Application for ENGL 459

ENGL 459/EVST 215/MB&B 459 Writing about Science, Medicine, and the Environment. Carl Zimmer. Mondays 1:30-3:20pm

An upper-level non-fiction writing seminar in which students will learn how to tell stories about science, medicine, and the environment for a broad public audience.  Admission to the course is by application only.

Applications for Fall 2019 are due by noon on Wednesday, August 14, 2019.

This course is an advanced nonfiction workshop on writing about science, medicine, and the environment for a broad public audience. It is intended not only for students interested in pursuing a career in writing, but also for students planning to become scientists, doctors, and policymakers—for anyone who wants to learn how to tell stories about the natural world and about pressing social issues.

We will read exemplary pieces by the likes of Elizabeth Kolbert, Rachel Carson, and Atul Gawande; and we will learn from them how to translate complex subjects into compelling prose. Writers will visit as guest speakers, and the class will go on a reporting field trip. Students will write four assignments, culminating in a magazine-length feature. I will meet individually with students to discuss and edit their work, and each student’s work will be discussed in class workshops.

This course has no prerequisites, either in terms of courses or experience in journalism. Each year’s class is typically made up of students from a range of backgrounds: pre-med students who want to learn how to communicate effectively as doctors, aspiring journalists interested in reporting on science, fiction writers seeking to expand their range, environmental studies majors who want to prepare for careers in policy-making, and science majors who want to become scientists who can participate in public conversations about the place of science in society.

Enrollment is limited to undergraduates, but graduate students can request to audit the course. Freshmen should wait to apply after taking other writing courses or writing for student publications. While most accepted students are juniors and seniors, I sometimes accept sophomores.

Please email applications directly to me at

1. Your name, year, major, and email address.

2. A note in which you briefly describe:

—Your background (include writing classes you’ve already taken and publications you’ve written for)

—Why you want to take this class

—Which other writing courses (if any) you’re applying to in the same semester.

3. One or two pieces of nonacademic, nonfiction writing. (No fiction. No scientific papers.) Indicate the course or publication (including url) for which you wrote each sample. An unpublished work that you didn’t write for a class is also acceptable; please note if this is the case on your piece. Your writing samples should total 5-15 pages, double-spaced. It’s fine if they’re longer than that, but add a note to explain why you want to include them in your application.

I will use these samples to decide whether to admit students to the class, so pick pieces that demonstrate at least some of the skills we’ll be building in the class, such as an engaging style, a strong narrative, and reporting skills.

Within a week after the application deadline, I will send out a list of accepted and waitlisted students. Accepted students should be prepared to respond promptly to an offer for a spot in the class, so that I can fill any open spaces with students on the waitlist.

Please also note that with very rare exceptions, the English Department does not allow students to enroll in more than one writing seminar in a semester. If you are admitted to more than one writing seminar, including college seminars, you must notify both instructors and choose only one.

Attendance at the first class is at the first class on Friday, August 30, 2019 is mandatory for all accepted students, as well as for waitlisted students who want to take the course. Only students present at the first class will be able to get a spot. If an accepted student later drops out during shopping period, I will offer their spot to the next eligible student on the waiting list.

Please also note that on Thursday, September 5 at 4 pm, we will go on a mandatory, 2-hour reporting visit to a lab on Yale campus. This trip will be the basis for the second story for the class.

A detailed syllabus for this fall will be available online this summer when the course is listed in the Yale catalog. Interested students can also contact me for a copy. If you have any questions about whether this is the right class for you, please email me. I can also connect you with former students if you’d like their perspective.

About me: I’m a columnist at the New York Times and the author of 13 books about biology and medicine. You can find more information about me and my work at