I’m Tom Ulrich, a Boston-area microbiologist-turned-science writer. I’ve been writing in one capacity or another since 2000, when I finished my master’s degree in microbiology and immunology and realized that I was much better at writing about science than actually doing it.
My Origin Story
After finishing my bachelor’s in biology at Bates College and feeding my brain a steady diet of books like Biohazard, The Hot Zone, The Coming Plague, Plagues and Peoples, etc., I was convinced that I was going to be one of those scientists who was out there in the field facing outbreaks and tracking down new viruses.
But I didn’t go to Borneo or Bolivia or Botswana. Instead, I went to Baltimore.
I got into graduate school at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where I studied and worked toward a master’s degree in a laboratory that specialized in microbial ecology.
And I certainly learned about microbial ecology. Urban microbial ecology, that is. I spent two years studying the natural history of an obscure bacterium called Bartonella elizabethae, which at the time had infected all of six people. Ever. At least, six that had been recognized. But because it was a difficult bug to isolate, there was some thought that it might be more prevalent than people realized. And then there was the preliminary evidence that it was harbored by rats, kind of like bubonic plague.
If you’re going to study the natural history a bacterium that, in its natural habitat, lives in rats, you need to get some rats. And you need to get them in their natural habitat. So I spent many nights in the alleys of Baltimore, trapping rats and then taking samples from them to test for B. elizabethae.
I learned a few things along the way:
- Baltimore’s alleys are home to some really big rats.
- Rats really like peanut butter.
- Rats really don’t like to be in a cage. (And neither do squirrels when they get trapped by accident.)
- Rats really don’t like it when you pour gasoline into their burrow and drop in a lit match. (I did not do this, but a woman who lived in a rowhouse off of one of the alleys in which I used to trap claimed she did. Said she never saw a rat in her backyard ever again. I have no reason to doubt her.)
- Drug dealers really don’t like it when you come into their territory at night to trap rats.
- I really wasn’t a good scientist.
My experiments didn’t work particularly well. Other students in my program were coming in at all hours of the night and day, week and weekend, whereas I liked to head out at 5 for a beer and go home. The need to run the same experiment three times to confirm a negative result made me want to jab a pipettor (they’re quite pokey) in my eye. I did not have the tenacity, dedication, and attention to minute detail to be a good — or even effective — scientist.
So what was I going to do with this degree? Well, I’d been a history minor in college, and had enjoyed writing papers. Wondering whether I could put the two together — science and writing — one day I walked unannounced into the office of the VP of media relations for Johns Hopkins Medical School and asked for an internship (a rare moment of chutzpah). He looked me up and down and, after deciding that it wasn’t worth calling security, offered to let me come in two mornings a week for a few months. I jumped at the chance, and immersed myself in interviewing scientists, learning about their work and fields, and writing about what they did. I was in heaven.
And the rest is history. Over the years, I’ve written about a wide range of science, from anthrax to cancer, drug development to earthquakes, genomics to heart surgery, informatics, medicine, microbiology, transplants and more. And in the process, I’ve helped Russian scientists submit grants (which is how I learned that Russian lacks definite and indefinite articles), philanthropists understand the science they’ve funded, insurance companies understand hurricane risk, and scientists understand how to find each other and work together.
Oh, and that dream of chasing viruses in the jungle? I live vicariously through a close friend and grad school lab mate who went on to do just that.
And I still read those books.
Where you can find me on the interwebs
One should be transparent about such things. Here’s where I work and have worked:
Current full time job:
- Boston Children’s Hospital, where I’m a senior science writer in Marketing & Communications, primarily writing for the Vector blog. As such, I’ll try to not write about science from BCH, but if I do, I’ll be sure to disclose my relationship.
Previous full time jobs:
- Harvard Catalyst | The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center (Harvard University project aimed at helping promote translational science and collaboration among the faculty at the university’s myriad schools and hospital affiliates)
- Feinstein Kean Healthcare (biotech/pharma PR firm)
- AIR Worldwide (a company that develops statistical computer models of natural disaster risk for the insurance industry)
- Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
- Advanced BioSystems (a now defunct – as far as I know – biodefense research company founded by Ken Alibek of Biohazard fame)
Previous freelance jobs: