On being (sort of) scooped by both Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong

April 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

Being scooped once stings. Being scooped twice is a burn. But being scooped by two different prominent science writers makes your soul die.

Unbeknownst to Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong, both of whom have had recent accounts of the parasitic jewel wasp, I too have been working on telling the story of the wasp’s intricate manipulations of the cockroach brain. But I am a victim of a monthly magazine production cycle, the kind in which your story is in the works in February and March and unable to see the light of day until the April issue.

But let’s back up.

Late last year, I came across a poster abstract that had been submitted for our upcoming annual meeting in San Diego. While the abstract briefly mentioned Ampulex compressa, commonly known as the jewel wasp, and cockroaches, I fixated on the authors saying that they had milked wasps to do proteomic analyses of their venom. How do you milk a wasp?

Because I was dying to know how wasps get milked, I decided to write a press release about the work described in the abstract. But when I interviewed Ryan Arvidson and Michael Adams at the University of California, Riverside, about their work, I grew increasingly excited. This was an amazing story. Screw the press release. I wanted to write the story myself for ASBMB Today.

Once I hung up the phone, I burst into the office of my editor, Angela Hopp, babbling about zombie roaches and wasps being shoved inside pipette tips for milking. My excitement, if not coherent, must have been infectious because she agreed the story was too good for us to give away to other reporters.

Then I interviewed Fred Libersat, who had introduced Ampulex compressa to Adams. Libersat sent me a 1942 paper by entomologist Francis Xavier Williams. After I finished reading Williams’ paper, I sat there for a few minutes, dumbfounded.

I never had read a scientific article as poetic and vivid as Williams’. As I do with anything that strikes me as funny, ridiculous or fascinating, I sent it to Angela, urging her to read it if she had time. She always makes time.

She wrote back:

“My dear, this is a remarkable specimen. And I think it’s a great opportunity to do something really amazing.”

sketchThe next day, there were sketches from Angela laid on my office chair of how I could weave together the narratives of the proteomic analysis of the wasp venom and Williams’ descriptions. (Bless the woman, she is sharp with words but can’t draw wasps to save her life.)

The main frame of story came together shortly thereafter (and it later went through iterations too many to count).

And then Zimmer landed the first punch. On Saturday, March 1, Angela emailed me two lines:

“I’m so sorry.

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/27/crawling-through-the-brain-without-getting-lost/

Fighting that sinking feeling of being second-best, I thought:

Well, this Zimmer story came out on Feb. 27. For once, I hope people don’t recall prose weeks later and will read my story in April with fresh eyes and enthusiasm. Anyway, Zimmer’s story focuses a lot on the anatomy of the wasp. My story is more about the molecular composition of the venom.

Convinced that the wasp-roach relationship was rich enough to be mined for many stories, I wrote back:

“Trying to find some solace in the fact that Carl Zimmer and I think alike…”

I was still excited about my story.

Neither Angela nor I complained about the rounds of revisions we inflicted on ourselves because we both wanted the story to be special. We also made sure we had stunning photographs. As our unflappable designer, Marnay Harris , developed the layout (turns out, she hates looking at cockroaches), I grew more optimistic. My story had a different feel from Zimmer’s previous coverage. Certainly, using sections from Williams’ paper as part of my narrative gave my story a stand-out character.

Then, last week, my editor wordlessly sent me this link:

http://www.ted.com/talks/ed_yong_suicidal_wasps_zombie_roaches_and_other_tales_of_parasites

In the second blow, Yong in March had spoken about the jewel wasp in a TED talk. That is, I’m guessing he did, because neither my editor nor I can bring ourselves to watch it*.

I replied with only one word, but I had to use four symbols and an exclamation point instead of letters because I was using my work email account.

I do think it’s fitting that this story wound up in an issue with a print date of April 1, April Fools’ Day. How foolish I was to think that I could, at least for a short window, own the story of the jewel wasp.

*Angela requests that I report that, after being guilted by the first draft of this blog post, she did watch Yong’s TED talk.

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