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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

A Science Rookie: Learning to Craft a Science Narrative When
You Know Next to Nothing about Science

Enter the fresh­man chem­istry tutor dressed in torn jeans and a flan­nel shirt. His job? To get me through entry lev­el chem­istry at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty. My first col­lege plan was to major in Hotel and Restau­rant Man­age­ment because my father owned a com­pa­ny that did busi­ness with these types of insti­tu­tions. So, what the heck, I didn’t know what else to study so I declared that my major way back in the fall of 1977.

ScienceNo one told me that since these kinds of insti­tu­tions serve food, I had to take cours­es in food and nutri­tion. And since food and nutri­tion were sci­ence based, I must take chem­istry. Three quar­ters of chem­istry! Ugh. Back to the tutor’s and my results; C+, and that was after a lot of hard work. My new major; jour­nal­ism and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and forty years lat­er the stars have aligned. Sci­ence is draw­ing me in now.

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the pro­pos­al for Bold Women of Med­i­cine, it did not occur to me that I would have to write about sci­ence. Well … what did you think, Susan? Write about these coura­geous doc­tors, nurs­es, mid­wives, and phys­i­cal ther­a­pists, and there wouldn’t be any sci­ence? Oh, dear. I flashed back to fresh­man chem­istry and biol­o­gy, and sus­pect­ed I was in big trou­ble.

Along the way I dis­cov­ered that not hav­ing this knowl­edge was a good thing, and in my case, it almost helped me. I could write from a posi­tion of inno­cence and explain the women’s med­ical careers with­out a con­de­scend­ing tone to my read­ers: I was one of those read­ers.

Take for exam­ple one of the women in my book, Helen Taus­sig and her part in treat­ing the blue baby syn­drome. I bare­ly knew how the human heart worked when it was healthy, and now I’d have to explain how bril­liant med­ical researcher Mr. Vivien Thomas, and Drs. Taus­sig and Blalock, dis­cov­ered how to fix the defect. (Hint: Vivien Thomas prac­ticed on hun­dreds of dogs, the most famous of which is Anna, whose por­trait hangs at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal.)

heart doctorOff to the library I went to check out books on the human heart—first adult books, then books for chil­dren. I stud­ied the healthy heart and heart defect jar­gon and tried to explain it to myself first, and then write it down. For­tu­nate­ly, I have med­ical pro­fes­sion­als in my life so, after a few drafts, I had them read it to see if I had explained it cor­rect­ly and with­out intense med­ical lan­guage. Did you know the nor­mal child’s heart is about the size of their fist? I didn’t know that.

The tiny babies were not get­ting enough oxy­gen and in Dr. Taussig’s mind the fix seemed to be a sim­ple case of improved plumb­ing. The nar­ra­tive ten­sion was built right into the sto­ry. Specifics always work bet­ter so I wrote about the first oper­a­tion on one of the babies, lit­tle Eileen Sax­on, and lat­er anoth­er oper­a­tion on a six-year-old boy.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin

In the pro­files of Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin and Edna Adan Ismail, the sci­ence writ­ing was more chal­leng­ing know­ing my audi­ence was young adult (12 and up). Writ­ing about med­i­cine auto­mat­i­cal­ly lends itself to top­ics we don’t want to hear about—in this case, FGM (Female Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion) and Obstet­ric Fis­tu­la. One young woman came to Dr. Ham­lin for help by walk­ing almost 280 miles. Ten years ear­li­er, because of a pro­longed labor, she had suf­fered two holes in her blad­der (an obstet­ric fis­tu­la) and lost all con­trol. At first Dr. Ham­lin did not know how to help her, but she talked to oth­er physi­cians and stud­ied up on pro­ce­dures. After the suc­cess­ful surgery, Dr. Ham­lin pre­sent­ed the young woman with a new dress in which to go home. The woman waved good-bye with hope and said “God will reward you for all you have done for me.” Pre­sent­ing the image of an opti­mistic woman with a new dress helps read­ers under­stand Dr. Hamlin’s impor­tant work.

Edna Adan Ismail

Edna Adan Ismail with a class of nurs­ing school grad­u­ates at Edna Adan Ismail hos­pi­tal.

As I wrote about sci­ence for the first time, I learned a few things along the way:

  • Every famous surgery or dis­cov­ery or treat­ment has a sto­ry. Find that sto­ry, find the human part of that sto­ry.
  • Char­ac­ter, set­ting, and the five sens­es can help sci­ence drib­ble into the sto­ry.
  • Keep your won­der and gross-out mind­set alive. Kids pos­sess this mind­set nat­u­ral­ly and many appre­ci­ate the guts (no pun intend­ed) of the details.
  • There are no stu­pid ques­tions when inter­view­ing experts. Be curi­ous, and if you can, expe­ri­ence the sci­ence first-hand.
  • Know that your audi­ence is smart, just inex­pe­ri­enced in the sub­ject.
  • Dou­ble (and triple) check your sci­ence writ­ing with the experts. The last thing you want to do is send out incor­rect infor­ma­tion.
Future bold women of medicine?

Future bold women of med­i­cine?

Because the women of med­i­cine were accom­plished, it was easy to assume they knew all the answers. They did not … but they were curi­ous and that curios­i­ty led them to answers. Sci­ence often comes up with neg­a­tive results, peo­ple just try­ing to under­stand how some­thing works. This doesn’t always make the news. Build­ing on these neg­a­tive results leads sci­en­tists to the flashy news and the suc­cess­es.

I built on my (lim­it­ed) knowl­edge, and learned right along with my audi­ence. I had a lot of false starts, not real­ly know­ing what I was writ­ing about. For­tu­nate­ly, for the patients, I nev­er had to actu­al­ly per­form the dif­fi­cult pro­ce­dures and surg­eries.

And to that chem­istry tutor in the flan­nel shirt, wher­ev­er you are: thanks for the help. I prob­a­bly did learn some­thing. Next up: seis­mol­o­gy. Know any good tutors?

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