I'm A Science Major And A YA Author

by Karen Bao

It’s the first week of spring semester, and my calendar is already a battleground. Exams, papers, book festivals, blog post deadlines, and research grant applications all head-butt one another for space. Meanwhile, I sit in my pajamas, watching them, feeling like a passive spectator to the whole thing. I laugh joylessly at the fact that I’ll give a class presentation on Darwin on my book birthday, the day my debut novel Dove Arising hits shelves, and turn in a Genetics problem set on my real birthday.

I check my dorm desk drawer for chocolate, because I know I’ll need it soon.

For context, I’m a college junior studying ecology. I’m also a YA author with a book coming out in February. In my future career(s), I want to help protect marine species from exploitation and extinction, as well as put my waking dreams on paper and send them out into the world. Although these two goals might sound incongruous, I try not to think of myself as one person juggling two jobs; my major and my writing career really aren’t as disparate as they initially seem. Like a yin-yang symbol, these passions for science and stories are impossible to pull apart — in fact, each contributes to the integrity of the other.

I began writing Dove Arising as a high school senior waiting to hear back from colleges. Drafting provided an escape from the questions that nagged me: Where will you be next year? Do you really think you can “make it” as a scientist? Are you ready to leave home at all? Threading these insecurities together and combining them with the science I loved, I wove a story about a 15-year-old introvert named Phaet living on the moon in the year 2347. When her mother is “quarantined” for illness, she must leave home and join the brutal Lunar Militia to save her younger siblings from destitution.

Instead of doing homework, I wrote. Instead of sleeping, I hid under the blankets with a laptop... and wrote. My scientific knowledge helped me create habitable Lunar Bases, complete with food, water, gas exchange with plants, and magnets to create the illusion of increased gravity. My anxieties about climate change and biodiversity loss led me to a future history in which scientists, concerned for humanity’s survival, pool their funds and settle on the inhospitable Moon; within two generations, the government’s tight control over the population — for safety’s sake — yields to totalitarianism. Finally, my engineer mother’s stories about growing up in Maoist China inspired the propaganda, censorship, surveillance, and academic competition present on the Lunar Bases.

I couldn’t have written Dove Arising without having taken chemistry, biology, physics, and earth science — but I’ll admit that pursuing a science degree while under a three-book contract is really, really hard. I study like crazy during the academic year, and write like crazy over breaks. I fly out to book events on weekends and am back in class by Monday morning.

On a typical day, I wake up at 7 a.m. and do homework or reply to email before class at about 10. Classes, seeing professors, and knocking off small assignments keep me busy until the sun goes down. After dinner, I start the hardcore studying. Before bed, I write in my journal, partly to put my thoughts on paper and partly to keep my writing skills sharp.

At some point in my day, I'll exercise to flush the stress out, as well as see friends, usually at lunch or dinner. Since I have to eat (and I really enjoy it), why not do it with people I care about? Speaking of friends, I probably wouldn't have stayed in school without them. They're driven, talented people who provide endless inspiration and encouragement. My social circle includes musicians, scientists, future politicians and lawyers, and of course other book-lovers. In general, they were shocked when I told them I was an author -- several months after meeting them -- but they don't treat me any differently because of it. Like anyone else, we throw parties, complain about homework, giggle about our romantic adventures, and prop each other up no matter what.

It’s impossible not to wonder if my grades would improve were I not a writer, or if my academic life compromises the quality of my books.

It’s impossible not to wonder if my grades would improve were I not a writer, or if my academic life compromises the quality of my books. Other science students and other authors, all of whom are fully dedicated to their respective careers, can make me feel inadequate, as if I'm just dabbling in both ecology and writing. On the most stressful days, I sink into regret and even self-pity. Chores like feeding myself and doing laundry seem impossible, and childish as it might seem, I long to go home and see my family.

Calling my mom helps. So does lifting weights or going to practice with my school's taekwondo club. Even seeing the stunning hardcover copy of my book in my dorm room — the product of so many people's work —reminds me that I have a veritable army behind me. My publisher, friends, and family believed that I could pull through, and at the core, I believe it too.

Something else that will always lift me back up is reminding myself that I’m lucky to do not one, but two things I love. Two things that prop each other up. I’ve already shown how studying science enables me to write science fiction. But storytelling also makes me a better scientist. Comfort with words will enable me to write clear, concise research papers. Also, compelling communication, which I’ve practiced through writing fiction, is an essential skill in the conservation field; scientists often interact with communities and policymakers to create positive change. As I begin conducting my own research, I hope to see more ways in which my writing and science careers will overlap: more reminders that everything I've done in life has a purpose.

The semester’s starting up, and I feel unprepared to face it. But I won’t be alone: I’ll keep a computer on my lap, a bar of chocolate by my side, characters in my head, and most importantly, friends within arm’s reach.

Images: Karen Bao/Facebook