Journal of Young Investigators
    Undergraduate, Peer-Reviewed Science Journal
Volume Six
Issue 4, October 2002


Unexpected Pleasures: Insights From a Science Writer Traveling the World

Jennifer Boeth Donovan
Writer, Editor and Information officer, Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Author Background

In my job as a writer, editor and information officer for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute -- one of the world's largest philanthropies supporting biomedical research and science education -- I write and assign feature articles for our quarterly magazine, the HHMI Bulletin, and our Web site,

One of HHMI's programs supports approximately 130 life scientists in 29 countries. Each year, we hold a scientific meeting in one of their countries. All the HHMI international research scholars attend and present their latest work. I go to the meetings to scout for story ideas and to work with the local press to get coverage of the HHMI scientists and their work.

This year, the Australian scientists hosted the meeting. Since an around-the-world fare (stopping in at least 3 countries) proved considerably less expensive than a round-trip direct to Australia, I arranged to interview one of our scientists in England and a teacher in Singapore who participated in an exchange program we sponsor, on my way to the meeting in Australia. Next year, our scientists meet in Estonia, part of the former Soviet Union.

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Where I ended up going

I didn't go to Israel, although I was planning to. The HHMI international research scholar whom I wanted to interview said her university, north of Tel Aviv, seemed safe, but I reluctantly bowed to the concerns of everyone else, from my colleagues to my granddaughter.

I didn't go to India either. When Israel looked unlikely, I decided to visit another HHMI scientist in Delhi instead. Then India and Pakistan started shooting at each other in Kashmir; the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory, and my itinerary changed again.

I did go to England, Singapore and Australia, three places I had not been before. At each stop, I interviewed scientists or science teachers who participate in HHMI-supported programs. My interviews with scientists in England and Australia produced or will produce feature articles on malaria research, what it's like to do science in a war zone, and how science is faring as the economy collapses in Argentina. An interview with a biology teacher in Singapore became a "Grants in Action" feature on the HHMI Web site.

Facts about Jennifer Donovan's trip

She was away for 15 days and traveled across 14 time zones.

Distance from Washington D.C. to Sydney:
9760 miles (15707 km) (8481 nautical miles)

Location of London, England: 51:30:00N 0:07:00W

Location of Singapore, Singapore:
1:22:00N 103:45:00E

Location of Sydney, Australia:
33:55:00S 151:17:00E

Location of Washington, D.C: 38:54:18N 77:00:58W

Click here to go calculate distances between these places.

Way out in the U.K.

Driving into London from the airport on the wrong side of the road gave new meaning to the phrase, "majority rules." After all, every driver on that high way seemed to think the left side was the right side. And there was only one of me. The road signs were delightful: "Give way" (that's "Yield"); "Advanced warning -- major roadworks -- queues possible;" and "Roadway unsuitable for heavy goods vehicles."

Big Ben, London, England
Taking the train to Oxford, where university students in blue jeans and flapping black academic robes roam the streets, I added to my strange-signs collection. The station had a "baggage reclaim," right next to "left luggage." I wonder what they do with the right luggage. There were sand-filled buckets for "cigaret ends." The door to the street was marked with a giddy "Way out," (a souvenir of hippie days?), and on the curb stood the solemn warning: "Unauthorized vehicles will be clamped." 

In Oxford, I interviewed Adrian Hill, a research scientist who is developing a malaria vaccine. His promising work on a DNA-based vaccine that targets the liver-stage parasite before it proliferates in the blood will be the focus of an article next spring in the HHMI Bulletin, a quarterly magazine. The interview was much like any I would conduct in the United States, since we both spoke English and our Web-networked world enabled him to show -- and then email -- me a PowerPoint presentation outlining his work in malaria-ridden Africa as well as the laboratories of Oxford.

Back in London, the double-decker red buses, the changing of the guard, Big Ben, fish and chips at the Sherlock Holmes Pub -- the city of tour brochures was every bit as charming as it was supposed to be. There were unexpected pleasures too: sipping a chilled Bombay Blue (blue gin and blue curacao with a live orchid floating in it) at La Porte des Indes; learning that the U.S. Embassy in London is the only one in the world not on American soil. When we tried to buy the land under the building, I was told, the British prince who owned it said it could be had for a price. "What do you want for it?" the Americans asked. "Boston," he replied. So we lease.

While watching the soapbox orators and hecklers at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, next to the magnificent Marble Arch, I heard another apocryphal British tale. The ornately carved arch of white carerra marble was built in 1828 as a grand gateway to Buckingham Palace. It became the official entrance to Hyde Park instead because, it is said, Queen Victoria didn't like it, so she made sure her carriages were built too wide to fit through.

Singapore - a fine city

That's what the front of the T-shirt said. On the back of the shirt was a list of all the things you can be fined for doing in Singapore: littering, not flushing a public toilet, buying or selling gum, for example. It's supposed to be legal to chew gum, just not to buy or sell it (or to throw the wrapper on the street). I didn't try chewing. In fact, I didn't even let on that I had a package of the stuff in my purse. I also didn't ask how they enforce the public-toilet flushing law. I don't think I want to know.

from Jennifer Donovan
  • Do your homework. Learn something about the country or region you are visiting, its history, people, claims to fame and problems, before you go.
  • Check the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control Web site for travel health advisories, required and recommended innoculations and the like. Also pack a basic first aid kit, including antibiotic ointment and anti-diarrheal medication. Drink bottled water and don't use ice cubes, which are likely to be made from local tap water. It's hard to do a good interview when your innards are tying themselves in knots.
  • Take a tour. It's the quickest way to find out what the people think is most interesting and important about their country and culture. It's also fun.
  • Try the telephone before you have to make an important call. It may take some getting used to. And if you carry a cell phone, make sure you have international service. Renting an international cell phone for the trip is a practical option.
  • Ask a local resident--your interview subject is a good choice--for recommendations for restaurants and sights not to miss.
  • Talk to people--cab drivers, hotel employees, the person at the next table in the coffee shop.
  • Use public transportation if possible. It's a good way to meet people and get a feel for the country.
  • Give yourself an extra margin of time to get from anywhere to anywhere else. In many places, traffic, public transportation, even walking moves at a different pace than it does on your familiar home turf.
  • Reset your watch to the new time zone before you get there. It helpswith jet lag.
  • Don't skip meals, and do get enough sleep. If you feel like you need a nap, make time for it.

Singapore is not a typical southeast Asian city. Perhaps because of all the regulations -- and fines -- it is astonishingly clean, safe, and prosperous. Almost everyone is employed. There are few traffic jams. But every good thing has its price. There are jobs but no welfare. Petty crimes earn long jail sentences and/or lashings. The country elected its first prime minister in 1965 and its second in 1990. "There are never any contenders; they are all disqualified," a tour guide told us with a grin.

A "certificate of entitlement" -- the license required to buy a car -- costs almost as much as the car itself. The few who do manage to acquire a vehicle pay tolls to drive anywhere in or near downtown during business hours. "We have almost four million people living on an island 14 miles wide and 25 miles long," explained a high school biology teacher who was about to spend two months in an HHMI-funded program at Rockefeller University in New York. "We must control the number of cars."

Neither Chinese nor Malaysian, although the influences of both nearby cultures are evident, Singapore is the crossroads of Southeast Asia, a bustling banking and commercial center where oil refineries thrive. Almost everyone flying to or from Asia passes through Singapore's sprawling, modern Changi International Airport, where you can buy almost anything (except chewing gum) and rent a bed and shower for an hour in between flights.

Singapore residents pride themselves on the international and interracial character of their island city-country. A majority of the people, 77 per cent, are Chinese; another 17 per cent are Indian; the rest are Malaysian, Arab, European or Eurasian. There are four official languages: Mandarin, Tamal, Malaysian and English, and Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians live side by side. "There is only one nationality here: Singaporean," the teacher said proudly.

Once again, there were no language barriers. All Singapore school children study English and at least one other language, usually the tongue of their cultural heritage. There were potential cultural stumbling blocks: the chewing gum laws, for example, or leaving your shoes outside when you enter a Hindu temple. My teacher-guide warned me about both. That's when I realized how important it is to get to know someone local before you venture out on your own in a foreign country. It's the best insurance you can get against embarrassing, if not downright dangerous, faux pas.

Like eating Bambi

Just seven hours and 3,925 miles from the hot, steamy streets of Singapore, the people in Sydney, Australia, were scurrying about in winter coats, their breath steaming in the cold June dawn. South of the equator, Australians turn the American calendar upside down, enjoying swimsuit weather at Christmas and strapping on skis in July.

I also interviewed half
a dozen Argentine scientists about the perils of practicing science in a country whose economy
is collapsing.


In many ways, Sydney is a thoroughly civilized city. Pedestrians wait patiently on the curb for streetlights to turn green. People can be seen helping total strangers wrestle heavy luggage about the airport. My taxi driver was playing classical music on the radio. On the other hand, they eat baked beans and barely-cooked bacon for breakfast. And Vegemite on toast. Vegemite is a sticky brown paste that tastes like... I simply haven't found an analogy to Vegemite yet.

In some restaurants, they also serve kangaroo. I tried it before I met my first live, fuzzy, nuzzling 'roo in the Rainforest Wildlife Habitat Park in Queensland. Then I felt like I had been eating Bambi. Luckily (for my
peace of mind and the life expectancy of kangaroos) the meat was tough and not particularly flavorful. And no, it did not taste like chicken.

In Cairns, Queensland, a three-hour flight north of Sydney, we were greeted by palm trees and balmy sea breezes. "Welcome to the Tropical North," read the signs, for that's what Queensland is -- Australia's version of Florida.

At a lush green resort on the Queensland coast, nearly 130 HHMI international research scholars from 29 countries were meeting to present their latest work. Between scientific presentations, I interviewed an Israeli researcher about life and work in a war-torn land.

All HHMI-supported scientists speak English; it is a requirement of the grant, but the English they speak isn't necessarily easy to understand, so I taped the interview in addition to taking notes. It was lucky I did both; when I had the tape transcribed, the Israeli's accent turned the interview into an intriguing, if inaccurate tale. "He looked at my lab" became "he looked at my leg," for example. I was glad I had my notes to fall back on to unscramble the transcription.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

I also interviewed half a dozen Argentine scientists about the perils of practicing science in a country whose economy is collapsing. They all wanted to talk at once, but that's a problem with a group interview in any country. I taped that interview too and transcribed it myself.

Cairns is just over an hour's boat ride from the Great Barrier Reef. The scientists took an afternoon off to go snorkeling and met Wally, a Napoleon Maori Wrasse. He was a startling swimming companion, steely blue splotched with green and red, intimidating jaws and a huge hump on his head; a slippery, rubbery, friendly monster of a fish more than two arm-spans in length.

It was my first time putting my face under water and inhaling through a giant straw. A little awkward, but it does work, and coral formations alone make it worth the effort. "Good on 'ya," the snorkeling instructor congratulated me heartily when I clambered out and returned my mask and fins.

There's no place like home

I was away 15 days and traveled through 14 time zones. Our plane left Sydney late, and we missed our connection in Los Angeles to Washington's Dulles International Airport. I lost my Aussie cowboy hat, and the airlines lost my luggage. I didn't get over my jet lag-waking at 3 a.m., falling asleep in mid-day meetings-for nearly a week. And if you asked me to take a trip like that again, I'd be stuffing that suitcase again in a heartbeat.

Related web sites

Article: International Scholars Down Under, HHMI Bulletin, September 2002

Article: Journalist to Science Writer: Jennifer Donovan Discovers her Passion, JYI September 2002

Journal of Young Investigators. 2002. Volume Six.
Copyright © 2002 by Jennifer Boeth Donovan and JYI. All rights reserved.

JYI is supported by: The National Science Foundation, The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Glaxo Wellcome Inc., Science Magazine, Science's Next Wave, Swarthmore College, Duke University, Georgetown University, and many others.
Copyright ©1998-2003 The Journal of Young Investigators, Inc.