Time to Rethink Things

I’m ending the weekly newsletter to make time for deeper pieces.

Marshall Nirenberg, who cracked the genetic code and shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, poses in front of his personalized license plate. When he presented his findings in Moscow, in 1961, his talk was attended by just 35 people.

I won’t bury the lede: I’m ending the weekly newsletters to make time for long-form essays.

This newsletter has been my weekly habit for the last 2.5 years (118 total emails). It was my way to stay connected to the science that I enjoy. I love talking to scientists more than just about anything else. And so, after dropping out of a Ph.D. and moving across the country to study journalism, a part of me yearned to stick around.

The first thing they teach you in journalism, though, is this: ‘Sources’ are not your friends. Get the information you need to tell the story, and then get out.

I didn’t follow the advice. Maybe I was a bad journalist. But as I moved away from science and toward writing, I missed the bench, the fancy pipettes, the scientific ramblings over lunch, and the late-afternoon seminars with cold coffee and cookies. Reading papers each week, and sharing what I learned, was my way of giving back to the friends I left behind.

And this newsletter — originally called This Week in Synthetic Biology — has served its goal. The weekly science highlights reached thousands of people. It made its way into course syllabi. A few people told me that they forward each issue to their students, earmarking specific papers that they find insightful. These messages are deeply moving. There’s nothing better, for a writer, than to be useful. I’m grateful that you’re here and regretful to those who will find future newsletters less relevant.

But I didn’t leave science to catalog and organize research papers. I left because I think it’s more fun to learn about science than to actually do experiments. And by merging biotechnology with storytelling, I genuinely think that I can accelerate our transition to a bioeconomy.

Engineered viruses already make carbon nanotubes for more efficient solar cells. Lab-evolved enzymes are used in laundry detergents. Genetically-engineered microbes spin up synthetic spider silks and reduce carbon emissions released by cement manufacturing. Mosquitoes with tweaked genes curb infectious diseases in Brazil and the Florida Keys. Gene-edited pigs are our most promising heart and kidney donors. Rice with added genes can tolerate floods; by 2017, these rice breeds were grown by at least 6 million farmers and have helped reduce food insecurities for millions of Bangladeshi people.

Although my writing doesn’t make a direct impact on any of these things, perhaps I can play some small role in shaping public opinion, bringing more investors or research funds into the fold, or in convincing more scientists to start companies and solve big problems.

“Maybe something I write will spark something for a reader — a scholar or a writer or a pastor or teacher or who knows what — and become part of her DNA,” writes Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University (h/t Sam Arbesman for the recommendation).

“Maybe she’ll never quote me — maybe she’ll never even realize that she wouldn’t have had that idea if she hadn’t read my essay — but in that way my thought will become part of someone else’s intellectual genome, and through her will make some difference in the world.”

What goal could be greater?

My pivot to essays is also one of selfish self-preservation. Weekly research highlights don’t grow an audience. Most of my writing has been “inside baseball,” filled with jargon that is indecipherable to 99 percent of people. Essays typically reach 5x more people than the weekly highlights.

Newsletters (especially aggregators) are also ephemeral and short-lived. This email is not paper and ink; a book upon your shelf. These words will not stand the test of time. They will become buried in your email inbox today; not years. Perhaps essays will have a longer shelf-life.

And, finally, this decision was motivated by a great holiday. I spent time with my family and took a Sunday off for, perhaps, the tenth time in two years. In the afternoon, I sat around, read a book, and played with cats. It was nice, quiet, and relaxing. Of course, I’ve done all of these things before. But it felt good to reclaim the roughly six hours of my weekend that is normally devoted to this newsletter.

Now I have more hours to write the long-form stories that are burning a hole in my hard drive. The story of Biogen! Tales of flood-resistant rice! How the malaria vaccines got made! I’ll try to get these out weekly or biweekly. The goal, always, is to write data-driven essays that put biological achievements and obstacles in context. I want everyone to understand where we are, and where we need to go.

Until next time,

Niko