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.


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”)


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?


What does it mean to synthesize? I trolled the web and found some sources, and combined them with my own observations into the following post.

Slide02Synthesis combines information from two or more sources. The sources could include published peer-reviewed literature, articles, essays, and books, but also lectures, seminars, interviews, data, observations, and personal experience.
You synthesize all the time—when you identify relationships between something you’ve read online and something you’ve seen for yourself. When you make a decision about something, like buying a car or renting an apartment, you are synthesizing information. Maybe you ask your friends or family for advice. You research cars online or set up appointments to view apartments. You check and talk to other tenants. Then, in your mind, you pull these various bits into some kind of picture that helps you make a decision.

As you begin to write a synthesis, you accurately report information from the sources using paraphrase and/or direct quotation. (Learn more about how to avoid plagiarism by paraphrasing correctly.)

Slide04But a synthesis is more than combining a spectrum of source material into a single document. Why? Because you also have to use your own mind and words to draw connections between the sources, and using these connections to relate the different texts in a way that illuminates and transforms the material. Synthesizing sources is a matter of pulling them together into some kind of harmony.  You may have to consider whether what seem like unrelated elements or opposite observations might be reconciled. You may have to create an umbrella idea, some larger argument under which several observations and perspectives might stand.

The information should be organized and presented in such a way that readers can identify the various sources, and how they overlap. Finally, the synthesis makes sense of the sources and helps the reader understand them in greater depth.

What are some different types of syntheses?

A concept or explanatory synthesis divides a subject into its component parts and presents them to the reader in a clear and orderly fashion. The purpose in writing an explanatory essay is not to argue a particular point, but rather to present the facts in a reasonably objective manner, to explain how something works. The explanatory synthesis does not go much beyond what is obvious from a careful reading of the sources.

A synthesis of an event pulls in multiple perspectives to craft a full picture of what happened. Think of an earthquake, a hurricane, or the bird flu outbreak. It could be news or a retrospective.

History or chronology syntheses provide a timeline or describe the evolution of a topic. They may contain reflection and multiple views. Examples include pollution, resource declines, science policy.

The purpose of an argument synthesis is to present your own point of view – supported, of course, by relevant facts, drawn from sources, and presented in a logical manner. The thesis of an argumentative essay is debatable. Any two writers working with the same source materials could conceive of and support other, opposite arguments.

Almost any feature article in a magazine or newspaper could be considered a synthesis.

The way you relate information sources, the patterns you identify, the questions you ask and the way you answer them, all of these are personal  and unique.

So, its easy to talk about synthesis in the abstract. But how do you actually do it?

First, what is your purpose? Why are you writing this synthesis, and for whom? Remember your audience. Your purpose determines which sources you use, which parts of them you use, at which points in your essay you use them, how you relate them to one another, and how much weight or space to give them in your story.

Second, you have to start reading differently—more thoughtfully, as MIT professor Ed Boyden explains in a Technology Review blog post titled “How to Think.

Highlight key facts and ideas while reading. Cut and paste important text (keeping the source attached!) into a notes document.

By reading actively, you will start to recognize the crucial connections between ideas that form the basis for synthesizing. Since the very essence of synthesis is the combining of information and ideas, you must have reason for attempting to combine them. What are the relationships among your sources that make them worth synthesizing? Answering this question can help provide a framework for the synthesis.

Finally, you can now start to write. You have all the pieces—you just have to fit them together, trimming and moving text, adding transitions and context. Flag any gaps or questions that require more reading or research. Add that information in, trim some more, move things around.

Read it aloud. Put it away for awhile. Read it again. This is the “work” part of writing.

A few examples:

Carl Zimmer’s article in The New York Times was one of three that earned him an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I counted at least six interviews and eight peer-reviewed journal articles as sources, as well as one in-progress study in the 2,000 word story.

A recent 3,500-word feature story by veteran reporter Ted Williams in Audubon used nearly 75 sources, including multiple interviews with 20 people, dozens of documents and peer-reviewed journal articles, and web sources.

In a magazine article (links to PDF) published last spring, I combined peer-reviewed literature and historical accounts with a field trip with researchers into 2,000 words about a fish.

Research institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits often produce synthesis reports. One recent report from Dartmouth College used some 86 scientific sources, nearly all of them peer-reviewed, as well as interviews and datasets for a 26-page synthesis of scientific knowledge on mercury in the marine environment.


Reading science stories

Questions to ask yourself when reading science stories:

(adapted from Carol Rogers, University of Maryland; Don Gibb, Ryerson Polytechnic; and B. Kovach and T. Rosensteil, authors of Blur)

Basics: Who where when why how what is the story about?

Lead (Lede): How does the story begin? Does the lead/lede/opening paragraph contain too much detail? Is it too vague, too routine or cliched? Is the lead buried? Is it adequately supported by the rest of the story?

Appeal: What attracted you to the story?

Audience: Who is the intended or presumed audience for the story?

News aspect: Where did the story originate (research paper, meeting, press release, etc.)? What is the news hook or angle of the story?

Explanation: Did the reporter explain complex concepts? How (through use of analogies, metaphor, etc.)? Is there too much explanation, or too little? Is the story easy to understand (including presence or absence of jargon and graphics)?

Source material: Who or what are the sources? Are sources identified (are you able to access them yourself?) Are there quotes? Are quotes too long or ineffective? Do the quotes add “voice” to the story?

Validity: What evidence is presented and how was it tested or vetted? What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?

Supplementary media: Does the story contain or link to visuals, blogs, podcasting, etc. Is the story multi-media?

Detail: Are there too many generalizations (“most” or “many”) and not enough specifics? Does the writer include observational details like sights, sounds, tastes, etc.?

Organization: How is the story structured? How do the paragraphs flow or relate? Does the story have a traditional news (inverted pyramid) structure or a more narrative format?

Context: how does this story relate to what has come before or what might come after?

Writing “How To” and “How It Works” Stories

Science writers live in a world somewhere between scientists and public audiences. Much of a science writer’s skill involves explaining complex ideas and navigating complicated language and concepts. This assignment is designed to give you practice in explanatory reporting (“How It Works”) and understanding the scientific process (“How To”). Be creative!! Either of the options could be applied to almost any topic. Be original—this is your chance to explain something in a way that no one else has done before, or provide a unique set of instructions for a surprising activity.

Option 1: “How It Works”

Choose a scientific or natural concept, process, design, phenomena, etc. and explain how it works in terms appropriate for a magazine or newspaper audience. You might want to look at the history of scientific discoveries related to your topic, analogies, graphics, etc. Examples include:

§  Drinking water

§  Suspension bridges

§  Ocean acidification

§  Cave formation

§  Mountain formation

§  Black holes

§  Global warming

§  etc.

Option 2: “How To”

Choose an activity, occupation, lesson, etc. and describe how to accomplish it. Write as if your audience knows nothing about the task. How does one start? What are things to keep in mind? Warnings or cautions? This does not have to be about a scientific subject, just something involving action: how to catch a fish, how to ski/climb/camp/etc., how to build a snowman. This is a literary angle used in both nonfiction and fiction.

Suggested reading:

  • William Zinsser, “Science and Technology” chapter, On Writing Well (30th Anniversary ed.)
  • L. Rust Hill, “How to Eat an Ice Cream Cone,” Fierce Pajamas: The New Yorker Anthology of Humor Writing
  • “Explanatory Writing,” A Field Guide to Science Writing (2nd ed.)

Please share your favorite examples of How-To and How-It-Works stories in the comments!

What’s your relationship with science?

Most people do not go to school to become scientists, and most Americans don’t have science education beyond high school. So when I ask, “What is your relationship with science?” you might think of using microscopes to study pond water in seventh-grade, or your weird chemistry teacher in high school who liked to make Bunsen burner jokes, or a science fair for which you made a solar system out of Styrofoam balls. Try to recall your involvement with science throughout your lifetime. Did you love it, or hate it? Were you kept in a classroom or allowed to go outside to explore? When you hear the word “science,” what comes to mind?

ASSIGNMENT: Write 500 words on “My Relationship with Science.” Please submit to me via email or in hard copy on January 26.