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Write Stuff: Joel Eissenberg, Ph.D.


Learn about the projects and passions of SLU faculty and staff members who have written books, in their own words.

Joel Eissenberg, Ph.D.

In a new book, Joel Eissenberg, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, is highlighting the beauty of the elements that make up our universe through haiku. Photo by Ellen Hutti

Joel Eissenberg, Ph.D., has spent his life as part of a scientific community, from growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a research hotbed, to marrying a fellow scientist (and his high school sweetheart), to teaching for more than 30 years as a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the School of Medicine.

While science has loomed large in his own life, Eissenberg has now distilled his passion down, capturing the essence of each element of the Periodic Table  in 17 syllables in his newly-published poetry collection, Elements in the uniVerse: Illustrated Haikus of the Periodic Table. The book, illustrated by Bobbie Kogok, is a whimsical look at the building blocks of the universe and how they inspire both the scientific and creative mind.

Poetry is a recent pursuit for Eissenberg, who has published extensively in scientific journals, including recently in the Missouri Medicine  about direct-to-consumer genomics.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the School of Medicine, where I’ve been on the faculty for over 32 years.

I grew up the oldest of five in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city with a high concentration of scientists and engineers. Both of my parents are Ph.D. scientists. I married my high school sweetheart; she’s a Ph.D. scientist and assistant professor of medicine in the oncology division at the Washington University School of Medicine. We have a daughter who is an immigration attorney for Catholic Charities in Fall River, Massachusetts.

You’re a scientist by training. What led you to writing for children?

It wasn’t originally targeted for kids. I posted the haiku on Facebook as I wrote them. A high school classmate and Facebook friend is a children’s book illustrator. It was her idea to style it as a children’s book, although adults seem to like it, too.

Why haiku?

Another Facebook friend writes and posts haiku. He’s much more diligent about the proper haiku style (beyond the meter) and has published some in real poetry magazines. I was inspired by him.

What inspired you to connect the Periodic Table to poetry?
My haiku-writing friend on Facebook had recently written 1,000 haiku. His dad was a chemist at Oak Ridge National Labs, so I suggested writing a haiku for each element in the periodic table. He wouldn’t do it, so I did.
What is the value in using art to expose kids to science?

For some kids, science can seem intimidating or irrelevant. The value of using familiar communication forms to illustrate science helps give concrete form to abstract ideas.

Also, images are easier to recall. Scientific journals use cartoons to illustrate complex pathways and mechanisms for much the same reason. Our medical students are using cartoon-based mnemonics to study.

What element did you find most inspiring?

Gold. The haiku is a cultural allegory, not science. I still smile when I see it.

What role has poetry played in your own life?

When I was in college, I used to memorize poetry, including "Dover Beach," "Lake Isle of Innisfree" and "McCavity the Mystery Cat." I can still recite the first two by heart.

I also play folk and blues music and sing; the lyrics are a form of poetry.

Who is the book for?

Anyone young at heart with a sense of humor.

Tell us about the art that accompanies your poetry. What does it add to your poems and the experience you want readers to enjoy through your book?
Bobbie, the artist, started illustrating the ones I’d posted just for fun. She would pick up on a key word or concept and position and dress the cartoon character who appears in each cartoon in a way that captures that word or concept in a humorous way.
How does this book speak to your work at SLU?
It isn’t connected with my research, which has concerned molecular genetics and biochemistry. But I’ve been teaching medical students and Ph.D. students for over 30 years. The challenge of being an effective instructor is to sift through complex ideas and repackage them in a memorable and palatable form.
What element presented a particular poetic challenge?
Any of the final dozen or so elements. Basically, they were all man-made and existed only for a second or less. So they have no commercial applications and no properties are known besides their mass and their names.

Write Stuff is an occasional series of interviews with SLU faculty and staff authors who have newly-published or forthcoming books. To submit your work for possible inclusion in the series, email Newslink.