Out of Bounds Biology: Dave Montgomery and Anne Biklé Use Science Writing to Effect Change

While most scientists effect change through experiments and results, Montgomery Fellow David R. Montgomery (no relation) and his wife Anne Biklé have gone one step further and turned to popular science writing as another way to make an impact.

In residence at the Montgomery House, Dartmouth College, the couple joined graduate students and postdocs for lunch on October 26. Laughing, Biklé described herself as what she calls “an out of bounds biologist”. An avid gardener, Biklé views her small urban garden as a canvas she paints. Montgomery, on the other hand, plays guitar in local Seattle bands “Big Dirt” and “High Noon”, both of which released new albums last year.

The two also approach science from different backgrounds. Through her work, Biklé explores relationships between people and the natural and built environment. She has spent time in government working as an environmental public health planner for King County WA; and has also worked at non-profit organizations that focus on environmental conservation, including the National Wildlife Federation. Montgomery, in his capacity as a scientist, focuses his research on the physical form of landscapes. He is a Professor of Geomorphology at the University of Washington, as well as an acclaimed author of four books.

“Popular science writing initially grabbed me because it was something fun and completely different from the more structured and formal approach I use in academic research papers and grants,” Montgomery explained. “I also realized that I had a unique opportunity to make an even greater impact on the environment by expanding my audience from the geomorphologists in my field to the wider public.” Montgomery’s books have each sold between 15,000-30,000 copies; and his second book Dirt: the Erosion of Civilization broke 30,000 copies. Montgomery’s first three books have all gone on to win the Washington State Book award for nonfiction.

Working together as a team is not out of bounds for Montgomery or Biklé either. The idea began as playful banter after Montgomery helped edit a paragraph Biklé had written about their garden, which was being featured in Seattle’s Wallingford Garden Tour. The joking evolved into more thoughtful conversations, and ultimately led to writing a book together. In 2015, they published, The Hidden Half of Nature: the Microbial Roots of Life and Health, a book that dissects the complex relationship between microbes, the environment and our bodies. Talking about the writing process, Montgomery explained, “We had mutual veto power, if one person did not like a word it had to change.” Biklé asserted this approach improved the story, “If either of us had worked alone, the book would not be nearly as good.”

The Montgomery Fellows Program is led by Director Klaus Milich and offers a unique opportunity for Dartmouth graduate students and postdocs to share a meal with the current fellow in residence at the Montgomery house. On this afternoon, Loki—Montgomery and Biklé’s black Labrador—greeted attendees from MALS, MCB, Engineering, and Earth Sciences. The group gathered together in the living room for lunch and conversation about science writing and environmental stewardship.

During lunch, Biklé stressed the importance of digging deeper into problems at the systems level. “One way scientists can help,” she explains, “is to put their work in a context that relates to the core values and beliefs of an audience. This makes it much easier for a non-scientist to grasp the relevance of research findings and the potential for science to change people’s lives”.

MCB graduate student, Arijit Paul, started a discussion about one such problem when he expressed concern about the future of agriculture and the world’s ability to grow food, a topic that is the subject of Montgomery’s forthcoming book, Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life.  Montgomery framed the conversation around what he described as “the problem of the plow”.  Even though people have been using plows for more than a thousand years, they are being recognized for their detrimental effect on soil erosion, which happens at a faster rate than new soil can be produced. Erosion happens slowly and only becomes a serious setback over time-scales of 200+ years, so individual farmers do not see detrimental effects within their lifetime. Given that plows are used in every country, the change to more regenerative agriculture needs to happen quickly so that farms can meet the world’s increasing demand for food.

Montgomery traveled to Costa Rica, Ghana, Pennsylvania and other locations around the world meeting farmers and investigating soil fertility.  Now, he describes a multifaceted approach to combat soil erosion that includes no-till methods, cover crops, and complex crop rotations—tactics he says, that if adopted all together, could begin rebuilding soil fertility in a mere two to five years.

Discussing the agility required to switch back-and-forth between academic writing and popular science writing, Montgomery noted, “I quickly appreciated that there is no designated peer review process when you write a book with a commercial publisher.” Instead, he solicits “friendly” reviews from colleagues to help fact-check sections of his work.

There are other differences too. Every writing style has a unique voice or tone. In their popular science writing Montgomery and Biklé are less formal, using casual language, and humor to connect with their audience. The pair does not shy away from adopting a more journalistic approach either. Starting with the punch line can make for a more effective story, rather than leading the reader through the sequence of events to reach the conclusion.

While scientists are trained to think deeply within their specific area of expertise, there are some environmental problems that cannot be solved by one scientific discipline alone. Without setting limits, Montgomery and Biklé have the flexibility to effect change at this higher systems level. Near the end of lunch Montgomery joked with the group, “ We don’t like boxes.”

You can follow Montogomery and Biklé (@dig2grow) on Twitter for updates on their forthcoming projects.