Mary Kay's book answers all these questions as the reader gets a tour of the Biosphere 2 facility, meeting with scientists who work there now, and learning about different ecosystems and what they can teach us. The photographs are gorgeous and many useful graphs and diagrams are included that help map out the structure and explain concepts. This book is part of the "Scientists in the Field" series.
Mary Kay recently answered questions for me about the book and her research and writing process.
Inside Biosphere 2: Earth Science Under Glass takes readers inside a giant steel and glass structure the size of three football fields in the middle of the Arizona desert. Meet the scientists using Biosphere 2’s rainforest, ocean, and giant hillsides of newborn soil to study ecosystems, climate change, and interactions between air, water, and soil.
How did you first learn about Biosphere 2? Was this topic suggested or was it something you were already interested in?
I’m old enough to vividly remember all the hoopla when the eight original biospherians sealed themselves inside Biosphere 2 back in 1991—and when they came out two years later. As a science writer, I’ve followed the story as the facility changed hands over the years. I even wrote a bit about it for a Newbridge/Ranger Rick reader called The Biosphere back in 2003. So it’s never been off my radar really and I’ve always been interested in the place. It’s a very unique place! However, the idea for Inside Biosphere 2 came out of the time we spent in Tucson, Arizona working on the Park Scientists book. Biosphere 2 (B2) is operated by the University of Arizona now and the Gila monster scientist featured in the Park Scientists book is also a professor at U of A and runs some of the educational programs at B2. I pitched the idea of a Scientists in the Field book to the editor and the rest is history…
Did you visit the site for your research? Can you describe that?
Photographer Tom Uhlman and I flew to Arizona twice in 2014 to do research. Each trip was about 4-5 days, I think. Biosphere 2 (B2) is a tourist attraction and is open to the public. We started our exploration of B2 by taking the regular tour, which gave us a good overview both of all the biomes (ocean, rainforest, savannah, etc.) and some of the history. Then we met with the director, John Adams, for an interview. Each of the four scientists we featured showed us around his area where he does research. We spent a lot of time with Joost van Haren both in the rainforest and checking out all the behind-the-scenes equipment and computers that gather, measure, and record the gases he studies. The ocean exhibit was being redone so that was a great chance to see both what it had been like and what they’re aiming for. LEO, the Landscape Evolution Observatory, is another part of B2 we spent a lot of time in. It’s so giant and so full of sensors, tubes, sprinklers, etc. It really feels like being outside.
How did you coordinate the interviews with the scientists working there?
It was a bit tricky, as always! Scientists are busy people and most of the researchers who have projects at B2 wear multiple hats and aren’t there every day 9 to 5. Basically I contacted a short list of whom we thought we’d like to feature in the books—different scientists doing research in different areas of B2. Those who wanted to participate we made appointments with when we could out at B2. We also did a LOT of just hanging around out there hoping to catch people between meetings, etc. Then back at home after I had time to go through the interviews and start putting together an outline, I contacted a few of the scientists again for some follow-up questions.
What other types of research did you need to do for this book?
There have been a number of books written about the history and experience of Biosphere 2 by the original biospherians and others. I read a few of those books as well as news articles of the time of the original missions for the chapter about the facility being built, etc. I also researched each scientist featured in the book, reading their recent research papers and listening to any interviews they’d done, etc. Just basic homework! We also met up with Rebecca Minor at the U of A and she showed us around the Mount Bigelow site, the sister project to LEO.
How long did you research this project?
Not as long as the other Scientists in the Field books I’ve written! It’s hard to give exact numbers of weeks, because I never work on one single thing at once. But the intense work period of the book--research and site through getting a draft to editor--was only maybe eight to ten months.
One of the really attractive parts of the book are the illustrations. How do you coordinate those? Do you indicate which pictures you will need for the project, or do you choose them after your text is written? How does that work?
Most Scientists in the Field (SITF) books require original photography. Scenes with featured scientists doing research need to be photographed on site. Tom Uhlman has photographed all of the SITF books I’ve written as well as Eruption! by Liz Rusch. Tom is also my husband, which makes coordinating easier! He’s a terrific photographer and I know he’s going to take awesome photos. We talk about who is going to be in the book before a photo shoot and what I’m thinking we’ll need as far as images. But the photos are always taken during research trips, so I never really know exactly what I’m going to be writing about. Tom can take an interesting photo in any situation—even of someone at a desk—so he just does his thing and I know he’ll end up with great shots. Once the manuscript is ready, I give a copy to Tom who reads it and places photos. We always turn in way more photos than they can use, so it’s the designer who makes the final choices.
The last chapter in the book about the sustainable city was probably my favorite section. I enjoyed the specific examples and experiments performed to find out how to solve current problems. Which part of the biosphere did you find most interesting?
Nate Allen gave us an amazing tour of B2’s massive underworld and infrastructure. The whole two-acre technosphere below the biomes is fascinating! It’s totally like something out of Space 1999! You just can’t imagine a private endeavor building something of this scale these days. Creating the sealed environment was really an engineering marvel.
Other interesting parts of the book are the “Flash-Back to the Biospherians” sections. Where did you access the older photographs and stories about them?
Biosphere 2 has some historic photos and we also got a couple from Jane Poynter, one of the original biospherians who has a website. Many of the stories came from Poynter’s book and the folklore of the tour guides.
Who will this book appeal to? What age range would you recommend it for?
It’s not a book for young readers. I’d say fifth grade and up, with a target of middle schoolers.
Is this a book teachers can use in the classroom?
Absolutely. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt creates discussion and activity guides for all its Scientists in the Field books. And I’ve actually seen and heard first hand about the book being used in science fair projects.
Have you written other books for the “Scientists in the Field” series?
I have. Inside Biosphere 2 is our fourth Scientists in the Field title. The others are Emi and the Rhino Scientist (2007), The Bat Scientists (2010), and Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America's Own Backyard (2014). We’ve a fifth coming out a the end of the year called Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt.
What is your next project?
A sixth Scientists in the Field book! This one is about a super cool woman tornado scientist named Robin Tanamachi. I’m also trying to sell some nonfiction picture book manuscripts and proposals and always on the lookout for work-for-hire, too.
What is your writing process/writing routine?
My schedule is pretty variable because I juggle freelance work, school visits, research trips, etc. But when I’m actually on deadline to crank out a manuscript I map out mini-deadlines for each chapters on my calendar. Then I write first thing in the morning until I’m starting to lose concentration (~3 or 4 pm usually), then organize research/outline the next day’s writing, answer email, etc. and start again the next day. I don’t usually write on Sundays. As far as a process, it’s all about saturation! Once I’ve saturated myself with research, interviews, background, images, etc. then I feel like I'm a sponge that’s at capacity and is ready to squeeze something out!
Pen and paper, or computer?
Good heavens, computer! I maybe take a few notes during interviews that I’m recording on paper or scribble down some fleeting idea. But I NEVER actually write longhand and can’t really imagine doing so.
How do you organize your research? Do you use any programs like Scrivener or Evernote?
I do use Scrivener for big book projects. It’s especially good for keeping track of quote sources, etc.
Are you part of a critique group or do you depend solely on your editor/publisher for feedback?
I am in a nonfiction picture book critique group, though we sometimes share query letters and proposals, etc. But it’s all unpublished/uncontracted stuff. Once I’ve a contract, it’s pretty much just the editor I get feedback from.
Do you send in a proposal for the books you write, or are you assigned the topic?
The Scientists in the Field books are proposed and if accepted then modified and contracted. Other books I write, like the Good Question! books are offered to me as an assigned topic or with the choice of multiple titles. Some books I’ve written have been a bit of both.
Talk a little bit about yourself. What is your background? What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I have always been a big reader, but wasn’t a writer when I was young. Never wrote stories, kept a diary, or worked on a school newspaper. I have a degree in Biology and took the minimum amount of English classes to graduate, as I had my plate full with calculus and chemistry. I got into writing later in my 20s through a science writing program at NYU and got hired at Scholastic’s SuperScience magazine.
Why do you write non-fiction for children?
I came to writing through science journalism so that’s the nonfiction genesis. I’ve tried writing some fiction but it’s not that great! Hopefully it’ll get better. The why I write for children part totally came about through my experiences at Scholastic. SuperScience magazine was a lot of fun and encouraged everyone’s creativity. Plus once you’ve written for kids, writing for grown-ups is pretty boring! It also lets me be a generalist. Friends of mine who are science writers usually specialize in something—medicine, materials science, environment, etc. I like writing about different stuff—history, animals, space, or whatever!
What other things do you do to fill your time?
One thing I don’t like about being a writer is all the screen time. It’s never-ending with promotional efforts and social media, etc. Being outside is a priority in my free time—hiking with the dog, biking, kayaking, or even just grilling and chilling with friends! I’m in a grown-ups book club, too.
What is your favorite snack?
Bourbon, top-shelf of course!
Ruby, the beagle-mix wonder. She’s our very spoiled dog.
Do you have a favorite book – fiction or non-fiction? How about one of your own?
My favorite Mary Kay Carson book is Emi and the Rhino Scientist for a lot of reasons. It was published out of the slush pile and the zoo means a lot to me. A kids’ book I’ve liked for decades is The Giver.
What writing advice do you have for novice writers?
Writer, know thyself! It’s important to know why you want to write so you can work toward those goals realistically. Some writers I’ve met have one story they really want to share, often about a family member. Self-publishing is a good option in situations like this. On the other hand, if you’re trying to build a career as a writer then self-publishing isn’t that helpful.
Do you have an author website or other platform where readers can find more information about you and your books?
My website is www.marykaycarson.com
The Scientists in the Field series website is www.sciencemeetsadventure.com
I also blog with Kerrie Logan Hollihan and Brandon Marie Miller about my books at http://hands-on-books.blogspot.com
Is there anything I have neglected to ask that you would like to add?
Don’t think so! Thanks for your interest, Jennifer!