Hi. I got a bachelors in Neurobiology and Behavior from Cornell University in 2010. Instead of studying I played hockey and wrote short stories that thankfully never got published anywhere. I got a PhD in biochemistry from SUNY Buffalo in 2015. After that, I moved to Iowa to work on prion diseases at the USDA’s National Animal Disease Center. About that time I started doing freelance science writing. I moved to Pittsburgh and worked at Carnegie Mellon University on sea urchins (no, I don’t know) in 2018 while still freelance writing and editing. In 2019 I started working at Massive Science. Massive shut down at the end of 2021, and for a little while I took it easy. I spent the winter slipping and falling on various Minneapolis sidewalks, and also did some freelance writing. In July 2022 I started as the senior editor at Drug Discovery News.
This page previously had a much longer piece about my life in science. I feel bad just throwing it away so here it is.
My Life in Science:
My PhD research was on transcription factors. These are proteins that physically grab on to DNA and, through a mechanism that’s not very interesting because I didn’t work on it, either turn on or turn off a gene. One protein I worked on was a phage “repressor,” a transcription factor used by viruses to control, like a light switch, whether that virus stays off and lays dormant in a cell or turns on, reproduces, and kills the cell.
The rest of the time I worked on a protein called ETS1. ETS1 is interesting because most of the time it physically rolls up in a ball like a scared little pillbug. But, when it bumps into another protein, ETS1 relaxes, unfurls, and both proteins latch on to DNA. Here’s one paper on that. Here’s another. Why is it called ETS1? Well ho ho ho bear with me because that’s interesting too. It stands for “E26 transforming-specific.” E26 is a virus which was discovered to be carrying a protein that it had stolen from humans, which the scientists named v-ets (“v” for virus). When the original human protein was discovered, along with a family of similar-looking proteins, the human version got called ETS1 (because it was discovered first) and the protein family named the “ETS family.”
My first research experience was a summer I spent working for a group of soil scientists. In a group of professors and lab scientists, my job was to drive an old pickup truck around the farms of upstate New York. Farmers gave us small plots of land to test experimental fertilizers on. To find our plots, the local mosquitoes and I read poorly drawn maps made by god knows who and searched among the rows and rows of corn, which gave me papercuts as I went past. In return I hacked them down with a rusty machete. I carried piles of corn over my shoulder to the truck, where I weighed myself and the corn. We also took soil samples using a soil probe, a device made of two hollow metal tubes welded into a T that I rose above my head and plunged into the earth like I was staking a vampire. Hot, dry days were terrible because the fields turned to sand and didn’t stick to the probe. But, the day after a light rain the fields smelled sweet, the soil was soft and packed in your hand like snow, and the work was easy.
I then worked in a cell biology lab, then a tomato lab (I was the greenhouse janitor, a job I was fired from). I went to grad school at SUNY Buffalo to become a high school teacher (the only thing I could think of to do with my life). I joined a biochemistry lab (Jerry Koudelka’s) and stayed for five and a half years until they gave me a PhD. I did this because the stipend for a PhD at SUNY Buffalo is $4,000 more per year than a masters.
Afterward, I got a job at the USDA’s National Animal Disease Center in Ames, IA. Many days it smelled like manure. I worked on prion diseases like Mad Cow (prion disease of cows) and Chronic Wasting Disease (in deer and elk) (proper prion researchers do not use the phrase “Mad Cow Disease” because it is too evocative. This is true. It’s more precise and proper to say “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy,” aka “cows’ brains swell and develop holes like a sponge” disease. Knowing that, it’s unclear why a terrifying name like “Chronic Wasting Disease” is okay but whatever).