If you were to ask John Anderson to pick two classes to complement each other in an ideal semester’s schedule, here’s the kind of answer you’d likely get: Comparative Vertebrate Biology and British Culture to 1660. Last spring, he took them both, pairing coursework in ecology and evolutionary biology with a literature class focused on medieval perceptions of animals. Phylogenetics on the one hand, medieval bestiaries on the other. For a student with John’s unique interests, it was a fortuitous convergence.
“I was able to see just how our knowledge changes over time, from taking an English class alongside this science class,” he said.
John’s final project for the English class? What medieval Scandinavian fishing records might tell us about historical whale migration patterns.
“It’s really useful for long-term ecological studies,” said John, who would know. He’s currently earning a double major in English and biology. Next year he plans to begin his master’s degree in biological oceanography, on his way to a PhD in either that or astrobiology.
First, however, there’s his proposal to the National Sciences Foundation. Part of his NSF project involves using machine learning to create a model for identifying biominerals, which could ultimately be useful in searching for extraterrestrial chemical life signatures.
The other part of his NSF project? Creative writing, of course. For John, it all makes perfect sense. He came to UT loving to write and analyze texts. He knew he wanted to be an English major. The harder part was narrowing down which science he would combine it with. During his freshman year he discovered Stephen Jay Gould’s popular science writing about evolutionary biology. Ever since John’s been hooked, both on siphonophores (“a relative of jellyfish and corals,” he explains) and on Gould’s ability to communicate complex scientific ideas.
Not surprisingly, John’s creative writing is influenced by science fiction. Among the creative projects he’s completed at UT is a haunting, atmospheric novella-length work about a researcher specializing in extraterrestrial media studies.
For the creative writing portion of his NSF proposal, John wants to share what he’s learned in fiction classes at UT, applying collaborative workshop pedagogy to help other scientists make their work more accessible and more effectively communicate their research. He also hopes to inspire more STEM students to find possibilities in combining science and art.
“Having that kind of peer-review environment with people from a range of disciplines could really help people gauge whether they are explaining their field clearly, and if they’re writing fiction, whether the story works, and whether readers understand what they’re doing.”
He sees it as a kind of creative writing club for scientists. Something John Anderson, as the saying goes, was bred in a lab to lead.