In November, the Graduate Program in Science Writing managed to catch Kate Gammon,’07, between hosting a panel at the ScienceWriters 2012 annual meeting and her busy freelance schedule. Kate writes for Nature, Wired, Popular Science,Technology Review, and many other outlets. She is based in Santa Monica, California. You can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @kategammon on Twitter.
GPSW: You were an anthropology major in your undergraduate degree. What made you gravitate to science writing?
Kate: I’ve always been fascinated by science, and I was raised by two scientists. So even as I studied anthropology, I was always toeing the line between humanities and science – often looking at scientific questions from an anthropological view. I spent a whole summer trying to construct a picture of a whole Neanderthal lifestyle from the wear marks on a single tooth. Sometimes, writing is a similar act. And I still use the toolkit of cultural anthropology when I go into an unknown reporting situation. It sometimes helps to think about a community of scientists as an unknown tribe, and I need to quickly understand their worldview, their specific lingo, and also to evaluate group dynamics.
GPSW: You’re quite an active freelancer – what do you like most about that career choice?
Kate: Two things: I like having the freedom to pursue the stories I want to tell, and having the time to travel. Everywhere I go, I find a story – and freelance writing is the only career I can imagine that would take me to the desert of Israel or to volcanoes in Ecuador.
GPSW: What are some of the challenges?
Kate: The hustle! I had to learn to ride the roller coaster of work and income. Some months, I’m completely swamped and am working long days. Then the next month, it could be crickets – and there’s no real way of predicting. It makes normal-job things, like savings and retirement, more difficult, but I’ve learned some ways of flattening the amplitude of that coaster.
GPSW: Does where you live affect the kinds of stories you write?
Kate: Absolutely. I sort of randomly ended up in Los Angeles (following the guy who is now my husband – so that worked out!). Now I love writing about science in a city that’s more known for its starlets than its neutrinos. I think I have written the only profile of an oyster geneticist that appeared alongside a profile of Pink. I am also inspired by the science that goes into (or doesn’t go into) TV and movies. Though most of my work still involves a phone and a laptop, I love getting out into labs. Still, science writers can be inspired by any place – though I’m not going to lie, the sunshine is pretty great. After my wonderful time freezing during October to May in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was ready to get back west.
GPSW: Do you have a favorite science or topic that you like to cover?
Kate: At this point in my career, I am still too curious and squirrelly to pick a favorite. Some of my favorite stories have been about the corners of separate science topics – artists who go out on research expeditions, physicians who are called in to treat zoo animals, or biologists who work with engineers to make biomimetic materials. I like profiles, I like good stories, and I love surprises – fortunately, those can be found lots of places.
GPSW: What was your favorite part of MIT?
Kate: I thought the atmosphere of MIT was great. It’s rare to be a part of a place that so whole-heartedly embraces its nerdiness, from the hacks to the bathroom graffiti. Having access to amazingly smart people was also a huge plus.
GPSW: Flip-flops or sneakers?