Good writing, good science

by Susan (Sanders) Gardner '70, English


Fatty acid-binding protein. Brain organoids. The 22Rv1 prostate cancer cell line. Precursor IGF-II. Aminoflavone. LEDGF/p75 integrase binding domain. IgG antibodies.

What do these scientific terms mean, and how did I, an English major and French minor from Walla Walla College, now University, ever get involved with biomedical research at the doctoral level? This opportunity to work with underrepresented minority scientists was one of the biggest surprises of my career which I had imagined would be teaching high school or college English classes my whole life.

I had a brief brush working with a group of scientists when I was the writing coordinator for the faculty at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. The physics professor and I wrote a National Science Foundation grant which funded an introductory, integrated, writing intensive course for non-science majors from 1996-1998. In addition to writing the grant, my first, I got to teach the course with a physicist, a chemist, and an environmental scientist.

But in 2002 while teaching at La Sierra University, I received a call that would change my life and give me a bird’s eye view of the real world of science research. I helped edit a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant and then began working with the writing of biomedical Ph.D. students, several being non-native English speakers. The early grant grew into bigger grants and soon the Center for Health Disparities and Molecular Medicine (CHDMM) in the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University was launched.

As part of the CHDMM summer programs, I taught gifted high school students interested in science careers as well as worked extensively with graduate students involved in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD). These biomedical researchers needed further support for their writing, and with my background in composition and rhetoric from my Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan and years working with writing across the curriculum, it was a good match.

The main goals of the CHDMM are to increase the number of minority scientists while addressing the health disparities that affect so many minorities. According to the CDC, “health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or in opportunities to achieve optimal health experienced by socially disadvantaged racial, ethnic, and other population groups, and communities.” Thus, these young researchers are working in prostate, pancreatic, and breast cancers and diabetes among other diseases which disproportionately affect various racial and ethnic groups.

These noble goals are what I joined in to help with. I taught writing seminars to first-year IMSD students, writing and publishing workshops for the “veteran” IMSD students, and worked one-on-one with them as they wrote grant proposals, articles for publication, and dissertation chapters. That’s how I learned science terms. And, yes, I am still not a scientist, but I can tell when a sentence filled with science jargon just doesn’t work! One important admission: I am not the only person helping with the writing of these brilliant students. Their principal investigators (PIs), their mentors, know the ins and outs of science publishing, getting proposals funded, and helping with dissertations. I was simply another voice urging them that writing is not frightening; it's do-able and has rewards.

After several years of working with these young researchers, I finally asked the head PI Dr. Marino De Leon what possessed him to add a writing specialist to the NIH grant proposals. He immediately responded: “I can take anyone and teach them to do bench science, but if they cannot write, science goes nowhere.” And, so, what are the results of this writing initiative over the last 20 years? There are 43 Ph.D. graduates with 7 of them having M.D./Ph.D. degrees. They have published 145 articles and the number continues to grow as 34 more Ph.D.s are soon to finish. They present their work at conferences all over the world, and they have gone into prestigious fellowships, industry, medicine and medical research (some with their own funded labs), and teaching.

I have loved making a small contribution and being part of such a dynamic and significant program to support minority scientists. It's been an honor and a pleasure to have served in some capacity toward this work, but I had no idea that my degree from WWU would be the foundation for starting on this journey.

Portrait of Susan Gardner in front of microscope and stack of writing textbooks