• Fiona Chang

Interview with Ms. Ellen Kuwana

Ms. Ellen Kuwana is a freelance science writer as well as the founder of We Got This Seattle, a volunteer effort that brings meals to frontline workers. I was given the chance to sit down with Ms. Kuwana over a Zoom meeting to learn more about incorporating her love for writing in science.

Throughout our discussions, Ms. Kuwana emphasized the idea of how there isn't a set route when it comes to science writing, in addition to diversity in the workplace, whether that be in terms of education or demographics.

Q: Could you please introduce yourself and how you got here?

A: "My name is Ellen Kuwana. I have a master's degree in Neuroscience from UCSF. Both of my parents are chemists, so I've always absorbed that science was important... it wasn't the thing I was strongest at - I was good at reading and writing - but went to University of Kansas majoring in Biology, and then got a job at UCSF."

Ms. Kuwana then went to work at the lab of Marc Tessier-Lavigne, current president of Stanford. She found a fully funded program for masters students in which she attended. She realized in graduate school how much she loved talking to people about their projects, which would later blend into her career of science education.

"There weren't many science writing programs, but during graduate school I started asking others in the lab if they had anything, and it became where people would say 'Hey Ellen will take a look at this'... and the after I got my master's, I got a job at the UCSF newspaper to get more formal experience in writing and editing..."

Q: When did you truly realize that you wanted to go into STEM, or even what you currently do today?

A: "What I emphasize to people to people is to learn to work with people, work hard, and be willing to accept feedback."

"I didn't feel like science was the thing I was best at... but if you feel it's important... once you learn information you can't forget it."

Ms. Kuwana always knew she was going to go into science, but also loved working with kids - she's been a gymnastics coach for 30 years.

"Science writing is challenging in that there's no set route. You can approach it from many different ways - there's more diversity."

In a small science writing group she's in, it's estimated that around half the members have a science background while the other half came from an English or some other background.

Q: Did you ever notice the division between males and females interested in STEM? If so, what are your thoughts?

A: "When you start out in your career, you don't notice it much... and then you get sensitized and notice it. I noticed that in meetings men will start talking immediately..."

We then had a discussion about how girls and boys have different expectations even in early education. For example, boys tend to more quickly speak their mind while girls tend to think more. Men dominate the conversation - they're the political leaders, chairs, division chairs.

"If more than half of the med students in the US are women why aren't they more fairly represented in the later levels?"

Ms. Kuwana also gave a bit of advice based on her own experience. Everything comes back to networking, finding a good mentor, and not doubting yourself, according to her. Women often feel impostor syndrome, but you have to stop and think - cheerlead yourself.

"Even when you doubt yourself, just say yes."

We talked a little more about the division of men and women in the workplace. Women in general are more willing to understand critique.

"I have left at least two jobs because I didn't feel valued as a woman and I wasn't the only woman who left."

The conversation ended with a call for an institutional systemic policy.

Q: Do you have any anecdotes, positive or negative, that you’d like to share? Or any of your experiences?

A: "There's one story I like to tell about why diversity in the workplace and in research is really important."

Ms. Kuwana spent 6 years at the Seattle Children's Research Institute as the sole communications expert in the bioethics center. Her team was given a situation where families had heard of a very promising medicine that was about to go into trials with a limited number of spots. They concluded that limiting the spots would be ethical - as it's a researcher's job to get the best research possible. They came up with a solution pretty quickly, or so they thought...

"I was the only woman in the room. One guy said 'I will email families, and it will be first come, first serve' and I raise my hand and say 'If you do that you’re going to get parents and older children you’re not gonna get smaller kids, or busy parents who aren’t checking their emails.'"

They hadn't thought of working versus stay at home parents, how emails would benefit one while phone numbers would benefit the other.

I greatly enjoyed speaking to Ms. Kuwana about her path into science writing, experiences in the workplace, and the internal struggle of doubt and impostor syndrome. It gave me insight into the world of science from a female standpoint, and I hope that you, as the reader, learned something new as well.

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