Paper No. 15
Presentation Time: 4:45 PM
TRANSFERRABLE SKILLS: FROM GEOLOGY TO WRITING FICTION ABOUT SCIENCE (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH SCIENCE FICTION)
Varied employment in geology—five years each at the USGS, the oil business, environmental consulting, and teaching geology at the college level—provided excellent preparation for writing mystery novels that slyly teach geoscience. While doing pure research at the USGS under the mentorship of Edwin D. McKee, I learned that the rigors of the scientific method could be applied not only to scientific inquiry but to any search for what is true, including the art of storytelling, which in turn supports science. McKee taught me that the job wasn’t done until I had reported my discoveries. He had begun his career as Chief Naturalist at Grand Canyon National Park, where he demonstrated that geoscience is a game of constructing narratives of what has happened or what might happen; hence, if I wanted to communicate my findings, I must develop the age-old knack of presenting a story. Under his guidance, I learned technical writing and public speaking. After preparing colleague-reviewed papers (which required that I learn to set my ego aside and survive brutal critiques), the many rounds of edits at a publishing house were a snap. Employment as a petroleum geologist added the pragmatism of bottom-line economics and working to deadlines to my skill set, and nothing could have prepared me for surviving publishers’ rejections and mixed reviews better than having to pitch drilling projects to jaded oil patch managers, especially just before lunchtime, when I was all that stood between them and their first martinis of the day. Environmental consulting was an education in ignorant human tricks and the politics of resource consumption gone astray. When I took up teaching, my students taught me that nothing was going to stick unless I related the story of geoscience to their lives.
When choosing a story form for my novels, I found the mystery apropos because geoscientists are detectives of a special sort. Like police detectives, we work with fragmental and often hidden evidence using deductive logic, though our corpses tend to be much older. In all of my prior pursuits, I learned that “nerd” and “mad scientist” stereotypes are largely unwarranted and that the best way to break down communication barriers and educate the public about what we’ve done for them lately is to tell the story of how the fascinating work of geoscientists contributes to their lives.