Interview by Kelly Weinersmith
ASP member Dr. Thomas Platt and his co-authors made a splash in 2016 when a description of a turtle blood fluke he discovered was published in the Journal of Parasitology. Now, as parasitologists, I think we can all agree that descriptions of our beloved parasites are Washington Post-worthy discoveries. Unfortunately, most of our work doesn’t hit the major news outlets. So what was so special about Tom’s parasite?
Well, it turns out Tom is both a fan of former President Barack Obama, and his fifth cousin twice removed. So Tom found it fitting to suggest to his co-authors that they name the parasite Baracktrema obamai. All co-authors eventually agreed.
The parasite made the news, including features in Popular Science, The Associated Press, and The Washington Post. While we parasitologists understand that having a parasite named after you to be a huge compliment, Tom had to repeatedly convince reporters that this was indeed a compliment and not an insult. After all, Tom had named an eye-infecting turtle parasite after his father-in-law, and I’ve been assured he likes his father-in-law as well.
If you’re interested in more details on this story, and other tales of Tom’s adventures in academia, I recommend you pick up his memoir: “SMALL SCIENCE: Baracktrema obamai and Other Stories of a Life in Parasitology & Higher Education”. The book was published earlier this year, and I laughed out loud a handful of times while reading it.
I recently interviewed Tom about his book-writing experience:
Why did you decide to write a book?
I didn't. If I had, it probably would never have happened. I started (for reasons explained in the book) with an essay that would become "In Defense of Parasites." That spurred me to write "The Parasite and the President," and things took off from there.
Who are your favorite authors? Why?
Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. Both provide serious social commentary wrapped in genuinely funny stories. They have something to say and say it beautifully.
If you could have a chat with any author (living or dead) about the process of writing a book, who would it be? Why?
Since I don't consider myself a writer, I am not sure what I would want to discuss with someone who is (or was). I wouldn't mind having dinner with Joseph Leidy. I think he would be interesting!
Tell us about your writing routine.
I had been retired for 3 years when I started the first essay, so my time was my own. I have a small office in the library at Saint Mary's. When I retired, I was still working on some research, and I went to school most mornings.
I arrived around 8 AM and wrote until noon. Sometimes a bit longer, sometimes less. I always had NPR (National Public Radio) on in the background – no headphones.
Do you have any tips for the aspiring book-writers in our community?
I wish I did. I never took a writing course or participated in a writing group. Rob Dunn, who spoke in the Student Symposium a few years ago, has written several non-fiction books. He produced a short work addressing this question. (Rob Dunn - Writing for the public)
Did anything surprise you about the book-writing process?
Since I didn't plan to write a book, I had no set timeframe for the project. It took about 6 months to produce the first draft. I spent the better part of the following year rereading, editing, and shaping the various chapters into a form I thought would appeal to parasitologists and folks who like to read about science.
Finding a publisher was infinitely more challenging. John Janovy helped me immensely in crafting the material writers must submit to agents and publishers. Every agent/publisher has different criteria for submitting a manuscript. It is imperative to carefully read and adhere to those instructions. I read in several different places that if you don't capture the attention of the agent/editor in the first three sentences of your query letter, they will move to the next submission.
I submitted my manuscript to approximately 70 agents and 25 publishers who allow direct submission. I received rejections from about 20% of them, and the rest didn't respond at all. World Scientific Publishing was my last hope before I had to decide between self-publishing or scrapping the whole idea and leaving it on my computer for my grandchildren.
Did you go through periods of "writer's block"? If so, do you have any tips for how to overcome it?
I never experienced writer's block. After all, I was writing about my life and experiences, not shaping the storyline for a novel. The most challenging aspect was what to keep and what to eliminate. The first draft was about 125,000 words. The research I did suggested a memoir exceeding 100,000 words would not be considered unless you were Barack or Michelle Obama!
In your book, you describe how you were denied tenure for reasons that were never made clear to you. I imagine many of us have nightmares about this happening. Yet you lived through it, and went on to get tenure at a different institution. What advice do you have for folks dealing with career or other personal setbacks?
The best advice I can give is to be proactive in deciding how you want your career to unfold. Approach the job in a manner sustainable for 30 years or more. Understand the ethos of your department/college or university and plan your program accordingly. Focus on the things you do well, but never pass up opportunities to learn new things. Explore opportunities to collaborate when you don't have the skills/facilities/equipment to do them yourself. Never be afraid to ask someone to work with you. The worst that can happen is they say "No."
Will you write more books in the future?
Some people have a compulsion to write. I don't. I am not saying no, but I have no plans at the moment.
Writing a book about your life requires you to describe some of the people in your life. Did anyone react strongly or in a surprising way to your portrayal of them in the book?
The first draft contained material some of the people mentioned would probably have found less than complimentary. I decided I didn't want to write that kind of book. Most of those encounters added nothing to the narrative and were easily excised without affecting the accuracy of the stories I wanted to tell. I have not been pilloried by anyone I mentioned. However, there is still time.
What is your favorite parasite? Why?
Hands down, Griphobilharzia amoena. The opportunity to work on G. amoena opened so many doors for me. It got me to Australia and David Blair's lab. Then on to the University of Queensland and collaborations with Tom Cribb and Sylvie Pichelin. Griphobilharzia amoena is still controversial: morphologically, it appears to be a schistosome, but molecular data puts it right in the middle of the spirorchids. I really hope someone figures this out before I am shipped off to be dissected by anatomy students at the Indiana University School of Medicine!