INTERVIEW: Erin Zimmerman, Author of Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood, and the Fight to Save an Old Science

Interview by Sarah Boon

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Erin Zimmerman is a science writer whose first book, Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood, and the Fight to Save an Old Science (Mellville House; April 2024) is a memoir about her experience as a PhD student and postdoc, juggling motherhood on the side. She covers a range of topics: women in science, science communication, being a mother in science, and more—all around the theme of natural history and its place in contemporary science (spoiler alert: it doesn’t have a place). Erin argues for the preservation of natural history education, and introduces readers to citizen science projects that can help preserve valuable resources like herbaria.

I spoke to Erin in early March, as the first daffodils of spring were coming up.

Sarah Boon: You write about your epiphany when you were at London’s Kew Gardens with your family, that people were interested in popular science books and that was something you could write. You also note that “science was allowing me to go places and see things that other people don’t.” Did you write your book to open up a window to science for non-scientists?

Erin Zimmerman: Yes, and that was always part of the structure of the book. I thought about just writing this as a straight science book, but I felt like that would potentially narrow the audience a lot. So the idea was to tell a story and intersperse it with science and to keep it really approachable. I think that’s one of the things I came out of this whole thing feeling strongly about is that science needs to work at approachability and inclusiveness. I set out to be approachable.

SB: Your book includes a lot of interviews with experts, around a range of topics. You must have had to plan well in advance to decide who to talk to. Would you say you’re a plotter or a pantser?

EZ: Oh, totally a plotter. I couldn’t pants it if I wanted to. I really admire people who can do that. That came in in several ways. It was planning the interviews, but also heavily plotting it allowed me to work in the short bursts that I needed to as well. Part of the way I dealt with working on this book with my twins was dividing it into many, many little chunks. Then you can take just a tiny chunk at a time and the bar to start gets very low. So yes, I really heavily planned out for that reason.

SB: Do you have a set writing routine? Do you take writing time where you can find it, or do you need it to be quiet and focused?

EZ: It’s funny, because when the kids were young, I was very much like, “I can pick up and write on a moment’s notice.” But it’s a skill that atrophies, I find, because now the twins have been in daycare for more than a year and I’ve gotten used to having the time and space alone. Now I’m getting a little bit precious about how I work again. I need complete silence. I need my space to myself. I can’t at a moment’s notice do now what I was doing then. You can lose it actually. Weirdly.

SB: When sending the twins to daycare, did it feel like when you sent Clementine to daycare during your postdoctoral position? Except, this time, it was the book, not the postdoc, driving your decision?

EZ: It was much less painful with the twins. Gosh, the two were like night and day because with Clementine, it felt forced. She was so young, she was only three and a half months old, which I always realize to Americans will probably be much more normalized. But to Canadians, it’s a travesty and they’d never have a child that young at daycare. I wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready. I was anxious. She could probably sense that. I still remember that morning; it was a mess. Whereas with the twins, actually, the wait had been so long that they were older. And there were two of them going together. I was ready. I’d been through it before so it didn’t feel forced. No, it was really very different. Probably part of the reason it was easier to see them off to daycare was because trying to accommodate them and my work at the same time did lead to a certain amount of burnout. I was ready to not be balancing both anymore.

SB: When you did your graduate degree in botany, did you imagine that you’d be spending a lot of time in a lab? Is 21st century botany a lab pursuit instead of an outdoor pursuit, like it was in the 19th century?

EZ: That’s a good point. It’s not for everyone. But I think on the whole, it is much more lab based than it was. One of the points I’m trying to make in the book is that natural history based research is much more observation based. There’s a lot more fieldwork involved, but that’s less and less the focus and less and less the work that gets funded. Obviously, experimental work is super important. But there’s a heavy emphasis on lab work now. I pretty much always hoped to get to continue doing field work, but I primarily saw my career as being in a lab.

SB: You imagined your PhD defense as some women would imagine their wedding. Can you expand on what this says about your relationship to science?

EZ: Nothing good! Science is treated as a calling, right? If you’re trying to be a scientist, it’s your identity. I make the point that we sometimes accept treatment and conditions that we shouldn’t because of that, but also a PhD is long, and you don’t know if you’re going to get a job at the end of it. What you do know is that you will have earned this degree, you will have your doctorate, you will have this title that maybe doesn’t carry a lot of weight, but it’s kind of a feather in your cap that you get to keep forever.

Sometimes it feels like that is the thing you can lean on when you need some comfort. In the absence of knowing I was going to have a career in science, I thought, someday I’m going to get to have this, this PhD will be mine. You kind of fantasize about how it’s going to go as you watch other people reach that goal, too. I attended so many defenses where it was just this crowning achievement for this person, and you picture yourself in that situation.

SB: When looking for a postdoctoral position, you kept striking out and wondered if you had “arrived at the party too late.” It seemed like that for me in earth science, as well—I was a hands-on field person in a research environment that increasingly valued modelling and lab studies. When would you say was the ‘golden age’ of academic natural history research in the last century?

EZ: I would say the mid-19th century to mid-20th century was a very good time for field botany, so I arrived a good half century or more too late. That’s not to say that this has been a gradual shift. But it went from a field science to a lab science in a big way. One of the things I write about in the book is about the defeminization of botany, where they were trying to push out female participants to have the science taken more seriously. One of the intentional moves at that time was to make it more lab based and more experimentally based, because that would be done by men, upper class men for the most part. So yes, it started out quickly and there was a real push for change, but I think the move to the point we’re at today was gradual, over a long period of time.

SB: Did you have any herbarium specimens in your name from your trip to Guyana?

EZ: No. I collected under our expedition leader’s name. I think it’s fairly common for grad students to collect under the expedition leader’s name, and for the leader to build up their numbers of specimens. There was extra paperwork involved in me collecting under my own name as well, because we were exporting plants from the country and bringing them into the United States. There’s already an absolute barrage of paperwork, so I think to have me as a separate collector represented a lot of extra paperwork and that was part of it as well.

“We’re at a time of unprecedented awareness of science on the part of the public.” — Erin Zimmerman

SB: We often think of popular science writing as a relatively new thing, but it obviously was important by the mid-1880s. Do you think there was a period when popular science writing was less relevant and then became relevant again today? We know that it was important in the 1880s, did it stay important until today? Or was there maybe a period where it became less important?

EZ: We’re at a time of unprecedented awareness of science on the part of the public. I think that has been a more or less linear progression of people becoming more and more informed. I think a lot has changed recently with the internet and the availability of information. So maybe the progression wasn’t linear, but I think there’s been a slow increase in people becoming better educated about sciences, as popular science writing is of interest and available to people. I’m not aware of a time period when it was particularly less relevant.

SB: What advice would you give a recent university graduate who wants to get into writing popular science like you’ve done?

EZ: First, read a lot about your new line of work. There are several well-written, fairly recent books on the topic that can give you a good foundation as to how the field of science writing works. Take the time to learn how to pitch properly – it’s so important. My first few pitches are absolutely embarrassing to look back on because I clearly didn’t know what I was doing and no editor would have taken them.

Second, unless you are specifically trying to get away from it, stick to your field of expertise at first. I found it much easier to be confident in my understanding of what I was writing about by doing that, and it’s a lot easier to land interviews if you can a) use your previous connections to name drop a bit, and b) demonstrate a basic understanding of that researcher’s field. They feel more confident saying yes because they feel they’ll be talking to someone who will understand what they’re saying.

That’s not to say you can’t write and report well on a field outside of your own, of course. It’s more that you can take advantage of your expertise when you’re first starting out. The good news is, if you’ve completed a PhD, you already have two of the qualities that you need to be a science writer: you’re self-motivated and you know how to teach yourself things.

Meet the Contributor

Sarah Boon in front of a mountainSarah Boon has been published in Aeon, LitHub, LA Review of Books, Undark, Orion Magazine, and other outlets. Her science memoir, Meltdown: The Making and Breaking of a Field Scientist, is coming out in spring 2025.

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