Monday, March 21, 2011

Interview: Christine Herman, Just Another Electron Pusher

Christine Herman is one half of the latest incarnation of Just Another Electron Pusher, C&EN's blog on alternative careers in chemistry. She's an aspiring science writer and (interestingly to me) a writer for her university's newspaper, The Daily Illini. She graciously agreed to a quick interview with me; this e-mail Q&A has been lightly edited by CJ and checked for accuracy by Christine.

Chemjobber: Can you tell me a little about your background? What kind of chemistry do you do right now?

Christine: I got a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I did undergraduate research in natural product synthesis. In the last two years of undergrad, I took several biology and biochemistry courses, which got me really interested in the chemistry-biology interface. I applied to chemical biology programs for graduate school and am now in my 4th year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

My research can be classified as “biointerface science”, which broadly speaking refers to tailoring surfaces and materials to be compatible with biological applications. I modify glass microscope slides with a photoactive molecule, and use light to attach proteins to the surface in gradients. I am trying to design surfaces that mimic the blood vessel, so that I can use them in experiments to better understand the process of inflammation and the way the body recruits white blood cells to a site of injury or infection. So, I make these surfaces, place them into a flow chamber, and then I flow white blood cells over the surfaces in a way that mimics blood flowing through a blood vessel. I use a microscope that has a camera attached to it to record white blood cells as they roll along the surface, and study how various parameters (i.e., amount of protein on the surface, flow rate) affect cell behavior.

Here’s a video I made for the “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest last year that explains the process of inflammation more.

CJ: What kind of science writer are you hoping to be?

Christine: At this point, it’s hard for me to say what kind of science writer I want to be. I am formally trained in chemistry and biology, so I’d love to write for a magazine that specializes in either or both of those areas. So far, I have found the variety to be one of the most enjoyable things about science writing: One day I’m interviewing a professor about her research on biofuels, the next week I’m on the phone with a company that is developing artificial retinas. It’s so awesome to talk to experts in various fields about what they do, and write it in a way that non-experts, scientists or non-scientists, could understand. I’d be happy with any job that allows me to do that!

CJ: Who do you read right now (science and non-science)? What are your inspirations?

Christine: I have been working my way through the “Best American Science Writing” books, to get a taste of lots of different writing styles. I also have started reading Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”—good stuff! I admire a journalist who invests 10 years into uncovering a story that raises more questions than it does answers and challenges people to think about the issues at hand. That’s the kind of writing I really I hope to do in the future-- maybe even write a book some day if I can find an interesting topic that I want to dive into.

CJ here again. Thanks to Christine for the fun interview and go over to JAEP and read!


  1. This is a seriously 'gay' attempt to subjugate yourself to the powers of the status quo by probing the subject with a series of timid questions.


    It does prove you could work as a writer for C&E news.

  2. A4:46p: I think you are really investing C&EN with powers that they don't have. Enjoy!