Wherefore Science Writing? An Interview of Richard Wintle

Several wonderful interviews between authors in the anthology The Best of Science Writing Online 2012 (Scientific American/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) have originally been posted here. As a newbie to the anthology, I felt humbled to have the opportunity to interview another newbie, although a more experienced writer than me.

Richard F. Wintle, the assistant director of The Centre for Applied Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, joined me for an email chat over the last month. He writes about science, photography and motorsports at the Occam's Typewriter blog, Adventures in Wonderland. His contribution to the anthology is Genome Sequencing and Assembly, Shakespeare Style. It is a lively and witty explanation of genetic code and assembly that uses Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar to explain. Bravo. I loved the piece and requested to interview him. He graciously accepted. 
The Best Science Writing Online 2012 
I had read his piece months ago, but for the interview I had to find him on the jacket cover (designed by Jason Heuer). The cover reminds me of the periodic table, but also stimulates faint memories of The Hollywood Squares. In order for me to ask Richard questions, I needed to lean out of my red square and look down and slightly to the right, to the next group over.

[waves to blue square] Hi Richard!

Hi right back at you! Hollywood Squares - now I know I've made it!

Richard, do you remember the moment when you decided to write this piece? What "forced" you to do it? I'm assuming a conscious decision took place, but maybe not.

I’d been thinking for a while about ways to try and get the genome analysis and assembly problems across to non-specialist audiences, and had been kicking around ideas using jigsaw puzzles, music, literature, and other things. Shakespeare seemed like a good choice, since most English-language readers would be at least a bit familiar with his writing. Likening genome sequence to text is fairly obvious, and I’m certainly not the first to do it – “the genome, if written out in full, would take so many pages,” that kind of thing.

Actually sitting down and writing it was, I’m not ashamed to admit, something I forced myself into because the deadline for OpenLab submissions was approaching, and that was as good a reason as any to finally get it done.

Deadlines can be incredibly helpful. Another deadline looms....any teasers you wish to give at this time?

Unfortunately, no. Somehow this year’s OpenLab/TBSWO deadline has slipped past me. I am still percolating a few ideas though. I’ve had an idea for using music to explain deletions and duplications in the genome, but I’m not sure it will work as a written piece. It will probably make its way into my teaching presentations, though. Otherwise, I’m still enjoying exploring my local part of southern Ontario – lots of history around here, and some interesting science connections that may spur some writing.

I like your musical idea. How about a podcast or some other way to incorporate music into the structure of your writing?

That's a good idea - but not one I think I'll take on. I'm not a huge fan of embedded audio or video in online writing, as I prefer to be able to simply read. Plus, nobody needs to hear me playing instruments or (shudder!) singing online. I'll leave that to someone more talentented, I think.

What were your challenges in writing this piece?

My biggest problem is that I’m very verbose – I constantly need to keep reminding myself to write more concisely. As a result, the posts went through many edits before I put them up on Occam’s Typewriter. The original posts also had a number of photographs with captions that I thought were rather witty. When it came time to include them in the book, I initially had trouble in letting them go – but fortunately it turned out that the writing didn’t depend on them to get the point across after all. I’m glad we had a good editor.

 I agree that editing is a key part of the writing process, very different from the initiation of writing. 

Where did you write your piece? I consider thinking about what you want to say, the pre-planning, a part of the writing process.

I probably thought of parts of this in many different places – while driving, sitting on the train, or when I was supposed to be thinking about something else. I’m pretty poor at formally planning my writing – I never sketch an outline, for example. I have a half-hour train commute every day, and I certainly typed some of it there. Other ideas I’d note down during the work day. But most of my writing I do at home in the evening, when there are fewer distractions, and when I have time and internet access so that I can check background material, access my photos on Flickr, and find links I want to include.

 I can identify with you needing research time without distraction.

I think it is great that you use commuting time for this creative venture. You have something in common with many writers...trains.   

Trains are good. Most of the time.

What are your dreams for your writing? Did inclusion in this anthology change your initial plans?

I don’t think I’m disciplined enough to have “big dreams” of authorship – like writing a book, for example. All the research would kill me.

Inclusion in TBSWO2012 hasn’t changed my plans much, although it’s certainly fun to be included and I would like to be again. My fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Stephen Curry has been in several successive editions, which is impressive. I do tend to blog in a much more narrative, diary-like way than I’d like. Writing with OpenLab/TBSWO in mind as a target forces me to be more didactic (and concise!), which I think is a good thing.

Along with your clinical and research genomics work, you mention teaching a non-specialist audience. Who is that audience, and how has your writing life co-existed with teaching? Do you use either your or other science bloggers' writings in a teaching capacity?

I should first clarify that what we do is 100% research, rather than clinical – although there are certainly diagnostic implications of some of the results we obtain.

Part of what I do is to introduce interested parties to the laboratory here – through seminars, tours, or both. These can range from high school students, through funders and other stakeholders, to people with no science background at all. Some may be philanthropists, some may be parents of patients, or representatives of organizations involved in Autism, which is a large focus of the research we do. One memorable tour was for high school science students from the National Ballet School, which was a slightly different and more athletic audience than usual.

I also do some teaching to community college and university students, typically studying bioinformatics or forensics. Most have some biology background, but generally not a lot of experience with high-throughput genomics, so the focus has to be a lot less specialized than, say, for a talk at a scientific conference. Some examples I use in these teaching activities are drawn from things I’ve written (and vice versa). I tend to stay away from using other science writers’ examples, though. And I’m increasingly using more visuals and less text in my presentations – being an avid photographer, I find I can work images in fairly readily. I’m not sure yet how much this helps to get the point across, but I’m experimenting.

It is great that you look at different ways to present and teach your field. What do your students and/or interested parties want to know about autism and the work you do in your laboratory?

One thing I've been told is to always try and bring the abstract, technical aspects of the genomic science we do back to a disease or disorder, something that people can more easily relate to. In our case, that means patients and families - and for us, the patients are kids. Having said that, I'm not sure that my Shakespeare piece does that at all. But students, particularly younger ones, can easily relate to autism because it's much more recognized now than, say, when I was in grade school. Younger students all seem to know someone in their classroom, or the one next door, who is autistic.

One other thing people ask about is the genetics. Autism is highly heritable - meaning it has a strong component determined by changes in genes, either de novo in the child, or possibly inherited. Many people don't realize that the genetic basis is so strong, so that's often something I'm asked about.

I assume you read many different writings, and you are a photographer. What author and/or photography have particularly inspired you?

I do read a lot, and diverse things. On the scientific side, I like a few that I’ve mentioned from time to time – The Nobel Duel by Nicholas Wade, which is a great example of high-level competition in scientific research, and is clearly thoroughly researched and told in a very engaging way. I like a lot of popular science writing, particularly the books of Jay Ingram. On the photography side, Last Chance to See is wonderful – both versions, the first by Douglas Adams and the more recent one by Stephen Fry, with gorgeous pictures by Mark Carwardine. The photos really help to tell the story – in this case, of highly-endangered species. I also enjoy non-science photography, in particular the wartime reporting of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Capa’s autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus, is a hoot, as is his excursion through post-war Russia with John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal. Both are good reads, and great examples of how words and images can enhance each other.

I haven’t gotten to the stage of being able to take a photograph that immediately tells a story without need for any accompanying text, but that’s something to aspire to.

I think readers would miss your text, but I’m sure your wit would become evident through pictures.

Thank you for your time and for answering my questions; I greatly enjoyed our correspondence. Best of luck to you in your writing at Occam’s typewriter, your photography, and in your career. I wish you and your family all the best. I’m going to the library now to look up those books you mentioned.

Perhaps we’ll see you back when The Best of Science Writing Online 2014 is published?

Thanks, Cindy. It should be a New Year's Resolution for me, every year - write more! Maybe 2013 will be the year. All the best!

Richard also interviewed me, which can be read at his blog, Adventures in Wonderland.


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