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.
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).