How one biology professor uses Medium to reach a broad audience with his research and ideas
An interview with Brent R. Stockwell, Ph.D.
Brent Stockwell is a biochemistry professor at Columbia University and the chair of the biology department. His research focuses on the effects of cell metabolism and cell death (including a type of that process he discovered, called ferroptosis) on health and disease and how those phenomena might be used to develop new medicines. His work has been published in numerous academic journals and he is the author of The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicine. He began writing on Medium in November of 2022.
I spoke to him about how he got started on the platform, the value of Medium to academics, what advice he has for other Medium writers, and more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jon Gluck: You started writing on Medium roughly a year ago. What sort of writing were you doing before then?
Brent Stockwell: I’ve published more than 180 scientific papers in research journals, mostly for scientists, graduate students, and undergraduates in science, and about 10 years ago, I wrote a book. I wanted to get out to a more general audience and have people understand the things I was excited about. Big advances in science can take years to percolate out, and I wanted to share some of the things we were working on, even if they were only in the early stages, to get people excited about them. And so I wrote The Quest for the Cure, about how drugs are discovered, and how we and other people are going about solving the big challenges in making truly transformational therapies.
JG: How did you get interested in Medium?
BS: The book did well and it was favorably reviewed, but it didn’t get out to a very large audience because it was published by an academic press. So I thought, Okay, I really want to try to reach out to more people in some way, and maybe the way to do that is to write science articles meant to engage lay people.
I went around to the general science magazines, and I talked about the kind of work we’re doing, and they all said, “It’s sort of esoteric. I don’t think people are going to be interested.” Frankly, I was frustrated. Then when I heard about Medium, I thought it was perfect because I could tell my story directly to people.
There’s the editor as mentor and the editor as gatekeeper, and I think when the editor is the gatekeeper, they’re just keeping out a lot of things that in the end people might really enjoy.
JG: What was your first Medium post?
BS: Last November, my graduate student had been interviewed on TV in Iceland about a project we’re working on. It’s different from my other work; we’re searching for life on Mars. And so I wrote about that. After that, I started posting about some of the ideas I’m thinking about for a new book I’m working on. It’s a good way to see what interests people.
Our search for life on Mars
Congratulations to Joleen! I want to congratulate my graduate student Joleen Csuka, who was interviewed by a TV news…
JG: What were your first impressions of Medium?
BS: I found it to be great. It’s so easy to post things and format things and drop in images. It’s very intuitive and simple. I also like that people are really engaged, and It’s a good community. Rarely do I get vitriolic comments or haters or out-of-left field things. Even the negative feedback I’ve gotten has been respectful. I didn’t feel attacked or threatened.
But probably the most important thing I’ve gotten from Medium is becoming a better writer. When I started posting, I thought of myself as a pretty good writer. But then I started writing for a publication on Medium called Wise & Well. The editor, Rob Britt, started giving me tips (put the interesting stuff up front, in each sentence and in each paragraph; give a short summary of the main findings near the top of the story, in case people don’t read the whole thing), and I realized I have a lot to learn. You can always become a better writer, especially when you’re writing in a new style, and writing for a popular audience was not the kind of writing I was used to. Since then, I’ve taken some courses (“Writing With Flair: How to Become an Exceptional Writer,” on Udemy) and read some books (The Elements of Style) about writing. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better, but I also see how much further I have to go.
JG: What makes Medium useful for academics?
BS: Among the community, you find people who are interested in academic information, research, and scholarship, and non-academic people, too. You can choose the level you want to tell a story at. You can tell it at a very technical level, you can tell it at a level that anyone can understand, or anything in-between, whatever you think is appropriate. If you’re writing for Scientific American, they’re going to tell you it has to be at a certain level and you might not be happy with the way the story comes out. But you can control that on Medium.
You can also publish whatever you like, and the editing is up to you. At one point I pitched an op-ed to the New York Times, and I actually got them engaged with the idea. But then we went back and forth with the editing, and in the end they were like, “We don’t think this is going to work.” So I wasted a lot of time.
I don’t want to say editors aren’t valuable. As I mentioned, my editor on Wise & Well is incredibly valuable. However, if I don’t agree with a publication editor on Medium, I can just publish the story on my own page. You can’t do that in these other venues. There’s the editor as mentor and the editor as gatekeeper, and I think when the editor is the gatekeeper, they’re just keeping out a lot of things that in the end people might really enjoy.
JG: Do you have a favorite post you’ve written?
BS: There’s one I put up on my own page before I started writing for Wise & Well. I read what I thought was an interesting study in an obscure scientific journal, and I wrote a story about it called “Can You Get Pancreatic Cancer on a Vegan Diet?” It got almost 9,000 views, which is pretty good, plus a lot of engagement, comments, and clapping. I think diet is something a lot of people are interested in. Not fad diets, but diets driven by science that maybe relate to their lifestyle. It was helpful for me to see how people engaged with that.
Can you get pancreatic cancer on a vegan diet?
A new paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the quality of food in a plant-based diet is…
JG: How do you decide what to write about?
BS: Anytime we have something from my lab that we’re publishing a paper on, I post about that. But that’s not that often because it takes awhile to publish papers. I also have alerts set up for new papers published in the scientific literature on a variety of topics. I look at those every morning, just to keep up with the literature and to look for story ideas. If I see something that interests me, I post about it.
JG: What’s your writing process?
BS: Getting from the story idea to the article is still hard for me. I can write for scientists very easily. In ten minutes, I can be like, “This is what they found, they used this model, here’s the results, this is why it’s interesting.” Done. But figuring out how to talk about complex scientific subjects in a way that anyone can understand is hard for me. I still struggle with that.
Probably the most important thing I’ve gotten from Medium is becoming a better writer.
JG: Do you have a specific time of day you write? A particular place?
BS: I generally write at home, first thing in the morning, with a cup of tea. That’s when I’m energized, the juices are flowing, and I can really think. After a couple of hours, I put away what I’m working on until the next day. I can do editing at night if I’ve already got a decent draft, but I can only do the hard work of writing for a few hours at a time in the morning.
JG: Are there other writers or publications on Medium you recommend people follow?
BS: Obviously I like Wise & Well. And I like following Medium’s CEO, Tony Stubblebine. Because I didn’t know a lot about Medium before I got started, hearing his perspective on what’s happening on the platform and where it’s going is always interesting to me.
JG: Before we wrap up: You’ve done a lot of research on diet and disease. What should I eat?
BS: For specific diseases, it depends on the context. But for general health, I like the MIND diet, which is basically like the Mediterranean diet, but it has some additional things like berries and leafy greens that promote brain health.
JG: Okay, last question. What advice do you have for other Medium writers, especially other professors?
BS: I’d say work on learning how to write for a general audience. It’s worth it, and not only because people will like your articles on Medium. I’m writing a grant proposal now for a foundation that looks for out-of-the box things. Some of the reviewers will be people not in my field, and now I can tell a story for generalists.
I also find writing for a broad readership personally fulfilling. There are a crazy number of incredible things happening in my field and in other areas that nobody knows about. If it’s interesting and important, and it’s what I love to do, wouldn’t I want to share that with the rest of the world?
Follow Brent Stockwell here to read all of his stories.
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