Lab Musings Summer 2018: Creative science writing by Pitt undergraduates

A life as a series of discoveries not unlike the work in a lab. A fly’s wing as a canvas for making beautiful art. The distance between objects in time and space as a metaphor for home and homesickness. The engineering of people, their characteristics, their relationships and how these parallel the engineering that occurs inside the body.

All of this and more can be found in this summer’s edition of Lab Musings, the publication for the University of Pittsburgh Summer Workshop in Creative Science Writing. The Workshop, funded by an Interdisciplinary Humanities Grant and the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, provides a practicum for undergraduates to cross-pollinate their passions in science and writing. For two months, Writers in Residence Nicholas Fuller, Ria Joglekar, Qi’ang Meng, and Julia Mouat worked in neuroscience, astronomy, and biology labs across the University of Pittsburgh’s science departments, and used this lab experience as springboards for writing poetry and creative nonfiction.

With the guidance of one faculty member each from both the sciences and from the English department, Writers in Residence translated their lab work into creative writing. Fuller, under the mentorship of Oliver Schluter of Neuroscience and Sam Pittman of English, wrote a series of poems pulling together principles of laboratory research and nervous systems. Joglekar worked with Jeffrey Hildebrand of Biology and Marylou Gramm of English to write poetry on her work with flies in a biology lab. Meng, guided by Sandhya Rao of Physics & Astronomy and Ellen McGrath Smith of English, produced poems that used astronomy as a metaphor for the human experience. With the guidance of Jacquelyne Luce of Gender Studies and Uma Satyavolu, Mouat wove together research and ethical considerations of mitochondrial replacement therapy with personal stories of love and identity to create a braided nonfiction essay. The workshop’s co-organizers, Lillian Chong of Chemistry, Sam Pittman, and Marylou Gramm, led feedback sessions and creative writing exercises for the students to hone their craft skills and build a community of young writers equipped to communicate science accurately and with style.

While their fields may be wildly different, each writer brings a human pathos to the subjects they work through. This pathos emerges at one turn as a sense of wonder at the size of the universe and at its mundane analogs in the everyday world, at another point as a sensuality imbued into the forest of neurons that inhabit our brains as children, and at another turn as a hazy remorse for the destruction of organisms that can fuel productive research.

But the rich emotional tenors of the writing you’ll find here is balanced with knowledge, with facts and information that shed light on the work of scientists. Preparing live samples, investigating mitochondrial DNA, conducting gel electrophoresis — readers learn as much about the scientific subjects the writing addresses as they do about their authors.

This overlap of knowledge and feeling, of art and science, is so richly highlighted in the work you’ll find here as to upend any assumption that science and the human experience are distinct spheres.

Enjoy the contents of this summer’s edition of Lab Musings. Learn. Feel. Get inspired.

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