I hated English class in middle and high school. I was convinced that my teachers were being nitpicky and particular just to torture me. I diagrammed sentences. I practiced comma placement. I learned where and when you add semicolons. I learned how to write a paragraph with a beginning, middle, and an end. I learned how to make an argument logically on the page. I learned never to end a sentence with a preposition, never to split infinitives, and never to write a run-on sentence. And finally, I learned that you weren’t going to get an A in AP English if you didn’t have the EXACT margins that were requested (and on a dot-matrix printer, no less). To be fair, I did read a lot, which made that part of English classes easier, but otherwise I was convinced, as I slogged away, that what I was learning would never help me later in life.
BOY WAS I WRONG.
As a scientist, I write every day. My first independent research laboratory opportunity was at Boston University where I was awarded a two year Beckman scholarship. To receive this award, I had to write about the science I wanted to do. To be able to graduate with distinction, I then wrote a 60 page thesis describing my work that I had to defend in front of a committee. The better and more logically written, the easier to defend.
In graduate school, we had an entire class devoted to writing called Scientific Exposition and Ethics. We learned how important writing was to a working scientist by drafting letters to request a reagent or information from a colleague. We also learned how to properly write an abstract, which is a short summary of your work that you submit to be invited to talk or present at a scientific meeting. We practiced creating presentations with concise and clearly written text, which is critical to help people understand the science you are presenting. Each of these activities has been repeated over and over throughout my career. And one cannot forget the nearly 150 page thesis that was required for me to graduate with my PhD.
Besides day-to-day activities, a scientist’s livelihood is dependent on how well and clearly they can write. Grant applications, which can be anywhere from 2-30 pages long, must describe your proposed project in detail and be written in such a way so that it convinces the reviewers of why they should fund your project. Scientific papers, the currency for working scientists are also reviewed before they are published. If you cannot clearly describe what you did and what it means, all that hard work will never see the light of day. The art of writing in science is actually so important that scientists encourage you to “tell a story” when writing or presenting your science.
If there is a take-home message, I imagine it is this – being able to write is important even for a scientist. This may be information you want to share with your son or daughter or your local high school classes or anyone who thinks that when they “grow up” they’ll never have to worry about English class again. Because, let me tell you, my biology classes were incredible and I loved every moment of them, but without the torturous English classes I had in high school, I most certainly would not be where I am today.