Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, January 31, 2014

Scientific American blogger S.E. Gould talks about bacteria and the art of writing

I'm very excited about my guest today: a fellow scientist and science writer, S.E. Gould is one the first writers I started following back when I joined the scientific blogosphere. Her science blog, Lab Rat, is part of the Scientific American Network blogs and discusses molecular biology and the amazing world of bacteria. Even if you tend to be more of a virus person than a bacterium one (haha, geek joke!), you can't help but drop your jaw in awe when you learn that bacterial colonies form fractal patterns, and that there are some special bacteria, called magnetotactic bacteria, that "contain small nanoparticles of magnetic material which allow them to swim along magnetic field lines."

EEG: Thank you, S.E. for being here today! Tell us a bit about yourself, your scientific background, and your current job.

SEG: I'm S.E Gould, and I currently live in the UK with my husband and baby son. I did my degree in biochemistry, although with a strong microbiology slant, at Cambridge university. After graduating I worked in a lab for a bit, then in a library, before realising that I didn't want to do a PhD. Instead I got a job in science communications. I currently work for a research company, writing abstracts, slide-sets, presentations and posters.

EEG: When did you start blogging about science and what inspired you to do so?

SEG: I've always loved writing and at university I used to write constantly, scribbling down story ideas in the margins of lecture notes. I started the blog mainly as an exercise to try and channel my writing into something that would help me pass my degree. My biggest inspiration was definitely Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science. At university I'd sort of got caught in the mindset that science was incredibly complicated and required lots of lectures and degrees to understand. Ed's blog showed me that it could be explained in a way a lay audience could understand. With each of my posts I try to write so that someone with no science background can get a vague understanding of the main point of the post, and hopefully catch some of the enthusiasm and excitement I feel for the subject. I know I don't always succeed but hopefully I'm improving.

EEG: I'd say you do succeed, S.E., and in fact it's one of the reasons why I enjoy your blog so much. The other one is the amazing creatures you talk about: what motivated you to write about bacteria?

SEG: They were the part of science I was most interested in at university. I love them because they have to do everything that a multicellular organism has to do, except they only have one small cell to do it in. And I love the plasticity of their genome, the fact that they can chop and chance lots of DNA. I had a biochemical background and from the point of view of biochemical processes bacteria are much more fascinating and diverse than eukaryotes.

EEG: What do you love the most about science communication?

SEG: I love that there's so much great science out there to write about. I am unashamedly a science cheerleader; rather than critically analysing papers my blog is about finding interesting research and trying to share it with as many people as possible in a language they can all understand. I love finding the best ways to communicate information - at work I'm always trying to condense tables and paragraphs down into short sentences and diagrams. Although the blog usually contains a lot of writing I think the best way to communicate science is through diagrams, and it's always fun making slide-sets trying to get rid of as many words as possible while still keeping the message coming through.

EEG: That is certainly one of the best skills that science and science writing teach you. On the topic of science blogging, what do you think about using pseudonyms to avoid controversy? Do you think a pseudonym might affect the writer's credibility?

SEG: I completely support the use of pseudonyms. I started using a pseudonym for safety reasons, and even now I prefer to be known by my initials than by name on the internet. A writer using a pseudonym will have less credibility, at least initially, because they can't use their already existing credibility as a scientist. Instead they have to build it up via their blog. By producing well researched and interesting blog posts their credibility will increase, and I think scientists using pseudonyms have the potential to be just as credible and trustworthy as named ones. The only difference is that they have to put a lot more work into getting to and maintaining that state.

EEG: But wait, you write fiction, too: can you tell us a bit more about that? When did you start writing fiction? And where do you find inspiration?

SEG: I've written fiction since I was tiny. When I was younger it was mostly fantasy and science fiction stories, almost all of which I started and never finished! When I started university I got involved in some online fanfiction communities which was a great way to try out different styles of writing and get lots of feedback from a supportive group of people. Once I left university I was looking into getting something published and found the online publisher Less Than Three Press. Because they were an independent online publisher I didn't need an agent or a background of previous publications and everything was carried out by email. The first story I sent them, Chrysalis, required a lot of editing and was quite a steep learning curve for me in terms of understanding what a publisher would expect and how to work with an editor. I've published two more short stories with them since then, and written another for a Dreamspinner Press anthology.

For the foreseeable future I'll be sticking with online publishers and probably keep writing for the niche of LGBT fiction. It's a great genre to write for, and has a decent sized following of readers. I've had a few people ask me why I only write gay romance and the answer is, as a great man once said: because you keep asking me that question.

A full list of my published stories can be found on my fiction blog.

EEG: That is so cool! Congratulations on your published work! And thanks so much, S.E. for this insight into your writing, both fictional and non. I wish you all the best with your work and I look forward to learning more about the world of bacteria.

If you haven't already, don't forget to add The Lab Rat to your RSS feed, you won't regret it. Besides being fascinating little creatures, just like viruses, bacteria are a great source of inspiration for all sorts of science-fiction stories. ;-)


  1. Very interesting interview, Elena. I wonder if Jonathan Wolfe's aware "that bacterial colonies form fractal patterns?"

    1. You know, I should contact him and maybe get him to come give an interview on the blog. :-)


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