An unlikely story

    PhD grad Lindsey Carmichael walked away from academia to become a children's book author—and she wouldn't change a thing.

    By Alex Migdal on June 1, 2015

    In high school, Lindsey Carmichael decided to become a forensic specialist after being hooked by a true crime novel that outlined the first criminal case to ever use DNA profiling. Focused on her goal, she applied to the University of Alberta to study DNA fingerprinting techniques in wildlife species, earning an honors degree in genetics.

    Years later, six months into her doctoral research on wolves and arctic foxes, she realized she had missed the mark. 

    "Enjoying the experience of learning and being open to where that experience could take you is really important.”

    Academia, it dawned on her, was not in fact her most fundamental, enduring passion—it was writing. “I really, really missed it,” she says. “I was just not meant to be in a lab all day.”

    Carmichael’s PhD thesis allowed her to crank out 50,000 words in six weeks—a process she relished—but the mundane nature of her lab work stifled her creativity and fueled her impulse to share stories.

    So she began to lead a double life: after spending the day doing research in her lab, Carmichael hunkered down at home to write short stories and novels. On a whim, she enrolled in a children’s writing course through correspondence. Carmichael learned that demand was high for writers who could produce quality non-fiction literature for kids—her first clue that her science expertise could be used for more fulfilling pursuits.

    After completing her thesis in 2006, which won the prestigious Governor General’s Medal, Carmichael opted for a new day job: working retail at a bookstore. Acknowledging with a laugh, the self-described over-achiever says, “That’s not an easy thing to explain to people.”

    While her peers wondered when she would find a “real job,” Carmichael sold her first science article to Highlights for Children magazine in 2008. She eventually approached an educational publisher and pitched her credentials, and a project soon came up that matched her expertise.

    In 2011, Carmichael signed her first book contract.

    “The first time I held it [the book], it took me about an hour to catch my breath,” Carmichael says. “I was looking at this thing and thinking: this is absolutely gorgeous, I can’t believe I made this.”

    Four years later, that thrill has yet to wear off for Carmichael, who has to date authored 15 science books for children. Her topics range from deciphering communication between foxes to the development of forensic science. She says new ideas abound all the time. “I love the research. I love that sense of discovery that’s involved in digging into a new topic. It’s something new every day.”

    Carmichael also works part-time as a science specialist at Saint Mary’s University’s Writing Centre in Halifax, where she hosts in-class workshops and works one-on-one with students on their writing. She’s discovered that many science students dread communicating research to readers.

    “A lot of people seem to want to go into science because they don’t like writing, and they think they won’t have to do it,” she says. “To me, communication is absolutely essential in every field, especially in science. Sharing our results and our research is arguably the most important stage of the scientific method. We not only have to be able to do that work, but we have to be able to tell people what we found.”

    Nowadays, Carmichael can’t help but pinch herself, having finally managed to blend her two passions in a fulfilling career. Her ambition has only grown, with plans underway to write her first fantasy novel for teens.

    It’s children, though, who Carmichael seems to have especially charmed. Just ask the mom who recently messaged the author about her son reading Carmichael’s book at bedtime. “She said that her son turned the light back on so that he could read just one more page,” Carmichael says. “That is the best thing I have ever heard in my life.”

    Even in the early days, when she began to doubt her career path, Carmichael felt strongly about investing in her studies “If you are interested in the subject, it’s worth studying, even if you’re not sure what you’re going to do with it,” she says. “Enjoying the experience of learning and being open to where that experience could take you is really important.”

    Lindsey Carmichael has been shortlisted for the prestigious 2014 Lane Anderson Award for her book Fuzzy Forensics: DNA Fingerprinting Gets Wild.