Speaking to… Deborah Blum

I’ve never been bored – it’s like having an infinite list of questions that, if you can get them answered, will each in their own way make life more interesting.”

Deborah-Blum-Science-CommunicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Deborah Blum


Deborah Blum

Where are you based?

Madison, Wisconsin, USA

Who do you work for?

I have a lot of bosses. I’m a professor of journalism here at the University of Wisconsin. I’m a science blogger for Wired (Elemental). I write a monthly toxicology blog for The New York times (Poison Pen). I freelance for publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Tin House. I’m a non-fiction book author, most recently of The Poisoner’s Handbook.

What type of science communication do you do?

I’m a writer and I like to tell narrative stories. I do this across multiple platforms, blogs, newspapers, magazines, books and e-publications.

Who is your main audience?

A wide audience, I hope. I’m most interested in the audience that may have been turned off my science (say in high school) and lost the sense that it’s important in daily life. I like to tell stories – from murder to public health – that persuade them otherwise.

How did you get into it?

Well, my father is an entomologist and I grew up surrounded by his graduate students and post-docs. So I’m sure that influenced me. I spent about five years as a general interest newspaper reporter before going to grad school in science journalism. I wanted to write about science because I liked the way it helps us understand the world around us.

Why do you do it?

Partly for the fun of it. My kids tell me I’m a natural geek – I really do like understanding the world around us and science writing is a great way to get paid to ask all your favorite questions. I’ve stayed with it because I’ve never been bored – it’s like having an infinite list of questions that, if you can get them answered, will each in their own way make life more interesting. I’ve been a science writer for 30 years now and I still haven’t come to the end of the list.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Because science not only helps understand the way the world works – it helps us navigate it. And not just in a space exploration way. It’s important to our every day lives – how to be healthy, how to protect ourselves and our children and our communities – and I worry that people don’t fully understand it and I hope that what I do helps get that message across.

What do you love about science communication?

The ability to tell really good stories. The sense that I can make a difference. And fact that I learn all the time – thanks to the amazing generosity of scientists and to the many science communicators who are much smarter than me.

What has been your favourite project?

Boy that’s hard to pick. I’ve been writing about poisonous substances now for four years so I have to say that Poisoner’s Handbook has been incredibly influential in both subject matter and the way I tell stories. And I love the way it’s enabled me to reach a multitude of audiences. It was short-listed for a murder mystery award (The Agatha award after Agatha Christie ) and I’ve both spoken to murder mystery writers and even romance writers on the chemistry of killing people. Now those are new audiences for the science writer :)

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I’m working on a book on poisonous food. It’s due to Penguin next year and it’s such a fascinating story so I’m really excited about it.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

It’s a great time to be a science communicator because there are so many new platforms – blogging, podcasts, e-magazines and publishers. My advice is to just get started – launch a blog because it’s a great way to develop a writer’s voice. And build a network – go to meetings like ScienceOnLine or your science writers association. It’s not only that you make contacts but it’s so fun to hang out with people who love telling science stories the way you do. Which is probably my last point. Do it you do think it’s going to be fun – those are the best jobs anyway.

You can follow Deborah on Twitter at @deborahblum or see what she is up to on her website.