We’re once again visiting our ‘Heroes of Science’ series with a portrait of the great chemist and electrical scientist Michael Faraday. I wanted to delve back into this series (you can read the previous posts on Galileo and Marie Curie in our archives) while also touching on a topic that’s come to mind after the recent fall-out of the Brexit vote. In the flurry of news articles coming out after the vote last month, there has been a lot of material in regards to the impact on science. This material has also brought to attention the notion that scientists are seen as a group of elitist experts, out of touch with the common people.
As it turns out, that sentiment is not entirely misplaced: in the UK, only 15% of scientists come from a working-class family background, and there are lower rates of progression from bachelor’s to PhD-level studies for students in the UK who attend a state high school or come from a working-class family. In the US, an undergraduate from a working-class family is six times less likely to study at an elite university than their more privileged peers, and numerous cultural and financial difficulties will also stand in the way for those who want to break into professional science. But there are examples of students from working class families breaking through and becoming successful science, and one of them is the focus of this week’s Heroes of Science series: Michael Faraday.
Our coverage of Faraday’s life and is not meant to be an over-arching review but rather a glimpse into his life and why we consider him a hero of science. All our information comes from these websites and resources, and there’s plenty more about his life for those who are interested in delving deeper.
Faraday was born in 1791, his father was a blacksmith and his mother a former maidservant. He and his three brothers lived close to the poverty line, and Faraday was only able to attend school until he was 13 years old. After finishing a very basic level of education, Faraday got an apprenticeship as a book binder in a bookshop. During his 7 years at the shop, he made a meager salary but was able to pass his time reading the books that he bound. He greatly enjoyed science books, especially chemistry and electricity, and found himself coming back time and time again to the Encyclopedia Britannia as well as Conversations on Chemistry, the latter of which was a 600 page book about chemistry written for non-scientists. Even though he had a small salary, his interest in science led him to spending part of his wages on chemistry lab equipment so he could verify first-hand what the books were describing.
Towards the end of his time as a bookbinding apprentice, Faraday attended a lecture on chemistry at the Royal Institution, thanks in no small part to his blacksmith brother who gave him a schilling so he could attend the lecture. Faraday was enthralled by the lectures, and thanks to a friendly bookshop patron, the musician William Dance, Faraday was able to get tickets to see more lectures from other famous English chemists at the Royal Institution and the Royal Society. One of the lectures that most impressed Faraday was by Sir Humphry Davy, a Cornish chemist who Faraday was able to watch perform some experiments at his lecture first-hand. To show his appreciation for Davy’s work, Faraday collected notes from the lecture in a 300-page bound book and sent it to Davy as a gift. Davy was impressed by the thorough note-taking and after a lab accident that made it difficult for Davy to write, he offered to bring Faraday to the Royal Institution as his personal note-taker. Another turn of events ended with Faraday gaining a job as a lab assistant, when one technician was fired due to misconduct which had caused a separate accident. In 1813 and at the age of 21, Faraday found himself working at the very place that he had saved up his schillings just to visit.
But while Faraday was enthusiastic about his work, he was made to feel set apart due to his lower background as a blacksmith’s son. While touring the continent with Davy soon after being hired, Davy was not treated as an equal in the group. Davy’s wife made Faraday travel outside the main coach and eat with the servants. He thought about quitting science as he went through this two-year tour of misery and mistreatment, but thanks to his time spent around science and getting new ideas from the scientists he met, he decided to persevere.
Faraday’s achievements in the lab are numerous: in chemistry, he is credited with discovering benzene and working on a better understanding of the properties of chlorine and carbon. Through his early work on gas diffusion, he discovered that some gases were able to be liquefied in the lab, including chlorine. He even invented an early form of the Bunsen burner, a piece of equipment you’ll see in labs to this day as a safe tool for having benchtop heat and flame. Faraday was even considered an early founder of the concept of nanomaterials, after seeing that gold colloids had vastly different properties when compared to their bulk metal material. As nanoscience is a driving force in modern chemistry and toxicology to this day, Faraday has shown himself to be a truly enterprising and forward-thinking scientist.
Faraday is better known for his work on electricity and magnetism. In 1820, Danish scientist Oersted discovered electromagnetism, demonstrating that the intrinsic energy underlying both electricity and magnetism is two sides of the same coin. Faraday was able to construct devices to perform induction, which is the transfer electromagnetic energy from one object to another. With induction, you can apply an electric current and create a magnetic field and likewise create an electric current by moving a conductor through a magnetic field. He was able to create steady-state currents and even designed the first-ever generator. His work formed the basis of studies on electromagnetic fields in physics for years to come, and his early designs are still on display at the Royal Institution. Faraday was also involved in work which linked the concepts in chemistry and electricity together, and is credited with discovering the laws of electrolysis as well as popularizing terms like electrode and ion.
But Faraday wasn’t content on keeping his work to himself: he was also a fervent scientific communicator. At the age of 24 he gave his first lecture and published his first academic paper. While living and working at the Royal Institution, he was elected to the Royal Society at the young age of 32 and became a Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the age of 41. He was known as one of the best lecturers of his time and was especially known for his Christmas lectures, a forum for public presentations on science. He described the method giving a lecture as the following: "A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end." Faraday greatly enjoyed doing these lectures, complete with lab demonstrations, and considered it a vital part of the work of a scientist to educate the public. He was also a strong advocate against pseudo-science and gave lectures to promote the importance of public education. Outside of his time as a scientist and lecturer, Faraday also collaborated on projects with the British government, including coal mine investigations, constructing light houses, and protecting ships from corrosion. He was even involved in early work on environmental pollution prevention. He did all of this without any formal education, apart from his honorary doctorate from Oxford.
So what can we take from Faraday’s story? Despite coming from a modest background, Faraday let his passions lead him, both in the effort he spent in learning on his own and in taking ideas and concepts in new, uncharted directions. He ended up with his career thanks to a good deal of hard work and study, as well as a bit of luck and help from friends and family. Even when meeting with adversity in how he was treated as a lower-class member of society, he kept persevering and stayed focused on the science that was important to him. He was also a great science communicator and believed heartily in teaching science to everyone, always remembering where he came from and the importance of science lectures in his own adolescence. He will certainly continue to be remembered as one of the great scientists of the 19th century.
But Faraday’s story is potentially a unique one, and it’s not very easy to find similar stories in the realm of modern science. Is science doomed to be a primarily elitist organization, or is there a way to bring other working class students into the fold? While current legislation in the UK and the US is working to develop federal programs to bridge the gap between undergraduate and PhD-level studies for students of working class families, students outside of the ‘normal’ elite groups do have certain advantages:
“The most powerful advantage for students from working-class backgrounds is the resilience and “enormous fortitude” they have already demonstrated in getting where they are." (Quote from 'Breaking the Class Ceiling')
Faraday is certainly a testament to this, and through his inspiring story we hope to see more similarly-minded students break through their current place in the world in order to make their mark on the scientific community.
A common theme in this blog is science communication: whether it’s advice on how to talk about your research at holiday get-togethers or how you can present your research findings to a scientific audience, I certainly enjoy writing about how to communicate, and I’m not the only blogger who does. But as the old saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach,” and perhaps I’ve been guilty of not following my own advice, even advice from my own blog posts.
At family get-togethers I tend to be the wallflower that greatly enjoys hearing about what my family is up to but the one who hates talking for more than a minute or two about what I’m up to apart from “Oh, you know, busy in the lab.” When meeting new people, scientists or not, I tend to give the same 5-second reply of “I’m a biologist” or “I do research” and move on to the next question or topic as quickly as possible. I feel guilty for this, realizing that I’m not doing as I preach in my blog, but in the moment of meeting someone or talking to my aunts and uncles about my work, I panic and resort to the easiest and shortest way out of the topic.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of how to become a better doer as well as a teacher in the realm of science communication. This has been spurred by being involved with outreach activities through my University, taking public engagement training courses, and, most recently, reading ‘Modern Poisons’ and seeing how my undergrad professor Dr. Kolok talks about toxicology. This week’s post is an attempt to layout my thoughts from the past few weeks on how to talk about my research in a way that will strike a chord with more people than just my fellow toxicologists, using an analogy that connects my research to another hobby of mine: public transportation systems.
There are a lot of joys you can experience while travelling: seeing new cultures, meeting new people, trying new foods, and feeling the vibe of a new city. For me, there’s yet another joy of travelling: maps. That excitement of getting a city guide that lists all of the key sightseeing points, but what’s even more exciting for me are the big underground railway and mass transit maps, displaying all the colorful connections throughout the city, the stops you can explore, and the numerous neighborhoods that are all within your reach.
The same excitement I get while looking over a new city’s mass transit map is the same type of excitement I got when first learning about molecular biology. I remember my fascination while sitting in the front row (yes, I was that person) of junior year molecular biology class at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, taught by the Biology department Chair and enthusiastic instructor Dr. Tapprich. I was mesmerized by the intricacies of the biochemical pathways, how feedback loops between one enzyme to another in the same pathway kept every process related to metabolism under tight control, and how a system as complex as a human body could be interconnected through these pathways that are invisible to the naked eye. Perhaps my fascination between the two seemingly unrelated topics, mass transit and molecular biology, is due to their similarities. Public transportation connects a city of diverse neighborhoods and helps it function on a daily basis by moving people around, similar to how the intricately linked biochemical pathways control everything from our metabolism, immune system responses, organ function, and, in general, keep us functioning on a daily (and lifelong) basis.
But as we know in the real world of public transportation, a daily commute doesn’t always run smoothly. Somewhere along the line, a signal is down, a train gets backed up, or a train car has too many passengers getting on and off and ends up late to its next destination. A small snag can sometimes fix itself, maybe a late train makes up some time at the next stop, or a signal is fixed in a hurry. But when things don’t get fixed or when broken signals are combined with other malfunctions, the problems can grow even worse, causing delays that spill over and affect other lines, delays that seem to make the whole city come to a standstill. This is especially true in mega cities like London (see tube map below), a huge amalgam of interconnected lines, zones, and the inevitable delays on a regular basis, all while moving some 8.5 million people across the city.
This is where toxicology comes into my transportation analogy: if molecular biology and biochemistry are the study of the lines and stops that interconnect a city, toxicology is the study of what a transit system can do when things go wrong and what happens when things can’t be fixed quickly enough to keep the city from devolving into disorder, chaos, and in extreme circumstances, complete shut-down.
But while you can study a map of the London underground on your own and fairly easily figure out how to get from Amersham to Oxford Circus, toxicologists learn more about the system by breaking it down into pieces, seeing how different train lines intersect, and seeing what happens in zone 6 when a train breaks down in zone 2. You’ll learn a lot in Dr. Kolok’s book about pesticides, which generally kill pests by over-stimulating an enzyme involved in transmitting neural signals. This would be like a broken signal at Ravenscourt Park which results in trains leaving the station every 30 seconds instead of every 5 minutes. At some point the trains will start colliding with one another, which is an transit-ified simplification of what happens in the neurological system after pesticide exposure: too many neural signal firings means muscles won’t be able relax, with a constant firing eventually resulting in a complete failure of the system.
For my PhD project, I worked with endocrine disrupting chemicals. The endocrine system is in charge of quite a few important functions in our body, but the most notorious are their control of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system can create cross-overs and confusions in regards to hormone levels and normal development. Think about if you booked tickets to go to South Ealing but ended up arriving at Goldhawk Road instead. In my dissertation I studied a population of fish exposed to chemicals downstream from a paper mill. In this group of fish, the females had a growth on one of their fins that normally males only have-think of a situation where you happen upon a group of women living in a remote area who all have thick moustaches and beards.
Using the publication transportation as a model for toxicology, you can start to imagine the connections between different body systems as well as how things can go wrong at any point along the map. Toxicologists need to understand what happens at the stations, the rail lines, and all the interconnections between places and routes in order to address questions like why a signal failure in Kings Cross can delay trains in West Brompton. In general, toxicologists study very specific trends: what happens when this enzyme doesn’t work or works too well, why a synthetic chemical can cause endocrine disruption, etc. It’s also a way that we classify toxic chemicals based on what lines they impact the most, what stations they hit, or how easy they are to clean up afterwards.
But what if the problem wasn’t at a specific line or station? How would you study the system if instead of something specific like a signal failure, there was an earthquake? In theory, just about any part of the system could be damaged, ranging from a minor delay due to a small magnitude quake or catastrophic destruction in the event of a large magnitude event. But as countries who live in earthquake-ridden locations know best, there are generally particular areas that get hit the most that can be reinforced to withstand a full-blown earthquake, weak points in a city’s infrastructure that tend to feel the brunt of even a small earthquake more so than others. But how do you find out what these weak points are without waiting to see what a big, potentially damaging earthquake can do firsthand?
The earthquake within this ‘toxicology in transit’ model is called narcosis, and it’s what I’ve been studying for the past 2 and a half years of my post-doc. Narcosis as a field of toxicology has been around for a while, but exactly how narcosis works (i.e. what stations and lines get hit the worst during an earthquake) is still uncertain. We know that narcotic compounds target biological membranes, the master gatekeepers and regulators of what goes in and out of a cell. Cell membranes are like the ticket gates at the station entrance: you can only get in (or out) if you have the right ticket. Membranes have to be good at controlling what is allowed in and out to make sure your cells have the right balance of ions and proteins so the cell can keep running normally. Narcotics break down this barrier and change the properties of the cell membrane, effectively letting anyone in (and out) instead of keeping things tightly regulated.
But the problem is that we don’t know exactly what happens when membranes go wild. Think back to the transit example with an earthquake: Do all the train signals stop working, or just a select or key few? Are there delays on all the lines, or are there a few key lines that once they get out of whack cause the whole city to be in disarray? While my project is still ongoing, it looks like it’s the latter that can explain what we see in narcosis. Narcotic chemicals tend to impact neurological signaling, and in my project we’ve found that biochemical pathways related to neuronal function tend to be more impacted than others. While the narcosis earthquake is still a random event in that any membrane in a cell can be impacted, the ones related to sensation and body movement tend to get hit more than others. This allows us to take a closer look at the stations and rail lines impacted by an earthquake, and to better understand more precisely how narcosis happens and why.
So that’s my post-doc career in a nutshell: studying cellular earthquakes and transitioning my love of travel maps into a career in science. While I came up with the idea on a bit of a whim, I’ve found that getting started with actually putting thoughts into words and concrete ideas is the hardest step, and perhaps also the scariest: you feel like you’ll get something wrong, or that you won’t be able to write something as clear as you see it in your head, or that you’ll go through all the trouble and still have no one who understands it. My only advice here from the ‘teacher’ side is to just give it a try. If something doesn’t come out perfectly, you can always try again and learn from what did and didn’t work the first time around.
During the rest of the summer I’ll continue putting my science communication skills into the ‘doing’ stage and will also have some additional posts on science communication approaches and techniques. Next week we’ll revisit our Heroes of Science series, and we also look forward to some upcoming collaborations with the Ecotox blog and the EuroScientists blog. Until next week, we wish you a summer of delay-free commutes (if there is such a thing!).
Some days at work I catch myself thinking “I didn’t sign up for this!”, whether it’s while thumbing through pages of statistical test reports or signing up to use the electron microscope for the third Friday afternoon in a row. The ways in which we spend our working hours can leave us feeling like we’re in the wrong place, like this is not the work we were put here on earth to do. Keeping with the pace so far of this summer of book reviews, I couldn’t resist a quick read of Chris Guillebeau’s Born For This, a book that’s out there to tell us all that we are, indeed, born for something greater than endless days of feeling we’re stuck doing the wrong sort of job.
I first heard of Chris’ book while perusing Gretchen Rubin’s website and was hooked on the concept of finding the work you were ‘born’ to do after taking the online quiz which accompanies the Born for This book. According to the quiz, I’m a dynamic organizer, and the description seemed to fit me to a T: a person who feels comfortable with structure but who craves flexibility, who likes to keep busy but hates feeling stressed, and a person who has seemingly opposite desires to both work independently and to be collaborative. The quiz was quick and easy but the detailed description also felt really accurate, which prompted me to check out Born for This at the library to see exactly what else it had to say.
Reading the book was especially timely since I am approaching a pivotal transition point in my career: my current post-doc contract will finish this spring and I am looking around for where to go next. Even if you don’t find yourself in a similar situation, this book is a great read regardless of what career stage you’re at. I would actually encourage those of you early in their scientific careers, who are getting ready to get into the nitty gritty of the next stage of life as a scientist, to use the tips in this book as a way to get a leg-up on your future career. But regardless of what stage you’re at, there are a lot of great talking points in this book, and you don’t have to be an independent business owner or an entrepreneur to use them. At first glance it may seem like the book is only intended for those who are looking for a major career transition or are looking to start their own money-making scheme at home, but the book has a wider relevance than that. Being more entrepreneurially-minded is especially important in this day and age of scientific research, when networking and promoting yourself is another part of your job description. In this sense, acting like an entrepreneur by gaining some insights from people who have succeeded outside the lab can really help set you up for success as you move further and further into your dream job territory.
The first few chapters of Born for This are focused on helping you discover the work you were meant to do, followed by tips and tricks of how you can go about getting that job. While most laboratory-based scientists may find it hard to be self-employed (the start-up capital required for your own HPLC or genome sequencer will likely hold you back), the lessons in the first part of this book can help you figure out what you’re good at, what drives you, and how you can make money doing it. Throughout the book, Chris also gives several examples and stories of people he’s met over the years who have been successful either at transitioning into a new career, breaking into a difficult to get into field, or setting off on a new and eventually successful business venture. These stories are inspiring in their own right, as well as Chris’ own story of jumping around from job to job and country to country before finding his own voice in helping people in their own careers, and serve to motivate and encourage readers as they venture through their own bit of career soul-searching.
If you look at the stories presented in Born for This, you can see a common thread that connects all of these successful people together: each of them identified a goal and pursued it wholeheartedly, or they identified a set of guiding values and followed them clearly. Regardless of which way you go, the first step is same: What do you value and what is it that you want to achieve? When I ask people why they got started in graduate school, the theme of loving research is always there, and while we all enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, it’s also a very vague answer. What exactly is it about science and research that drives us to finish the mundane tasks? Is it the dream or hope that our work will make an impact on the world? Is it learning something new every day? Is it the opportunity to teach or give back to the community? Is it the fact that we get to play with flammable chemicals or liquid nitrogen and that working in a lab feels ‘cool’? Whatever your answer may be, simply ‘doing research’ isn’t enough of a detailed answer to lead us to the next stage of figuring out what we were born to do.
To figure out what this job exactly is, Chris provides a model and a quiz exercise in Born for This as a way to think about what a fulfilling career has. Chris calls this the joy-money-flow model: a job should be something that makes us happy, provide enough money to live, and should maximize your own unique skillset. An ideal job is one that maximizes all three in that it’s what you like to do (joy), it supports you (money), and is something you’re good at (flow). The quiz exercise found in the book is a helpful guide for working through what parts of the model your current job is or isn’t meeting, and what types of work are ideal for your needs.
For example, many young scientists love ‘doing research’, but may find that aspects of academic research such as writing grant proposals or working with undergraduate students don’t fit in with the joy or the flow part of the model. Thinking about how your work can maximize each aspect of the model can help you get into more specifics, and also brings in your own expertise and skillset into the equation. As another example, you may enjoy doing research but find that one of your skills includes working with K-12 students or in working with business clients. In this scenario, even though you enjoy research, you may be able to find additional career satisfaction in another field such as working at a science museum or becoming an industry consultant.
Another great piece of advice that Chris offers in terms of figuring out your flow is by thinking of how others ask you for help. What is your role in a group setting or in the lab as a whole? What do colleagues ask you for your help or opinion on? If you’re not in a position where you feel like you get asked for help, you can try the opposite by reaching out to your work colleagues and asking them what they need help with. And if you have ideas of what you’re good at already in mind, you can try reaching out to contacts and colleagues you’ve already made and offer them help with a specific task that you think they would appreciate. Maybe you’re really good at making schematics for presentations, and you know your lab mate is giving a talk on some new data at an upcoming conference. Offer to make a slide for them in your spare time and who knows-it could lead to your own science graphics side hustle!
One concept from early on in the book that I though was particularly relevant for scientists is this: even if you get a paycheck on a regular basis and have an employer, an office, and a seemingly ‘9-5’ type of job, we are all at some level self-employed. If you want to go beyond where you’re at now in your work, there’s no one else in your company or university can make your career happen except for you. We spend our time in graduate school being mentored and as recent graduates learning more skills, but at the end of a contract it’s our responsibility to make our own career.
Even in more stable settings like industry, where you don’t have to deal with the pressure of short-term contracts and grant proposals, good people can still end up losing good jobs, which highlights the importance of putting your own career in your own hands as much as possible. I have a good friend in Omaha who worked for a Fortune 500 company which decided, after nearly 25 years of being in the same location, to move to Chicago and subsequently started laying off staff around Christmas. She was lucky to have kept her job, but others who had been working at the company loyally for years weren’t so lucky. Being responsible for your own career and fostering your own professional network won’t guarantee you a job if things go wrong, but by investing in yourself and giving time to someone besides the company that pays your bills can pay off in the event that things take a turn for the worse. Remember that even when you change jobs or have to move to another part of your career, you get to take your personal network and professional connections and your reputation with you, so be sure to give them the care and attention they need to help you succeed!
Outside of the entrepreneurial/self-employment perspective, Chris also gives some sound advice for the job search. As detailed in this book, the job search is a game of imperfect information and multiple strategies (think of poker versus chess: poker has imperfect information while chess has perfect information, since you can see the full game board). Chris recommends a winning strategy that includes 1) having a back-up plan for any major decision, 2) taking out a ‘career insurance policy’ by having good relations within your professional network, 3) asking five people to help you while starting your career search (on things like finding leads for a job, an introduction to another colleague, or a skype chat to talk about the layout of your CV), and 4) creating an ‘artist’s statement’ which describes your work, your goals, and who you are. Chris states that in the service industry, a good reputation is an asset-and that’s certainly the case in science as well. Foster your professional network even in the times when they aren’t directly needed, and be useful and helpful to the people you know so you’ll be remembered as an engaging and hard-working person.
I’ll avoid re-telling Chris’ entire book here, but will leave you with this reminder from Born for This: It’s OK to feel like you’re learning more about what you don’t want to do in the early stages of your career. In the long run, knowing what you don’t like can help guide you to an ideal career as much as the positive experiences. Part of getting to that perfect career is to go through a range of experiences, from incredible and rewarding moments to the frustrating days where all you wanted to do was to have 5pm roll around. You won’t know what your ideal job is right away, and that’s normal. Reading through the numerous stories of people in soul-searching mode reminded me of that, and it shows that finding the work you were born to do is very rarely a simple or linear journey.
Science will always be a challenging field to work in, but it is also a place where active and enterprising young scientists, ones who are adaptive to new ways of thinking, communicating, and planning, are poised to leap ahead. I greatly enjoyed reading Born for This, and have only given a small taste of what he lays out in his book. Even if you’re not planning a major career shift, the strategies in Born for This in terms of building up your professional network and ‘fanbase’ are great life lessons for the early stage of a career, whether you’re an archaeologist, a zoologist, or anything else in between. Chris’ book is also a great reminder that there is no one size fits all career, and that part of the joy in finding what we were born to do is in recognizing what we’re good at and what we’re passionate about. Finding a way to get paid for what drives and inspires us is an added bonus!
We’ve talked in previous posts about many of the additional jobs required of scientists besides research. Science communication is at the top of the list, and the importance of strong communication skills for scientists has become clearer now than ever before. In some of our previous posts, we’ve focused on ways you can communicate your science when asked the dreaded question of ‘So, how’s research?’ at a get-together with family or friends or how you can adopt the use of a narrative approach to set up your scientific story. It’s also important for us to think beyond our own research and consider sharing the concepts, findings, and ideas of an entire field of study. Are there ways that we can better communicate the wider scope of our scientific research to an even broader audience?
At the SETAC meeting last autumn in Salt Lake City, I had a chance to catch up with my undergrad thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok, who set out to do just that for toxicology. I spoke with him over the phone this winter about his project of writing Modern Poisons and his perspectives on undertaking the endeavor of translating toxicology for a lay audience. I also had a chance to read the newly-minted e-book version this spring, which you can pick up on Amazon or directly from the Island Press website.
You might find the book a surprisingly short read, something you can get through in a week or so of easy reading, and there’s a reason for that. Kolok was initially inspired by the paperback Why big fierce animals are rare, a book written by the late Paul Colinvaix, an ecology professor who worked at The Ohio State University and later at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The book is dense in basic ecology but uses short, 5-minute chapters to get the message across. Kolok was inspired by the book as an undergraduate student and the way in which these complex concepts in ecology could be conveyed in short, easy-to-read sections for a broad audience. Kolok wanted to do something similar for the field of toxicology: a book that could be read by anyone, from accountant to zoologist, and a book that would enable them to have a better understanding of the concepts and common misconceptions within toxicology.
As researchers we work primarily in a single field and with the occasional jaunt into interdisciplinary territory. It’s easy to forget how specialized we are even compared to scientists working in other fields, even ones that might seem similar at first. Kolok was initially surprised by comments on a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation about why PCBS aren’t metabolized but PAHs are and why EDCs impact fish differently than humans. To the toxicologist, these concepts (and acronyms) seem like common knowledge, but for someone who’s an epidemiologist or an electrophysiologist won’t understand concepts like biotransformation as much as a toxicologist will. After seeing these comments, Kolok realized that even for a field as large as toxicology, there was really only one major textbook dedicated to the principles of the field. While this is a great textbook, it’s not exactly pocket-sized, and certainly not a light read or for those who simply want to pique their interest on the topic.
Three years ago, Kolok set out to write Modern Poisons as a short and easy-to-digest book on the basics of toxicology. While the book is currently available as an undergraduate textbook, it was initially meant to be a short book for lay readers, including advanced high school students, who are interested in toxicology. In order to reach this broad audience, Kolok’s approach was to use the power of metaphors. Kolok is a firm believer of the value of anecdotes as a way of explaining complex concepts to people who don’t come from a scientific background. This approach is used to tackle topics ranging from the geographical distribution of pollutants to emerging questions on topics including nanomaterials and personal care products. This approach enables readers to understand the gist of the problem but leaves the in-depth details for another story.
What became more of a struggle for Kolok during the writing process was achieving the balance between sufficient complexity with understandability. In the past 17 years of teaching toxicology for senior undergraduates at UNO, Kolok has found that a good portion of the course ended up being the study of biochemical pathways. While this isn’t the core of toxicology per se, it was still something that all students needed to understand so that concepts such as enzyme induction by dioxins and pesticides binding to the acetylcholine receptor could be better understood. The book subsequently follows in parallel to how Kolok teaches, not only in the specifics of the enzymes and pathways discussed but in general in the sense of how the system works as a whole and how different pieces can end up in disarray during a chemical onslaught.
Kolok used Modern Poisons as a textbook in his toxicology course last autumn, where he provided the book as an overview and then used the course to go into greater details. While this required Kolok to re-think his course and revamp his presentation style, he was also able to get feedback on the book before it went to publication. His students really enjoyed the book and were able to read each chapter and make specific comments on what worked and what didn’t. After four years of droll textbooks for classes, Kolok’s senior-level toxicology course enjoyed a book with a more conversational and informal tone and approach, and Kolok plans to use Modern Poisons again in the upcoming semester.
While the book did take three years to write, it wasn’t evenly spread over all 20 chapters. Kolok found that some ideas or concepts came easier and were written faster, while for others he needed to either think about how to go into detail while still being clear, and other concepts required him to go back to the literature. The amount of time spent during that year also varied, as Kolok was still teaching and doing research, but on some occasions spent nearly 20 hours a week at writing. Thanks to a quarterly series of articles he had written for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kolok did have some starting material from 16 lay person articles of around 800 words, each focused on a topic within toxicology.
Even with some starting material, however, the process was still not always an easy one. “When you’re writing a review paper, your input is scientific material and your output is more scientific material. It’s harder when you’re taking scientific materials and translating them into something else. You have to read a lot in order to understand and then translate without losing the complexity,” Kolok commented. Kolok admitted that he wasn’t always the most efficient at this: some concepts ended up ‘translating’ rather easily but others were more difficult, and some ideas and chapters had to be completely redone. Kolok reinforced the need for good self-critique during the writing process and admitting when you need to restart something completely. While this was a challenge throughout the writing process, Kolok admits that “When you feel like you finally got it right, it’s really satisfying.”
While the first edition of the book is done and in print (or e-book, if you prefer a digital format), Kolok is already thinking about what the next version will look like, but after some time off from book writing, since Kolok emphasized that part of being productive also involves taking a break now and again. The next edition is likely to include some figures and a few changes in sections that Kolok feel could be improved, especially as new research comes out and new stories become prominent in the news, and to go into more detail on certain topics that could only be covered broadly in the first iteration.
“I’d never thought of myself as a writer until finishing this book,” Kolok remarked, and said that by writing this book he activated a more creative part of his brain than normal science writing. “This type of writing feels like a creative challenge compared to scientific writing. I got to expand my creativity and the horizon of my writing, I got to use more creative words and tell short stories instead of journal articles.” Kolok even went so far as to say that writing more creatively felt like learning a new lab technique, and that while in research and as a professor he was and is still writing, he now has a new perspective on it. Kolok even said that the amount of scientific writing he’s done has increased, and he’s now more motivated to write and finish papers, in addition to thinking about continuing his career in writing after retiring from research as a second career.
I greatly enjoyed reading Modern Poisons, and even having background knowledge in toxicology the book didn’t feel like anything was too glossed over or watered down. One student commented that “Dr. K writes like he talks, very conversationally, and I mean that in a good way,” and I certainly agree with that sentiment. Reading this book felt like being in Kolok’s undergraduate toxicology course all over again, a reminder of why I began my PhD in toxicology in the first place: the fascination I felt while learning about what happens when good biological plans and infrastructure go awry. It also spurred my own thoughts on how I could talk about my own research better, which was one of the topics not mentioned in Kolok’s book: narcosis. I agree with Kolok that toxicology should be understood by more than toxicologists, especially since a lot of what we do impacts what chemicals we use in our homes, on our foods, and in our drugs. I’ve already passed along the book to science-oriented friends and non-science-oriented family members who have asked me time and time again to tell them about what I’m doing at work. Thanks to Dr. K, I can just send them the link to the Amazon page and avoid a lengthy discussion on biological membranes over Christmas dinner!
It’s not just toxicology that benefits from books like this: scientists are trained to become specialized in their own fields, and a person that hasn’t been in a science class since high school may have forgotten what the inside of a cell looks like or from what direction the moon rises from. While it may not be an easy endeavor to bring every research concept to the lay person, now is the time to start thinking how you can translate science into a story that people can connect and relate to. I’m thankful for Dr. Kolok’s inspiration in telling the story of toxicology for everyone, and am hopeful that more science-oriented books like this in the future will grace the bedside tables of many curious readers to come.