariums.
My love of plants even carried over into college, when I wrote my first essay (and only essay of mine to earn an A) in Ms. Munck’s 8 a.m. English 101 class—about how my plants made my dorm room feel more like home. Somehow I lost track of my love of writing, teaching and plants in college. My senior research project ended up being about fish parasites, and eventually I found myself in a molecular biology laboratory studying cell differentiation in C. elegans, as I worked to earn my PhD.
I think the most important course I took as an undergraduate was photography. I learned about composition, texture, and negative space. In graduate school, having studied photography helped with imaging, slide production and film developing (Yes, when I was in grad school we developed our own film, and presenters carried trays of 35mm slides to scientific meetings). Now, that early study of photography informs my writing.
In spite of the fact that I seemed to lose track of the writing, botany and field work I really loved in college, when I was up to my ears in worm sperm in graduate school, my love of plants managed to resurface. Much to my advisor’s chagrin, whenever possible I presented Arabidopsis developmental genetics papers at journal clubs, going on and on about whorls of petals and sepals.
When I finished my PhD and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, to teach college students, I spent many late summer evenings walking in the Broken Kettle Grasslands with camera or watercolor notebook in hand. I hiked the Sioux City Prairie early in spring time, hoping to spot that first blooming pasque flower, learning the lore behind the native prairie plants. In Wisconsin, I have come to love the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and the Janesville Rotary Gardens, and I am really lucky to work on the Promega campus as a science writer surrounded by which beautiful rain gardens and native prairie plantings.
As I look through my photos of the Photo Art Walk/Tour through the J C Raulston Arboretum at SCIO12, I am struck by the spirals, the ever expanding shapes, capable of unwinding to unwieldy proportions, yet easily curling back in upon themselves. I think my science story may be a bit of a spiral: some plants, some rocks, some field work, some writing—some writing, some field work, some photography—lots of chemistry, physics, molecular biology, some painting, some photography—lots of teaching, some writing, some photography, some field work—lots of molecular biology, lots of writing, some painting, more writing…whorl by whorl. Like the whorls of a flower, patterns repeating in slightly different ways to create new meanings.
I am science, and my story is a spiral.