National Writing Project

Why I Write: Elizabeth Murchison Stresses the Importance of Writing for Scientists

Date: November 14, 2011

Summary: Elizabeth Murchison is a scientist who works on the genetics of cancer in Tasmanian devils. She stresses the importance of writing even for scientists in order to get research done and disseminate results to the scientific community.


I'd like you to take a moment to conjure up in your mind an image of a scientist at work. What do you see? Probably someone wearing a white lab coat peering at test tubes filled with brightly coloured chemicals. I strongly doubt that your imaginary scientist is sitting in the library typing an essay on a word processer.

You might be surprised to hear that scientists do spend much of their time writing, and that writing is just as important a part of being a scientist as doing experiments in the lab.

Why do scientists need to write? Let me tell you about why I write. I am a biologist working on the genetics of cancer in Tasmanian devils. The goals of my research are to uncover the genes that are mutated in Tasmanian devil cancer. However, when I started this research I did not simply throw on a lab coat and head for the lab; before I could start anything I needed to write proposals to funding bodies and to persuade them that their money would be well spent supporting my research. As my experiments started to produce results I needed to write them up in scientific papers for publication and dissemination to the scientific community.

Scientists are in fact judged on their ability to produce and publish papers. Jobs and research funding in science hinge on the quality and quantity of research papers. The scientific community relies on reading and writing research papers to communicate and build upon our results and ideas.

Another reason why I write is that I enjoy it! I gain a great satisfaction from producing a concise, readable narrative describing my experiments, proposing explanations for unexpected results and summarizing new discoveries.

If you think back now to your imaginary scientist, perhaps this time you will see her dashing out of the lab, having just made a ground-breaking new discovery, and settling down to write it up and to share it with the world.

About the Author Elizabeth Murchison grew up in Tasmania, the island home of the small, aggressive marsupial known as the Tasmanian devil. In the mid-'90s, the devils were beset with a terrible new disease—a contagious facial cancer, spread by biting, that killed the animals just as they reached breeding age. By 2008, half the devil population of Australia had contracted the cancer and died. And as Murchison says: "I didn't want to sit back and let the devils disappear."

Watch Elizabeth Murchison's TED Talk

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