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Scientists are the coolest sources

I started pitching an article about scientific research at Guantanamo Bay over a year ago.

Rejection followed rejection, so I shelved the piece for a while and mulled over my pitch some more. I decided to dust it off and give it another go a few weeks ago; the stories I’d come across during my 2008 visit and in the interim were just too interesting to sit in a file on my computer.

Fortunately, an editor at Discover Magazine felt the same way, and she green-lighted my query. The resulting photo essay will be published by Discover soonish.

I could write about how stoked I’ll be to see my byline in one of the magazines I read as a kid, or how this assignment was so much fun that it made me fall in love with writing all over again.

But what I’d rather write about is how cool scientists are.

I interviewed six or so researchers by email and phone for this piece, and on a really tight deadline. Each of them responded within hours to my initial request and made himself available to talk about his research, and all of them were refreshingly free of obnoxious ego. These guys really were busy–one was actually headed back to Guantanamo Bay a few days after I spoke with him–but they didn’t make their schedules an obstacle.

What was so cool about my exchanges with these men, though, was the passion for their work that was evident in the most casual aspects of our communication. “Answers below in pink…am heading to bed..have to get up early to catch song sparrows,” Dr. Sam Droege of the US Geological Survey wrote me. And then, the next morning in my inbox, “I got 6!”

“Just give me a call back anytime- though it might be hard to catch me because I’m going to be diving in our aquarium most of the day.” That was a voice mail from Dr. Chuck Kopczak of the California Science Center.

These interview subjects went out of their way to be helpful. Dr. Brian Boom of The New York Botanical Garden’s Caribbean Biodiversity Program sent me several archival photos of a 1909 NYBG expedition to Guantanamo Bay. I was thrilled just to see the images of the specimens collected, but then Dr. Boom put me in touch with one of the garden’s librarians, who sent me the most perfect thing: an image of the NYBG’s founder AT Guantanamo Bay on an expedition in 1909.

And all that in under 24 hours.

The story’s filed now, so the active phase of interviewing is over. But I’m looking forward to accepting Dr. Boom’s and  his colleagues’ invitation to visit the NYBG when I return from Cuba in a few weeks, where I’ll be meeting with more botanists and learning about their work at the garden. Who knows where those stories will end up?


5 responses »

  1. I swear, every scientist I’ve ever met is like this. Total passion without the ego. In love with the world and not themselves. Bioligists in particular, there’s just something about them, the total opposite of a destructive impulse. Peaceful yet passionate creatures.

    And CONGRATS on Discover. That is awesome news, and totally the stuff childhood dreams are made of.

  2. Simone- Exactly! For a while, I thought I’d be an epidemiologist (but didn’t exactly have the math skills). The only consolation that I took a different path is the work I get to do now!

  3. I’ve only met a couple of scientists, but I do recall them as being refreshingly egoless and authentically enthusiastic about their work. For a long time I wanted to join their ranks and be a marine biologist, but other situations in life intruded and sent me down a different path altogether.

    No regrets (well, not many) but I still have great respect for scientists of all kinds.

    And congrats on the Discover story! I’ll watch for it since I subscribe to that magazine. 🙂

  4. That’s awesome – I can’t wait to read your piece! As for scientists… from my years working in med research they will talk your head off if you show even the slightest interest in their work. Most get very little press and recognition from their work and will take any chance they get to talk about what they do.

  5. Pingback: A-to-Z Guide of the World’s “without Borders” Groups

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