An interview with Anne McGovern, a bookworm unveiling the mysterious nature of science

In a world of growing distrust of statistics, empiricism, and academic authority, Anne McGovern never stops learning. In her writing career, including book reviews and science stories, she has understood the globalized culture of science and how to put difficult ideas in ways everyone can understand. The entirety of her work can be found on her website. In this interview, we’ll discuss her voice she has honed since childhood.

Hussain: Let’s get down to brass tacks, Anne. What made you interested in science writing?

AM: I’ve always liked science and writing. In fact, at my parent’s house there’s one of those self-made books that apparently I wrote in second grade about a girl doing a science experiment. It was a little difficult to find my way into the field, however, as I was often told that I had to choose one direction to follow, science or writing. But I went for it anyway, and here I am. I like science writing because every story allows me to learn about something new.

Hussain: Anne, much of your work involves putting technical, nuanced material into language that most people can understand. What are some challenges you face as you do this and how do you overcome them?

AM: One strategy that I use to wrap my head around some new and complicated research is to tackle the jargon slowly and methodically. I think it’s easy to read the title and/or abstract of a research paper and panic when a sea of unfamiliar words fills the page. But for the most part, I find that words are just words, and if you stop to look up each one, take time to wrap your head around the meaning, you’ll be able to piece together a general idea of the research. The next step is to go talk to the researcher, or another person in the field, to get a more in-depth understanding.

Hussain: This summer you’ve been writing for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. How did you adjust to writing in a foreign culture?

AM: What’s interesting about the science world is that it’s a culture and a language of its own. Sure, I’m living in Japan and writing about science in an international university–the scientists here are from all over the world. But in the end a scientist is a scientist–they wear gloves and goggles and follow the scientific method. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t feel like I had to adjust much here because I am familiar with the culture of science, which is transnational.

Hussain: In your work at OIST alone, you’ve written on biodiversity, quantum physics, and general news about scientists. The rest of your work spans book reviews, life science, astronomy, and your personal habits. Which topic has been your favorite to write about and why?

AM: I honestly don’t think I have a favorite–every time a new paper appears, no matter the topic, it’s exciting to see what’s inside. However, I do tend to like those topics that deal with medical discoveries. Writing about advances in science that may translate to helping those with serious diseases feels very rewarding.

Hussain: What are your career goals for the future, Anne?

AM: I just hope to keep writing about science and communicating scientific discoveries to the public. Science is one of the fields that really needs good communicators, otherwise it will remain as some mysterious activity happening behind closed doors. Especially now, when mistrust of science is growing, it’s a science communicator’s job to help address the issue.

Hussain: Name one book everyone should read. (And, to make this challenging, it has to be a book that you haven’t reviewed on your blog!)

AM: The book I always recommend to friends when they ask is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. This is a story of a missionary family sent to Africa, and it’s told in turn by the mother and three daughters. I was amazed at how the author was able to write in so many different voices, while telling the same story. And the story is deep and heartbreaking.

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