There are so many amazing writers of science fiction. When they were young, did they dream of being famous authors or amazing scientists? Author Katie Slivensky shares their journey through the worlds of science and fiction.

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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we blast off for answers to the most inspiring questions we get from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric. And like so many people who I meet in our exhibit halls, I love science fiction. And while chatting about our favorite sci-fi movies and novels, a guest once wondered out loud whether science fiction authors started out as scientists or creative writers. To answer that question, I knew exactly who to turn to. After a fantastic career as an educator here at the Museum of Science. My friend Katie Slivensky went on to become a successful author. Katie, thanks so much for joining me on Pulsar.

KATIE: Thanks for having me, Eric.

ERIC: So a lot of times when we have sci-fi authors, some of them come more from the science world and then start writing fiction. And sometimes people are more from the art side, and they write, and they're good at writing. And then they have to, like, learn the science as they go. So which end did you start from?

KATIE: Can I say both?

ERIC: Yeah, both is an answer!

KATIE: I'll say this much. As a kid, I made two declarations by the time I was age seven. One, that I wanted to be a children's author. And the other was that I wanted to be a paleontologist. And I went on to do both things. So I've stuck with one longer than the other. I'm still doing the author thing. I've backed away from the paleontology thing. But it did lead me down the road of getting to work at the Museum of Science in Boston for a long time where I kind of became a jack of all sciences. And my favorite was space. So that immediately started feeding into my writing.

ERIC: Cool. Well, that's a lot of things like you said. It's rare for somebody to be able to do both of those things. So why don't we start with your education, like in school? So you said you wanted to be a paleontologist? Did that carry through all throughout school? Or was that something you said at ten, and then some different subjects in school took hold more of your interests? How did it work?

KATIE: Yeah, no, I stuck with it. I was really into dinosaurs as a kid, and I was the dino kid. And that carried on for a long time. I would say that in middle school, I began volunteering at my local zoo. And I began working there in high school and through college. And I remember at the end of high school, thinking, like, do I want to become a zoologist and not a paleontologist? Do I want to switch it up? And even then, with, like, my love of my zoo work and everything pulling me, it was like, oh, no, it's just too cool. I gotta try it. So I went forward, I ended up getting my Masters, and then ultimately realized that what I loved even more than doing paleontology research was sharing it with other people. So I ended up kind of transferring my skills over to the museum world.

ERIC: Yeah. And we are generalists, because I feel like me, you, a lot of our other educators - we're just excited about any kind of science. There's people that are more narrow, that are like, I really just want to focus on stellar evolution. And then there's us, who, you'll hear someone running down the hall and say, did you hear about the new discovery that was made. And it's something that nobody is an expert in. But we're just so excited about it. So it's hard to settle down and pick one area.

KATIE: That was the hardest part about paleontology for me because I kept having other interests. I remember in college, like, I was taking courses in physics and genetics, and all sorts of things that were just interesting to me. They weren't needed for my major, but I wanted to do them. And then I went on to grad school, and the whole message there is: focus up. This is your one thing. I was like, what about all the other things though? Which I think is what really led me back to the world of museums.

ERIC: So at the museum, you got to teach everything. Were there particular favorites that you had?

KATIE: Oh, gosh, I mean, I really enjoyed it all. We did you know, the lightning shows, the animal programs, all the physics presentations. But I think the one that kind of came out of left field for me when I started at the museum was astronomy, because I came in and initially was told one of the reasons they wanted to bring me in was my paleontology background. And I walked in the door and the first thing they said was, we need you to teach our portable planetarium shows. Oh, all right. Like do you like space? I'm like, well enough, I suppose. Let's go. And that's kind of the world of museums, right? You, you just if you are a curious eager sciency individual like you will do well at a science museum, like just be open and go for it.

ERIC: Yes, I came in just being obsessed with space and everything about human spaceflight and astronomy and the latest discoveries and you've everybody finds their other things. slike like I said, we're all generalists. We love everything about science, but like anything about, obviously dinosaurs, but things like whale evolution, and the latest give transitional fossils that are discovered showing like what whales look like 250 million years ago. It's just It's funny how what you read one article one day, and then the next year, you're a little bit more into it, and the next year, a little bit more into it. And then eventually, you're teaching a whole course on it.

KATIE: Yeah, yeah. I love that, Eric, because we have a mirrored path there. One of the primary groups of animals I studied as a paleontologist was ancient whales, and I worked on their, their fossils, especially the transitory ones, where they were alien still had legs, and were still coming up onto the land. And then I ended up having my other science interests that took hold was was space, right, that got me so interested, I was able to start teaching planetarium shows, they ended up putting me in charge of their observatory program on the rooftop that they used to run. And we had just got to gaze up at the night sky with so many members of the public. And here, you know, the wonder from everybody. And there's the same wonder I'd get from the planetarium shows. And the one that stuck with me the most was when I would do planetarium shows for kids. And they would have the realization that it'd be their generation going to Mars, and writing to spark the kids more than that, like, this is your mission, like you're going to be taking this part of the space journey on. And that's what ultimately inspired my first published novel.

ERIC: Yeah. So what's the story there? Did you just start to hear that call a little bit more of I still want to be an author? I still want to do that. Did you do it kind of like in your spare time? Or did you say like, Okay, it's time to go on another adventure and try something new. How did it start out?

KATIE: Yeah, I never really stopped writing. So I wrote my first book when I was in elementary school. I always like to share the story that my teacher came around the classroom in second grade with a 15-minute Creative Writing Assignment. And we were meant to turn it in at the end of 15 minutes. And I always turned in my work on time. I was a very, you know, quote unquote, good student, right? Like, I didn't like to be late or break rules. And I was horrified when I was not done after 15 minutes. And I just looked at him, I must have looked like a little deer in the headlights. Like, I'm not, I'm not, Mr. Martinez, I'm not done. He said the best thing any teacher could have ever said to me or to anyone. And he just said, you know what, turn it in when you are done. And so I turned it into him two years later in fourth grade. And that was my first book. And he did the great thing of, every week, during reading time, he'd read out the new chapter of my book to the class. So I had my first audience then, too, and I really started to identify myself as a writer and as an author. And so I attribute a lot to Mr. Martinez, he was great there. And since then, I've always been writing a book on the side. I remember that was one of the toughest things about ultimately going down the path of paleontology was because it required so much focus. And it's great work. It was fascinating, but it did drive out my ability to do side projects and other hobbies. And so once I transitioned away from the PhD career, and I moved back into a public education sphere, I realized that I had this time on my hands that maybe I could start writing more words, again, of any sort. So I tried to start a blog and tried a few things. But I couldn't shake it. I had to write books.

ERIC: It was just always there, always with you?

KATIE: Yup, and at that point, I was far enough along in life where I realized, I think I could do this professionally. I know kid me said I wanted to be an author. And then I got a bit older and thought that was out of reach. But let's try. It took a lot of years of practice novels and a lot of shelved works and things that didn't go anywhere, except to teach me more about how to be a better author. And ultimately, it got me to the point where I was able to write a book that did get picked up by a publisher, and I've been going since then.

ERIC: And that book is The Countdown Conspiracy. For our listeners who haven't read it yet, can you give us an overview?

KATIE: It's a story of six kids who are chosen to train for the first ever Mars mission. And one of those kids, Miranda, is from the United States. Every kid is from a different country around the world. It's an international effort. It's meant to symbolize peace and being ambassadors to a new world. Miranda, who's a little roboticist, and is adorable in my opinion. She is so hardworking, but was so nervous about being chosen, and then begins to start receiving threatening messages basically telling her she was not picked for her skills. She was picked because of the country she came from. She was picked because of these political reasons. She needs to leave the program or people are going to start dying and like really dire things. And so in a way it a little bit encapsulates the imposter syndrome that a lot of women face in science, where they feel like they don't belong. And somehow they snuck in. And so Miranda's kind of battling this through the story. And then of course, things do start exploding, and danger really does strike. And I won't reveal too much more. But ultimately, all six kids in the program are put into extreme danger that they're very much not ready for. And it's kind of up to Miranda to build the confidence to save everyone.

ERIC: How did you balance science with reality, and telling a great story?

KATIE: That was incredibly important to me, that was the basis for The Countdown Conspiracy, and it's pretty much the basis for everything I write. I want the science to be very grounded, very realistic. I'm not in the business of making up anything too outlandish. Obviously, it's a work of fiction. So I play a little fast and loose. I set it, what I called in the near future, so I didn't slap a date on it. Because I didn't want to commit to a certain date. I basically immersed myself in research into the space program, space travel, I watched a lot of NASA TV, because they have great live streaming things, all the time. And so I just watched people up on the Space Station, just have that running because they have those live feeds. And just from that alone, you could just really start to feel like what it must be like to be there. You get to observe the types of things they were doing for maintenance. We had some great exhibits come through the museum by happenstance around that time about that very thing. So I did some museum visits, I went down to the Kennedy Space Center and did a behind the scenes tour down there and got to really see what these control panels look like up close and and the history of space travel, and particularly build out that sort of angle of it. Because I've never been to space, Eric. I've never actually flown like a space shuttle myself, very few people have. The best I could do was just go after every resource possible and immerse myself in it. And ultimately, I think that's what makes that book unique. There's a lot of books about kids and space. And a lot of them lean towards the alien side or the going, you know, planet hopping or like things really far in the future. And they're all traveling at lightspeed, and all that is super fun. But I was curious to see if I could make something feel like Apollo 13. But a story that had kids at its center and was, you know, obviously fictional, not based on based on reality. But that was kind of my goal.

ERIC: So to wrap up, what kind of advice would you have for, I would say, anybody who wants to be a writer, and not just kids, but anybody who wants to just pick up a, so we used to say pen, pick up a keyboard, just sit down and tell a story? Is there any kind of thing that you've learned that would be the most useful for somebody who wants to give it a shot?

KATIE: I'd say listen to your heart, which sounds cheesy, but what pulls you? What has interested you? Because that is going to be where you're going to have the most compelling story to tell in turn. So as a kid, I was obsessed with Star Wars. That was my thing. And so you can see that feeling going forward in my books, right? Like, you know, very exciting, a little bit fantastical, but you know, hey, cool robot sidekicks, right? But I think that a lot of time people put such a focus on creating something new that they don't do enough reflecting on what has built them as a creative. So my advice would be sit down, list out, you know, half a dozen things that have really impacted you in life and let your brain mull those over. And from there, you're going to start to see some really interesting ideas spark.

ERIC: Alright. Well, Katie, thanks for talking to us all about how to become an author and your journey.

KATIE: Well, thank you. This was fun.

ERIC: To keep up with Katie and her upcoming book releases, visit katieslivensky.com. And be sure to visit the Public Events section of our website, mos.org,for all of our different book clubs for scientists of all ages. Until next time, keep asking questions.

If you liked this episode, be sure to check out:

How Do Spacecraft Move Around the Solar System?

Why Is it Important to Look for Life on Mars?

What's the Fastest Thing in the Universe? Part Two

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