An occupational hazard of science writing: indiscriminate enthusiasm

by Nicola Temple | February 7, 2013

My favourite aspect of science writing is learning a little about a whole lot of things. This suits me perfectly as I consider myself a chronic scientific dabbler. When I walk into an interview with a scientist and I begin asking questions, without a doubt, their expertise and enthusiasm for what they do captivates me. I become enthralled by their stories and I undoubtedly ask a lot of questions. Then, best of all, I get up and I walk away.

I walk away from the experimental designs that peer-reviewers poke holes in and the lab equipment that isn’t working properly. I walk away from the grant proposals and manuscripts that need to be written. I walk away from the statistics and results that seem to point to more questions than they answer. However, I also walk away with energy and inspiration.

Case study at the University of Exeter

This week, for example, I was at the University of Exeter speaking with a number of researchers in Biosciences. I’m working on a contract that is pulling together case studies that illustrate how research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council has had an impact beyond academia.

I sat down in Dr Rod Wilson’s office and he started to tell me about his work as a comparative physiologist. Specifically, he spoke to me about his research on the production and fate of carbonate crystals secreted by marine fish as a result of their drinking sea water. Essentially, fish take in a great deal of calcium ions when they drink sea water. In order to avoid taking in too much calcium, the fish secrete bicarbonate from the intestine, which reacts with the calcium to form calcium carbonate. The fish can then get rid of it through their…well, you know.

Of course, what’s interesting is that in 2009, Dr. Wilson and his colleagues were able to show how much calcium carbonate fish were contributing to the marine environment. Based on their physiological studies and extrapolating out using estimates of global fish biomass, the researchers estimated that fish could be contributing as much as 15% of the total oceanic carbonate production. This is significant in terms of understanding the inorganic carbon cycle, particularly in the context of ocean acidification.

For me, this meant that at some point in the interview I found myself thinking that there truly is no better thing in the world to be doing than measuring the chemical compounds that come out of the business end of a fish. Whether this is a reflection of my personality or a commonality within the industry I’m not sure, but as far as occupational hazards go, this is fine by me.

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