Sarah McAnulty on SciComm, Squids, and her Cephalopod Coloring Book

I’m excited to announce that the last book giveaway of 2018 is Sarah McAnulty’s The Ink-Credible Cephalopod Coloring Book. In order to get entered to win a brand new copy of the coloring book, courtesy of the creator herself, you’ll need to sign up for the Read More Science Book Club, my monthly newsletter for science enthusiasts. Instead of coming out at the end of the month as usual, for December the newsletter will be put out early due to holidays at the end of the year. So keep an eye out for it! Due to shipping costs around the holidays, this particular giveaway is limited to the U.S. only. 

Now, without further ado, I am thrilled to bring you an interview with the coloring book creator herself. 

ABOUT SARAH MCANULTY

Sarah McAnulty (she/her) is a squid biologist and science communicator living in Willimantic, CT. She is the founder of SkypeAScientist.com. Learn more about her adventures with squid and #SciComm on her website, or follow her on Twitter for more fascinating squid facts at @SarahMackAttack


How did the idea to make a coloring book themed around cephalopods come about? I recently became a godmother to my cousin’s son Owen and that caused me to start looking at kids’ books. I noticed that octopuses were everywhere but where the heck were all the squid?  I also noticed that people loved when I tweeted simple straightforward facts about cool cephalopods, so I thought maybe I could bring these facts into a book that works for kids and adults! The beauty of the cephalopods is that they have existed for over 500 million years, so they’ve had a LOT of time to develop some really cool approaches to life. The cephalopods are varied and have some totally bananas adaptations. Usually nature shows and kids books feature octopuses but skip over the fantastic squid the world has to offer — I figured it was time to change that. I’m currently a graduate student studying molecular and cell biology, and I’ve found that having a side-project that has an art component is an awesome way for me to relax after thinking about science all day. This was just a perfect storm of a project for me. 

Did you encounter any surprises or challenges while working on your coloring book? I generally just totally underestimated the amount of time involved in making a coloring book!  I got the fact part sorted out pretty quick (I’m effectively a random cephalopod fact generator), but getting the lines all right and then editing and adding finishing touches, like adding a pencil for scale for all the animals took a while. I had some folks edit the manuscript and they were hugely helpful, especially fellow squid biologists and science communicators Casey Zakroff and Danna Staaf. Their comments absolutely made my book stronger. 

Adult-friendly coloring books are quite popular right now. It’s an exciting idea to use them for science communication. Can you discuss the message you hope people get from this book, and maybe why everyday fans of coloring books would enjoy learning about cephalopods?  I want people to have fun while learning about some cool animals they’ve never heard of before!  I find that a lot of adult coloring books have these itsy bitsy little things to color, and I totally get why people think that’s relaxing but they totally stress me out. I made my coloring book with bigger spaces for people to color. Cephalopods are constantly changing their body pattern so it seemed silly to make people draw one particular pattern on their skin anyway. I think it might be fun for people to look these animals up to so they can see the broad and beautiful range of colors these animals can be.  Even though it’s a whole book about cephalopods, people are going to get a wide variety of cool information from the book because cephalopods are all so different from each other. They inhabit almost every marine ecosystem on the planet, so they need super varied lifestyles. Another added bonus? It’s hard to color in the “wrong” color for a cephalopod- they’re always changing 🙂

What’s on your shelf right now? Do you have a favorite cephalopod book, or any recommendations for our readers? Right now I have two books I’m actively reading, but I definitely have some other suggestions if you’re into Cephalopods. I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen L. Brusatte, and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I generally try to keep one fun one and one make-me-better one simultaneously. If you’re into cephalopods, there are some GREAT popular science ones out there. My two favorites are Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire, and Wendy Williams’ Kraken: the Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of SquidSquid Empire was published last year and is so great. Danna is a great and funny writer. She tells the tale of the evolution of squid. I never even thought I would be all that interested in extinct cephalopods until I picked up that book, and I couldn’t put it down.  Kraken is also totally fantastic, it tells the story of squid science through the lens of the scientists who study them. It’s full of great stories about people but still teaches you a lot about the animals themselves. It’s a wonderful read.

Illustrations from The Ink-Credible Cephalopod Coloring Book. Image courtesy of Sarah McAnulty

You’re a squid biologist and an active cephalopod science communicator with a substantial following. How did you end up in that? Do you have any thoughts on how communicating science can be practiced in everyday life? I wish I could say I had some grand plan all along, but this just kinda happened! I’ve always been super excitable about cephalopods and I’ve always been the first person to bring them up at a party, but the Twitter thing just kinda took off. I was doing a crowdfunding effort back in my second year of grad school to support our lab and during that time I was interacting with the public and explaining my work more than I ever had before. I realized I was having more fun doing that than doing science, and I was having plenty of fun doing science. After the crowdfunding effort was over, I continued to engage the public during down-time at work, and the community kept building. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring science communicators? I think that the biggest piece of advice I can give anyone starting out in science communication is to be yourself, and always keep learning. I think it’s useful to just play around and see where you have the most fun.  Maybe your science communication style is best served visually in comics, maybe it’s easier for you to do stand up or write short, quippy tweets. It’s all about finding where you have the most fun because if you’re having fun and being yourself, it makes communicating your science less of a chore and more just a fun activity. Another really important thing to do is find voices that come from backgrounds unlike yours and listen to what they have to say. It’s important to learn from other people and their life experiences. It helps you connect better with people who aren’t like you, and reminds you that everyone is not in the same bubble as you.


Thank you for your thoughtful answers, Sarah! Readers, you can help support Sarah with her science communication efforts by purchasing a copy of her coloring book on Amazon.

Author and Scientist Nick Pyenson shares the books that influenced him

Today Nick Pyenson, author of the recently released Spying on Whales, discusses the books that made an impact on him. For a chance to win a copy of his book, sign up for the Read More Science Book Club, a monthly newsletter for readers of popular science and nonfiction.

Nick Pyenson - credit Carolyn Van Houten
Photo by Carolyn Van Houten

Nick Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His work has taken him to every continent, and his scientific discoveries frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Popular Mechanics, USA Today, and on NPR, NBC, CBC, and the BBC. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House. He lives with his family in Maryland. @PyensonLab 

Author bio courtesy of Penguinrandomhouse.com

Which books inspired or fueled your interest in paleobiology?

You can’t go too far in paleobiology without finding Stephen J. Gould. He was the closest person our discipline has ever had to a cultural celebrity. Gould is never shied from sharing the big ideas in evolution — the graduate school-level issues like tempo, mode, and agency of evolutionary change. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask a reader to confront major intellectual debates, and Gould was great about humanizing this challenge by way of baseball, art, or funny moments in history. Put another way, paleobiologists are not really stamp collecting; instead all of the work is ultimately in service of bigger questions about how life on work has evolved. For me, his Wonderful Life wrapped up all of that quintessential Gould into a book about the record of the first animal life half a billion years ago that still needs to be read.

Neil Shubin’s Inner Fish also has a place in my pantheon for a variety of reasons. It’s completely accessible and its fundamental conceit — that the human body tells us about evolutionary history — will never cease being relevant. It’s also one of the more prominent contributions in a wave of new literature that blends science with first-person narrative in a compelling way. Shubin covers historical advances, findings in his own career, and brings the reader to the field as well. It’s also a work that hangs on a career of the highest quality science. In many ways, it’s obvious that this kind of book was a necessary step for sharing the importance of discoveries like Tiktaalik — a 375 million year-old fossil fish with limbs — with the broadest possible audience.

Also, I have a lot of time for Richard Fortey, who writes so much about what museum scientists do, from the field work to natural history collections. His Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is delightful. Other paleobiologist-autobiography books well worth reading include Michael Novacek’s Time Traveler, and Gary Vermeij’s Privileged Hands.

Lastly, a major influence for a book about whales is Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge. Although many of the evolutionary chronicles in the book are now out of date — a testament, in fact, to how much science can change in 20 years — Zimmer’s mirrored premise still resonates with me because we can best understand a phenomenon such a whale evolution by thinking broadly about other episodes in the history of life where these transitions have happened. Zimmer frames these episodes by emphasizing the distinction between transition (as in land-to-sea) and transformations (what happens to anatomy), which remains a valuable rubric for students of macroevolution.

How has publishing your book Spying on Whales shifted or altered your career as a scientist? 

Writing a book intended for a general audience is a very different task compared with my day job as a scientist. Most of what I accomplish on a daily basis would probably seem esoteric and quietly mundane to the outsider: examining numbered specimens in a museum drawer; downloading datasets and images; or drafting scientific articles for peer-reviewed journals, though I might spend a rare stretch of time on a boat or walking rock outcrop. But all of those small things add up over the years, which makes a book seems like a good place to land all of those story arcs. The small things, after all, should fit under broader themes and questions that investigate the natural world. I think many of my colleagues understand the inclination to write a book, but rightfully balk at the toll and time away from research.

For one thing, the process of book writing happened on top of my day job — in other words, there were still scientific papers to write, committee work, and the usual expectations of being a museum scientist. I downshifted some tasks, but I still organized and led expeditions for international field work. I would say that the process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson. For example, every marine mammal scientist knows that whales are mammals and once lived on land, but that’s not a given for a general reader — and that says a lot about where you can start with readers and where you can take them. Book writing has also made me far less tolerant of sloppy technical writing in scientific papers, for better or worse. Bad writing is annoying and cheap; writing well takes the effort of applying a harsh rubric. Aside from those fresh lessons, I’m most dedicated at the moment to clearing my long backlog of technical manuscripts — I have quite a few colleagues that are waiting on comments and edits — and preparing for future projects.

“The process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson.”

What did the process of moving from scientist to writer look like for you? Were there any challenges you encountered, or surprises you would like to share?

Well, that’s a tricky question because I still think I’m a scientist! Or maybe, I should say, still trying to figure out what it means to be a book author. I think the best answer might be that I’m still trying to navigate the unusual terrain of scientist-author; fortunately, there are so many great role models out with right now with Hope Jahren, Neil Shubin, and many others, who balance the demands of running a research laboratory and communicating to the public. There are, of course, a lot of different kinds of scientists out there (not just principal investigators running labs), and lots of different kinds of book authors — there’s so many ways to potentially combine those two modes.

In some ways, being a museum scientist prepared me a lot for book writing because museums are places where a lot of informal learning happens (in other words, it’s not a classroom and you can’t a degree from it). I’ve spent a lot of my professional career testing different ways of talking about the parts of my research that I think are important to share, especially using different modes whether it’s live-streaming behind-the-scenes activities on social media, 3D printing at large scale, or reporting from the field. Book writing has been special and different from these other ways in scope and method: it was a big platform where I could see how different contributions in my career fit together into a narrative; it allowed me to reflect on what I’ve done and how I did it (namely, with lots of help from colleagues); and it was all an endeavor that was mine alone to accomplish (although I had a great supporting team). I’m happy with the result because it’s very much the book I had wanted to write.

I think anyone who writes a lot will tell you that writing well is hard. Book writing is very different from technical writing in that there’s a real need to think big and small at the same time: invent and refine (and sometimes obliterate) a narrative structure; just get words on a page; and then finesse sections, paragraphs and sentences, sometimes down to specific word choices. It’s demanding and it requires lots of applied effort. I followed a key piece of advice early on in setting aside chunks of time physically away from everyone else to simply do those writing tasks. At times it was tremendously isolating, in a self-imposed way, and so you learn to lean on your support network, especially family and friends — they’re writing the book with you, in many ways.

Book writing also taught me how to edit harshly, on the fly. In the final stages of writing, I felt like I had achieved a kind of editorial superpower, channeling my editor’s voice in my head as I churned out the last few major sections of the book in nearly one go (the prologue and epilogue, actually). I’m not sure that’s persisted, though, because you need to write a lot to stay sharp, like any sport. Lastly, one big piece of advice that’s really hard to swallow: kill your darlings. There’s always a great sentence (in my case, a whole character sketch and side story) that really just gets in the way of the bigger story that you’re trying to tell. It’s for the better. Again, I worked with a great editorial team that really understood me.

What was the most interesting part about moving from reader of science books to author of a science book?

I wrote my book because I wanted to explain, in a clear way, why I spend long periods of time away from my family in remote places to people who may not ever have the opportunity or access to see a living whale. I thought a first-person narrative structure was a good way to accomplish that goal; I really tried to write as if I was explaining various challenges or problems to someone who had never heard of them before, or never had a background in science. Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.

As a long-time reader of science books, I was frustrated by small errors on the easy details: how and when to spell, capitalize, and italicize scientific names; nailing down geologic time periods; or explaining processes clearly, without resorting to cliches or analogies that obscure instead of illuminate. So, in my book, I spent a lot of time getting the facts right, and anchoring statements on published research. There’s quite a long endnotes section with references to original scientific literature, so readers don’t have to take my word for it, but instead can read the scholarship themselves. Put another way, don’t surrender the facts!

“Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.”

What would you say to encourage others to read more science?

There are more great science books out there than ever before, so it’s a great time to discover just the right kind of science book that inspires you. If you’re looking for science books as a gateway drug, I think there ones that highlight discoveries or protracted quests tend to work the best. In many cases, children’s book nail the scope perfectly: Markus Mokum’s Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover is a great example of focusing on a single robot and what it tells us about Mars. Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir is probably the best example of a science book narrative focusing on a basic premise — the fate of a troop of baboons — because it’s actually embedded in story about Sapolsky and his own development as a scientist. I think the “life of a scientist” sub-genre is great for people who may not know what a scientist does or who they can be — Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is an unflinching examination, in that way. One last thing I’d suggest is read authors who have first-hand experience: they don’t need to be scientists, but as a reader you want to trust that they’ve seen the lab equipment, visited the field sites, or gotten to know the study organism in some real way. Avoid the armchair science storytellers.

And lastly, what’s on your own reading list? 

I tend to read several books at once. Right now, I am paging through Emily Watson’s translation of The Odyssey because I somehow skipped over fundamental books from Antiquity in high school; it’s also reassuring to know that some stories and personality types really persist throughout human history. When I need a pause from that, I read a few pieces from Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars collection. I’m trying — and failing — to get through Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. But I’m also the kind of person who will stop reading a book more than half of the way through and pick it up years later (or never). You really don’t want me coming to your book club!


Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Nick

Readers, stay tuned for a review of Spying on Whales and sign up for the monthly newsletter anytime this month for a chance to win a free copy!

Marine Biologist MELISSA CRISTINA MÁRQUEZ Shares Her Favorite Ocean-Inspired Books

Today I am extremely excited to introduce you to Melissa Cristina Márquez, a marine biologist and shark expert who engages in thoughtful science communication on Twitter; she will be debuting on Shark Week this month and is excited to share with you the books that have impacted her.

Melissa Cristina Márquez is a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator with a BA (Hons) in Marine Ecology and Conservation degree from New College of Florida, USA and an MSc in Marine Biology from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. She is a TEDx speaker, founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), host of the Spanish marine conservation podcast ConCiencia Azul (concienciaazulpodcast.weebly.com), and freelance environmental contributor. Márquez can be seen as a co-host on Shark Week 2018, is currently gearing up to go to Antarctica in 2019, and is writing her first children’s book series that focuses on diversity and inclusion in STEM.

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What childhood book inspired you to study marine biology?

Funnily enough, “Chicken Soup for The Ocean Lover’s Soul” by Jack Canfield was one of many books that spiked my curiosity in the ocean. Ever since I was four years old I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, but that book and people’s stories about their varying relationships with the ocean made me want to experience what they had and help others experience it too.

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Do you have a favorite book about protecting the ocean?

Marine bio nerd alert, one of my favorite technical book is “Marine Conservation – Science – Policy – and Management” by G. Carleton Ray and Jerry McCormick-Ray.  I like their take on conservation and how it must be “informed by the natural histories of organisms together with the hierarchy of scale-related linkages and ecosystem processes.”

Do you have any recommendations for readers to learn more about the the ocean, its life, and protecting it?

Today’s world is more connected than ever. And while we also read more than ever (our Facebook and Twitter feeds, storylines of favorite video games, news sites about current affairs, celebrities or favorite sports), when looking for books people want to see how something fits into their lives. One way to turn people on to science is to show them how it’s used in their daily lives. Not only that, but the public image of science can be negative thanks to the portrayal of ‘geeky’ scientists in previous books and TV shows — finding ‘cool’ role models to read about can help, such as Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark, etc. Most importantly, however, I think it is vital we let people decide what books they want to read and trust that they will get to read all the science must-reads in their own way, in their own time. Doesn’t hurt to be a good role model, though; when people see someone who is passionate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about science, it will resonate with them. I try to combine interactive media with textbook knowledge through my program, The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), and that seems to hook the kids in (pun intended). Not to mention we also have a book club through our newsletter, as we believe science literacy is very important!

What books would you recommend to readers who are unfamiliar with marine biology but ready to learn more?

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The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat by Charles Clover. A non-fiction favourite of mine, the 2009 documentary with the same name was actually based on this book! The #1 threat facing our oceans is overfishing (yes, even over plastic pollution) and this book critiques the modern-day fishing industry and talks about the consequences of overfishing… some we are already seeing today.

Blowfish’s Oceanopedia by Tom ‘The Blowfish’ Hird is one of my recent treasured finds. This book is filled with fascinating facts about what lurks beneath the waves.

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The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One by Sylvia A. Earle is another fantastic non-fiction read. It’s an alarming read about the abuse our oceans have suffered, but how there is hope. It’s a National Geographic publication so you know it’s good!  And if you don’t feel like learning and just want to color your own ocean, National Geographic’s Magnificent Ocean – A Coloring Book by Justin Poul is fantastic fun.

LitofSci is working hard to feature books by underrepresented authors. Are there any authors of books on marine biology-related topics that you feel deserve to be included?

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Eye of the Shoal by Helen Scales is a wonderful read about our relationship with fish (an animal most people think as slimy, cold or just food) and how it needs to evolve. I absolutely love If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams and adore Shark Lady by Jess Keating who talk about my favorite subject – sharks! – in such a refreshing way. These two dynamite authors really paint sharks and the people who study them in a great light, and highlight their importance in our oceans.

Thank you Melissa for your wonderful reading suggestions! I think a few of these will need to be featured in upcoming book reviews. Readers, remember to tune into Shark Week on Discovery Channel to see Melissa and learn more about sharks! You can also follow her Twitter.

Do you want to support Melissa’s science? She is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign for a trip to Antarctica with an education program. Any amount you can contribute will help her towards reaching this goal.

How a Childhood Book Inspired a Scientist’s Career

I reached out to Twitter and asked ornithologists what books inspired them to pursue their field of study. Among the answers was an email from Dr. Christopher M. Heckscher, an associate professor of environmental science at Delaware State University. The book that inspired him was a childhood treasure titled Traveling with the Birds by Rudyerd Boulton.

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Published in 1933, Traveling with the Birds was illustrated by American animal artist and National Geographic Illustrator Walter A. Weber. Weber studied art in Chicago and went on to work for the Field Museum of Natural History, which I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time last weekend. As I roamed the Hall of Birds on Saturday, I actually saw some of Weber’s work. He spent some time working for the National Park Service until eventually becoming an ornithologist for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. He would eventually become chief nature artist for the National Geographic Society. 

A first edition copy of Traveling with the Birds in good condition sells for around US $40. It is considered a rare children’s book and illustrations by Weber are somewhat valuable, though you can find vintage prints on Etsy of many of his works. On February 18 in 1934, the New York Times wrote:

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In his email, Dr. Heckscher told me how the beautiful illustrations inspired him to study birds:

The book was given to me by my father about the time he introduced me to birding. It had been an inspiration to him as well.  It was published in 1933 and I’m not sure there was ever a second printing.  I see it’s still available via some second hand booksellers. It was a large book with large beautiful paintings.

The theme of the book was taking the reader on a journey with the birds through text and illustrations. Some birds were migrating, others moving from one place to another searching for food. The descriptions in the text were reflected in the book’s paintings.  I think what made such a big impression on me was the vibrant illustrations that conveyed movement and energy in the subject.  Ducks flying swiftly over ocean waves, a blue jay with an acorn – clearly on a mission.

It’s hard to convey the feeling but it was as if I was really moving with the birds. The book inspired awe in me at how birds were free to move such great distances living out their lives on the wing moving from one world to another. It was not a technical text, but really a book written for older children and adolescents.  I’ve been fascinated with bird behavior and migration ever since.

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I’m glad that Dr. Heckscher took the time to share with me this beautiful book so that I could learn about it and share it on the blog. Children’s books are often something that leaves a long-lasting impression. Many of us can think back and imagine the beautiful illustrations of the stories we poured over, picturing the detail in our heads and imagining the book in our hands as a child. For those of us lucky enough to have kept our childhood copy, we savor the knowledge that we can continue to share it with the next generation. Childhood books are influential and important, contributing to the choices that make us who we are today.

Certainly this was the case for our scientist Dr. Heckscher, who shared in his email that he now “travels with the birds” by using geolocator and GPS tracking devices in his research. Dr. Heckscher holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. and PhD in Entomology and Wildlife Biology from the University of Delaware. In 2016, he received a conservation award:

“Recently, he was the first to document intratropical migration in a Nearctic-Neotropical migrant songbird. That discovery – that each individual Veery migrates between two separate wintering locations – has focused attention on the phenomenon of intratropical movement in North American breeding songbirds which had previously been unknown or otherwise overlooked.”

Thank you very much Dr. Heckscher for sharing your inspiration!