Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Writing About Scientists in the Field — While Working With Scientists in the Field

By Karen Romano Young 


“Want to see something amazing?"

When you’re a children’s writer and illustrator accompanying scientists on a ship, at
an Antarctic research station, on a sample-gathering hike or dive, or in a laboratory, there’s only one answer to that question: “Sure!”

Your face may tell another story. And you may live to regret going along.  But it’s best not to give a qualified response.  It’s no use asking, “Alive or dead?” “Is it gross?” Or “Will I be glad after I see it?”

When you’re embedded with scientists — questionable term in itself — it’s best to keep an open mind, and a lid on your disgust response, as well as any expression of mystification.  I spend a lot of time fine-tuning my poker face, and pretending I know what’s going on.

Coming April 2022, by Karen Romano Young with illustrations by Angela Hsieh (What on Earth)
Based in part on field work at Palmer Station, Antarctica and aboard the science
research drilling ship JOIDES Resolution. 

Here are a few more useful things to say:

“Can you help me explain this to fourth graders?” (Translation: I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.)

“Is there an everyday comparison I could use to explain this?” (Translation: instead of saying that Phaeocystis antarctica plankton “produce” dimethylsulfoniopropionate, can I say that they fart out a material that gives the sea its smell — and that moisture gloms onto to form clouds?)

“What can I do to help?” (Translation: I’m willing to get my hands dirty, as well as to look at ‘something amazing.’ Go ahead and blow my mind.)

I hope I’m not making working with scientists in the field sound like a trial, or a trial by fire. The rewards are immense. Yes, scientists may use jargon heavily; may geek out about incomprehensible objects, concepts, and processes; and may be proud (and occasionally lofty) about their advanced degrees and prestigious institutions.  But they are just like anyone else: they love to have their story told, to share what they know, and to feel understood, as well as fascinating.  (I’ve yet to find one that wasn’t.)

With my science team from Maine’s Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences,
with whom I went to Palmer Station as part of the National Science Foundation’s
Antarctic Artists and Writers program.

To become a scientist, I’ve learned, one has to be obsessed, and that obsession may have started a long time ago, in childhood. In fact, most scientists trace their science identity — their willingness to geek out about a topic not everyone is interested in, their view of themselves as capable inquirers and researchers, and their ability to learn about or build whatever they need to get their work done — to middle school or earlier.

Who does that remind you of?

I’ll tell you who it reminds me of: myself. My writer self. A bit shy, a bit independent.  Willing to go deep on a topic, to investigate it closely, and to sustain the effort needed to finish an article, story, drawing, or book.  Able to handle rejection, able to chase down acceptance.  And able to assess my own place in the system I’m part of. 

Mostly, for me, that system is publishing. I understand my audience and the place my books have in that world, as much as scientists comprehend the contributions they’re making to their field.

This is just part of what I’ve learned by traveling at their sides — diving in submarines, pulling water samples onto rollicking inflatable boats, breaking ice occupied by walrus, fainting in the heat of the summer Caribbean. I’m in a strong position to refute the stereotypical white-coated identity of scientists with my own view of their extreme adventures, their thrilling lives.

Increasingly, my own identity is changing, as I contribute stories of scientists and their work to both their world and the publishing world. I’m working to invite and involve readers from typically underrepresented communities to science fields, to show them that they belong.  I’m saying to them, “Want to see something amazing?”

          Not the tail feathers of a dead penguin.

          Not the dissected form of a giant tube worm.

          Not the green flash just after sunset on a clear horizon at sea.

          Not the blip of a massive iceberg on a radar screen.

          Yes, all those things. But also a mirror: you have a lot in common with scientists. And a window: Take a look at what is going on out here! And a door: come on, walk through.

Dr. Peter Girguis and I worked together on outreach and deep sea science aboard E/V Nautilus.
He’s part of my forthcoming book Diving for Deep-Sea Dragons (ChronicleKids, 2024).


Give It a Try: 

Why not use drawings and words to tell your science stories? Visual storytelling can reach more people and can inspire new kinds of story and information sharing for you, and your young artists.  Begin by drawing an animal and labeling its parts.  Then, if some part of an animal has more of a story, highlight it and write it up.  Add to this science writing by describing your animal's behaviors, relationships to humans, family life (how many babies does it have? who takes care of the babies?) and even higher level content such as cladograms,  family trees that show species relationships. One more plus: how about a title that shows something more about the animal? 


Meet the Author: Karen Romano Young is an author, illustrator, science comics creator, deep sea diver and polar explorer.  She's the author and sometime illustrator of more than 30 books for children, and the creator of #AntarcticLog,  a weekly comic about the climate, and the new comics-based project about science careers I Was A Kid. (see it at IWasAKid.com) She frequently works with scientists doing communications and visual storytelling, taking part in expeditions from the Arctic to Antarctic and many places in between. 



  1. Thanks for writing this post, Karen! Makes sense that writers are like scientists. I appreciate how you pose questions of how to explain a topic to fourth graders and what comparisons can be made to use in writing. I enjoyed your novel A Girl, a Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon. I'm excited to read your new book about Antarctica.

  2. Thank you, Karen, for an amazing post to encourage writers to keep an open mind and think like a scientist.

    Suzy Leopold

  3. Karen, what an amazing life you have! I like your comparison between scientists and writers. Thank you for your very doable "give it a try." I think your way of presenting information with drawings is a perfect way to draw young readers in and encourage them to want to learn more.

  4. Fascinating post. I love how you convey so much information in your drawings.

  5. cool post - and what a fun way to get into writing about a topic: with your visual storytelling activity.

  6. What a small world - just last week I got to meet one of the scientists you feature, Dawn Wright! And she told me about your website! I love the work that you are doing. I'm very jealous that you got to go to Antarctica and hang out with scientists.

  7. What a fun and informative post. You've inspired an idea for additional back matter to one of my PB projects! Thank you for sharing your interesting experiences and drawings.

  8. So cool! I love the questions to ask scientists and experts, even if you aren't in Antarctica at the time:)

  9. I love this article, Karen. You and your work are a constant inspiration!!!

  10. As someone married to a scientist, I can attest to the geek out and no-white-lab-coats things...LOL! What a great idea to do a web-comic about science careers and climate (wish I had thought of that since I'm married to a climatologist)!

  11. Karen, this sounds so fun. And that question - "What to see somethinng amazing?"- is universal to all careers and even kids. Mathmeticians, wood-workers, architects, engineers, artists, and especially kids are so excited to share what they've created. THanks for the reminder that the answer is always - "YES!"

  12. How exciting! Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I really enjoyed it.

  13. Karen, thank you for this amazing post. I appreciate your insights and questions to consider while writing about scientists.

  14. Amazing tips from your amazing life. Thank you.

  15. Oh those expeditions of yours. I mean, who gets to go to Antarctica? This was so wonderful to read. Especially your, Give it a Try, starter questions. Great read. Great resource.

  16. Love your attitude and helpful tips, especially the line, “Can you help me explain this to fourth graders?”

  17. Fascinating post Karen! Thank you for sharing your adventures and translated questions to ask scientists.

  18. Absolutely love the line "Can you help me explain this to fourth graders?" and the translation. Priceless!

  19. Your adventures are so cool. This article has 100% given me an idea to expand on a science topic I'm currently querying. Two potential books (and maybe more) out of one topic. Thank you so much.

  20. What a fascinating post (and life!). Looking forward to all your books!

  21. Thank you for this great post. I love your enthusiasm and passion for sharing your discoveries with children!

  22. I loved your post! Thanks for sharing your experience and insights. I can't wait to read ANTARCTICA.

  23. Amazing adventures. This post will change the way I approach a book I'm researching. Thank you!

  24. I love your insight on how to frame a question to a scientist to get the answer you're seeking.

  25. This is fun! So I got to the"Give it a try" section and started the exercise. Draw a picture of....an opossum. But his nose was pointed and he turned out to be a rooster!!! But I did write parts and actually came up with a story idea. Thank you. (you may have guessed I'm a non artist!)

  26. Thanks for the insights. I especially like the idea of books being mirrors, windows and doors.