A Passion for Writing and Science

by Mia Kweskin

Junior Thomas Van Horn, a chemistry major, joined The Writing Center as a peer tutor in the spring of 2016. When he’s not perfecting his medical school personal statement or tutoring at The Writing Center, he’s the teaching assistant for Missouri’s Natural Heritage, a freshman FOCUS class that camps four times a semester—he calls it the best TA job ever! Thomas shares his experience as a peer tutor, challenges he faces as a writer, and tales from life as a pre-med.

M: Why did you become a writing tutor?

T: I actually applied because I didn’t get accepted as a Chem RPM. Susan Lowther sent me an email recommending that I apply, and the rest is history! I had a great writing program in high school, and my teachers were always willing to conference papers and help me improve, so I really liked the opportunity to do that for college students. I realize now that even though I really wanted it at the time, not getting an RPM position was one of the best things that could have happened to me in school, because it has helped me get outside the science bubble for a while each week.

M: What’s the best, hardest, or strangest essay you’ve ever written?

T: Right now I’m working on my medical school personal statement, which is definitely the hardest–and hopefully the best–essay I have ever written. When I started out, I had no idea where to begin, so I made appointments at The Writing Center. It’s true: peer tutors use The Writing Center too! By the time Ruth and I were done brainstorming (a process that took a full two sessions for me) I sat down to write my first draft and the words just kind of flowed out. That’s not to say I’m anywhere close to being done. I have lots of revisions to make, and I still have to cut around 600 characters. But the process has helped me focus on the real reasons why I want to go to medical school, which is a very rewarding process for me.

M: What do you struggle with most when it comes to writing?

T: I go off on tangents so often that I’ve basically come to expect it. Every time I start a new assignment I open two documents: one is the paper and the other is a “cuts” document. Every time I cut something from my main document I paste it into cuts so I don’t feel like I’m losing it. I almost never go back to it, but it at least gives me peace of mind.

M: How has criticism and revision helped you develop as a writer?

T: Writing to me is all about revision. I am currently working on a scientific manuscript, and some parts of the document have been through eight or nine revisions over the course of six months or so. Is it frustrating? Absolutely! Sometimes, there’s nothing that I want more than to be finished with it. But each time it gets slightly better, I learn a little bit more, and I know I am improving as a writer and as a scientist. And that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

M: What’s your favorite thing about The Writing Center?

T: I like that I get to meet so many new people and hear what they have to say. Every session is different, because every student comes in with their own background, experiences, and ideas. I especially enjoy brainstorming sessions. These are often my longest sessions, but they are the most rewarding for me, because I can see a visible relief wash over each student when they finally articulate a thesis! And there’s nothing like the “aha” moment that comes with a novel idea or nuance that neither of us had considered before.

M: Any fun facts about yourself? Or something people wouldn’t expect?

T: I’ve only taken two writing classes at Wash U. Writing 1, and the class to become a peer tutor. I think one of the coolest things about the Writing Center is that we have a diverse array of interests just like the student body as a whole. If you’re in a science class (especially a writing intensive lab) and worried about an assignment, come on down and we can work on it! The Writing Center can truly work with anything.