Friday, July 23, 2010

Interview: Leigh Boerner, Just Another Electron Pusher

Leigh Boerner is the writer behind Just Another Electron Pusher, C&ENtral Science’s in-house jobs and employment blog. When she’s not a blogger, she’s a doctoral candidate in synthetic inorganic chemistry at Indiana University - Bloomington. I caught up with Leigh over IM and via e-mail over the past week; the following is a lightly edited version of our electronic conversation about science writing and her search for employment.

CJ: What have/will your peers done with their degrees? Where do inorganic chemists end up in industry? (Seriously, I don't really know.)

Leigh: They end up in a lot of places. A lot of people from my department have gone to either 3M or what used to be GE Plastics (now Saibic Innovative Plastics), which both recruit pretty heavily here. I had a colleague go to BASF which is essentially the 3M of Germany (he works on adhesives, I believe). Eli Lilly, which is just up the road, also hires a lot of organometallic chemists. (Well, they used to.) Synthetic inorganic chemistry is actually pretty dang versatile, since we tend to do both organic synthesis and work with air-sensitive metals, so we generally know dry-box and Schlenk techniques. We gots the skillz. I actually do quite a bit of organic work myself, since I make porphyrins. But since they're so photo-active, I know a lot of photochemistry and things of that ilk, too. When I started grad school, I ultimately wanted to do solar energy research for the DOE, and there was a girl here a while back that did get a job at a DOE lab in Colorado. So yeah, lots of options.

CJ: So are you thinking about science writing or something else? If you're a beginning science writer, what's the outlook for you -- are you going to be doing a lot of freelancing?

Leigh: Science writing, definitely. About 25% of me is also maybe thinking publishing....  I've been doing some freelancing. I turned in a story for a university mag yesterday. I've written for Science and The Scientist a bit. And I have tons of ideas, but it's just a matter of finding the time to write pitches to magazines, etc.

CJ: Do you think science writing is going to more or less lucrative than being a graduate student? I don't know the first thing about how much a science writer makes.

Leigh: Pretty much everything's more lucrative than being a grad student... It depends on where you work. When I interned at the OC Register, through AAAS, I made about the same each month as I do as a grad student. So that was an internship -- I would say about twice as much, for a beginning writer at a middlish paying type place.

CJ: What was it like working at the OC Register? What are the differences in mindset between a grad student and a reporter? Any insights you think chemists could gain from the media?

Leigh:  It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work. I remember constantly missing the turn to get back to my apartment because I was so mentally exhausted every night. Things moved very fast, and I had to just kind of jump in and get my stories written, even though I felt like I didn't know what the heck I was doing much of the time. My editor was very much of the "throw them into the deep end of the pool" philosophy of teaching, and he was constantly putting me in tough situations to see how I would deal with them. The first interview I did on my own was like that. My editor and I were at UC Irvine, and had two interviews set up while we were there. The first one was fine, and my editor did most of the talking. On our way to the second one, he was kind of prepping me up for it, and said that the psychology prof we were going to talk to was notoriously hard to interview, because she never really spoke in plain English. And then he said, "but you're going to do it on your own cuz I've gotta go, bye!" And he was GONE. I stood stunned for a few minutes, and then dragged myself to her office and did the interview. And it actually turned out not so bad.

Working at the OC Register was also probably the polar opposite of being a grad student. Things always started slow in the morning, but got crazy in the late afternoon/early evening. And the week started out mellow, but got insane towards the weekend. I guess the biggest difference was how you're supposed to impart information. In journalism, the simplest way of stating things is always the best. But in science, generally the more jargon you use, the better. I'm forever irritating my adviser because my way of talking is not "scientific" enough. But my editor at the OC Register was always scolding me for "talking like a scientist."

Writing and grad school are similar in the fact that for both, you have to have a really thick skin. I remember my editor saying to me at one point, "You take criticism really well." When I told my adviser that, he laughed and said, "See? Don't say I never did anything for you."

CJ: Who do you read in the chemistry blogosphere? What would you like to see more? Do you have writerly inspirations?

Leigh: I read all the C&E News blogs of course, and yours, the Chemistry Blog, In the Pipeline, and the Skeptical Chymist. Aaaand that's about it. There aren't too many out there, sadly. I do miss The Chem Blog, and I would really like to see some more pop up like that, meaning ones that can really analyze papers well, but also have a sense of humor. And I think we need more chemistry blogs that speak on a lay-person's level, without being condescending. People do think chemistry is really cool, but I think are put off by the jargon. I think a very well-explained blog about chemistry background and current research would be a fabulous addition to ye olde blogosphere.

I do have writerly aspirations. My ideal job would be to write a column about general cool science things (but mostly chemistry) that would give me a reason to still play with chemicals. Have you ever heard of Harold McGee? He's a food writer for the New York Times, and also the author of a few books, e.g. On Food and Cooking and The Curious Cook. In the latter, he actually goes into the lab and tries to figure out things like why egg whites get more foamy when you beat them in copper bowls. It turns out egg whites get kind of gluey sometimes because they're made up of a lot of cysteine, which contains sulfur. These form disulfide linkages, which kind of weigh the egg whites down, and make them more dense. But when you put them in a Cu bowl, the S tend to bind to the Cu instead of each other, which means they get really aerated and floofy and delicious for baking! The same thing happens if you add a drop or two of an acid, like vinegar or lemon juice. Neat huh?

Anyway, my point (and I do have one) is that I want to write stuff like that. Not about food, but about questions like, "why does X do Y?" Then be able to go in the lab and play and figure it out. Then write about it. Once upon a time, I did kind of do that. I had a science column in my university paper called "Ask Suzie Q. Scientist." Unfortunately it didn't last long, because the paper discontinued the Health & Science section shortly after I started the column. But for one of them, I did get to talk about embalming and what it does. Then I shot some formaldehyde into raw chicken, just to see what it did (after sitting for a bit, it bounced like a super ball). Now if I can just find someone to pay me for doing stuff like that, I would be a happy chemist.

I'd also like to write books. I have about six in my head, and I think they need to come out.

CJ: What's your non-chemistry media diet? Any papers or blogs that you particularly like?

Leigh:  I read my local paper every day, which tends to surprise my grad school colleagues. I also am a bit of an NPR junkie, and listen to All Things Considered and Morning Edition every day. And RadioLab, whenever a new one comes out (I am a RadioLab FIEND), and I catch Science Friday when I can. I read the New York Times, not every day but a couple times a week (esp Tuesdays, because that's when The Science Times comes out). I also read Science, Nature, New Scientist, Wired, Science News, Scientific American, and a whole slew of other science type magazines. I do also read a lot of general science blogs, like The Loom (Carl Zimmer), Not Exactly Rocket Science (Ed Yong), You Are Not So Smart (David McRaney), Neurotopia (Scicurious, although that's neuroscience, not general), and others too numerous to mention.

CJ here again. Thanks to Leigh for the interview and go on over and enjoy Leigh's blog!

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