Particles and Prose: Making Science Understandable Through Creative Writing

Marylou Gramm, Andrea Detlefsen, Andrew Warburton, Lillian Chong, Jakob Sorkness, Jean Grace

Dramatic headlines about cancer cures or self-driving cars draw public attention to science but leave us with shallow understandings of how these advances actually work.

A program in Pitt’s sciences and English departments aims to train and inspire students to bring attention and understanding to science through popular written forms, from creative nonfiction and journalism to poetry.

The Creative Science Writing Program was piloted last summer by Lillian Chong, faculty member in the Department of Chemistry of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and is funded by the Humanities Center and the Dietrich School dean's office.

Given scientists’ vital role in the world, from warning about climate change to developing new technologies, such a program is increasingly important, Chong said. Explaining the gist of a scientific research project without getting lost in the details can be a challenge for science majors.

“It’s very hard to be able to step back from your research and be able to explain it to somebody in grade school,” she said.

“Scientists have been for a long time a bit isolated in the way that they communicate their work,” she added. They even have a hard time talking to each other, Chong allowed: “Every science sub-area has its own esoteric language. It’s as if you need to learn a whole new language to understand the science. But it doesn't have to be that way.”

Lillian ChongThe program embedded three undergraduate chemistry students — “Writers in Residence,” as the program refers to them — in University laboratories last summer, including Chong’s biophysics lab that performs molecular simulations. Chemistry and English faculty members offered weekly mentoring for student writing projects. Student participants received a small stipend as well as the chance to attend a science writing panel at the annual Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, held in Pittsburgh each May. At the end of the summer, the students published their completed pieces in Lab Musings, a science writing online magazine Chong founded.

This summer the program will be open to six undergraduate students from chemistry, biological sciences, physics and astronomy, neuroscience, history and philosophy of science and English, running from May 16 to July 27.

Mentors and Mentees, Learning from Each Other

To Marylou Gramm, an English department senior lecturer, “the idea of having a student practice writing about science for the lay public seemed like a highly desirable social endeavor. It seemed to be just what we needed at the moment to bring some of an alienated public back to science.”

Meeting with her student — a budding poet — once a week, Gramm found they were learning from each other: “She became the authority figure in the relationship, because she knows the science, and I was the reader experiencing my understanding of the piece,” Gramm said. She taught her mentee how to dissect writing, while the student’s work aimed to show what it means for a protein to be dissected into analyzable nanoparticles in a spectrometry lab.

“It made me appreciate her work in the lab — its purpose but also its process,” Gramm added. “I’m not going to grab a journal and read a paper about spectrometry. But I’d read a poem about it any day.”

For English instructor and poet Sam Pittman, being a mentor in the creative science writing program “ended up envigorating my own teaching and my own work.”

Pittman had already designed a course on science writing for Pitt’s public and professional writing program and uses scientific subjects in his own work. He was happy to see that, through Chong’s new program, his undergraduate mentee discovered the connection between science and literature: “I think he was able to see that writing and science do have a meeting point,” Pittman said. His student mentee was also able to acquire the skills to critique longer writing projects, while Pittman gained new insight into what examples of professional science writing might aid the teaching process.

For the second year, Pittman and Gramm are among the English instructors chosen as mentors by applicants.

“I’ve always been teaching students how to communicate clearly,” Chong concluded. Now, with the Creative Science Writing Program in place, she hopes more science students will be prepared for careers of the future, which will likely bridge science disciplines and move beyond the traditional areas of teaching and research. “Maybe it will inspire more universities to do this kind of thing,” she said.


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859