While some readers may not leap to read about faraway Earthlike worlds or the latest brain-mapping technology, everyone loves a good story about people, and science is always a human endeavor. Sometimes a challenging childhood or a career crisis inspires a researcher to take a risk. Personality quirks or unusual obsessions can make some scientists inherently fascinating, above and beyond their research. Or the reverse can be true: A top thinker’s modest life and unassuming character might bring an esoteric field down to earth. Other times, the game-changing potential of an emerging technology fuels scientists’ competitive spirit, leading to a high-stakes rivalry. People shape science, science shapes people, and profiles can transform scientific discourse into gripping narrative that keeps readers turning pages and scrolling tablets.
But what makes a great profile? How can you tell if a scientist will be a good profile subject? What if a researcher does earth-shattering work but doesn’t have the riveting life story or personality to carry a conventional profile? I asked several experienced science writers to address these questions, and they came through with a great deal of useful advice on writing in depth about one scientist’s life or using profile techniques to enhance the narrative of other kinds of science features.
Look for Struggle
Often what draws readers in—and keeps them engaged—are the ups and downs in the life and career of a key character. “I push students to find some kind of struggle,” says Evelyn Strauss, a biologist-turned-journalist who teaches profile writing in the University of California Santa Cruz science communication program.
In a profile of a computational neuroscientist published in The New York Times Magazine in January, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gareth Cook lures readers with this lede sentence: “In 2005, Sebastian Seung suffered the academic equivalent of an existential crisis.” The superstar scientist was depressed and disillusioned. He had ideas about how nerve cells are wired in the brain, thus defining who we are, but science at the time offered no way to confirm that those ideas were correct. Then a pivotal conversation with a mentor lifted Seung out of his funk. It shifted his research focus to a then-speculative project developing brain-mapping technology, which scientists now think can be used to map the 100 trillion connections between neurons in the human brain.
Struggle also features prominently in two profiles of astronomer Sara Seager. During childhood, a difficult relationship with her stepfather steeled Seager for a life undaunted by authority. Years later, Seager’s husband’s fell gravely ill and died days after her 40th birthday, heightening the astronomer’s awareness of her own mortality and intensifying her determination “to find another Earth, and do it within her lifetime,” as science journalist Corey Powell wrote in a 2014 Smithsonian profile of Seager.
Though Powell knew nothing of Seager’s personal life when he accepted the assignment, he had heard her speak about her work and sensed she would make a great profile subject. Besides being a prominent woman in a male-dominated field, Seager is “quirky, almost shocking in her unfiltered directness,” says Powell, who is now science editor at Aeon. “For a technical topic like exoplanets [the magazine] needed a strong personality—which I believed Seager would provide.”
Science writer Ron Cowen wrote a Seager profile for Science News for Students, an online magazine aimed at teens. Social media helped assure him of Seager’s frankness about the struggles she’d faced. “I knew she’d lost her husband and that it was something she was open about and posted about on her Facebook page,” says Cowen. However, being mindful of his audience (10- to 14-year-olds), Cowen hooked young readers by leading with an action-packed canoe adventure, relating the experience to Seager’s interest in distant planets.
A protagonist’s struggles don’t have to involve his or her personal life. Scientists can face struggle in various forms—a competing lab, a menacing microbe, government bureaucracy. When journalist Dashka Slater profiled biologist Tyrone Hayes for Mother Jones, the villain was an unrelenting corporation. After a major producer of the herbicide atrazine shrugged off the University of California–Berkeley professor’s research showing that trace amounts of this chemical triggered gender deformities in frogs, Hayes refused to back down. He repeated the experiments, published more papers, spoke at government hearings, and launched an anti-atrazine website to bring public attention to the problem. He also wrote scores of angry emails to the manufacturer, and in August 2010 more than a hundred pages of them were posted on Gawker and other websites. That’s when Slater sensed a profile.
Use Human Stories to Explore Ideas
A straight profile—one that chronicles a scientist’s life, or at least parts of it—can be both compelling and informative. But focusing on a single character can also have pitfalls. “It tends to personalize what is actually a team effort, or even a sea change in the field, and overemphasize one person’s contribution,” says freelance journalist and editor Kat McGowan.
Also, even the most compelling character may not be enough to carry the story. “You want to go deeper and explore some central notion,” says Cook. One way to do that, McGowan says, is to not survey a subject’s entire life, but “focus on an idea—where it came from, what process the subject followed to explore it, and the twists and turns their thinking went through. The researcher’s own process of discovery and insight becomes the narrative.”
This approach works especially well if a scientist had major reversals in thinking or was putting forward an idea that initially went against the grain but is eventually accepted more broadly, she adds. This came into play in a 2013 feature on human cooperation that McGowan successfully pitched to Nautilus. Her article focused on the research of developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello. Because Tomasello’s views shifted considerably several times due to the results of his studies, notes McGowan, his journey provided an effective vehicle for an idea-based article on what makes us human.
Amy Maxmen’s cover story in the August issue of Wired is another example of an idea-driven piece spiced up with profile elements. The story explains the power and potential of CRISPR-Cas9, a new gene-editing technology. But it is also a tale of dueling scientists. Heading labs at UC Berkeley, MIT, and Harvard, these leading figures were publishing in top journals, filing patents, and founding start-ups. They were fiercely competitive “in the same way Olympic athletes are,” says Maxmen, a Harvard-trained biologist-turned-journalist who wanted the story to capture the culture underlying high-stakes research.
Maxmen isn’t the only science writer who found the project ripe for profiles. Recent features in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and STAT (an online health and life-sciences publication recently launched by The Boston Globe) also profile key scientists who work on CRISPR-Cas9.
Go with Your Gut
Sometimes a profile emerges out of a general, even vague, idea. That’s how it was for Cook’s profile of mathematician Terry Tao, published July 24 in The New York Times Magazine. The 4,500-word story had no time peg, nor was it prompted by press releases or social media or a big personality.
“I’d long wanted to write about a mathematician,” says Cook, who studied international relations and mathematical physics as an undergraduate. However, “most profiles of mathematicians tend to paint them as strange or inhuman,” he notes. “I wanted to give readers a sense of what doing math is really like.”
Cook began by emailing five or ten mathematicians to ask who they consider the best mathematician working today. Tao—a 40-year-old professor at the University of California, Los Angeles—came out a clear winner. Two things about Tao caught Cook’s attention. “First, I’d never heard of him. Also, the way he was doing mathematics seemed interesting to me. It’s very collaborative,” says Cook.
Unlike profile subjects whose lives are cinematic, Tao’s is “super-normal,” the story notes. One of Tao’s students told Cook that Hollywood would “never make a movie about him. He doesn’t have a troubled life. He has a family, and they seem happy, and he’s usually smiling.” Tao’s mind and childhood, though, were anything but ordinary. The prodigy sailed through 11th-grade math at the age of seven. At age 10, he became the youngest person to win the International Mathematical Olympiad. More recently, Tao has won a MacArthur “genius” grant and the prestigious Fields Medal. Cook’s profile of Tao demonstrates that humanizing an extraordinary thinker can give readers a window into an otherwise-inaccessible subject.
It also reminds us that there is no single rule about how to find a great subject or how to structure a great profile. Sometimes you’ll catch wind of a controversial idea or poignant struggle through your reporting for another assignment. You might get a sense of a researcher’s personality and other interests by seeing them speak at meetings or browsing their Tweets. Or you might stumble upon a fascinating scientist purely by accident.
No matter how you find the subject or which approach you take to crafting the piece, there is one factor that’s absolutely necessary in order to end up with an excellent profile: curiosity. Many science writers, especially novices, “tend to think they’re supposed to only write about science,” Strauss says. “They get scared asking (the researcher) what they perceive as overly personal questions.” Her advice? Follow your instincts. “Any question you’d ask in a normal social situation is a reasonable question to ask in a scientist interview,” says Strauss. “If they don’t want to answer, they don’t have to.” But you might be pleasantly surprised. “Many people are perfectly happy to talk about themselves if someone is interested,” she says. “We’re social beings.”
Guest contributor Esther Landhuis is a freelance science writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She fell in love with profiles after writing one about a magician-turned-mathematician during a 2004 internship. Since then, she had two kids and spent nearly six years as a staff writer for Alzheimer Research Forum before going freelance last year. Her stories have appeared in Scientific American, Science News for Students, Science, Biomedical Computation Review, Cancer Discovery, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @elandhuis.
Image at top by Macrovector via Shutterstock.
Photo of Esther Landhuis courtesy of the author.