As anyone who reads here regularly is at this point, very, very aware, ever since I left my PhD program with my master’s, I’ve been full of angst about what comes next, career-wise. My hurt and bitter feelings about academic science specifically are certainly a big part of the problem, in that they make it hard to step back and consider my options as cooly and rationally as I’d like to. More broadly, my general depression and crushed confidence have had a tendency to make me want to give up on new projects and career paths before I even get started, and I worry that my very broad interests spread me too thin.

All those reasons, plus the emotionally draining and time-consuming task of cobbling together enough hours in part-time tutoring/teaching gigs to support myself for the summer, are why I’ve continued to kick the can down the road regarding getting my science blog seriously underway. In fact, I’ve actually convinced myself at least a dozen different times that writing a science blog is a stupid idea and a waste of time.

What were my reasons for this? Let’s look at a few:

  1. I have too much talented competition… so no one will read anyways.
    I mean, people have full time jobs doing this…many of them amazingly talented people that I idolize. So why should anyone read little old me?
  2. I have too much talented competition… so I’ll never make a living doing it.
    It’s true, lots of people want to write, and there are even lots of aspiring science writers. Several years ago, when I first considered science blogging, it was a somewhat novel idea. Now aspiring-science-journalist blogs are a dime a dozen. A lot of the writers have english/journalism/science-writing degrees too, so I’m starting out behind!
  3. I’m too burned-out on science, and it would be better for my mental health if I completely took a break from the topic.As I mentioned earlier, I’ve felt very burned by science since having to leave graduate school, and sometimes it makes me sad to read about science all day when I wish I could be out there doing it.
  4. I don’t know what to write about/focus on.
    All of the advice about making it as a blogger in general or a science blogger in particular urges people to “find their niche”. Which is all well and good, except that my interests are broad and I’m not inherently drawn to a particular subfield or issue above all else. Other frequent advice suggests finding one’s “unique voice”, and I didn’t feel like there was anything particularly special about mine. What’s my “hook”? And if I don’t have one, should I even bother trying?

…I could go on, but you get the picture. There are some silly reasons mixed in, but some solid concerns as well.

But in the last few weeks, two events have changed my mind.

First, my wonderful girlfriend arranged for me to have lunch with her and a talented coworker. She’s in a completely different industry (web design/development for a company in the music business), but her coworker is a web writer. And, like me, he started out writing in his spare time while he worked a crappy job to pay the bills. And it hasn’t been long since then, but he’s built an impressive career out of it by just writing a lot and getting a few key people to pay attention.

What inspired me about that conversation wasn’t so much the story of my girlfriend’s coworker’s personal success… I was already aware that some people do beat the odds, my problem is more that I doubt my own ability to be one of them. Instead, I surprised myself with my enthusiasm for talking about my writing. I was so easily and excitingly elaborating on my interests and the type of work I’d love to do, even though before showing up I’d been sort of dreading the lunch because I was sure I’d be embarrassingly boring. But no… even through I haven’t been following science news as intently of late as I have in the past, I had absolutely TONS to say.

The second thing that happened is there was a post (written by the lovely Elodie) over at Captain Awkward’s blog (one of my regular internet haunts) about disclosure of STD infection, specifically infection with genital herpes. And pretty much as soon as I saw the post, I dropped everything to write this comment:

Elodie, that was absolutely inspiringly written great advice.

That said, I’m an ex-biologist that once worked in a herpes lab, and I’m going to vomit some herpes info here, because if people were better educated about this stuff in general, LW and others with herpes would have things a hell of a lot easier in the disclosure department.

1. EVERYONE HAS HERPES.

As Elodie mentioned in the post, “herpes” refers to a large class of viruses, including those that cause mono (EBV/HHV-4), chicken pox (VZV/HHV-3), and cold sores and genital herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2). If you reach adulthood without contracting ANY of those, you’re a rarity, and even then, you’re probably a carrier of one of the other herpes viruses that cause no visible disease in most healthy people. Having herpes pretty much comes along with being a mammal… they’ve evolved with us so long that most mammalian species have one if not several their own.

TL;DR: we all have herpes and it shouldn’t be a scary word.

2. The majority of adults have HSV-1 or HSV-2. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16926356?dopt=Abstract)

….which is why herpes testing is NOT a part of a standard STD panel. People would freak out if it was, because about 60% of adults are positive for HSV-1, and about 17% for HSV-2, even though most of them would be freaking out about an oral herpes infection that they’ve had since childhood.

Also, HSV-1 is generally considered “oral” herpes, and HSV-2 considered “genital” herpes, but this is a false distinction. Either virus can cause sores at either location, so knowing that you have HSV-2 does not necessarily mean that you contracted it from genital contact. (Having genital sores, on the other hand, does mean that the virus came into contact with your junk).

(If you’ve asked for an STD screening but not SPECIFICALLY for a herpes test, you may have come out “clean” but that just means you don’t have anything they tested for.)

3. Medically, herpes is not a big deal for most people.

I’m not here to tell you that herpes viruses are harmless or that your personal tale of horrifically painful infection is not important. They aren’t harmless, and everyone’s experience counts. But when we look at overall risk factors, you have to take into account all the possible outcomes, not just the worst ones.

So here are the possibilities for herpes infection (excluding the severely immune compromised):

a) Many people contract herpes and seroconvert (start producing antibodies, which are what we test for) for that strain without having ANY signs or symptoms. So you could contract the virus, and never know it unless you are tested for it.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23087395

b) Even if you have symptoms during a primary outbreak, it is very likely that you will not have many, if any, future outbreaks. Think about cold sores–many people had them as children, but relatively few go on to have frequent outbreaks as adults.

c) You could have outbreaks frequently (often triggered by illness or stress) for the rest of your life. This is rare, but not ridiculously so–I think most of us have probably encountered one or two people who has cold sores every time they get sick, or during every finals week / crunchtime at work. These people have the misfortune of having immune systems that are slightly less good at keeping herpes viruses down than the rest of us, so they slip up more easily, where as the rest of us would need more severe immune suppression (from certain drugs, HIV, sometimes old age) to have the same amount of reactivation events. Admittedly, this sucks, whether your outbreaks are oral or genital. But it sucks a lot less now because…

4. WE HAVE DRUGS FOR HERPES!!

This is so lucky you guys. We don’t have many good antivirals, but we have them for herpes. If you are one of the unlucky few who has frequent outbreaks, your doctor can put you on them continuously or give you a supply to have on hand, in order to prevent you from dealing with the worst of the symptoms. I know these aren’t a magic bullet–drugs have side effects, not everyone can take them, and not everyone who takes them becomes completely asymptomatic–but they help, and they help a lot.

Also, if you have a partner you are trying to protect from infecting, these drugs can help you too! They reduce rates of shedding the virus, minimizing chances of passing it on. There are, as mentioned in the above post, other ways of preventing passing it on as well–namely, barrier methods. That said…

5. Barrier methods don’t lower the risk of HPV and HSV infections as much as we’d like to think.

HPV and HSV are viruses that infect skin cells. They get shed… in/from infected skin cells. If you have skin-to-skin contact, there is a chance for transmission. Male condoms don’t cover everything, so transmission can still happen at exposed surfaces.

——-

IN SUMMARY:

A lot of us have herpes, many of us without knowing it. Technically, if you’ve ever had a cold sore, you should be disclosing that to your sexual partners because you can give it to them orally through kissing and genitally through oral sex. You can get herpes even if you and your partner are doing everything ‘right’ (using barriers, talking about risk factors) because barriers are not foolproof, because so few people are aware that cold sores = herpes, because it isn’t tested for generally, and because some people have it without ever having symptoms.

But so long as you have a decently functioning immune system, none of this is cause for panic. The worst part of herpes for most people is dealing with the social stigma. And I’m not saying that isn’t important–it totally is. But it’s something we can change.

Herpes viruses have been with us for all of human history, and they aren’t likely to go away any time soon. But we have them pretty well under control, all things considered. They rarely kill us anymore, we have a vaccine for one of them, we have a decent drug. They’re still annoying as fuck sometimes, but the fear we have of them is totally out of proportion to the risk. Could we work on that please?

Now, that comment was somewhat more hurriedly written and light on citations than it would have been had I set out to write it on my blog, but otherwise it basically amounted to a post that I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but that I hadn’t because… who cares, it’ll take too long, no one will read it, it’s been said before… and so on and so forth. But then [what I read as] a clear demand for the content appeared, and I couldn’t help myself… in less than two hours I had vomited all of my most important thoughts on herpes into a comment box and hit “post”, and then there it was, out there on the internet.

And I don’t know why these two events finally made things click for me, but I now understand a few important things.

First and most importantly, I’ve realized that one of my objections really matter. Regardless of whether I have competition, regardless of whether I can ever earn a living by sharing my knowledge, regardless of whether there are somehow objectively “better” uses of my time, regardless of my mixed emotions towards science at the moment… I can’t NOT write about science. I simply care about and love science too much to stop paying attention to it just because it’s no longer my career. And I’ve tried… tried to weed science blogs out of my feed reader, tried to focus on other pursuits. But I still find myself clicking on links to new studies. I still read science journal articles purely out of curiosity. I still feel the need to research and excitedly explain big science news items and health concerns that are on the minds of my friends and family. And when I really care about a topic, I can’t help myself from sharing my knowledge about it whenever it is called for (and sometimes even when it isn’t).

So given all that, why NOT blog? So maybe it will only ever be a hobby. But what exactly is keeping me from being a teacher or computer programmer or lab scientist while blogging on the side? Maybe I’ll only reach a small number of people, but won’t that still be more than if I hadn’t tried at all? There may be advantages to caring less about this stuff…. I’d certainly spend a lot less time angry about the state of science funding or science education, for instance. But ceasing to care is not an option on the table… caring about this stuff is a fundamental part of who I am, so far as I can tell. So really, I’m deciding between the option of putting care, effort, and time into systematically practicing and improving at something I’m going to do anyways, which I’ve I’m very lucky might eventually lead to me making some money off of it… and the option of continuing to stomp down post ideas for weeks or months before finally vomiting them into the first comment thread I come across where they’re even vaguely appropriate. Yea, which one sounds like a better use of my time?

Secondly, I realized that despite my broad interests, I do have a unified purpose and tone that I can bring to the blog, and it’s exemplified perfectly by the “herpes” comment above. Things that comment can tell you about my writing:

  • I frequently write passionately from a place of exasperation. It makes me SO FRUSTRATED to think that other people are acting illogically or needlessly suffering or causing harm because of a lack of science knowledge/understanding.
  • Science is fun and interesting to me, and I honestly believe that far more people would feel the same way, given the right explanations.
  • There are certain topics that just get me every time, and on those topics you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else to write about them with such excessive enthusiasm. Herpes is one of them… I worked in a herpes lab for only 8 months, but the passion of my boss rubbed off on me big time.
  • I can be a little combative/in-your-face, but I mean well and usually manage to get my point across, even if I occasionally rub someone the wrong way.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to write about science topics that get me riled up, for whatever reason. I’m going to keep an eye on my tone to ensure I don’t get TOO combative or obnoxious, but I’m not going to try and edit away my intensity and enthusiasm entirely when writing for my own blog. This is who I am, I may as well embrace it.

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And beyond that… well, I guess we’ll see how it goes.

8 thoughts on “keely the science writer

  1. I had always known that and so far have been lucky enough not to have either a cold sore or genital herpes. But really as all the examples you pointed out I wouldn’t look down on someone who was a statistic. Would I sleep with them? If I loved them and we took the utmost pro-cation why not? I mean they are not lepers although some people treat them as such.

  2. As I was reading, before I got to the end where you decided to write for science (yay), I was thinking that not having a “niche” could actually *be* your niche. There are loads of people out there who would like a generalist understanding of things that are happening in science, but who find it difficult to read more “sciencey” blogs because of the terminology and the jargon, whereas you would be really great at explaining science subjects so that the not-science-nerds can understand it – exactly the way you did with your herpes comment 🙂 (Awesome comment by the way, I learned a few things!) Looking forward to reading more science stuff (coz I’m all about the technical words). xo.

  3. I was going to say the same thing as Nataly – and also, if the response to your (brilliant) post on Captain Awkward is any indication, there is a lot of information that “has been done” in the sciency circles, but is mind-blowingly new to the layman.

    I actually impressed a girl using the information you laid out in that comment. (Ok, it was basically “everyone has herpes” – which is a fantastic name for a science blog, by the way. Seriously, you’re going to be great.)

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