A Mix for Success: Music, A Scientific Family and Some Radiation

October 15, 2009



Valerie Brown, an Oregon-based freelance journalist, found her way into journalism somewhat later in life than many people do — details below — but has clearly made up for lost time.

Brown was selected recently as the first-place winner for Outstanding Explanatory Reporting, Print, in SEJ's 8th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. She earned the honor for her article in Miller-McCune magazine, "Environment Becomes Heredity," which discussed research in the field of epigenetics.

In defining that term, Wikipedia starts with this passage:

"In biology, the term epigenetics refers to changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, hence the name epi- (Greek: over; above) -genetics. These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell's life and may also last for multiple generations."

Here's what the SEJ judges had to say about Brown's skillful treatment of a subject that has potentially great significance but whose complexity might have daunted many other writers:

"In 'Environment Becomes Heredity,' Valerie Brown deftly explains the thorny issue of whether chemical exposure can trigger multi-generational health problems. Brown employs a solid scientific knowledge, plain English, and humor to reveal how mothers exposed to certain chemicals may be passing genetic time bombs on to their children and grandchildren. She also describes the vehicle for those inherited impacts — not DNA, but the protein structures that package all genetic materials. Brown's ability to break down the complicated scientific details surrounding how environmental impacts can affect future generations of animals was educational and entertaining — a rare combination in a story that dives into molecular biology, toxicology and genetics."

Brown responded to emailed questions by SEJournal's Bill Dawson.

Q: First, please tell me a little about your journalistic career. I understand that you did non-journalistic work for a number of years before deciding to go into journalism. What prompted that decision? Why journalism? Why did you decide to get a master's degree as a way to get into the field?

A: A journalism career was foreshadowed in high school, when I wangled my way onto the paper staff without actually taking the journalism classes. But as a young adult, music was much more compelling — I'd taken years of classical piano and played the flute in band. After dropping out of college I became a singer-songwriter, working for about 12 years in Portland, Oregon. Played a lot of clubs. Eventually burned out owing to the wretched working conditions and the extremely low pay. Dithered around for several years being depressed and working for lawyers (a circumstance unlikely to cure depression). Finally decided to finish up the old bachelor's degree, and the fastest way to do that was to major in general studies with a focus in social science, mainly history, political science and women's studies.

In my last year of that effort, I took some writing classes and entered three writing competitions — one local short story competition, a national essay contest, and the local weekly's essay contest. Won first in fiction and the national essay prize, third in the local essay. This was shocking. I decided to interpret it as a sign that I should morph my songwriting skills into some other form of writing. Since creative writing promised even fewer real-life rewards than the musical life, I figured I should be a journalist. And because I was already, ahem, mature — but without any relevant experience — I thought maybe a master's degree in journalism would help bridge that gap. Besides, with such a nebulous undergraduate degree, only a journalism graduate program would take me.

Q: Have you always been a freelancer or did you ever hold a job or jobs as a staff journalist first?

A: Always been a freelancer. The musical life had sort of predetermined my fate in that respect. Also I didn't think I could live on the starting salary of a staff reporter, which as I recall was about $12,000 a year at the time, so I kept the option of working part-time for lawyers open since I could make better money faster and lawyers would pay my health insurance. Also I didn't want to move to a really small town and write about high school wrestling for five years before a city daily would consider me.

Q: When and why did you decide to specialize in writing about science? Did you have a background in science?

A: I don't have any formal training in science. My dad had a degree in geology and two of his brothers graduated in metallurgy from the Colorado School of Mines. One brother worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and the other was basically a hard rock prospector. My dad also loved physics and astronomy.

He built an interferometer out of scrap materials in our basement because he wasn't quite convinced that the speed of light is constant and wanted to check Einstein's work (and Miller's, Michaelson's and Morley's). I grew up with Science magazine The Journal of Geophysical Research, and Scientific American around the house. This got me accustomed to reading stuff I had not the slightest clue about, and to begin to pick out its meaning from context.

Q: How did you get interested in writing about epigenetics? Was it one particular study that intrigued you? A tip from a scientist source? Accumulating information you gleaned from various places?

A: I think I was trolling through digests of scientific reports and came across the tidbit about the female rats rejecting all males from the lineage of the one female exposed to vinclozolin during pregnancy. Wow! Speed dating! Multigenerational effects! I was also gobsmacked just by the idea of epigenetics, because I have always been skeptical of the random-mutation-by-cosmic-raysdrives- evolution idea. I read a book some years ago by an Australian paleontologist who argued that the length of time spent in various developmental stages was what distinguished many species of dinosaur from each other — in other words, they had almost identical genomes except for the parts specifying the time spent, say, developing the femur; and variations like this would determine size, extent of armor plating and other attributes. Sort of like dog breeds. So it seemed there were many things affecting development and speciation besides stray cosmic rays, and perhaps organisms could be much more flexible in adapting to environmental changes. You might not have to change a gene or acquire a new one to change the organism, and adaptive changes might be more common than was thought.

Epigenetics strongly influences when and how genes are expressed, and this means you don't have to have a mutated gene to cause disease. You can just have the odd methyl group snipped off or put in the wrong place. And that means you might be able to fix the methyl deployment and cure or prevent a disease. Epigenetics also helps explain why looking for genetic causes of diseases, and gene therapy, haven't panned out as well as hoped. I have also been interested in low-level exposures to chemicals and radiation for a long time, and suspicious of claims that such exposures are nothing to worry about. It is starting to emerge that such exposures may cause epigenetic changes without directly affecting genes. This is going to further roil up both the chemical and radiological status quo – the dose really doesn't make the poison, it's more like this dose plus that exposure at this developmental stage makes the poison. And what happens in the womb doesn't stay there — it can send out little time bombs to go off many years later.

All this just seems like big news to me.

Q: Your article on epigenetics, a serious subject, combines artful explanation of some quite complex science with a casual, conversational and sometimes humorous tone — passages like this one: "If you haven't already dropped this magazine and run away screaming, please keep reading. There are reasons for optimism in the tiny, tangled world of epigenetics." Is this an approach or style that you often use?

A: I used to use it a lot more when I was writing for weekly newspapers, which tend to have a snarky tone. Then I started writing for Environmental Health Perspectives, and my editor at the time was also a lawyer. She purged my writing of the snark, and a good thing, too. But EHP readers are more likely to be scientifically literate, whereas a lay audience needs some encouragement from time to time. Plus, if you're writing about the horrors of chemical exposures we seem powerless to prevent, humor is just about the only thing to cling to.

Q: The epigenetics article is long and multifaceted, weaving together a lot of different information — history, accounts of different studies, basic science. Was there one or a couple of aspects of doing it that you found unusually difficult or challenging?

A: Molecular biology, molecular biology, molecular biology. Talk about impenetrable. Also, it would have been easy to get distracted by the female rats' seemingly psychic ability to identify male rats whose grandmother had been dosed with vinclozolin — how do they do that? (Probably pheromones.) But the scientists were much more focused on the evidence of multigenerational effects and not that mesmerized by the females' detection mechanism.

Q: Tell me about your other work. Are there particular topics or fields that you specialize in, things that you write about more often than others? Does all of your work fall into the "explanatory" category? Do you concentrate on longer pieces like the epigenetics story? Apart from Miller-McCune, are there particular publications you write for regularly?

A: There are lots of teachers on both sides of my family, and I like explaining things to people. I've put together a couple of PowerPoint presentations and I enjoy giving those talks also. Besides EHP and Miller-McCune, I write occasionally for Forest Magazine and have written for Science, High Country News, Environmental Science & Technology and the American Journal of Public Health.

I think specialization in a difficult subject can be helpful. After I'd been writing for weeklies for awhile, and was completely disgusted by the 13-cents-a-word pay scale, I went to the library and found a directory of associations. I paged through it until I found the National Association of Science Writers. Joining the NASW was the single most effective thing I did to improve my freelance opportunities early on (not to say SEJ is less important — I just didn't join it right away). NASW membership led me to EHP. I took every assignment I was offered, and gradually developed expertise in the health effects of industrial chemicals, metals, pesticides and so on. The field of environmental health is changing rapidly, and there is convergence of toxicology, endocrinology, epi- and regular genetics, you name it — so it remains very challenging to write lucidly about it, and it is just as important as ever that there be intelligible and publicly available information about it.

I also remain obsessed with ionizing radiation. This is because I am a thyroid cancer survivor and was exposed to fallout from the Nevada Test Site starting in the womb and periodically thereafter until I was about 10 years old. As many SEJers know, the nuclear world is a fascinating nest of snakes. In addition to health effects of radiation exposure, I'm getting more intrigued by the nightmarish chemistry of radioactive substances and the challenges it presents for dealing with weapons and power plant waste. Interest in radiation is more of a handicap than an asset at the moment, but I still think it's important.

I do feel that the various threads of journalistic experience I have are converging because of global warming. Global warming brings together environmental health and energy issues (including nuclear) as well as earth sciences. I find this gratifying as I'm interested in all of the above and I like to explain how they are interrelated.

Because of my environmental health background and my personal experience, I am also concerned that whatever solutions we find to global warming and the other environmental crises we face, we bear environmental justice in mind. Heretofore we have been perfectly willing to sacrifice some populations to benefit others. We need to examine this issue closely. If society decides to sacrifice some populations for the greater good, those populations should be informed and cared for when they experience the consequences of society's choices.

To complement areas of specialization, I think it probably helps to diversify in some way as well. I want to be able to survive in the Web era. I've just set up a blog. I've taken two online classes in web page design and coding and am learning to use Dreamweaver by trial and error. I took a Poynter webinar on Flash capabilities for journalism. I'm signed up for the SEJ conference workshop on creating video for the web. I have some skill in writing, performing and audio engineering music and other audio that might come in handy in multimedia journalism. It's all content, and I'm a content provider, right?

Q: With staff reductions at many outlets offering an increasing number of journalists the opportunity to consider freelancing — or maybe it would be more accurate to say confronting them with that necessity — I wonder if you have any thoughts to share with SEJ members on making a living as a freelancer. Do you have any encouragement to offer? Advice? Warnings?

A: Financially, I don't, really. I am not a good model for how to earn a steady income. I follow my nose. If I'm not interested in something, I have trouble drumming up the energy to do the work required to write about it. I do, however, cherish the autonomy of freelancing. It's not for sissies, and if you are a fashion plate, the freelance life will be very difficult for you. But there are many, many more freelancers now than when I started — a big pool of supportive colleagues. And the job is easier in some respects — the Web makes it possible to identify and contact sources anywhere in the world and to examine all kinds of information in relatively short order.

Also, for persons of a certain age, if we lose a job it may be that we will never get hired again. Learning to be self-propelled can be gratifying and liberating.  Flexible hours are fabulous.

Bill Dawson is the SEJournal's assistant editor.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue. 

SEJ Publication Types: 
Topics on the Beat: