Helen Pearson profiles an activist turned scientist

Helen Pearson

Helen Pearson

A good profile of a scientist goes beyond the science itself — and that’s why Helen Pearson’s ears perked up when she learned the personal story of Joe Thornton, a University of Oregon evolutionary biologist whose first career was as a Greenpeace activist, fighting the release of toxic industrial chemicals. Pearson wanted to know what makes Thornton tick, how his activism has influenced his scientific work, and what drives the intensity that his colleagues cite as one of his most distinguishing attributes. [Raising the Dead appeared in Nature on March 21, 2012.]

Here, Pearson tells TON co-editor Siri Carpenter the story behind her story:

What made you think of profiling Joe Thornton?

I had occasionally read news stories about Joe’s work, but what really happened is one of our manuscript editors at Nature enthused about him to me, not only about his work but also told me about his career in environmental activism. Now obviously his scientific work is completely fascinating, but I think having the interesting life before the science is really what made me think he’d be good for a profile, because when I approach a profile, I generally look for something beyond the science, like an interesting personality or a personal story that will give it that extra lift and interest for the reader.

I’d also interviewed him because he had a paper coming out earlier this year, which was showing the evolution of a complex molecular machine. I interviewed him briefly for that and I wrote a blog post about it, so I was able to ask him a few questions then and figure out whether this was really going to work. He was completely upfront about this idea that his work refuted ideas put forward by intelligent design proponents. For me, that added another dimension to the story, which also made it more appealing.

What questions did you ask in order to determine whether he would make a good profile subject?

We mainly spoke about his work now, but I asked him a little bit about his previous work. I said that I understood that this was basically his second career, and he told me a little bit about that. It wasn’t an enormously long interview, but it was just enough to provide me with a few facts. Then I went away and thought about it. It was a quick interview. He spoke fast — he really went in at the deep end, actually, and afterwards, I emailed him to ask what he thought about being the subject of a longer profile, and he agreed to it.

How did you go about your reporting? Did you interview Thornton before talking with others about him, or the opposite?

I did almost all my other interviews for the story before meeting Joe. I think I interviewed about seven other colleagues — Ph.D. supervisors and other colleagues, and people who he worked with at Greenpeace before he moved into science.

It’s sometimes difficult to get sources to speak frankly about the subject of a profile. For this story, how did you approach your conversations with Thornton’s present and past colleagues so that you had the best chance of getting a full picture?

People were surprisingly open — I didn’t have a huge challenge as you might have with some more controversial figures. I wasn’t actually looking for or expecting any criticism, really — that can be more challenging to get. But I did want more than, “Oh yeah, he does really great science.” So I asked things like, “How did you meet Joe? What was it like when you worked together? What do you think about what he’s doing now?”

How much time did you spend preparing before sitting down with Thornton?

A lot. As I wrote in the story, all the people I’d spoken to who knew Thornton said he was very intense, and he’d come across as quite intense in that initial interview, so I was a bit intimidated that the whole day was going to be at this level of very intense and complex science. So I prepared a lot so that I was reasonably comfortable with all the material and the papers, so I wouldn’t sound like an idiot. I spent quite a long time on his website, which very helpfully had a list of his publications and also lots of the news stories which had been written about him. I pretty much started with the earliest ones and worked my way up, so that I had a very clear sense in my own mind of what his career trajectory was like. From that I generated a long list of questions that I wanted to ask him. And actually when I met him, he was not nearly as intense as I had expected. He was very thoughtful, and obviously very bright, but he wasn’t intense in an intimidating or alienating way. He just thought deeply about things — and he had a good sense of humor.

How did you prepare Thornton for being the subject of a profile?

When I suggested the profile in my initial e-mail, I briefly outlined in a couple of sentences what the story was going to be about — his work and his earlier career — so he knew it wasn’t going to be pure science. It was important that he was going to open up about his earlier career and be able to reflect on how his environmental activist time had influenced his science today, because otherwise it wasn’t really going to work. So I mentioned that in my first approach to him, and then I sent him a short list of questions before we met so that he knew that I was going to be exploring those things with him. I think that was a good thing to do because I was a bit concerned he wouldn’t really want to talk about it — that he’d only want to talk with me about hard-core science. But actually, because I had sent those questions and made it clear that I wanted a bit more than that, when I met him he’d clearly thought about these influences on his life and how one career influenced the second one.

How much time did you spend talking with him?

We met for breakfast at about 8 o’clock. About an hour later, at the end of breakfast, I think he’d had about three bites of food and we were only reaching the part where he was leaving Greenpeace. I tend to ask a lot of questions, and he had very thoughtful answers as well. I knew a lot of it was not going to make it into the story, but it really gave me a sense of where he was coming from.

Then I’d asked to spend a day with him and his lab, and luckily, he had a lab meeting that day, so I sat in on his lab meeting, which was good — hardly any of it went into the story, really, but it was good to see him interacting with his lab members, and to see him in that “normal” environment.

After the lab meeting, we talked in his office for another 2 to 3 hours, by which point we’d talked logically through his career, and I had asked him every question I could think of. We were both kind of exhausted.

Then he helped me set up interviews with two of his postdocs, which was really good for background and helped me get a few details I used in the story — like one of his postdocs showed me a computer simulation they were doing on their latest work, and I put a little detail of that in the story.

What were some of the key questions you wanted answered?

I really wanted to understand how he had become interested in environmental activism to the point where he wrote this controversial book about it, and how his interests had changed to go into very complex evolutionary biology, because those don’t obviously lead from one to another. I asked him several times, in various ways, how the time at Greenpeace had influenced and shaped his career in science.

Another thing is that in activism, he was fighting for a cause, and now he is doing molecular evolution, but nevertheless appears to have found another cause to fight [for] — against intelligent design — so I wanted to know whether there is some part of him that likes to be fighting against something.

Also (and I worked quite hard at this), I wanted to know whether he led a very green lifestyle. I had this idea that having been an activist at Greenpeace, he was going to be extraordinarily environmentally aware, and I’d read somewhere that he’d built a very environmentally friendly house. Those questions can be a bit difficult to broach because you’re straying outside of your usual science territory, so I kind of tried to extract that from people he knew, as well as asking him directly.

How did you structure your reporting? Did you ask him to map out key career developments chronologically, or did you organize your questions thematically?

I had already worked out that I wanted to talk chronologically through his life — I find that the easiest. I had already sketched out a timeline of his career for myself, and on the basis of that I worked out the questions I wanted to ask. Then when I was speaking with him, I just started at the beginning — parents, where he grew up, influences — so I understood how he got from growing up to environmental activism, and then how he got from there to science.

For his scientific career, he has got such a string of high-profile papers that I was able to just go from one Science or Nature paper to the next one, because I could see already that those were the highlights I would be writing about in the story. After I’d done that, then I came back to more reflective questions, like how his earlier career had influenced his later one.

Your story begins with an episode that occurs while you’re interviewing Thornton over breakfast, when he gets a call from his lab freezer alerting him that the power has gone out, threatening some of the proteins he has stored inside. You also come back to that call from the freezer at the end of the story. I’m wondering how all of that unfolded, from his getting that call to your deciding to begin and end your story with that call? Did you immediately recognize the freezer malfunction’s storytelling value? How much work was it to figure out what the scientific significance of it was? And how did that final moment in the story come about, when you and Thornton listen to the “tinny voicemail message” from earlier in the day? Did you ask to listen to the message so that it could be part of your story, or did the moment arise naturally?

To me, the brilliant thing about doing on the ground reporting is those unexpected, unscripted moments that turn out to be fantastic fodder for your story. When his phone rang, and then he said that it was his freezer, I could instantly see that this could be a good moment in the story. He said to me: My kids think it’s very amusing that my freezer calls me. And I said: So do I! I was turning it over in my mind during the day, and then later I asked his postdoc to show me the -80C freezer and to pull a drawer open — I asked her what was in some of the vials. I knew this would work in some form in the story. When I went back to his office, I can’t quite remember if he spontaneously played me the voicemail on his phone. I think I must have mentioned by that point that the freezer would be in the story, and he seemed game. Later, when I wrote my story outline, I knew I wanted to open with the freezer calling.

Did you record that full day of interaction with Thornton? And if so, did you transcribe all your notes?

I recorded the entire day, yes. I transcribed most of the interview with Thornton, and I highlighted the best parts in the transcript as I went along. It took ages! I didn’t transcribe the two hour lab meeting though, or the interview with his post-docs, because I knew they would probably not be a big part of the story. I listened back to any parts of those interviews that were important. And I wrote most of the story before I transcribed the interview, so it served more to check quotes and make sure I hadn’t missed anything important.

Can you tell me about the writing process? How did you start?

I find when I’m on a reporting trip, I want to write the story almost immediately because I’m quite fired up and all the detail is really fresh in my mind. And I was away from home, so I had the freedom to do that. So the evening after we met, I sketched the outline. The next day, I had really bad jet lag because I had flown from the UK to the west coast of the U.S., so I woke up incredibly early in the morning, and I just started writing it. Then I did it in bits and pieces as I was traveling up to the AAAS meeting [in Vancouver, just after having spent the day with Thornton]. I finished it on the way back home, on the plane from Vancouver to the UK. I was really excited about the story, and I knew what I wanted to write -– the writing part is the bit I enjoy the most, more than the reporting.

How much work did it take to digest your research and interview notes and assemble the story?

Sometimes, of course, it can be completely overwhelming working out how to extract a story from a huge pile of notes and interviews. But in this case, the structure was very straightforward — working chronologically through Joe’s life — so it didn’t take too much to figure out how to tell it. And because it was all so fresh in my mind, I didn’t really stop to consult my notes too much: I just wrote it. Then, later, I transcribed the interview and carefully read through my notes to make sure I had got things correct and had included the key points. I generally find it really helps to write stories when the trip is fresh in your mind — it actually saves time. If you wait too long, you have to remind yourself of all your notes and reporting.

I should of course say that my excellent editor at Nature, Tim Appenzeller, really helped improve and polish the story.

Any lessons that the experience of doing this profile should impart?

The lesson to me is that your biggest hurdle is identifying the right person to profile. If you find somebody who has a fascinating personal story and they do outstanding science, that’s going to be a good mix for a profile.

A glimpse behind the scenes:

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