Growing up, I walked through my house narrating stories out loud. “Let’s pretend!” I would urge anyone who was around, eager to launch real people into the characters I made up for them. I wrote silly stories, song parodies, and relished the high school English project (with Mrs. Szabo, who I am still in touch with!) for which we had to modernize a Canterbury Tale.
I loved high school English, but loved high school Chemistry more. I went to Princeton and majored in Chemistry. But I spent a lot of time sitting in my dorm room, looking out the window and journaling. Doesn’t everyone journal for hours a day? I thought. I was writing, but it would be a long time before I realized I wanted to write professionally, and an even longer time until I got the nerve to call myself a “writer.”
Senior year of college, I decided to investigate the origins of some artifacts found in a backroom of the Princeton University Art Museum, using the tools of chemistry. I stood in the lobby of Firestone library every afternoon in the fall of 1998, on the telephone — an actual phone attached to the wall with a spiraling cord — with archaeologists who used chemistry in their work. These phone calls were my first interviews with scientists. I asked them for their help with my project, but I also asked them about their path, how they became archaeologists, what they loved about what they did. When I wrote my senior thesis, I wrote about the artifacts but also about all of the people I interviewed. Writing my senior thesis was one of the most fulfilling times in my life.
I headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school to study Archaeological Chemistry, a division in the Anthropology department. After receiving a Master’s degree in Anthropology, I spent the next four years working toward a Ph.D. in Chemistry, at a gleaming building reminiscent of Gattaca on the UW-Madison campus — the Biotechnology center. My advisor was like a real mad scientist — he was this wacky New Yorker transplanted to the Midwest, full of stories, in love with the research we were doing on DNA. Us east coasters would stay late in the lab, proud of our Type A work habits. My advisor would tell me story after story of his life growing up in New York, the fascinating people he met, the college roommate who jumped out of a bunk bed to try to break a bone so he wouldn’t be drafted to Vietnam. Issues of Science magazine would arrive in the lab, and in the front section, someone wrote about why the big discoveries of that week were important. I wanted to be the person who did that, I decided. It was there, in the lab, that the words science writer crossed my mind.
Instead, after graduate school, I started a job as a management consultant at McKinsey. It’s true what they say — it’s hard to say no to McKinsey. At McKinsey, I honed my conversation skills. I learned to take my gift — making people feel heard and free to open up — and skillfully use it to drive a conversation. On one of my frequent airplane trips for McKinsey consulting, I started chatting with the man seated next to me, the late Paul Fox, a musician and record producer who worked with the bands They Might Be Giants and 10,000 Maniacs. We talked the whole flight from JFK to LAX — and got off the plane with each other’s information. He wanted to help me make a TV show, called “Susan the Scientist.”
I left McKinsey in 2008, ready to do something in science communication. Maybe the “Susan the Scientist” TV show. Maybe traditional science writing. I went to a science writing workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, led by the wonderful science writer George Johnson. But when I returned home to New York, another opportunity came my way, one I was eager to try: teaching high school science.
Teaching high school science was everything I was looking for at that time. Rewarding work, a predictable schedule. Hanging out with teenagers all day was not, as I feared, that hard or exasperating. In fact, it was almost a youth serum. They were curious and funny and science was magic to them. My days were filled with imploding soda cans and Venus’ fly traps and flames of every color. But in the back of my mind, or in a fleeting daydream, I still wondered about science writing. I got a side gig writing a column for the Journal of Chemical Education, but budget cuts cancelled the column within a few months.
I taught high school science — chemistry, physics, and biology — for nine years. During that time I got married and had two children. I also started to write. To really write, beyond my journal. Parenthood unleashed a different creative spirit inside of me, one that was more urgent and desperate. I started a few blogs, wrote some children’s stories, finished NaNoWriMo, aka, National Novel Writing Month. I started going to an Open Mic on the Lower East Side, standing up in front of an audience, reading my words. I enrolled in writing classes. I entered one of my children’s stories in a local writing contest and won. I never asked how many entrants there were — it may well have only been me. But I took it as a sign that I was on the right track. I went to a writing conference and started working on a new novel, a thriller. I submitted more stories to contests and magazines and began collecting rejections like a boxer collects bruises.
I left teaching in 2018, with the intent to work more on my children’s stories and my novel. One day I got an email from a friend, who was also an editor at the New York Times. Would I be interested in writing parenting articles for the newspaper? Sure! I wrote a few pieces, and one thing led to another, and soon I was writing science pieces.
Five years later, I feel like the luckiest person to be writing professionally, to be doing the science writing I longed to do back in the Wisconsin lab twenty years ago. I have gotten to write about protein structure and COVID and genomics and nuclear fusion and the microbiome. I have gotten to meet with and talk to fascinating, inspiring, and pioneering scientists. I was invited to the literary festival in my hometown, Newburyport, MA to talk with a renowned scientist and author on stage. I started a monthly writers’ night — Manor Mill Writers Guild Prose Night — in my community in northern Baltimore County, bringing together new and experienced writers and lovers of writing to celebrate prose in a beautifully renovated mill dating from the 1740s.
Sometimes it all doesn’t seem real, and other times I still feel so far from where I want to be — a published author of a novel, for example. I share this long, winding story of how I became a writer to show that it was by no means a straight path. In some ways, I was always a writer. But the path to getting there professionally held lots of twists and detours, and more setbacks than I’ve shared here. And I’m not “there” yet, there is so much more I want to accomplish. Books are the goal for me now. Books and more conversations, and I hope this website will help me get closer to those dreams.