Thursday, May 9, 2024

Talk to the Scientist! The Ultimate Primary Source

 By Darcy Pattison ( 

I’m the author of twenty-four children’s nonfiction picture books, mostly about STEM topics. Most of the books require me to talk with a scientist who has done research on a topic. Today, I’ll talk about how to talk with scientists, credit them and use their information to enrich a story.


Here's some ideas for questions:

  • At what point in your research process do you contact a scientist?

When I think of a topic, I’m usually looking for a specific thing. ANOTHER EXTRAORDINARY ANIMAL is a series of animal biographies of a single animal, instead of a species. The latest story, PELORUS JACK, THE NEW ZEALAND DOLPHIN is about a dolphin who charmed a nation and inspired them to pass one of the first conservation laws to protect an animal. It took place in the early 1900s, so there wasn’t a scientist to interview this time. But that’s rare. Usually, the stories rely on first-hand information from a scientist. That means I contact them early in the process. I do preliminary research, and then zero in on a scientist who could answer specific questions.

For example, for DIEGO, THE GIANT GALÁPAGOS TORTOISE, I interviewed Linda Cayot, Ph.D, the
leading herpetologist in the Galápagos Islands for four decades. Along with her colleagues, she wrote a 1000-page book about the tortoises, detailing the species from each island. She allowed me to interview her by zoom, vetted the manuscript, and saw the book receive a starred Kirkus review before she passed away.

Linda’s information was vital to the story, and the accuracy of the information. The Española Island tortoises were down to just 14 individuals, almost extinct. The herpetologists sent messages throughout the world asking if anyone had another tortoise of this species. Amazingly, they found one in the San Diego zoo. When the tortoise was returned to the Tortoise Breeding Facility, he was named Diego. Linda provided photos of Diego from the time he first stepped foot back in the Galápagos. And details about the forty years it took to save this species from extinction.

  • How did you find and contact the scientists?

Contacting scientists can be straightforward or convoluted. When I contacted the scientist on Midway Island about a Laysan albatross, it was easy. I found his information online, emailed him and set up a phone call. The result was WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS. But the book also put me in touch with other conservationists working with albatrosses. When I needed to contact someone about the Galápagos tortoises, it turned out the albatross guy also knew conservation personnel on Galápagos and gave me contact information.

One great way to find contact information is to find scholarly articles by scientists. I use Goggle Scholar ( which restricts results to journal articles. Often in the article, you’ll find an email address for the scientists. Sometimes, you’ll find the university or facility where they work listed and can search for contact information that way.

  • How do you get past feeling intimidated about approaching a scientist?

I’m not intimidated by scientists. I have a Master’s degree in Audiology, the study of hearing. I can read scientific articles and understand them in general. I know how to look up unfamiliar terms, do background research when needed, and understand even unfamiliar areas of research. And when I get stuck or confused – I ask the scientist to explain!

  • How did you prepare to interview the scientists for these books?

I do respect the scientists and their time. That means, I take the time to read their specific research and absorb what it means for the story I want to tell. Then, I create a short list of things that I don’t understand or questions specific to the story. Usually, I’m looking for what it was like for the scientist to do the research: the sensory details, the unanswered questions, the tidbits that didn’t make it into the research paper. I keep in mind that the scientist has spent years in specialized research, but they would also like their work explained to kids. I think about how to bring the scientist, their work, and kids together in an accurate, but entertaining way.

  • What questions do you find most important to ask?

I like to hear about their experiences! For example, when I talked to the scientist on Midway Island, it was about the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The tsunami waves had hit Japan and damaged a nuclear plant, killed thousands, and devasted the area. But the tsunami wave also sped across the Pacific Ocean, and would surely hit Midway Island. The scientist said they knew about when it would hit, and took refuge at the top of the tallest structure on the island, a e-story barracks. The scariest thing, he said, was that the tsunami wave hit about midnight when they could hear the water rushing in, but they couldn’t see it. That detail made the danger more poignant!

  • Are there questions you've learned not to ask?

There aren’t any topics that I avoid. But remember, that I’m usually dealing with research project associated with published journal articles. The public information is rarely sensitive.

  • What's one of your favorite experiences in interviewing a scientist?

One of my favorite experiences was to interview an astronaut. NEFERTITI, THE SPIDERNAUT is the true story of a spider that went to space on the International Space Station (ISS). First, I went to Colorado Springs and interviewed Stephanie Countryman, the person responsible for all live animal experiments on the ISS. She showed me prototypes of the spider habitat and explained the whole process. Vital information!

But then, she offered to have the astronaut, Captain Sunita Williams call me. Notice that this time, I didn’t get contact information! Instead, Captain Williams called me. We spoke for about five minutes in-between meeting at SpaceX. But her information was crucial.

We quickly discussed the science experiment involving Nefertit, the Johnson jumping spider. Then, Williams said that after the experiment she was supposed to just put the spider habitat back in storage to return to Earth. In other words, the spider would die in the dark. Instead, she put the habitat beside her workstation. It was fascinating, she said, to look over and see Nefertiti watching her work. Nefertiti’s eyes would track her movements. It’s a small detail! But it helped bring the story to life.

·       How do you credit scientists?


Often, the scientist is one of the major sources for my story, so I’ll mention them in the SOURCES section of the book. This may be listing an interview, but often I list their relevant publications, as well. Always ask if there’s an article they prefer to see listed. If that doesn’t work, you can thank them in the dedications. As with everything else, be sure you spell names correctly, and list their positions correctly.


·       What do you do when there are no scientists to interview?

For my newest book, PELORUS JACK, THE NEW ZEALAND DOLPHIN, the events took place in early 1900s. Instead of scientists, I relied on eye-witness accounts published in newspapers of the time. The New Zealand National Library ( an extensive repository of newspaper archives, searchable by topics and keywords. But I also sought out logbooks from captain and ship’s doctors of the time. I even found archival videos of Pelorus Jack! See this from the Archives of New Zealand. (

Scientists are the ultimate primary source for many of my stories. But when they aren’t available, I look for other primary sources such as newspapers, journals, and audiovisual materials. The main goal is a primary source to underpin the story with veracity. Then, it’s up to me to bring the story to life for kids.