Nadia Drake advises aspiring science writers with personal insights

Dr. Nadia Drake, a contributing writer for National Geographic, began her talk Friday with a chemistry experiment.

Image By: Yunhong Wu

Friday afternoon’s conversation with Dr. Nadia Drake, the Fall 2016 UW-Madison Science Writer in Residence, began with an experiment in which a chemistry professor placed dry ice into six cylinders filled with colorful liquid. Waiting until the chemical reaction stopped, Drake went to the front and poured huge amounts of dry ice into a basin of hot water. Clouds of white fog came out of the container as condensed water vapor.

After beginning with this experiment to entice the audience, Drake began to talk about what led her to science journalism. She pointed out that it is not reasonable to expect young students to make a decision that affects their entire life so early on. Through her own life experience, the National Geographic contributing writer illustrated the feasibility of deciding a career path later in life.

Born into a family of scientists, Drake was somewhat persuaded into the field. Her father, an astronomer, encouraged her to study science. Before earning a Ph.D. in genetics from Cornell University in 2009, she obtained biology, psychology and dance degrees from the same institution.

Drake, however, didn't go to directly to graduate school. In the interim, she worked at the Center of Genetics Lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine until realizing that pursuing an academic career was the next best thing for her. While pursuing her graduate studies, Drake took a second job dancing in a ballet company, pursuing her original dream of being a ballet dancer.

Around the second year of her Ph.D. program, she realized that although she enjoyed being completely immersed in science, she could not be imagine herself working in a lab day after day. That triggered her to seek alternative to the academic career.

Eventually, Drake decided to combine science with writing. Without being aware that writing about science could be a career, she applied to the science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There, she discovered her talents and fell in love.

Drake learned the basics of journalism including science news stories, features and profiles at her first internship at the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“The first day [at the] Sentinel [was] a really unusual day and I began to love being a newspaper reporter,” Drake said. “I found out that working in journalism, getting an assignment, not knowing if you are going to succeed, but doing your best not to fail, is the thing I really love.”

Although Drake does not closely relate her career with her Ph.D. degree, she expressed the importance of understanding science when communicating it.

“Scientific truth is the most important thing and that’s what I think distinguishes journalism from other forms of communication,” Drake said. “I don't want to be reporting on something then end up not being right.”

According to Drake, after defining the science-based idea of stories, creativity and curiosity play an essential role of writing articles and help induce critical thinking of readers.

“I think it’s more important to help people understand how to approach something scientifically with the kind of critical thinking skills that you need to evaluate evidence for yourselves,” Drake said. “More than just trying to teach science to people with some new stories, [understanding] how to think critically and how to evaluate is perhaps more important.”

Combining her science background and love of writing, two seemingly different things, led Drake toward success and ultimately happiness. 

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