Science Stories: The Art of Scientific Storytelling
Series Introduction by Alison Hawthorne Deming
Science Stories showcases the impressive literary work done by graduate students who participated in the first run of “The Art of Scientific Storytelling,” a new course I taught in Spring 2020 at the University of Arizona. The course, developed in collaboration with my Creative Writing program colleague Christopher Cokinos, was eligible for credit in the new Graduate Certificate in Science Communications offered by the College of Science. Its aim was to inspire creative works that were science-smart, works that might enhance science literacy among readers. The class read contemporary writers who covet the perspectives of science and the personal stories of scientists who write for non-technical audiences. We read memoirs, essays, op-eds, and poetry. We read works inspired by chemistry, astronomy, paleobiology, traditional indigenous knowledge: Primo Levi, Hope Jahren, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Lightman, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Maggie Nelson, among others. The students came from a range of disciplines including optical science, astronomy, geography, climate adaptation, hydrology, mathematics, speech pathology, and creative writing. The conversations were rich and the talent abundant. They surprised me each week with their inventive and insightful takes on writing assignments. We offer this showcase of our experiment in the meeting of art and science.
One-forty-three is up a half-flight of stairs from 126. This building is an intricate system of half-floors and part-hallways that stipulates a map at the bottom of every staircase during orientation week. It’s a standard space, identical to 147, across the hall from Dr. Bechtal’s snake room, and down the hall from the faculty lounge, which houses the only microwave I’m allowed to use outside of my dorm. It’s Friday afternoon, sometime between the end of my classes and 4:50 p.m., and I’m in 143 alone. Like one of his snakes, I’ve been here for hours, slithering across seats as the sun moves through the windows and across the space.
Frustrated by the vesicle cycle, I drop my favorite black pen down onto my legal pad and decide that it’s time for a break. Pandora belts out a country station, and I practice a line dance I learned last night at Beck’s. As I step and twirl between the cold, black benches, I’m hoping that no one outs my passion. The automatic lights trigger in the hallway and I can hear someone’s footsteps in the hallway. They’re on their own mission though and don’t question Chris Young’s voice emerging from the room.
This is a four-wall dance, and I quarter-turn with a stomp into the second wall. Now I’m facing the drawers and cabinets that function as storage for the activities that will take place here. Nothing is locked, as this room is not frequented by most students outside of class hours— another fact that led me to covet my time in this space. This floor is entirely different than the wooden dance floor last night, and my feet catch on seams in the linoleum as I slide into the next wall.
Earlier in my session I had drawn a synapse on the chalkboard, now clearly displayed in the front of the room. The powdery green and white lines serve to instill these receptors and their electrical/chemical/mechanical pathways that will be tested at the end of next week. I’m reminded of my vesicles and I shake off the thought that I’m not learning.
The brain models are lined up in a row on the shelves that come into view as I turn into the fourth wall of the dance. Color-coded by region, they show the evolutionary differences of the limbic system in a set of mammals and lizards and then humans throughout the lifespan. My favorite is the alligator, with his tiny little lizard brain and optic nerves shooting out the front to reach his eyeballs.
A car revs down at Joe’s Nighthawk and I pop out of my dream state, realizing that I may have spent too much time dancing, and I need to get back to work.
I hustle back to my bench and check the time. It’s 4:25 and I need time to warm up before rehearsal. I grab my notebook and paperclip the pages together from this afternoon’s session. Fumbling to slide it into my backpack, a faint whiff of applesauce escapes when I unzip. I had let a cup explode months ago, without caring to do more than scrape what I could into the trash. I still can’t bring myself to pay for a load of laundry just to wash my backpack; I’ll just wash it at Thanksgiving. I shove the legal pad into the padded computer sleeve that had been mostly protected from the splash zone on original impact. With pens loaded into the Avengers pencil case and phone in my pocket, I turn out the lights behind me and trigger those in the hallway again.
I stop by the bathroom to rinse my wisdom teeth incisions before taking the skywalk to band rehearsal. On the way, I smell a room that has already prepped for or just cleaned up from a sheep brain dissection, and the scent of formaldehyde leaks into the hallway. I take out my syringe and gasp at the shooting pain of water too cold for an open wound. Twice on each side, and I’ve got to run. My time is no longer my own, and I’d better get myself and my flute in my seat before devotions.
When I return to 143 for my neuro lab the next week, my professor and the other students won’t know the supplemental memories I’ve made there. They won’t be able to place the first time they heard Luke Bryan’s “Crash My Party” or revel in an afternoon well spent attacking assignments head-on. 143 and I are a team, and if one attributed their undergraduate graduation to an inanimate object, she would be mine.
I don’t have a 143 in graduate school. Four-thirty-two comes close, but I’m never alone with her during the day. I don’t have time to transfer my notes onto legal pads, and we practice line dances in the living room in front of a YouTube video, not our classrooms. I’m not the same person I was six years ago, but I hope that some other freshman has found my 143 and made it into her own.
Sara Mohr is excited to start her career as a speech-language pathologist after spending too many years in graduate school. She plans to keep writing and raising her voice for SLPs across Arizona.
Header photo by Anton Krestyaninov, courtesy Shutterstock.