Spotlight on Genevieve Wanucha ’09

In December, the Graduate Program in Science Writing interviewed Genevieve Wanucha ’09 about her life and work. Genevieve is a freelancer, primarily working on her first book (due 2013). Her work has appeared in SEED Magazine, Technology Review, Nature Medicine and on the NPR website. Her website is GenevieveWanucha.com.

GPSW: Where do you live and do you like it there?

Genevieve: I currently live in the Boston area. It’s a very special place. Home to the psychology department at Northeastern University, the world class neurological researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and the brain imaging collaborations of MIT and Harvard, this city provides near limitless science writing material.

GPSW: What’s your current project?

Genevieve: I’m working full-time on a book in which I document how neurodegenerative disease has inspired researchers to rethink the very nature of human emotion and self-consciousness. Writing it has been an interesting creative experience because I’ve watched my idea completely morph, contract, and expand since I started in the spring of 2010. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle whose pieces keep changing shape under my fingers mid-game–it’s exciting and daunting. The best part of working on the book is the challenge of getting as close to my subject matter as possible. I’ve visited labs to interview affective scientists and behavioral neurologists, met and observed patients in the clinic, and have really tried to understand emotion and its disorders as subjective phenomena that need to be studied as such. My ethnography skills from my undergraduate cultural anthropology degree are really paying off. I traveled to the California Institute of Technology to help dissect a brain, and I’ve been hooked up to a machine that monitored my physiology as I underwent emotional visual stimuli. I’ve met some very interesting, generous women and men along the way who will be my links to the inner world of brain science for my whole career. But, writing is not easy. It takes self discipline, and there’s a lot of stress involved in the creative process.

GPSW: When can we get a copy?

Genevieve: As of now, the plan is 2013. I will personally deliver to the MIT Science Writing department as many free copies as are desired.

GPSW: Do you work on other freelance projects at the same time?

Genevieve: I do freelance grant editing and the occasional biographical profile. I am temporarily avoiding more involved articles, as I conserve every last drop of research and writing energy for the book.

GPSW: What do you do for fun?

Genevieve: My social life basically exists in New York City, so I take the bus there frequently. With a job that is so mentally demanding, relaxing is important. I read as much non-fiction as I can and watch suspenseful films, documentaries about parallel universes and black holes, and a lot of cooking competitions. If I could afford it, I would have a lot more culinary adventures. I am developing an interest in yoga.

GPSW: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Genevieve: My dream is to be the go-to writer for magazine editors looking for features on brain and emotion science issues–for example, the ethical minefield of using brain scans in criminal trials or the psychiatric consequences of social stress during childhood. I’d like to have written several books and articles, one on women in the neurosciences across time, and PBS’s Charlie Rose would have asked me to come put it all in perspective.

GPSW: Favorite genre of music?

Genevieve: I enjoy a variety of alternative or folk rock music, especially the vocally intense songs of Florence And The Machine or the acoustic guitar solos of Iron & Wine. For everyday background music, I listen to classical violin, mostly Vivaldi.

GPSW: Anything else you’d like to say about being a science writer?

Genevieve: Science writing does not exactly destine you for riches, but it’s the only career that I would find so uniquely fulfilling in its dual requirements of intense sociality and isolation. It’s what I make with the help of the scientists and people who let me in. For me, over the past year, it’s been about hovering very close to day-to-day scientific process while living as a storyteller who makes researchers’ work come alive in the context of our times. A neuroanatomist who I’m writing about in my book recently told me, “You’re becoming kind of our Boswell!,” referring to the writer James Boswell who wrote an in-the-moment biography of the literary figure Samuel Johnson in the 1770s by following him through the islands of Scotland with a pen and diary. That about sums it up, except to say that I hope I someday stop getting nervous before every interview.