New ways of seeing: writing creatively about your research

By Dana D'Amico

When I think about the purpose of science communication, I often think of outreach and education –persuading members of the community to take a particular stance on issues of public health, climate change, policy, etc. But there is also communication meant simply for thoughtful immersion, for making meaningful connections across planes of knowledge.

For example, Thor Hanson’s piece on Orion 7 Seeds to Start Your Day.” The essay is brief, lyric acknowledgement of the ways in which we encounter plants in our lives, and the feelings and memories that they evoke. He begins every section with a seed and unravels a scene from each:

 “3.Cotton. My son comes to the table in striped pajamas, trailing a stuffed snake sewn from an old shirt. In other words, he is adorned with more than eight miles of yarn spun from the seed coats of a plant the Romans called gossypium, the Arabs named qutun, and we know as cotton. We now wrap this seed fluff that evolved to waft on wind and wave around our bodies in every imaginable shape and shade—my jeans and flannel are more of the same. Sometimes we let cotton move us too, woven into sails and spinnakers, and strung from the masts of ships.”

 I admire Hanson’s way of finding new ways of seeing, and strive to do the same. I recently published a lyric audio essay in which I wanted to playfully translate a piece of astrophysics research that intrigued me. After listening to atmospheric sounds that had been recorded by the Voyager spacecraft, I thought about what they reminded me of, and what it meant to be able to “hear” something emanating from the universe. Though I tried to mimic the sounds in language I also wanted to use the audio recordings themselves, to bring the source materials I was interacting with directly to the reader. The kind of “outreach” that I am doing here does not involve any kind of direct persuasion, but hopefully instead encourages emotional involvement with a technical topic.

If you are interested, here is a creative exercise to try on your own:

Think of an interesting botanical process, perhaps one that you study yourself. It can be as basic or as complex as you’d like, and it might be useful to practice with both.

Find a personal angle, a biographical anecdote, something that relates to or reminds you of the process or plant in question (however loosely). Use the “I” voice and, if you are lost, consider Hanson’s piece as example of making these connections.

  1. What sorts of metaphors could you use to explain the process? What is the process like, and/or what is it not like? (The “not likes” could be equally informative as metaphor).
  2. Is there a larger cultural meaning of the process that you have chosen? How does it enter our lives, and how do we experience it?
  3. If you were to choose a material to include with a piece about the process or plant you have chosen –an image, a sound, a piece of data, etc –what would it be, and how would you incorporate it?
  4. If you’re feeling up for it, share your experiences with this exercise below –challenges and successes both!


Dana D’Amico is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota. She earned her B.S. at Allegheny College studying plant biology and genetics, and her writing blends scientific research with cultural, historical, and personal narratives. Her newest work is forthcoming in The Pinch Journal online. Find her on Twitter @damico_dana

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