Another year is drawing to a close. I’m currently enjoying a break between semesters of teaching, featuring a holiday season spent with family, music, and cookies. I always enjoy this opportunity to retreat from the usual routines and responsibilities and recharge for a fresh start in a new year that waits just around the corner.
I’ve taken advantage of my extra downtime to enjoy a whole stack of books that were waiting my attention during the frenzy of final exams and projects. Novels, memoirs, and nonfiction have all taken turns over the past couple of weeks. My favorite science book in the stack was The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization, by Nicholas Money. In a quick and engaging read, Money takes us around the world as well as back through history to explore our species’ relationship with the tiny microbe that brings us bread, beer, wine, biofuels, and medicines. (For a sneak preview, check out this longer book review from NPR.) I was particularly interested in the book because I have cultivated a slightly more personal relationship of my own with yeast. As a college student, I first used yeast cells as a model system in an independent research project to study how DNA is managed in cells and mitochondria. My formal scientific training in fungal genetics then built on decades of data from this simplest cellular system. And now, I enjoy introducing my own students to the power of yeast to help us understand genetics and cell biology—and making the lab smell like warm bread in the process!
Alongside my reading, I’ve also been trying to catch up on some podcasts (mostly when I walk my dog). I recently discovered author (and cultural phenom) John Green’s new podcast, “The Anthropocene Reviewed.” In it, Green chooses two very different themes related to human society for each episode, provides a little context on the topic, and then rates each one on a 5-star scale. Green infuses each description with a blend of history, science, literature, pop culture, religion, philosophy, personal anecdote….whatever it takes to describe his (or our) relationship with a topic, whether it’s a video game, a grocery store, or a comet.
What was most interesting to me about both The Rise of Yeast and “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is their interdisciplinary approach: blending science, history, literature, and an appreciation for the power of language. In the case of Money’s book about yeast, I enjoyed learning some new facts about our domesticated microbe, providing me with new food for thought about questions I hadn’t thought known about or really considered before, despite my familiarity with some of the science of yeast. Meanwhile, Green considers topics big and small to explore how the world is the way it is, and how we as humans are inherently interconnected with it, and with each other. Expanding my own knowledge through information gathered by others mirrors what I like best about science itself: discovering new questions is sometimes more fun than finding the answers!
As I reflect back on my year of blogging, teaching, and other pursuits, one theme stands out: the intersection of science and ______. It’s been a fill-in-the-blank sort of year. Sometimes, it’s been science and books; I’ve read and blogged a lot about both science nonfiction and fiction this year. Other times, the blank has been filled with community. I enjoy engaging in public science outreach—and this year, for the first time, I involved an entire class of students in the fun! In working with my students, the blank has stood for their different academic majors and career goals. I’ve had the pleasure of working with students from many different backgrounds this fall and finding spaces where science, scientific literacy, and societal applications can make an impact on their lives in meaningful ways. Importantly, the blank has also been filled by news, or by public policy and important discussions about climate change, plastic pollution, wildfires, CRISPR, and other topics that are quickly changing the way we think about the world around us. For something a little different from time to time, I’ve even considered science and the arts.
In the end, the blank simply can be thought of as the open-ended prompt it stands for. I’ve learned a lot this past year about the value of improvisation in communicating science and teaching. At its heart, this blog represents a decision I’ve made to take some new risks and improvise as I go along. As I wrap up a second year of writing, I recognize that my topics shift and meander, from news to book reviews to discussion of science in the community. Thanks to all of you for reading, expanding my perspectives and network, and leading me to new topics to occupy the blank. They say staring at an empty page is one of the hardest parts of writing. I’ve enjoyed filling this one with ideas over the past year. Happy New Year, and I look forward to new adventures with you here in 2019!