Environmental health writing

The project

In late 2015, I started working with Richard Crume on encyclopedia articles about environmental health. Rick came to Vanderbilt University and spoke about his work as a writer and editor, particularly in the field of environmental health science. He told us he was writing an encyclopedia for ABC-CLIO, and was looking for writers to contribute.

I wasn’t sure whether I was qualified. In fact, I wasn’t even enrolled in the class that Rick was visiting. But I convinced him to let me join his project by showing him the most recent issue of the environmentalist magazine I headed.

At that time, when I thought of the environment, the word “exploitation” came to mind. I’d studied the burning of rainforests in Indonesia to grow palm trees for oil, National Park tourists trampling wilderness areas, and tiny ocean zooplankton dissolving in carbonic acid in the ocean – all happening as we speak. I’d already written about many instances where people hurt the environment, including its animals, plants and systems.

But researching environmental health was a bit different. I took off my “eco-warrior” hat to write the encyclopedia articles. Instead I studied the ways that we as humans put ourselves at risk of adverse health effects when we swim, drink water, eat food, breathe air, and so on. In short, I learned the nuances between “environmental health” and “environmentalism”.

For the first book, I started with a 750-word article on ocean dumping and the Pacific garbage patch. I learned that every ocean has a garbage patch, not just the Pacific, although its garbage patch was discovered before the others. I saw pictures of albatross chicks whose stomachs were full of plastic, fed to them by unsuspecting parents. I felt my little environmentalist flame burn brighter.

I moved on to biomimicry solutions. A pretty feel-good topic, it’s all about getting inspiration from nature’s engineering solutions. The Shinkansen trains, modelled after the kingfisher beak, are modern and cool. No harm done.

I carried on through the remaining topics – unexploded ordnance, green packaging, personal care products, the health benefits of composting. I kept writing for these reasons:

I am an environmentalist, I wanted to see my name in print, I wanted to own a book with my writing in it, I wanted to be paid to write, I wanted to be “a writer.”

By January 2016, I’d written five articles. Then I signed onto write five more, eventually writing 11 in total. The last article I submitted was about the Exxon Valdez incident, wherein a ship leaked 260,000 barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska.

My favourite article was “Environmentalism.” It doesn’t get better than writing the entry on “Environmentalism” for an environmental encyclopedia. I tried to represent the topic in that neutral, omniscient voice that people expect from encyclopedias. (People don’t write encyclopedias. Encyclopedias are written.)

Here’s an excerpt:

Inspired by ecology, environmentalism promotes a sustainable relationship between humanity and the natural world.

I waited about 10 months between finishing the Exxon Valdez entry and holding the published 2-volume set – and the check from the publisher.

On the day I received the books, I posted a picture of the hardcopy on Instagram. I flipped to every entry that I wrote to see what the editors did to my writing (they inserted strange words like “life-forms”). I even read parts of the entries out loud to my parents.

Later, in 2018, I worked with Rick again on several book chapters about urban health issues. For that project, I graduated from 750 words to 2500 words. I still procrastinated, spent too much time on research, and re-wrote three times before sending it in. All to see my name in print again.


Contributor, Environmental Health in the 21st Century: From Air Pollution to Zoonotic Diseases. Ed. Richard Crume. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO (Greenwood Imprint), February 2018.

  • Biomimicry Solutions
  • Bisphenol A in the Environment
  • Communication of Environmental Risk (download sample entry)
  • Environmentalism
  • Exxon Valdez Incident
  • Green Packaging
  • Health Benefits of Composting
  • Life Cycle Assessment
  • Ocean Dumping
  • Personal Care Products
  • Unexploded Ordnance

Contributor, Urban Health Issues: Exploring the Impacts of Big-City Living. Ed. Richard Crume. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO (Greenwood Imprint), April 2019.

  • Healthcare Access and Quality
  • Population Growth and Overcrowding


Varsity Tutors

In March 2018 I started tutoring with Varsity Tutors as an independent contractor. I was approved to tutor all levels of English reading and writing as well as test prep. See my profile on the Varsity Tutors site

My subjects included:

  • ACT: English, Reading, Science, Writing
  • PSAT: Critical Reading, Writing Skills
  • SAT: Reading, Writing and Language
  • AP English Language and Composition
  • AP English Literature and Composition
  • AP Psychology (and other social sciences)
  • American Literature (College & High School)
  • English (College & High School)
  • College Application Essays

I’d been trained by the Vanderbilt Writing Studio as a writing tutor, but I’d never tutored test prep before joining Varsity Tutors. My first few sessions of ACT English tutoring were surely cringe-worthy.

But I really enjoyed tutoring. Soon, I had several clients with standing appointments. By May, at the height of end-of-year standardised tests, I was tutoring up to 6 hours a day.

A graph of my hours and sessions plotted against time from 25 March to 27 June 2018.

My approach

In my approach to tutoring, I generally relied on the study guides provided by Varsity Tutors, but I found so many mistakes in the SAT and ACT study guides that I started compiling the errata and emailing it to VT. So the process had a few kinks at the beginning.

But as I became increasingly familiar with the material, I knew exactly which sample passages to use during sessions to tackle various skill or knowledge deficits.

To help students brush up on their writing conventions, I selected errors I’d seen in real life. First, I would show the students some examples of various mistakes and explain them:

Sentence fragment
The red highlight is a fragment sentence.

Then, I would offer some examples that the students could fix on their own:

Fixit 4
Pronoun-antecedent errors
Fixit 2
“Affect,” not “effect”

I use a variety of resources to support my tutoring, including Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage, a staple on my bookshelf for many years and now free and searchable online. Explore Common Errors

I like gauging students’ level by asking them to explain the difference between different words and usages; it’s both educational for them and helpful to me.

Case study

One challenge in particular was helping to prepare a student for a specialised reading comprehension exam in the state of Missouri. Let’s call him Zach. Passing the exam was critical for Zach, yet few test-prep materials were available online.

His mom sent me a book in the mail with some sample passages that Zach had already worked through. So based on the topics covered in the exam, I cobbled together relevant passages from ACT, SAT, and even GRE study guides. I supplemented our sessions with selected poems from ReadWorks.org, a great free resource for educators. Go to ReadWorks


My students generally met their goals for tutoring. Here is some of the positive feedback I’ve received:

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 8.45.35 PM

“Very helpful introduction for the SAT!! Thank you very much. I look forward to working with you again.”

“Alisha is a spectacular tutor. My daughter adores her and wishes she could be her actual teacher. We are so thrilled to have found such a warm, kind, and enthusiastic tutor that makes a chore seem like a pleasure!”

“[Student] absolutely loves Alisha! Alisha is a fabulous tutor! Thanks so much for being so positive, warm and helpful!”

“Amazing!!! She knows everything backwards and forwards!!”

“She is a great tutor! [Student] loves her and she has seen such amazing results — highly recommend.”

Getting feedback like this is part of what made this job rewarding. I stayed active on the platform until I moved to New Zealand, when I then phased out support for my existing clients.

Web content design

The project

In 2016 I signed myself up to be a web content intern with the Human Interface Technology Lab NZ at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand – also known as HIT Lab NZ. Go to the HITLabNZ website

As part of a special scholarship programme with my university, I had a stipend to use on research. So I contacted research labs affiliated with public universities in the South Island of New Zealand, offering my skills as a science writer and web designer.

My proposed internship was happily accepted by Rob Lindeman and Christoph Bartneck at the HIT Lab NZ.

So for about ten weeks, I worked part-time at the lab. I wrote new content and updated graphics and photography on the website.

New content

I interviewed students and staff to create content about the primary research areas at the HIT Lab:

I also wrote “featured student” profiles for several of the PhD candidates.

Featured student profile on the Virtual Reality landing page

Updated assets

I directed a professional photographer to take these shots. I then wrote the content that accompanies each photo.

New graphics

I used Adobe Creative Cloud tools to create new graphics that align with the lab’s refreshed branding guidelines.

Lifestyle blogging

I wrote for my university’s student life blog for nearly two years.

I started in fall 2013 as a first-year student and finished after spring break of 2015. During that time I wrote 65 posts.

The logo from 2012 when I started…
Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 3.01.28 PM
…and the slick update in 2017.

I applied to be a blogger because, well, I was already doing it on my own. Posting for the university’s blog, Inside ‘Dores, was an effortless way to earn a bit of extra spending money. (I used my earnings from the first semester of blogging to buy my family’s Christmas presents at the campus bookstore.)

My headshot from fall 2013
Say hi to freshman Alisha! (This headshot was taken for my bio on the Inside ‘Dores page.)

Since starting my own personal blog in 2010, I’d loved blogging because I loved my voice as a blogger. I’ve always thought the “Alisha” who keeps a blog is funny, cool, and unique — more articulate, more interesting, maybe even more honest than the “Alisha” you might meet at a dinner party. Maybe.

So by the time I started writing for Inside ‘Dores, I was comfortable with the format and the freestyle combination of photo essays, adventure stories, daily check-ins, and reflections on current events. All I had to do was include at least five links to Vanderbilt content and some photos.

(Looking back, I have to say, most of my photos are awful, like, Instagram-filter, iPad-photo bad. So just be warned.)

And because I’m not shy, I seriously wrote about everything, including campus sexual assault and interracial dating. An older, wiser Alisha does not throw her opinions or attempt conversations about controversial topics, but 19-year-old Alisha never hesitated.

I also enjoyed writing about my academics:

As Craig [the professor] predicted on the first day of class, it filled me with existential angst. We spent time on such topics as the concept of intelligence, the impact of context on our actions and beliefs, whether people could be replaced by machines, and the power of culture.

From “What is Cognitive Studies?”

During the summer, I thoroughly documented a service-learning trip to South Africa, sponsored by Vanderbilt. One of my favourites from this series was an acrostic of “South Africa,” which I designed using photos I took during a one-month trip around the country. Here’s the text for the “S”:

Solving problems was never the goal. I understood from the beginning that the parallels between our own great nation and the southern-most tip of Africa were strong enough that if I wanted to tackle the issues of poverty, community health, civil rights, or education, I needn’t look further than my own ZIP code. No, it wasn’t about solving problems; instead, I wanted to learn about South Africa, its history of colonization by the Dutch, decades of apartheid, and the process of reconciliation that is no older than myself. I wanted to shake hands with its people, look into their eyes, hear their stories.

From “South Africa, an acrostic”

Some more highlights from among the many, many posts, most of which even I could not be bothered to re-read:

Tips for International Travel

“Bring dry shampoo. I didn’t because I was afraid the pressurized can would explode in the airplane, but soon I wanted that stuff on hand for when I was really not feeling another cold shower.”

Seven South African Adventures

“The majority of our group took a scenic drive to the famous Cape of Good Hope, hiking up through the fynbos to see the waves crashing below the lighthouse on Cape Point. Here, two ocean currents meet and mix their temperatures, making it fertile for both sea life and fierce storms. This was one of my favorite stops of the entire trip—but then again, any old national park gets me excited!”


“Black bean & corn quesadilla from The Pub. If The Pub were my closet, this would be my favorite outfit. It’s served with chili-lime sour cream and salsa, and I always order it with guacamole on the side. The Pub also has one of the best atmospheres of any campus dining location.”

Screenshot of a blog post
A typical post with featured image, excerpt, tags, categories, and more.

While a blogger for the ‘Dores, I became an editor and even led part of a training workshop for the newest batch of bloggers, which I also live-tweeted. I mean, haven’t all the cool kids live-tweeted a blogging workshop?

In the end, I quit because I started to feel like a paid promoter of my university at a time when I wanted to figure out what I really valued. I also wanted to explore other writing projects and genres.

But I am grateful for the time I did spend on these posts. I now have a great snapshot of my life circa 2013–2015, as well as proof that I can blog with style — style guide adherence, that is!