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
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, www.hhmi.org.
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.
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.
Web sites related to this topic
Where I ended up going
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.
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
in Action" feature on the HHMI Web site.
about Jennifer Donovan's trip
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
Location of Singapore, Singapore: 1:22:00N
Location of Sydney, Australia: 33:55:00S 151:17:00E
Location of Washington, D.C: 38:54:18N
to go calculate distances between these places.
Way out in the U.K.
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."
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."
Ben, London, England
PHOTO COURTESY: J. DONOVAN
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
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.
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.
- a fine city
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.
FOR TRAVELING SCIENCE WRITERS
from Jennifer Donovan
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.
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.
your watch to the new time zone before you get there.
It helpswith jet lag.
skip meals, and do get enough sleep. If you feel like
you need a nap, make time for it.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
also interviewed half
a dozen Argentine scientists about the perils of practicing
science in a country whose economy
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
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
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.
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.
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
Opera House, Sydney, Australia
PHOTO COURTESY: J. DONOVAN
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.
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.
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
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
International Scholars Down Under, HHMI Bulletin,
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