Chatting · Writing Advice

Why the World Needs Storytellers

Let me tell you a true story…

I enrolled in my university with enough transfer credit to wreck my normal first-year course schedule, but a low enough score on the Chem AP test that I had to retake the general/intro chem course, which was a brilliant start to my chemical engineering educational career. After much pestering of the department offices, I registered for a few advanced courses, loopholed my way into starting a business minor a year early (though that’s a story for another day), and arrived for orientation feeling slightly rattled by the fact I’d already broken a bunch of rules before the semester even started.

One of my regularly-scheduled classes was Intro to Engineering – basically a crash course in the different programs offered that let you meet the faculty and explore the labs. It was in this class I met Professor G. After a week or two of working with him, I knew I had my heart set on chemE, and I asked him about getting involved in the department research. Yes, as a stupid undergrad first-year that was retaking genchem. I truly expected the faculty to laugh in my face, but Prof G listened to my request with an indulgent smile, said that I could totally join one of the teams, and asked me what field interested me.

I bluescreened. I didn’t think I’d get this far, and I fumbled for an answer besides, “uhhhh. Cool chemistry stuff?”

Professor G took pity on my ignorant embarrassed self and started asking follow up questions about my interests, clubs, what events I had done in Science Olympiad during high school, genuinely trying to help me find something to focus on, and encouraging my curiosity. In my fluster, I let slip that I like writing, and prayed he’d let it slide and go back to quizzing me on hydrogen fuel cells.

He zoned in on that like a missile. “What do you like to write?”

“Oh… fiction. Fantasy novels. Nothing useful to research.”

“You’re a storyteller!”

He beamed, in his friendly charismatic sort of way, and I was too shocked to respond. I will never forget what he said next. “We need more storytellers in the sciences. Everyone here can collect data, you can learn how to analyze all the graphs in the world, you can crunch numbers into the dead of night, but if you can’t communicate, it doesn’t matter a bit.”

“You mean like in presentations, and research papers, and lab reports?” I asked skeptically, still somewhat reeling and pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm.

“Exactly! How can you turn an experiment into a story?”

“Well…” I started hesitantly, slowly warming up to this idea, “You need a narrative: a beginning, a middle and an end. The researcher is the protagonist, discovering something new, with science as the magic system of our own universe. The inciting incident is a question, the hypothesis. The rising action are the failed tests, persevering through rounds and rounds of experiments, hitting a breaking point, and then a breakthrough. The Eureka moment is the climax, and your findings are the falling action. You even have a framing structure, as the presenter telling the story in retrospect!”

His expression is slightly surprised and amused at my breakdown, and the quiet glow of satisfaction that good teachers have when one of their students has a Eureka moment. “If you can do that, you can succeed in any of these labs,” he assures me, before writing down the research website and suggesting that I take a look at the different professors, then come to him with a short list the next week. He put in a good word for me, and I actually landed a position by the following semester. That semester was also the month that COVID hit, we all had to evacuate campus over spring break, and Professor G tragically passed away of lung cancer a few months later.

But his encouragement has kept me going through the past year in a half of grueling zoom classes. Now, I’m back on campus for the first time since March 2020, working with a new research team I absolutely love, and the department is a little more empty for his absence. Today, my research advisor was discussing how we keep finding so many new cool creative ideas, and how having undergrads back in the lab lets the team explore all the interesting possibilities, while the grads and post-docs focus on their big projects. We ask so many questions about “what if we do this?” that all ten of us have our work cut out for us on all the different side experiments. The conversation struck me as remarkably similar to the way creatives talk about our WIPs – those of us who work on one epic series for years on end, and those of us who come up with new ideas on the weekly and juggle multiple stories at once.

We both ask questions: I know next to nothing about the highly specific field that we investigate in this lab, since my engineering classes only cover the broad basics, and you only really narrow down in grad school. But I sound like a toddler, asking incessant questions, and my ever-patient mentors kindly put up with babysitting me as I learn a new process. They also ask just as many questions of each other, trying to work out how to proceed. As I learn how to become a better writer, I ask google thousands of questions, and if I had a mentor, they would guide me through the process of learning a new plot structure. My writer friends act as a sounding board when I ask whether or not the story works, trying to work out how to proceed.

We also discussed the various conferences where we present our research, and they pointed out that every project contributes to the greater scientific community. You meet the same people in conference after conference, and they present updates to their ongoing research. My professor used the analogy, “Imagine you go to an art gallery exhibition where all the painters are there to explain the art, but they’re all still painting as you walk around.” I had the Eureka moment. What is the online writing community if not exactly that?

But as I read through the literature and slog through a thermodynamics textbook so dense it could be a neutron star, it’s becoming abundantly clear that there’s a huge difference between the scientific community and the writing community, just like Professor G told me. The writing community is much more accessible. Every day, my peers share complex ideas through a narrative without being shrouded in layers of technobabble and jargon. I firmly believe that scientific writing has the potential to be as engaging as well. After all, if you can’t explain it to a 6 year old, can you really understand it yourself?

This is the realization I wanted to share it with you, my readers, in the hope that Prof. G’s words speak to you as much as they did to me. Most of us aren’t full time-writers, but each and every one of us is a creative, curious soul, a storyteller with the skill to bring wonder to the mundane day-to-day tasks we face. Share your experiences, because they matter. Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy! And Happy Writing 🙂

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