Science is People: Interviews and Profiles


The first profiles were definitive character sketches written for the New Yorker in the early 1930s. The method gained popularity because editors and writers discovered that the surest and easiest way to make an otherwise heavy topic come alive was to cover it from the viewpoint of a person involved. We are all the same: we can put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we share the world as humans and want the same things: health, family, security, love, sleep, etc.

There are different levels of profiles, from Q & A to stories that feature the scientist as main character to in-depth profiles. Not every scientist is going to make a good profile, but interviewing scientists is an important piece of writing about science. Below are some resources and examples. As we find more in our reading, I’ll post them here.

Resources:

Claudia Dreifus, 1997, Interview

Claudia Dreifus, 2001, Scientific Conversations and her many profiles and interviews in the New York Times, such as this one on marine biologist Cindy Lee Van Dover.

Steven Shapin, “The State of the Scientist,” Seed Magazine

William Zinsser, On Writing Well (See Chapter 12, “Writing about people”)

Examples:

Josh Dean, “Pack Man,” Outside

Timothy Egan, The Good Rain (see Chapter 4, “The Last Hideout”)

Scott Gates, “Miss Fish Hatchery,” High Country News

David Gessner, The Prophet of Dry Hill (book-length profile of writer and naturalist John Hay)

 

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin frequently contains profiles such as this one by Sarah Goforth and this cover story on laboratory technicians.

Tom Junod, “The Mad Scientist Bringing Back the Dead…Really,” Esquire

David Quammen, Song of the Dodo (see section “The Coming Thing,” on Edward O. Wilson)

Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor

Helen Pearson, “Being Bob Langer,” Nature

Abigail Tucker, “In Search of the Mysterious Narwhal,” Smithsonian

Tom Vanderbilt, “The Foggiest Idea,” Outside

The “Why I Do Science” and “Workbench” features of Seed Magazine show the reasons why people are called to science as well as a glimpse into their everyday lives.

This New York Times story by James Gorman is an example of following your subject outside into the field. Also the “Scientist at Work” blog.

For an example of a terrible profile of a scientist, read “The Rise of the Fungus Farmers” in The Washington Post Magazine. In what ways is this article an example of what NOT to do when writing about scientists?