Being a Scientist and a Novelist … Isn’t That an Oxymoron?

Cultural Division of the Sciences and Humanities

We live in a culture where facility with science, facts and numbers are considered left brain activities and creative endeavors like fiction, painting and music are considered right brain activities. Individuals are supposedly trapped into primarily using one half their brain or the other.   Further emphasizing this division, college tracks are separated into the humanities or science & technology, with only a smattering of courses allowed on the other side of the aisle.  In 1959, C.P Snow—a chemist and novelist—called on the British to stop separating the two cultures and to allow greater crossover.  He called the humanists in his country “pessimistic Luddites” and saw the bright future of prosperity and cold war superiority in science—but a humanized science.  His short book on the topic became hot in the US as we ramped up our own science and technology for the space age.  1

Left Brain- Right Brain Theories and Handedness 

In the 1980s, left brain- right brain theory was popularized and remains so to this day.  You can take quizzes online to find out your brain dominance and personality.  These theories started with the over-interpretation of a case study involving an epilepsy patient whose corpus callosum was surgically severed to control his seizures.  The corpus callosum, Latin for tough body, is a fiber network joining the right and left hemispheres.  This surgery helped the patient’s seizures, but messed up his ability to process information and move in a side-specific manner. 2

This myth of right- and left brained people is perpetuated by many factors, including our observations of right- and left-handed people.  Lefties comprise only ~10% of the population (and have been since prehistoric days) and are expected to be more creative.  Based on that, you would guess that a room full of scientists would all be right-handed and if they were all sitting at tables taking notes, no one would have to worry about bumping elbows.  It was after an elbow bump during a meeting tightly packed around a table that I first realized at least half my molecular biology, pharmacology and chemistry colleagues were left-handed.  I felt a little left out as a rightie, as if maybe I had a creativity disadvantage.  But scientific study does not support this common stereotype 3, and instead some hypothesize left-handedness remains in the gene pool due to an association with competitiveness. 4

The author as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Yale University (left) and more recently at her writing desk (below)

Myths and Truths on Left-Right Brain Use

Scientific inquiry over the last 20 years has enabled us to measure the size and activity of different brain regions in living humans and even dogs.  Imaging can be done in people who are doing nothing in particular (the default brain network) and while they are engaged in specific tasks.  These types of studies have verified that righties have most of their motor functions controlled by the left motor cortex, while lefties have more controlled by the right motor cortex, but with not as much of a preference as righties.  That makes it easier for lefties to become ambidextrous and cope with a broken left arm. 5

There are many functions that tend to be more predominant on one side of the brain verses the other (lateralization) and it’s an expanding area of research.   More of the functions associated with language are found on the left, while attention and non-verbal communication is more focused in the right brain.  But imaging has allowed us to see that for individuals, we are not predominantly using only one side of our brains verses the other outside of our motor functions. 6

The Gorgeous Corpus Callosum

I want to put in a plug here for the beautiful brain and the amazing corpus callosum.  It is the largest white matter tract in the brain and allows for exquisite coordination of left and right hemispheres.  It’s only found in placental mammals and the complex lateralization and interplay between hemispheres in humans is not found in mouse brains, the species I most studied.  The corpus callosum and its complexity are part of what makes us human.

Corpus Callosum in Red
Images are generated by Life Science Databases(LSDB)., CC BY-SA 2.1 JP

Science-Trained Authors

So now that we’ve got the handedness and left-right brain story a little bit explained, what about a scientist becoming a successful novelist?  Most people would think the link with science fiction was pretty reasonable.  Andy Weir, author of The Martian, is a computer programmer who we can put into the analytical scientist bucket. But many would be surprised at the inclusion of Vladimir Nabokov and Lewis Carroll on the list.  Contemporary biologist/authors of other types of fiction include: 

  • Diana Gabaldon- the Outlander series
  • Barbara Kingsolver- The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, The Lacuna
  • Delia Owens- Where the Crawdads Sing
  • Lisa Genova- Still Alice, Inside the O’Briens, Love Anthony 
  • Brandon Taylor- Real Life

Many physicians and psychologists are also successful authors and there’s even a website at NYU that helps you find not only medically oriented authors but also good literature including science.  Think about Anton Checkov, William Carlos Williams, W. Somerset Maugham, Abe Kobo and Percy Walker in an earlier era.  More modern physician/authors include:

  • Kaled Hosseini- The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns
  • Abraham Verghese- Cutting for Stone
  • Chris Cleve– Little Bee, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Incendiary
  • Irvin Yalom- Lying on the Couch, When Nietzsche Wept, The Spinoza Problem
  • Carol Cassella- Oxygen, Healer, Gemini
  • Perri Klass- The Mercy Rule, The Mystery of Breathing
  • Melissa Yuan-Innes/ Melissa Yi- Code Blues, Life Support, Terminally Ill
  • Tess Gerritsen- Girl Missing, The Apprentice, The Bone Garden

The works of these authors span genres and although many include significant components of their scientific/medical expertise, many do not.  You’ll find little bits in my novels, and I hope to join the ranks of these distinguished published authors soon.

As a Willow Grows So Does a Story

willow over goldfish pond

One of the most common questions people ask an author is:  How long did it take to write the book?  Some writers churn out a book a year and others take 5 or 10 years.  The answer for me with Breathing Water is more complicated and I’ll tell the story with this willow tree.  

Author at the start of Breathing Water

Why did I choose a willow tree?

My fascination with willows began at a botanical garden where I took a photo of a willow tree reflected in a goldfish pond.  It hung in my office for years and I loved the form of the tree and the abstract quality of the image and reflections with the fish underwater.  Many years later, I made up a story featuring a willow tree during a writing group I helped facilitate at the jail.  It was about a girl whose loving memories of visiting her grandmother were intertwined with the big willow tree she would play and hide in.  I was thrilled when my husband decided to plant one in our yard. Little did I know that I would have a granddaughter before my first book was published, and she has already enjoyed pulling on the fronds. Maybe this tree will have a magical place in her life as well.

Learning How to Write

Part of writing my first novel was learning how to be a writer.  It’s different than writing scientific articles! Partly, you can only learn by doing, but it is a craft and it’s something you need to work at.  I didn’t want to go to school again for an MFA, and I tend to be a do-it-yourself type, so I used multiple sources to help me learn. 

Books about writing, some of my favorites were: 

Writing groups and workshops:

Writer’s Digest magazine & conference

Lots of reading and of course always writing and getting feedback early on about what was working for people.

I started more seriously when I retired from my position as a research scientist in January of 2016. By October I felt like I was in writing mode enough that I asked my husband to take a photo of me by this young willow tree to mark the real start, even though I continue to learn by doing.

So How Long Did It Take to Write Breathing Water?

I had a lot of story to tell, over 3 generations of women from 1917 to 2017, so I finished a monster story 3 1/2 years later in May of 2020.  The willow, since it’s planted on an ideal wet site in the open, grew rather quickly by then and we marked the occasion with more photos.

after writing a monster-sized story

That’s Henry, my buddy, who loves to keep me company in the woods during my daily walk.  The willow grew so much that a robin built a nest in it that year.

robin’s nest

My story was too long for one book, but once I moved the story in my mind to my computer, I could decide how to divide it into two books, leaving some parts behind and writing fresh sections.  The first book from this series is Breathing Water, which I completed on February 21, 2021 and sent out to beta readers over the next week.  But it isn’t really done until it’s published and I’ll have more edits to do at different stages in the process.  So how long did it take me to write the book?  Something shy of 5 years, I guess you can say, or the time it took for a willow tree to mature.  The second book will probably take ~ 1 year to trim into shape, so that would be 2 books at an average of 3 years-ish.  Not too bad for a start, I guess, and I’ve got ideas for the next 2 books after.  I wonder how long they will take?

Donna Barten: Writer, Scientist and One Who Wonders…

I first became interested in writing fiction while co-leading writing groups in a women’s prison.  I volunteered with Voices From Inside as a balance to my work as a research neuroscientist, where I ran a lab studying treatments for Alzheimer’s disease for over 20 years.  In these small groups of women I not only heard many unexpected stories, but found that I enjoyed writing my own.  I began to embellish, change and create new characters and eventually the characters in Breathing Water and Imprint and Inheritance demanded my full attention.  Over the next five years I invested in learning the craft of writing fiction as I created these two novels and now I can’t imagine a life without this kind of writing.

You may wonder how science and writing fiction could fit together.  As a scientist I am always asking questions.  “What makes a normal nerve cell become abnormal?  How does that cell cause its neighbors and then the whole brain to move out of equilibrium and cause functional changes?”  As a writer I ask similar questions.  “If a character has a significant mental health challenge or an addiction, how does it affect not only their own life and dreams, but also those around them, and then those in the next circle around them?  What becomes embedded in the family dynamic?”  I also like to plant each character squarely in their times and culture and thoroughly enjoy the research involved in adding those historical details. 

I often work out plot points during long daily walks with our two dogs, Henry and Jocco and they keep me company, i.e. sleep, as I write.

In my spare time I garden, cook and do volunteer work.  I am a practicing Christian and live in rural Connecticut with my husband. We have two children and two grandchildren.  I often work out plot points during long daily walks with our two dogs, Henry and Jocco and they keep me company, i.e. sleep, as I write.