This interview with Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief of Scientific American, was originally posted on the Double X Science website, as part of its Double Xpressions: Profiles of Woman into Science series. DXS: First, can you give me a quick overview of what your scientific background is and your current connection to science?
“Are you sure your mom is going to be OK with you buying that?” asked the concerned neighbor, eyeing the biology book.
Like most kids, I was born a scientist. What I mean is, I wanted to know how everything worked, and I wanted to learn about it firsthand. At a tag sale, for instance, I remember buying a secondhand biology book called The Body along with my secondhand Barbie for 50 cents. “Are you sure your mom is going to be OK with you buying that?” asked the concerned neighbor, eyeing the biology book.
I memorized the names and orbital periods of the planets and of dinosaurs like some kids spout baseball stats (which I could also do as a kid, by the way). We didn’t have a lot of money, so I caught my own pet fish from a nearby pond by using my little finger as a pretend worm. I scooped up my fish with an old plastic container and put it on my nightstand. If it died, I buried it and dug it up later so I could look at the bones. My proudest birthday gifts were when I got a chemistry set and a microscope with 750x. A girlfriend and I got the idea to pick up a gerbil that had a bad habit of biting fingers, just so we could get blood to squeeze on a glass slide. (She was braver than I was about being the one to get bitten.)
In middle school, I was a proud member of the Alchemists—an after-school science club—so I could do extra labs and clean the beakers and put away Bunsen burners for fun. I knew I would be a scientist when I grew up.
But somewhere during my high school courses, I came to believe that being a scientist meant I’d have to pick one narrow discipline and stick to it. I felt that I liked everything too much to do that, however. As an undergraduate, I eventually figured out that what I really wanted was to be a student of many different things for life, and then share those things I learned with others. That led me to a journalism degree. It also means that, as far as knowledge about science goes, I fit the cliché of being “an inch deep and a mile wide.” DXS: What ways do you express yourself creatively that may not have a single thing to do with science?
This one is a tough one for me to answer because I am always trying to convince people that pretty much everything they care about in the headlines actually has to do with science! In my case, I’ve also always been interested in drawing and in visuals in general. I was a pretty serious art student in high school as well, although I later decided that I didn’t have enough passion for it to make that my career choice. My interest in art partly led me to work at magazines like Scientific American and Popular Science, where the ability to storyboard an informational graphic and otherwise think visually is very helpful.
When I’m home, I really enjoy making things with my two daughters, such as helping them with crafts or scrapbooks, although I definitely spend a lot more time on planning dinners and cooking for (and with) the family than anything else. I like the puzzle solving of setting up the meals for the week during the weekend, so it’s easier for my husband to get things ready weeknights. We’re big on eating dinner together as a family every night. I like gardening and mapping out planting beds. I’m better at planting than at keeping up with tending, however, because of my intense work schedule and travel. In short, if I have free time at all, I’m enjoying it with my family. And if we’re doing some creative expression while we’re at it, great!
DXS: Do you find that your connection to science informs your creativity, even though what you do may not specifically be scientific?
My connection to science informs most things that I do in one way or another. When I’m making dinner, I sometimes find myself talking about the chemistry of cooking with the girls. Especially when our daughters were smaller, if one of them had a question, I’d try to come up with ways to make finding the answer together into a kind of science adventure or project.
I suppose that since I spend most of my waking hours thinking about how best to present science to the public, it’s just a mental routine, or a lens through which I tend to view the world.
DXS: Have you encountered situations in which your expression of yourself outside the bounds of science has led to people viewing you differently—either more positively or more negatively?
I get amusing reactions from people once they find out what I do. How could I seem so normal and yet work in a field that relates to . . . shudder . . . science?
It’s more the other way around. I get amusing reactions from people once they find out what I do. How could I seem so normal and yet work in a field that relates to . . . shudder . . . science? An attorney friend has sometimes kidded me, saying there’s no way he can understand what’s in Scientific American, so I must be incredibly smart. I don’t feel that way at all! Anybody who has a high school degree and an interest in the topic can understand a feature article in Scientific American. Science is for everyone. And science isn’t only for people who work in labs. It’s just a rational way of looking at life. I also believe science is the engine of human prosperity. And if I sound a little evangelistic about that, well, I am.
DXS: Have you found that your non-science expression of creativity/activity/etc. has in any way informed your understanding of science or how you may talk about it or present it to others?
I think it’s helpful to look to non-science areas for ideas about ways to help make science appealing, especially for people who might be intimidated by the subject. My main job is to try to make a connection for people to the science we cover in Scientific American. I once had a boss at Popular Science who made all us editors take an intensive, three-day screenwriting course that culminated in the showing and exposition, scene by scene, of the structure and writing techniques of Casablanca. When I came back, he gave me a big grin and said, “So, what did you think?” I got his point about bringing narrative techniques into feature articles. Like most people, I enjoy movies and plays; now I also look at them for storytelling tips. And there are lots of creative ways to tell science stories beyond words: pictures, slide shows, videos, songs. Digital media are so flexible.
DXS: How comfortable are you expressing your femininity and in what ways? How does this expression influence people’s perception of you in, say, a scientifically oriented context?
I was the oldest of three daughters raised by a single dad (my mom died when I was 12) and I was always a tomboy, playing softball through college and so on. So I can’t say I’ve ever been terribly feminine, at least in the stereotypical ways. At the same time, I’m obviously a wife and a mother who, like most parents, tries not to talk about my kids so often that it’s irritating to friends and coworkers. I once was scolded in a letter from an irritated reader after I had mentioned my kids in a “From the Editor” column about education. He wrote that if I was so interested in science education and kids, I should go back home and “bake cookies.” I laughed pretty hard at that.
DXS: Do you think that the combination of your non-science creativity and scientific-related activity shifts people’s perspectives or ideas about what a scientist or science communicator is? If you’re aware of such an influence, in what way, if any, do you use it to (for example) reach a different corner of your audience or present science in a different sort of way?
I’m sure that’s true. I think personality and approach also might shift perspectives. A girlfriend of mine once called me “the friendly face of science.” I guess I smile a lot, and I like to meet people and try to get to know them. That ability—being able to make a personal connection to different people—is important for every good editor. My job, essentially, is to understand your interests well enough to make sure Scientific American is something that you’ll enjoy each day, week, month.
Increasingly, also, the audiences are different in different media, so we need to understand how to flex the approach a bit to appeal to those different audiences. In print, for instance, according to the most recent data we have from MRI, the median age of Scientific American readers is 47, with 70 percent men and 30 percent women. The picture is quite different online, where, according to Nielsen, our median age is 40 and the male/female ratio is closer to half and half, with 56.5 percent men to 43.5 percent women. You need to bring a lot of creative thinking to the task of how to make one brand serve rather different sets of people.
Fortunately, I have terrific, creative staff! And another part of the way you do that, I think, is to invite your readers in to collaborate; we’ve done a bit of that in the past year on http://www.scientificamerican.com/, and I’m looking forward to experimenting further in the coming months. Ultimately, I’d like to turn Scientific American from a magazine with an amazing 166-year tradition of being a conduit of authoritative information about science and technology into a platform where curious minds can gather and share.
DXS: If you had something you could say to the younger you about the role of expression and creativity in your chosen career path, what would you say?
I was pretty determined to do something—whatever it was—that would let me satisfy my curiosity and passion about science. I would tell younger me, who, by the way, never intended to go into magazine management: It’s just as fun, rewarding and creative to be a science writer as you suspect it might be. I’d also tell the younger me something that didn’t occur to me early enough to pull it off—that a double major in journalism and science might be a good idea. And, I would add, it’s also a good idea to take some business classes, so you’ll be better armed for dealing with the working world.