How did you become a writer? I've always loved writing and have written stories and poems since I was a kid, but I didn't follow a typical writer's path to my current career (if there is such a thing). I never worked at a school paper, I didn't take many lit classes in college, and I didn't publish my first article until I was 28. Instead, my focus was science. I studied biomedical engineering as an undergraduate--which required coursework from biology to electric circuit theory to physics--and after I graduated I considered a career either as an engineer or a patent lawyer (yes, really). But neither felt right. I went back to school and finished a graduate program that involved the history of science and science studies, and I fell in love with the act of writing about science. I lucked into a brief internship at the science magazine Cosmos when I was traveling in Australia in 2008, and started freelancing right after. As for the rest, history and all that.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Oh wow, this is a hard one. There are too many to list here. There is my second grade teacher Mrs. LaGrone, who had us write and bind our own books and then donate them to the school library. And my graduate thesis advisor at NYU Andy Jewett, who was always really encouraging about my writing, was an excellent reader and editor, and was the first to suggest I'd be a good journalist (he's now at Harvard). And all of my editors at Popular Science have been so great over the years I've written there, especially Martha Harbison (now at Audubon), Susannah Locke (now at Vox), and Jenny Bogo.
As for books, I've always appreciated Roy Peter Clark's writing advice, and I try to read the Elements of Style every year or two. That reminds me, I'm overdue on that one...
When and where do you write? I work from home in a tiny office with a window. It looks out onto a busy street in Brooklyn, so sometimes it gets distracting, but it's also nice to see people walking around and going about their days. I write on and off pretty much all day, in between research and interviews, but I usually get my best burst of writing energy in the early to late evening.
What are you working on now? I just wrapped up a book about bed bugs, which will be out this spring from the University of Chicago Press. It's called: Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World. I'm working on a handful of stories for various science magazines and websites that cover everything from agriculture to invasive species to cricket farming. And I just started a new book project--also for Chicago--that will be a fact-checking guide for journalism students, freelancers, and anyone else who wants to learn how to fact-check nonfiction writing.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Of course, but I usually just step away from the computer and either take my dog for a walk or go for a swim at the YMCA. Getting away from it for a little while usually helps.
What’s your advice to new writers? Just keep at it. The only way to get better is to practice and to share your work with smart writers and editors who will push you to do better. Oh, and stay curious about everything. The best stories come from asking a lot of questions and wanting to learn more, more, more.