Andromeda galaxy. NASA
Andromeda galaxy. NASA

Please Welcome Nadia Drake, the Newest Member of Phenomena

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Fifteen months ago, Virginia Hughes, Brian Switek, Ed Yong, and I joined National Geographic to form Phenomena. I’m delighted that our circle is now expanding. Starting today, science writer Nadia Drake will be writing “No Place Like Home.” I’ve followed Nadia’s work for the past couple years, but I’ve never had the chance to talk to her. To celebrate her debut, I asked her some questions about her past and future.

Your father is Frank Drake, of the famed Drake Equation. What was it like growing up with a dad spending so much time thinking about life in the universe?

Grand cosmic questions loomed large in our home, in a good way. The walls were filled with astronomy related artwork, the shelves stuffed books about the stars; we have a rendering of the Pioneer plaquePioneer plaque by the door, and a stained glass window depicting the Arecibo message. There’s a chunk of the meteorite that created Meteor Crater in Arizona sitting on the mantle. My parents used to host observing nights for my elementary school classes – in the backyard — and my sister and I would go with my dad’s college classes to look through the big telescopes at the Lick Observatory.

I learned a lot of astronomy by diffusion. Following dad to lectures or observatories, and tagging along to meetings overseas meant meeting a lot of very thoughtful scientists.

Dad is also hilarious, and exceedingly humble. We rarely knew when he was going to be on TV and often learned about it the next day from classmates and friends. But more than that, I learned by example that it’s OK to be interested in, and fascinated by, a variety of questions. It’s OK to cast a wide intellectual net. Our house wasn’t just filled by astronomy – my dad’s orchids and his wine-making and other projects were just as visible.

What was the path you took to becoming a science writer?

I took the long way. Started out planning on a professional dance career, then made a left turn and switched to academics when it was time for college. Later, that road would turn back on itself and I would end up dancing professionally after all, which was a pleasant surprise and one of the most fulfilling (and hardest) jobs I’ve had.

Along the way, I seriously considered law school, but ended up ditching those plans and working in a clinical genetics lab at Johns Hopkins Medical School, looking for abnormalities in fetal chromosomes. After that, I went to graduate school at Cornell University, where I worked in an epigenetics lab and studied a gene that’s imprinted in neonatal mouse brain — in other words, copies of the gene are either turned on or off, depending on whether they were inherited from the father or the mother.

It was only after I finished my PhD that I finally returned home to Santa Cruz and enrolled in the Science Communication program at UCSC. That was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Since then, the road has been much straighter and the trip much faster, and I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in the (nearly) three years since I’ve been at UCSC.

Before coming to Phenomena, where have you been writing, and what have you been writing about?

My first reporting job was as the astronomy reporter at Science News, based in Washington, D.C. When I moved back to California, I started writing for WIRED, where I report on the life and materials sciences – from giant spiders through marine mammals to materials that change color when they stretch. I’m also working on astronomy features for the news section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While at UCSC, I interned at Nature and wrote about everything from human ancestors to rogue planets, and also spent two quarters interning at Bay Area newspapers, which I loved.

I’m really looking forward to getting back on the astronomy news beat at Phenomena!

What can we expect from the blog?

A thoughtful exploration of the science probing everything that isn’t on planet Earth. I’m aiming for a mix of stories – many about recently published research, but also some excursions into astro history, perhaps some profiles of scientists, some obsession-driven posts. And lots of great photos. Maybe I’ll even open up the Frank Drake archives from time to time. As I get going, I’d be interested in hearing feedback from readers. Which stories or topics are the most satisfying?

Blogging is an excuse for writers to put their obsessions on public display. What obsesses you?

Above all, words. Using language to express ideas that are slippery, to describe something intangible or relay a visceral experience, in a way that leaps off pages or screens – it’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Words are powerful and meant to be used properly.

My other obsessions tend to be fairly transient in duration – I’ll plunge into a subject or idea for a short but utterly immersive period, then slip quietly out and move on to the next. That said, some obsessions do recur. In astronomy? Iapetus, a cranky, bizarre moon of Saturn. Type 1a supernovas – what in the world is going on with those? Ancient observatories, those sites where scientists and philosophers convened to observe the skies. And of course, exoplanets. Also exomoons. For some reason, I really, really love the idea of exomoons.

In life? Ballet. Champagne. I love a good glass of bubbly more than just about anything.

(What are your obsessions, Carl?) [Ed. note: These days, oxygen, for some reason.]

You’ve written about some strange science—what’s the weirdest thing you’ve written about so far?

This question made me laugh. The jungle spiders that build spider-shaped decoys in their webs are definitely bizarre. But using a sky crane to lower a giant robot onto another planet? Totally nuts.