Jeanne Miller: A Life Writing About Science for Children
As a science writer, Jeanne Miller seems omnivorous in her interests and curiosity for topics ranging from the extinction of the dinosaurs, to gravity waves, to the chemistry of human taste and smell.
In that way, she is like the children she writes for, who want to know everything, Miller says, about how the world works.
“I think kids are natural scientists,” Miller said during an interview at her home in Berkeley, Calif. “They see the world around them, and they want to know more and more and more. I want to educate kids about science, and part of that is I know they love it.”
Miller, who has written dozens of articles for children’s science magazines such as MUSE, Odyssey and Cricket, is a two-time winner in the Children’s Science News category of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
In 2018, she won the Gold Award for her article about Guinea worm disease, which is contracted from drinking water contaminated with tiny fleas containing the worm larvae. The worms, which can grow within the human body to two feet long or more, eventually emerge through the skin. Her previous AAAS Kavli award, in 2011, was for an article she wrote about the ecosystem of the canopy of old-growth redwood trees.
From the time Miller was very young and growing up on a farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, her boundless curiosity was apparent. Starting at about eight years old, she would pore over the “Book of Knowledge” encyclopedias. Later, she read Isaac Asimov’s “The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science.”
“My siblings and I devoured those books,” she said.
In fact, as a child, Miller was very interested in science, even qualifying for a district-wide science fair, where she says her abandoned bee nest that she used to demonstrate the stages of bee development got little attention amid much more elaborate projects.
“Everyone else's projects had bells and whistles," she said. “They were so far ahead of me technologically.”
When it came time for her to choose between math and English as a college major, she chose English. She already had a mostly dormant desire to be a writer.
That desire remained in the background as Miller moved to Berkeley in 1973 and took a job as an administrative assistant at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (now known as Berkeley Lab), where her curiosity, her quick smile and her warm, kind laugh must have worked magic on the scientists who worked there. Miller says she found them very willing to satisfy her craving for learning about scientific topics.
“They were all thrilled to explain their work to someone who was interested,” Miller said.
In 1981, Miller and her husband had a son, Benedict, and over the years she sometimes brought Beni’s questions to the scientists at the lab. They filled her in on such topics as black holes, she brought the information to Beni, and he shared it at school.
After a long period of trying her hand at writing children’s picture books and novels, Miller attended a writing conference in 1992 at which Kent Brown, publisher of Highlights magazine and Boyds Mills Press, spoke. His presentation directed Miller to the world of children’s magazines, with Brown pointing out that children’s magazines often had a much larger audience than children’s books.
Miller’s interests in writing and nearly everything science were about to gel. By then an administrator at the lab, she was in charge of a scientists-in-residence program that had brought a top theoretical physicist to the lab. By that point, she had been subscribing to Odyssey magazine. Practically on a whim, she asked the editor if the magazine might have space for an article on the physicist and his work. There was a good spot for it, she was told, in an issue with the theme of “the life of a scientist.” The interview was funny and appealing, and Miller had taken a big step forward.
“I felt powerful,” when the article was published, she said. “Writing for kids is where my heart is. I know that what you read as a child can definitely put you on a path toward a career in science.”
More assignments followed, and Miller published three or four articles a year while still working at the lab. Some were about ideas she brought to magazines via query letters. Some were assigned, such as an article about wild mustangs and the one about the ecosystem within the canopy of old redwoods that earned her first AAAS Kavli award—pieces she had only ten days each to research and write.
Although Miller loves to pursue her own interests as a science writer — “I try to fit my interests into the magazines’ themes,” she said — it’s clear she becomes fully engrossed even if a topic arises from an editor’s, rather than her own, idea.
With most articles, Miller says, she follows the research path or life trajectory of a scientist in order to tell her story. “I think that makes it much richer,” Miller said. “Introducing a personality and following them as they encounter setbacks makes the articles much more accessible.”
For her article on Guinea worm disease, "Fighting to the End," Miller focused on the work of Donald Hopkins, special advisor for Guinea worm eradication at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Having grown up African American in segregated Miami in the 1950s, Hopkins worked relentlessly to get uncontaminated water to rural Africans, a population that had often been forgotten by governments and international organizations.
Now retired from her day job, Miller says she writes or does research every day. She is currently working on articles, as well as two book ideas, which she hopes her AAAS Kavli awards might help her attract interest from a publisher. With her limitless curiosity, she says she sometimes gets so wrapped up in the research of a topic that she can hardly stop herself in order to start writing.
“The projects really take over my life,” she said, adding that she has absolutely found her calling.
“I think this is the best career possible. I pick a topic I’m interested in and call a scientist to explain it in a way a kid can understand. It’s an entry point to talking with the experts. It’s such a gift.”
Associated home page image: Rafic Khouri