In 6th grade, my teacher would assign writing projects in which we looked at six different black-and-white pictures tacked to a bulletin board, and chose one to spark our own creative stories. I loved crafting my own details and plotlines, and continued to enjoy creative writing assignments throughout high school. Open-ended writing projects even led to my discovery of the people, ideas, and problems that caused my environmental interests to take root. When it came time to decide on a major before I applied to college, my interests at the time aligned most with Environmental Engineering. However, I had slight misgivings about foregoing the kind of writing I liked in my future work.
In college, I heard plenty of engineering students say they hated writing, usually followed by the quip, “that’s why I’m an engineer.” I rarely let on to these students how much I felt differently. Moreover, the stereotypical activities that engineering students seemed to like when they were in 6th grade included building things. Visit any engineering school as a prospective student, and you are bound to come across lines that read something like, “Did you ever take apart a vacuum cleaner as a kid just so you could see how it worked, and then try to rebuild it?” My parents can attest to the fact that I never did anything of the sort. Nonetheless, I still hung onto the hope that it was possible to combine the best of writing, science, and engineering.
Alas, academic and research experiences in college mostly verified that the field I chose wouldn’t necessarily involve writing with personality. Work consisted mainly of problem sets, lab reports, and case studies: objectively written methods, principles, and facts. So outside of classes I submitted some personal pieces to the student-run public journal, and tried a stint of making creative themes for the the e-mails I sent to our environmental club list serve. Obviously, though, following my interests and learning fascinating lessons and skills in an applied, environmental field vastly outweighed the fact that it didn’t involve writing in the styles I favored. I learned to find creativity in solving force-body diagrams, writing a code, and discussing results of an experiment. There’s no doubt that people in STEM fields are always striving for creative ways to view problems and design solutions (for more, see Megan Fork’s post Creativity and Science).
My top three favorite undergraduate courses turned out to be Solid Waste Engineering, Limnology, and Biochemistry, none of which required much writing outside the realm of lab reports and literature reviews. Not surprisingly, though, these were all elective courses: the subject matter was of personal interest and/or they were relevant to the research I wanted to pursue. The satisfaction and freedom of choosing something of your own volition is also why I derive pleasure from open-ended writing.
Writing a blog as a new graduate student in the Nicholas School is an opportunity I jumped for, for the very reasons I’ve stated about missing writing for writing’s sake. The pictures on the classroom bulletin board that I will now be using for my inspiration include the scientific community, campus sustainability organizations, inspirational people and ideas, and my personal experiences. Here, I aim to explore facts, stories, and experiences in a more personal form of writing, where MLA need not be enforced and sentences can start with conjunctions and end in prepositions. So read on.