• Frederike Schmitz

The reason to finally start writing about science

So here I am, struggling with this vague idea of writing about immune cells for children.

But I have no idea on how to start. No idea who exactly my audience is. How old is my target audience?

How do I align what they find interesting versus what I find interesting?

Essentially, I probably have to decide first what I want to write about and then somehow figure out if kids find this interesting.

Then there is the curse of deep knowledge of a field. The more you know the more you want to tell people.

I call it ‘sinking into a hole’. The more you’re an expert of something the more you sink into your own knowledge hole. At one point it’s really hard to get out of it again.

To see the horizon again.

To know why you wanted to learn all of that stuff to begin with.

To know what to do with all that knowledge.

And for the sake of writing a kid’s story: what is the 1% (or maybe less?) of all these things you know that you want to talk about, and why?

Have you experienced such a hole before? You yourself or your colleagues, friends, family members?

How do you get out of it?

Or maybe you don’t need to? Maybe you can just stay comfortably in your hole? I worked with lots of scientist and data experts and I can tell you they are perfectly happy in their hole most of the time. In fact, they hardly ever need to get out of it. Only when they talk to people from other disciplines or the general public.

Well, the moment you want to write for a broader audience in a simple way, you will need to crawl out of that hole.

Besides knowing lots of facts about a subject there’s also a momentum you need to simply start writing.

The moment that trigged me to actually start writing was the birth of my child.

I tell you, sometimes you need life changing events to pick up something that you have been procrastinating about for a long time.

And if there is one thing in life that deserves to be seen as life-changing, it’s the birth of your child.

It brings up lots of emotions. Worry and uncertainty, as naturally you have no prior experience with raising a child. Happiness and amazement at the speed of how the tiny being develops.

And…almost no sleep.

Not exactly the best situation to start writing on a book, I can tell you.

You know, the other day I bought a brilliant science book for children: “Here we are” by Oliver Jeffers. Check out the book description on goodreads.

It says in the cover, or I read it somewhere else, that he created this book in the first 3 month his child was born.

That sounds pretty cool, but I truly wonder- if he would have been the mother of his child- would he have managed to do the same?

Or is it because the mother is the one who is most exhausted, due to lack of sleep, recovery of her body after delivery and constant feeding of the baby, that only a father can create a book in the first months of the baby’s life?

Anyhow, I couldn’t do much for a couple of months after my daughter was born.

But in hindsight her birth was my triggering event that got everything started.

Witnessing my daughter at a few months of age struggling with lots and lots of infections, made me realize that it’s really true what my teachers explained during immunology lectures in university: young children have an immature immune system and are therefore vulnerable to infections.

I witnessed stomach bugs (often virus infections of the gut; which are happy to jump to the parents as well) and a fungus infection which was clearly visible as white coating on her tongue and in around the anus (you have to excuse me I have had so much contact with gastroenterology- the study of the gut- that you will hear more nice things about the gut at one point here). Then there was the phase that a small child puts everything, and I mean it- everything into her mouth. All the time.

If your child doesn’t pick up bugs that way- which live on playgrounds, in stores or the forest - then I don’t know how.

In essence, I had enough topics to write about- from a ‘meet-a-random-microorganism perspective’, let me tell you.

Being a trained scientist, I started the preparation for my book right away by reading up on scientific studies about such microorganisms: viruses, fungi and bacteria. And how your immune cells deal with them when they meet them for the first time.

How could it be, for example, that a fetus in the womb of the mother ‘grows up’ without any contact to viruses, fungi and bacteria and then at an instance -during birth- the infant is confronted with them? This probably doesn’t happen in one minute (I called it at an instant) but more in a few days and weeks. But still.

Isn’t that fascinating?

That this alone doesn’t overwhelm the infant’s immune system but actually makes it stronger?

I was so fascinated by this idea that your immune cells essentially see no microorganism for 9 month and then all the sudden so many, the moment the infant is born, that I engaged with an author of many scientific studies on this matter on twitter. Her name is Marie-Claire Arrieta and she is a researcher in Canada who has also written a great book about this topic (more on that later).

Long story short, I’m still convinced that lots must happen at an instance. During birth the infant has so much contact with microorganisms, they must have to deal with them in a short timeframe.

If you’re interested in this subject here’s also a brilliant science article from my favorite science writer Ed Yong in the Atlantic.

Anyway, what I want to tell you with this small distraction is that even before I realized, I actually dived deeper into the hole of knowledge. Deeper and deeper.

For weeks and weeks, I read one scientific study after the other about the immune system of newborns and young babies.

The more I read, the more I was at awe for the incredible work our immune cells do, in particular during the first two years of life.

Well, the moment you want to write for a broader audience in a simple way, you will need to crawl out of that hole.

How do you do that when you’re deep down inside of it?