Writer Carl Zimmer has a gift for getting to the heart of the big issues of science, and for communicating with both scientists and non-scientists alike. Ahead of his appearance on the plenary stage at Festival of Genomics Boston last year, we wanted to find out what drew him towards science writing in the first place, and what inspires him to keep looking for the next big story. 

Carl is joining us once more at this year’s Festival in Boston on October 3-4 2017, where he will host an unmissable panel: Game of Genomes: How the Public Can Learn About Genomics Through Their Own DNA. 

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer

The world of science is riddled with interesting stories, from weird discoveries to inspiring people, and journalist and writer Carl Zimmer has an uncanny knack for uncovering them. Through his work with the New York Times, regular appearances on Radiolab and numerous books, Carl’s writing manages to appeal to both scientist and non-scientist alike. His work has covered everything from the study of E.coli, the evolution of tetrapods, to the ins and outs of parasites (pun intended). Indeed, his book Parasite Rex, so inspired on a particular scientist, that Carl now has recognised a particular rare distinction of a species of tapeworm that bears his name. 

FLG: I was curious to understand where your interest in science came from – you majored in English but you’ve really devoted your professional career to science journalism. Where did that initial scientific curiosity come from? 

CZ: Well, I was always kind of a science junkie, but I didn’t really think about doing this sort of living. In high school or college I wanted to do some kind of writing, but I didn’t really put two and two together, so I was just lucky that when I was looking around for an entry level job it so happened that science magazine, Discover Magazine, needed an assistant copy editor, so they took me on an basically from there I just kind of learnt how to do science writing in the job. 

FLG: You spent nearly a decade at Discover. I was wondering what that was like as a journalistic education? Was it a question of learning on the job or was it more of a structured process you went through? 

CZ: Yeah, it was a fantastic way to learn how to write about science. One of the most valuable parts of it was fact checking, which I did for the first two years there. That gives you the opportunity to go through an article before it’s published and see how reporter did the research and put it together and to tell the story, you can see how easy it is to make mistakes, how easy it is to jump to conclusions, because you’re finding the mistakes along the way, that’s your job. So all of that was great, and then I was fortunate that the people at Discover let me grow while I was there, going from writing very short stories to cover features. So I’m really grateful for that experience.

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FLG: You progressed relatively quickly at Discover. Do you have any advice on how to really make it out there in the world of a scientific journalism? 

CZ: I  don’t think I can offer that many lessons from my own experience for people starting out today simply because the business has changed a lot. I didn’t realise at the time that the way I was working in science journalism was going to rapidly go out of date. I started at Discover magazine years before they had a website. I actually helped to think about the website and how it would work and we were just starting to explore that when I began as a science writer. Today, new journalists face all sorts of challenges that I just didn’t have to deal with. There are, at least in newspaper journalism, a lot fewer staff jobs out there. There are freelance opportunities but they don’t pay anywhere near as well. I guess I’d say that journalists who really want to go into journalism today in 2016 should not act as if it’s 1996! They shouldn’t be imagining that they’re going to quickly end up at a super stable print publication. That’s possible but it’s much less likely now. That being said, there are a lot of good opportunities that didn’t exist for people starting out when I did. There are a lot of really excellent websites and online publications now that are hiring people to work on staff and do good journalism and to take advantage of the online world, and to do things that I couldn’t have done in print. So, it’s changed.

FLG: Since you went out on your own, you been involved in podcasts and writing blogs and still writing columns and had a taste of different forms of communication, and different forms of journalism. What made you make that jump in the first place to really go out and be a freelancer and work for yourself?

CZ: Well, I worked for Discover for 10 years. That’s a long time, and I was curious about writing for other publications and I was also starting to write books. I’d just published my first book and I was starting work on my second, and I was thinking that maybe I should try to get that freedom that you can have being a fulltime freelance writer. That was a little scary to make the jump and I certainly know people who went from staff jobs to being freelancers and really didn’t like it at all and went back to being a staff writer/staff editor as soon as they could. It really depends on your temperament. But for me it was a lot of fun and it just so happened that things were just starting to change when I started being a freelancer. Within a couple of years I started reading blogs, which at the time were very different way of writing about science. It was a real revelation, and then things just went from there.

FLG: Science writing is a particular skill, and certainly with the kind of writing that you do, you’ve got a fantastic skill for taking on really arcane series of scientific studies about viruses or tetrapod archaeology and actually turning those into an engaging narrative that draws in both scientist and non-scientist to like. I was wondering what your creative process is for really drawing the best and most exciting stories out of your source material?

CZ: You have to really push down below all the details, all the jargon and so on to really try to figure out what the outlines of the actual story that’s there: how did something begin, how did it develop, how did the story end. It takes a while but part of what really helped is just talking with people. You’re not going to really figure out what the story is just by reading a scientific paper because papers are sort of a jumble of information that squeeze into a very tight format and can be very confusing so. Getting people to tell you their story, it’s one of the best things you can do.

FLG: I think a lot of scientists might find it difficult to tell their stories or explaining their research to a lay audience in an informative and in an engaging way. That being said, there are few that do this exceptionally well. I was wondering if there are any researchers or scientists out there that you look at and you think ‘actually they’re doing a really good job of bringing their own stories to life and really taking the public along with them’?

CZ: Yeah, I mean there certainly are some scientists who either have a natural knack for storytelling or have worked really hard to become good storytellers. There are two Sean Carroll’s that come to mind. One is a cosmologist at Caltech, the other one also Sean Carroll, a biologist at University of Wisconsin. They’re both great at talking about their own work and things going on in their different fields. And that’s just an example of a couple of them, there are certainly plenty of others out there who just really, really excel and I enjoy reading them to get some inspiration for how I’m going to tell my stories, because they come up with really smart ways of advancing their narratives, great metaphors, great stylistic techniques and so on.

FLG: As a science journalist, and science communicator, was wondering from your perspective, what is it that that you feel you’re trying to achieve when you tell a story?

CZ:  I don’t have much of an ulterior motive when I’m telling a story. I’m just trying to tell a story that I think is important and interesting for people to read. I may choose to story tell because it’s a really significant scientific advancement, or I might find it something that kind of makes me think differently about how the world works and I want to share that story.

You can read the rest of the interview in issue 7 of Front Line Genomics Magazine. 

Carl is joining us once more at this year’s Festival in Boston on October 3-4 2017, where he will host an unmissable panel: Game of Genomes: How the Public Can Learn About Genomics Through Their Own DNA.




Cover photo: Dom Smith and Molly Ferguson/ STAT 


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