2020 Annual Meeting Speakers’ Bios

Deborah Blum

The Blum girls – known as the four D’s (Deborah, Darcy, Dawn and Dana) grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They kept snakes as pets, grew tadpoles into frogs, collected butterflies, and waded in neighborhood swamps where they lived in fear of crayfish climbing into their boots, and wrote for a home newspaper published by their mother: “Can you write about something besides the way crayfish pinch?”

They followed their parents around the world on bug hunting adventures: Costa Rica (“Drop that wasp right now!) Puerto Rico, England, and Canada, where Deborah spent her afternoons working for her father by flying helium-filled balloons that carried chemicals designed to attract male bees. “Stop threatening to write stories about child slave labor.”

Despite this, she decided to become a scientist herself, and, in 1972, started college at Florida State University with a proposed chemistry major. She loved it – she still thinks chemistry is the most astonishingly beautiful science – but she did discover that a laboratory is no place for the absent-minded klutz. She decided to change majors the day she set her braid on fire in a Bunsen burner: “Do you smell smoke?” asked her lab instructor.

She transferred to the University of Georgia and graduated in 1976 with a major in journalism and a double minor in political science and anthropology. She worked for three newspapers – The Times, in Gainesville, Ga., The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida covering police and fires, courts, city government, and education. In, Florida she had one of those epiphany moments – she’d learned to love journalism but she wanted to write about science, how it worked, what made it fascinating. She quit her job and went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying science writing in the journalism school’s specialized reporting program. Her advisor, Clay Schoenfeld, urged her to study the history of science – “You can’t really understand what you write about if you don’t know its history.”

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Documentary of her book on PBS