A Science Writing Star: Interview With Marcia Bartusiak

[private]This week I had the opportunity to talk with one of the stars of science writing, Marcia Bartusiak. When she won the AIP Science Writing Award in 1982, she was the first woman to ever do so. Since that time, she’s won that award again (in 2001, for Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony , and, in 2006, won the Andrew W. Gement Award from the American Institute of Physics

Ms. Bartusiak is also an adjunct faculty member at MIT (though she was careful to explain how that differs from most adjunct positions, as you’ll see below). She was also kind enough to share her experience with me.

AA: Why do you write?

Marcia Bartusiak (hereafter MB):In the classic 1952 movie musicalSingin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly has a number called “Gotta Dance,” which provides one way to frame it.  I often have that feeling, but in my case responding, “Gotta Write, Gotta Write.”  And, for me, it’s always been linked to a love for science and the mysteries it uncovers. Science (particularly astronomy and physics) was a fascination to me from an early age.  But I was perplexed as a child that few of my friends shared this passion.  I usually found I could get their attention if I explained some fact or idea in an entertaining way.  This desire (obviously) never left me. I find joy in the search, trying for the perfect metaphor or analogy that can make someone at least get the “feel” of a scientific concept.  I want them to realize they don’t have to solve a mathematical equation to be fascinated and intrigued by nature’s laws. 

AA: How does your academic writing relate to your teaching? How about writing that doesn’t qualify as traditional scholarship?

MB: Everything I do as a writer is related to my teaching, given the position I have as an adjunct professor in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.  My very job is to take the expertise I have built up over my thirty years as a science writer and pass it along to my students: how to interview, craft a snappy news note (important when they first start out), extend their writerly skills into longer features, and even start them thinking about tackling book-length topics. 

AA: How do you find time to write as an adjunct?

MB: I have been teaching at MIT over the last six years in a half-time position.  (Previous to that I was a fulltime freelance writer.)  So, while I have time to write, my adjustment has been to the reduced schedule.  Where in the past I could devote fulltime to, say, a book project, I now have to squeeze it in and around my classes, along with strategically using the summer months.  I just had a book come out last April, which I spent about two-and-half years researching and writing.  For the first nine months, I conducted my library research when not in class and scheduled two months of travel around the country for archival research during the summer months.  Upon returning, I wrote up my manuscript, again, whenever I had the time outside of classroom responsibilities.  There were lots of weekends lost to the project as well. 

AA: How have the institutions who employ you responded to your writing? (Do they support it? Ignore it? Even know about it?)

MB: The Graduate Program in Science Writing is part of MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, which by its very nature is very supportive of my writing (and certainly encourages its continuation).  Recently upon being named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for my science-writing contributions over the years, the department paid for my travel to receive the award.

AA: You’d mentioned that being an adjunct at MIT is different than working as an adjunct elsewhere. Let’s address that issue directly. What does “adjunct” mean at MIT?

MB: This can be confusing outside of the MIT community, as it is different from what adjunct has come to mean in academic institutions across the nation.  In the mid-1990s, I was an adjunct at Boston University for two years, where I came in to teach one course during the spring semester.  I was paid a flat fee ($3000 at the time) to teach a graduate-level course in science writing.  I had no other benefits or links to the larger university community.  At MIT, on the other hand, adjunct really means “professor part-time.”  In fact, I was vetted in almost the same way as if I were coming up for tenure at a university.  It was a year-long process that involved a complete assessment of my work over the years and letters of recommendation from scientists and writers.  Upon acceptance, I received a five-year contract, which is renewable upon review.  My salary is commensurate with fulltime professors in my department, adjusted for my halftime hours. MIT also includes me in their pension plan, matches my 401K contributions, and provides full health-care benefits.  Here is how MIT’s Policies and Procedures describes it: “Adjunct Professors are equivalent and made only to practitioners who have developed a high level of expertise in fields of particular importance to the MIT academic program and who also demonstrate a deep commitment to teaching and research. Responsibilities include, but are not limited to, teaching and conducting and supervising research. Each appointee should teach at least the major part of one subject per academic year, may be the instructor in charge of subjects of instruction, may supervise theses with departmental permission, and may be principal investigator on research projects.”  I am a non-voting member of the Faculty and am encouraged to participate in university matters. 

AA: Wow. That’s both impressive in itself, and great for the MIT adjuncts. I am officially jealous. One more MIT-related question to close, if I may. What writing-related challenges and/or opportunities do you see MIT offering?

MB: Having the connection to MIT has already opened many doors for me.  Since I have been on staff, I have had many more invitations to serve on conference panels and give lectures at other universities.

AA: Thank you!



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