Erika Szymanski is a new CMB affiliate faculty member in the Department of English. Her research concerns how words function as scientific tools, particularly for constituting relationships among microbes and humans. She also teaches, researches, and maintains a professional practice in science communication, especially writing for professional stakeholder audiences.
Describe your career path.
I was convinced that I wanted to go into microbiology from age 12, though that never stopped me from enjoying writing and humanities. I chose to attend a small liberal arts college for exactly that reason—I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into biology and never leave the lab. So I took an unusual number of advanced humanities and music electives, spent my summers in labs, graduated with a molecular biology degree, and earned a MS in microbiology with a focus in bacterial host-pathogen interaction.
Around this time, I realized that I was using my days to generate big piles of trash and little piles of numbers and then staying up until obscenely late hours writing. What really interested me, it turned out, was how knowledge is made through language, and I loved to write. So I earned a second masters in rhetoric and composition, studying how biology students learn to become apprentice-professional science writers. I found that the most interesting and valuable questions for me were about how language connects knowledge communities—how we communicate in ways that enable scientific and other ways of knowing to work together on shared problems. That interest took me to a PhD program in science communication in New Zealand, where I studied how writing mediates relationships among scientists, winemakers, and wine growers.
In the first month of pursuing that degree, I realized that the critical approaches that I was using are most often part of science and technology studies or STS, an interdisciplinary field concerned with the entanglement of science and society. When I graduated, I was fortunate to find a (unbelievably cool) postdoctoral position in one of the relatively few STS departments, at the University of Edinburgh. I studied rhetorical and multispecies dimensions of the synthetic yeast project, an international consortium effort to construct the first complete and comprehensively redesigned eukaryotic genome entirely from laboratory-synthesized DNA. When a position for an assistant professor of rhetoric of science and microbiome cluster initiative faculty hire opened up at CSU, it was an obvious fit, and I’ve felt that way ever since I arrived in August 2019.
What made you choose academic over other career paths?
This was never a question for me. The thing that makes waking up in the morning worthwhile is pursuing interesting questions and synthesizing unexpected connections to address them, in ways that might reconfigure taken-for-granted expectations. Academia is stupidly hard work, but I like hard work, and it gives me the freedom to think creatively and define my own agendas in the interdisciplinary ways that I think our current Anthropocene moment demands.
What are the big questions you want to answer through research?
The biggest question is: how do we (“we” in the broadest possible sense) build future worlds in which humans and other creatures live well together? The bit of that question that shapes my current research is: how could biotechnologies be shaped to work toward those futures? And the even smaller question: what kinds of language tools do we have, and what kinds of language tools do we need, for making sense of microbial capacities in terms of how we might work with them?
What does your research team look like?
Faculty in English don’t typically have “labs,” but I still prefer to work in research teams. As I’m still quite new, I currently work with masters students in English, but I’ll be hiring two postdocs to work on interdisciplinary team projects this summer. I’m enthusiastic about co-supervising students who are interested in interdisciplinary connections across sciences and humanities.
How do you achieve work/life balance?
I try to avoid thinking in terms of binaries, so work/life balance doesn’t make much sense to me. Much of what I read is for both fun and work, STS research can mean having a conversation in a pub, and as I’ve also written about wine science for most of the past decade, wine tasting can absolutely be work! Instead, I try to ask myself: what’s a good thing to be doing now, in this moment?
Who is your scientific hero?
I don’t usually talk about heroes because that concept tends to perpetuate unhelpful ideals about individual (too often white, male, western) geniuses who single-handedly do great things, when science so rarely works that way. That said, right now, I could name Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Alondra Nelson. How could I not?
What do you know now that you wish you had known in graduate school?
I wish that I had known what STS was sooner! It took me a while to find a place where I felt as though I fit, though everything I did along the way certainly contributes to what I do now.
What do you enjoy most about mentoring students?
I love seeing students make progress on their goals and knowing that I was able to help. It’s important to me that I understand what someone is trying to achieve, provide encouragement and feedback, and push them to go a bit further than what they might see from where they are today.
What do you look for in a graduate student?
Three things: 1) direction—not necessarily what they’re going to do in the future, but what motivates them to pursue this degree; 2) openness to being challenged by new ideas; 3) comfort with their own writing or willingness to make that a priority. You may be brilliant, but if you can’t become accustomed to routinely communicating your ideas in writing, you’re going to get stuck.
What would students be surprised to know about you?
I cook from scratch every day and would love to have a small homestead (including goats; must have goats) where my husband and I could cultivate most of our own food—if I could make all of the time-intensive obligations work!
Are you currently looking for students?