Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, October 31, 2011

"Editors: are you real?" A conversation with Muse editor Elizabeth Preston

I'm very excited about my guest today because she's not just a science writer: she writes for kids! A Williams College graduate, Elizabeth Preston is the editor of Muse, an award-winning children's magazine that covers science and ideas for kids ages 10 and up. Elizabeth is also the author of the science blog Inkfish, and, besides Muse, her writing has appeared on National Geographic as well. 

EEG: Elizabeth, it's a great pleasure to have you here today! Tell us when and how you started writing about science.

EP: The summer before my senior year in college, I started work on a biology thesis on the evolutionary genetics of malaria resistance. My advisor, Jason Wilder, knew I was interested in science writing--in that I was a biology and English double-major without a plan for after graduation--so he invited me to help him write a review paper on malaria resistance. Everyone's heard of sickle-cell anemia, but there are actually several other genetic mutations that confer some resistance to the malaria parasite but also have a health tradeoff.

I read a lot of papers about malaria, genetics, and mosquitos. I tried to synthesize the literature and find the big ideas lurking behind it, and I had some exciting conversations with my advisor about the possibilities and unanswered questions in the research. I realized that it was like writing an English paper: I was coming into a narrative that was new to me, the story of the struggle between humans and the Plasmodium parasite, and insights into that story were accessible to me even though I wasn't a scientist.

Later that year, I completed my senior thesis project and learned that while things like malaria and genetics are exciting, PCR and DNA resequencing are really, really boring. So when I graduated, I didn't apply to a PhD program, but I did apply to work for a children's science magazine. Even though the review paper we wrote didn't get published, I was grateful for the experience because it showed me exactly what I enjoyed about science.

EEG: Believe me, I know what you're talking about. Sequencing and then aligning DNA is tedious. No software will do the job for you, and there always comes a time when you have to tweak things manually. And when you're done doing that... the lab sends you another dozen sequences and you have to start over again. The joys of working with DNA!

You have the wonderful and, I would imagine, arduous task of writing science for kids. How challenging is that?

EP: One of the biggest challenges is that I don't really have any kids in my life, so I can't just bounce sentences off a 10-year-old and see if I get a blank stare back. But I do read the mail they send, and the essays they submit to the magazine, and I hear what articles they respond to the most. So I have a sense of their voice and of what stories have been successful.

It can be hard. When I'm working on a story about something like nuclear fusion or geoengineering or genetics, I have to assume the kids have zero background knowledge. And I know there are 9-year-olds reading and there are 17-year-olds reading, so the story has to work on multiple levels. Even if a reader can't follow all of the specifics, I want the big idea to still come across. But for older kids, it can't sound babyish or they won't read it. I try to respect the readers' intelligence but also recognize their lack of knowledge.

When I started writing my blog, I found that I was really using all the same tools. I was writing, initially, for my friends, most of whom aren't science people. I just wanted to share some of the cool scientific stories that I came across in my work but that didn't make it into the magazine. I hoped to make the ideas accessible to anyone, regardless of how much background knowledge they had. But I also wanted my posts to be interesting to people who did have the background knowledge and knew the scientific context of the story.

EEG: Do you get a lot of feedback from your young readers?

EP: Oh my gosh, they write a lot of letters. Volumes and volumes. The youngest kids really love the Muses, the cartoon characters that Larry Gonick draws for the magazine; they just write directly to the characters. One 9-year-old wrote us a letter that said, "Editors: Are you real? I know the Muses are." I also saved a note from a kid who was probably 8 and signed his letter "Junior Palentolegest," which made my day.

The older kids say that they're our number-one biggest fan, Muse is the best magazine in the world, they spend every day waiting by the mailbox--they're prone to hyperbole. Sometimes they say that they brought in an article for their teacher, and the teacher shared it with the whole class. I love to hear that because it says the kid and the teacher are both excited about it. Additionally, those kids are desperate to have their letters published in the magazine. There's a tradition that they include really elaborate threats, like, If you don't publish my letter I'll send an army of orcs to attack you, and my pet hamster will chew your computer cords, and I will paralyze you using the curses from the Harry Potter books, which I have memorized.

The oldest readers sometimes write to us about how the magazine has influenced them as they've grown up. We got a letter recently from a 24-year-old who's still subscribing. She said that she loved science when she was young but drifted away from it in college: "After graduating, I realized my mistake, but wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do with my life. But MUSE was still showing up in my mailbox--this part of my childhood kept coming back to remind me of what I love. This, combined with some time with a career counselor, is what made me decide to return back to my dream of becoming a doctor." That's the most rewarding thing. You do all this work and it sometimes feels like you're sending it out into the void, but once in a while you get to hear from someone on the other end who's found it meaningful.

Now that I'm writing my blog, it's also been rewarding to see my readership grow and know that real non-tween people are reading my posts and sharing them with their friends. People have a ton of information and opinions coming at them constantly, so if they take the time to actually read and think about what I've written, that's really flattering. Plus they almost never threaten me with armies of mythical creatures.

EEG: Wow, it must be really rewarding to get that kind of feedback, and across all ages. And yeah, watch out, those Harry Potter curses can be pretty nasty!! Those stories are fantastic, thanks so much for sharing them with us! 

Folks, check out Elizabeth's blog Inkfish -- it's a lot of fun and it covers curious and amazing things of all sciences, from nature to psychology. And if you have kids, Carus Publishing offers a whole range of children's magazines, from Baby Bug to Cricket and, of course, Muse. 


  1. I think I'm a little jealous. Elizabeth's job sounds ridiculously fun.

    I ought to show this interview to my boss. I've been trying to explain to him how to construct the narrative of a manuscript so that the reader comes to your conclusion before you state it rather than you telling it to them. I can't seem to explain that if you approach it from the audience's point of view instead of a presenter's you can construct a more effective message. Or he's purposely being obtuse so I'll rewrite it for him.

    Boss issues aside this was an entertaining and informative interview and thanks to Elizabeth for sharing her time. It looks like I have a new blog to add to the feed.

  2. I really enjoyed talking with Elizabeth and I'm glad you'll be following her. I think from time to time she should also post her readers' letters, they're too much fun not to share!! :)


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