Tag Archives: autobiography

Author Q&A for “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing”

This is a crosspost of an author Q&A conducted for, and previously posted on, the Princeton University Press Blog. If you read it there, don’t waste any more time here…

The Princeton University Press (PUP) says: Scientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed [edit: nice of me, eh?] to answer a few questions about his book.

PUP: What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing? Continue reading


I’m on the People Behind the Science podcast

I’m this week’s guest on the People Behind the Science podcast!

If you aren’t a listener, you might want to try it out.  In People Behind the Science, Marie McNeely interviews a new scientist each week, focusing on who they are both in science and away from science.  She gets her guests to talk about their paths to science, about their successes and failures in science, and about books, travel, and other personal interests.

I very much like the idea of People Behind the Science.  It recognizes – indeed, celebrates – something very important: that scientists are just people.  We’re people with quirks and foibles, human virtues and human failings, interesting backstories, and all the rest.  Society often pictures scientists as somehow apart – cool and dispassionate logicians in lab coats, to be found in a fancy lab or a remote rain forest.  Really, of course, we’re just like anybody else, and we can be found in the grocery store and at concerts and with our kids at the park. I think society would integrate science better if it recognized that it’s done by people just like anyone else.  That is, I wish society knew better that there are people behind the science.

Of course, if you’re a scientist like me, you know all that.  But if you agree with me that People Behind the Science is a good idea, perhaps you could spread the word.  (You don’t have to listen to the one about me.)

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) April 25, 2016


Writing a book: what a long strange trip it’s been

Image: Sidewalk art by Jeremy Brooks, via flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0; lyrics from Truckin’, Garcia/Weir/Lesh/Hunter.

Warning: really long post.  TL;DR: Publishing a book is really different, and I learned a lot by doing it.

Heard_Scientist'sGuide coverPerhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve just published a book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  (I’ve tried to make it hard for you not to notice.)  And lately, it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.

What do I mean by that? Well, if I were an academic in the arts or humanities, there’d be nothing unusual about having published a book.  But in the sciences we don’t write a lot of books.  Like most scientists, I knew next to nothing about writing or publishing a book before I started working on mine.  If you’re curious about how it works and what it’s like, read on. Who knows, maybe you’ll write a book too, someday. (Caution: since I have a sample size of one – for now – I can’t guarantee that my story is representative.)

Books take a long time

It took almost five years* from the first tentative plan to a published book I could hold in my hand.  I knew it would take a long time, of course, but I didn’t see five years coming.  Inasmuch as I planned it out at all (and I’ll admit that making and sticking to a plan is not my academic strong suit), I thought perhaps six months to write a prospectus and get the book under contract, a year to write the rest of it, and another to get it published. (Ha!)

In hindsight, of course, I’m not sure how I thought I could write a 90,000-word book in a year.  Continue reading

Two ways I flubbed my first job interview

Academic jobs are hard to get (there’s an understatement), and as a result, nearly everyone has a tale to tell of failure on the academic job market. I have plenty of those tales – but today, I’ll tell just one. It’s the story of the first (academic) job interview I ever had, and how I found two different ways not to get the job. Continue reading

Creativity, play, and science

Photo: Mushroom arrays on the forest floor in a “play” experiment (S. Heard).

Much of science is a craft: doing it well involves the application of practiced skills, which can be honed (if never completely mastered) by anyone with time and experience. In an experiment, for example, we have powerful experimental design, meticulous repetition and recordkeeping, appropriate statistical analysis, and clear writing to report the results – all things we can become objectively better and better at with practice.

But there’s creativity in science too, and it lies in the source of our ideas. This part of science is more mysterious. Continue reading

How I started blogging (reposted interview with Paige Brown Jarreau)

Over at From the Lab Bench, Paige Brown Jarreau has been running a series of interviews with new science bloggers, asking them how they got involved and what they’ve learned from the experience. I was #10 in her series, which continues here (includes links to all previous posts).

Paige kindly gave me permission to repost our conversation. I’ve taken the opportunity to make a couple of very minor edits, but otherwise, this is verbatim from her original post (so if you read it there, save your time). This post marks 6 months of Scientist Sees Squirrel!

Warning: self-indulgent, meta, and rather long.

Paige: What motivated you to start blogging about science? Why did you start a blog, vs. using only other newer forms of social media like Twitter?

Steve: I suspect my friends and colleagues would tell you that I’ve always had plenty of opinions and have been quite willing to share them over beer and in hallway chat.  It hadn’t ever occurred to me to write these things down.  About three years ago, though, I started working on a scientific-writing guidebook (in press; more about it here), and I discovered two things.  First, I really enjoy writing in a nontechnical style.  And second, I enjoy writing less technical material – about peculiar facts or interesting connections in what we know about nature, or about things like history of science, career advice, and why we do things the way we do. Continue reading

The dumbest thing I ever said to a reviewer

Last month I told you about the dumbest thing I ever said to an editor. It would be great if that had run me out of embarrassing stories, but actually, that’s a pretty deep well. Today: the dumbest thing I ever said to a reviewer. Mind you, at the time I didn’t realize that I was saying it to a reviewer, and I’ll say more about that; but first, the embarrassing story. Continue reading

The dumbest thing I ever wrote to an editor

OK, so first a funny story; then maybe I’ll extract some kind of lesson from it.

Way back when I was a grad student, I had finished the first chapter of my thesis and was ready to submit it for publication. I thought of myself as an evolutionary ecologist (I still do); and without much more thought about it than that, I decided to send the manuscript to Evolutionary Ecology. Mike Rosenzweig was the Editor-in-Chief at the time, and Mike promptly* sent my manuscript back with an editorial decline, on the grounds that the manuscript was straight-up ecology, without any evolution in it.

So what did I do? Here comes the dumb part. Continue reading

I have the best job on the entire planet

An opinion column in the Toronto Star got me riled up the other day. It wasn’t the topic of the piece (TA and sessional labour strife at an Ontario university). It was that the columnist seemed to completely misunderstand, and thus misrepresent, the nature of the job I do as a tenured academic. This is, depressingly, utterly routine in the lay media: university professors are “a coddled elite…among the best-paid on the planet… teaching fewer courses than ever, and sloughing off research duties” (Ha!), and we “enjoy paid summer breaks from May through August” (double Ha!). Continue reading

Does an academic need an attention span?

I’m calling my new blog “Scientist Sees Squirrel” in anticipation.  You see, I’m not sure what I’ll be writing about tomorrow, much less next month or next year – but I’m pretty sure that it will resist nice tidy categorization.  I’m interested in insect host-race formation, of course (my research bread-and-butter these days).  But I’m also interested in phylogenetic tree shape, in the evolution of plant tolerance to herbivory, in aggregation and coexistence, and in the ecology of invasions and outbreaks.  More broadly, I’m interested in science as a way of learning (and its use by non-scientists), in the culture and sociology of science and of academia, in science outreach – and increasingly, in scientific writing, including the use of humour and beauty in technical writing.  At least, those are the things I can think of just now.

And that brings me to my topic: these aren’t the same things I would have listed two years ago, or five, or ten.  My career has hopped from research area to research area: Continue reading