“People Want to Hear From Scientists”: Q&A With Mary Roach, Science Writer
For her latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, author Mary Roach had the opportunity to get up close and personal with maggots. Chapter 9, titled “The Maggot Paradox,” explores the unexpected medical application of voracious blow fly larvae—cleaning battlefield wounds:
“‘Those little mandibles,’ [Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s George] Peck says as I look through the eyepiece, ‘can do what no surgeon or scalpel can do. No robotic laser can bend its light into a hidden crevice from an IED blast like that can. That is the master surgeon.’ If you want to destroy every last bacterium and shred of dead tissue, a maggot is your man.”
Roach is a master of turning science into story, finding the details that will draw readers in, having landed on bestseller lists on multiple occasions. On Sunday evening at Entomology 2017, Roach will take the stage during the Opening Plenary session to talk science, communication, and entomology with moderator (and entomologist and fellow science writer) Gwen Pearson, Ph.D.
Entomology Today caught up with Roach for a short Q&A last week to get a preview of her visit to the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting:
Entomology Today: In the course of your work, you’ve spoken with a lot of different people in a lot of different fields of science. What is your impression is of entomologists?
Mary Roach: Not having spent that much time with entomologists—this is just based on how interesting insects are—my assumption is that entomologists are incredibly interesting, quirky, smart people who had the good sense to choose a really fascinating subject matter that would enable them to hang around in exotic places and learn about, in some cases, creatures that nobody else is studying. So, I’m really jealous. I secretly want to be an entomologist.
How much did you know about flies and maggots before you did your research for the chapter on medical maggots in your recent book, Grunt?
I knew very, very little. I had some experience with maggots from my first book, Stiff, but I didn’t have a chapter specifically on forensic entomology, so it was really more of a visual experience, involving the other senses as well. I saw a lot of maggots when I worked on Stiff, but I didn’t know really anything about them. I knew that they liked dead flesh and that you could get a sense of when a murder might have been committed by what size the maggots [on a corpse] are. It was very, very general.
Were you surprised to come upon that subject when you were looking for topics for the various chapters within Grunt, on the subject of the military?
I was surprised to discover that there even was a discipline called military entomology. I couldn’t for the life of me even imagine what it did. It makes perfect sense, though.
I loved the good-cop/bad-cop nature of flies in the military. As maggots, they’re kind of heroic, but as flies and vectors they’re responsible for a lot of death. So that dual nature of the fly was fascinating to me. I’d never really pondered that before, or flies in general. People think of them as a nuisance, but they’re so interesting. It was one of my favorite chapters to do.
One of ESA’s points of emphasis, as with a lot of scientific organizations in disciplines across the field, is fostering improved public communications skills among members. We don’t think any entomologists out there are looking to put professional communicators like you out of a job, but what role do you think scientists themselves should be playing in conveying information to the public about science these days?
I think scientists should step right up alongside science writers and engage with the public. I live in the Bay Area, and there’s something called Science at Cal, where UC Berkeley has a group that sets up booths at farmers markets and they have lectures in the evening which are from scientists, not hacks like me. And it’s just about taking the work that goes on at the university and sharing it with the public and getting people engaged with science and excited about science. They do hands-on stuff, demonstrations, lectures in an informal café setting.
People love that. Their events are always sold out. People want to hear from scientists, maybe more than they want to hear from science writers. They really like hearing it from the people who actually do the work. There’s a tremendous appetite for that.
It just takes a willingness to distill one’s work and filter it for the things that the public might be curious about. Certain elements of any researcher’s work will resonate more with the general public, so you just have to narrow it down, focus on that, and figure out a way to bring it to life. I think it’s a fantastic idea. The more people can get interested in science, especially in this day and age, I think it’s more and more important.
For a scientist who is always elbow-deep in whatever work they’re doing, it might be hard for to differentiate between the uninteresting details and the stuff that might resonate with the public. What advice do you have for entomologists to think about their science from the beginner’s mindset rather than the Ph.D. mindset?
Well, I would think about kids. This is not to belittle the general public, but just as an exercise: If you’re going to talk to bunch of sixth graders and you didn’t want their attention to wander and you want to keep them engaged, what would you say about your work?
Even if not the specific project you’re working on or the thing you’re writing a paper on, but what about your work and experience? Sometimes it’s just the way that the work is done and the setting and the experience of doing the science, or the insects themselves.
It doesn’t just have to be the very specifics of the project you’re involved in. You have to go broader and imagine what a class of sixth graders would find fascinating. I think that’s just a good exercise, to think in terms of an audience that doesn’t know really anything about that world.
This year we saw a grassroots movement of scientists to march on Washington, DC, and cities around the world. What did you make of that, in general, and what’s your view on the internal debate in the scientific community about whether scientists engaging in public discourse or even running for office runs the risk of “politicizing science”?
I was in Los Angeles when that was going on but I couldn’t participate. I’d been invited to and I was disappointed that I couldn’t. My hotel was right by where people were gathering, and I went out there and it was so uplifting and inspiring to see all these scientists pouring out of the subway, coming out with signs and slogans. I was wandering around in the crowd during a little bit of time off from the conference I was at, and it was inspiring.
I know there’s a debate about should science be politicized, et cetera, but I think we’re in just such a dire, emergency situation right now that everybody needs to fight. That’s just my general opinion. I haven’t given a ton of thought to the ramifications and the pros and cons, but my general sense is we’re in such bad straits that everybody has to dive in with their gloves on.
I know there’s two sides to it but it’s so disheartening to see what’s going on in terms of the kind of willful ignorance that’s spreading like a virus. I mean, the flat-Earth people are back! It’s horrible. What is going on?
Last question: Do you have a favorite bug?
I love weevils. Just visually. There’s one with gorgeous blue dots—I don’t even know what kind of weevil that is. Also, because I just love to say weevil. I know some are destructive creatures but I really just like them from a visual perspective.
Opening Plenary Session: Mary Roach: Join moderator Gwen Pearson for a sit-down conversation with author Mary Roach at Entomology 2017. Tweet questions with the hashtag #askMaryRoach, and Pearson will pose a few selected questions from the crowd during the plenary.
Entomology 2017: Ignite. Inspire. Innovate.
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