It was her junior year, Juli Berwald ’89 was studying abroad, and she was miserable.
“I wasn’t getting along with the people in my program. I was eating too much. I was not taking care of anything about myself,” she recalled of her time in Tel Aviv, Israel. “I was like, ‘Run away.’ I guess that was my response.”
On a random wall, Berwald saw a poster. It advertised a weeklong marine ecology course. The math major from Missouri had no experience diving, let alone categorizing the ocean’s flora and fauna, but it didn’t matter. She was in.
On her first dive in the Red Sea, Berwald dunked her snorkel-covered face in the water. What lay before her was a vibrant structure unlike anything she had ever seen: a coral reef. The effect was immediate.
“You see this crazy world, this alien, amazing, architectural, busy, colorful world,” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘I live on the same planet with this and I never knew it?’ It changed everything for me.”
She returned to Amherst resolved to study marine biology, her mind transfixed by coral.
As an Amherst senior, to hear Berwald tell this story is to be confronted with something like a nightmare situation — the last-minute realization that you’re on the wrong path. But Berwald has always followed her passion, even when it has meant making a full 180.
Now a science writer, Berwald published a genre-bending book on the threats posed to coral reefs (“Life on the Rocks”) — mixing personal reflection with an overview of the science — in 2022. It was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize. However, her path to this point of success has been characteristically marked by twists, turns, and bold decisions.
“I do feel like there’s a lot of pressure at Amherst to get it right,” she reflected. “Some permission to get it wrong would be something I’d love to share.”
Diving Into the Possibilities
Where Berwald grew up outside of St. Louis, Missouri, the norm was to attend a large state school. Almost no one was looking at small liberal arts colleges. One of her teachers, however, whose son attended Amherst, encouraged Berwald to give the college a visit on a trip to the northeast.
“I remember walking on the campus and thinking, Gosh, this school is amazing, and I really do feel comfortable here,” she recalled. She also remembered thinking, “It’s way too small.”
Nevertheless, when her choice came down to a massive state flagship and the tiny Western Massachusetts college, Amherst won out.
Entering the world of the college, which was then even more than now steeped in the East Coast prep-school scene, proved a challenging transition for Berwald. She had to do “a fair bit of code-switching,” she said.
For instance, despite being a proud cheerleader in high school, Berwald found herself downplaying this part of her identity. “When I got to Amherst, it was so made fun of and ridiculed,” Berwald said. “I just stopped talking about it entirely.”
Berwald never found it hard to make friends, though, and she appreciated the many new perspectives she encountered among her classmates.
The culture shock of Amherst also applied on the academic side of things for Berwald. To my astonishment, the professional writer admitted that one reason she landed on a math major was the fear that her own writing abilities weren’t up to snuff.
“I was scared of all these great writers who came to Amherst,” she said.
At the time, taking abstract math classes fulfilled Berwald both intellectually and aesthetically. “I thought it was really very beautiful,” she said. “That if you just start with zero and one, you can move things around and come up with these proofs that show things that are just like crystalline truth. That’s the only way to say it.”
Of course, her return from Israel was marked by efforts to learn as much as possible about a field that Amherst didn’t specifically offer: marine biology.
While she took independent studies courses at the college and classes at UMass, to pursue her passion for coral much of her learning had to be entirely self-directed.
Berwald recalled that she would place coral in the pool of Charles Pratt Hall, then the college’s museum of natural history, to measure how the water flowed around it.
“It was super fun and I give Amherst a huge amount of credit for just letting me spin my wheels,” she said.
An Error in Accounting
Despite her newfound fixation on coral, Berwald’s trajectory would veer in a shocking direction after college. She did the unthinkable: She became an accountant.
Berwald ended up interviewing for an accounting firm on a whim, after seeing that all of her friends were applying to jobs in New York City and Boston. When she received the offer, the solid salary and chance to live in a city, surrounded by friends, was enticing.
There was only one problem: “It was terrible.” Berwald’s abstract math studies didn’t lend themselves to her new work, and it just wasn’t what she wanted to be doing. “I was definitely the worst accountant of all time,” she told me.
One day, her roommate came home to their Boston apartment to find Berwald “in the fetal position” on the floor. “She was like, ‘You need to be a marine biologist,’” Berwald recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
Berwald quit her accounting job. After some time spent bolstering her resume with relevant work in ecological modeling, she was accepted to the University of Southern California for graduate studies in ocean science.
There, Berwald did research using satellite imagery to track the relationship between light observed in the ocean and photosynthesis being performed by organisms like phytoplankton.
While Berwald felt like she was making valuable scientific contributions, academia still didn’t feel quite right. After a postdoctoral role at the University of Texas at Austin, she decided not to pursue the career any further.
Instead, she took a job at a textbook company. It was here, working up blurbs that would accompany science animations and graphics, that Berwald discovered her love of writing.
“It was so much fun to figure out how to say things really clearly, with just a few words, and not not give a student extra crap to worry about,” she said. She started to view writing like a puzzle. “How do I make my words the best they can possibly be?”
After a while, Berwald craved an even greater creative outlet. She started pitching and writing science articles for magazines. For more than 20 years now, Berwald has made a living as a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Magazine, Nature, Wired.com, and many others. Unsurprisingly, much of her writing deals with the ocean — particularly coral.
“I really loved writing science articles, because science has this stereotype of being hard and complicated,” she told me. “And it’s really not, if you’re able to say things properly, and it’s really just the world around us. So I just loved trying to make science accessible. I found that made me giddy, almost, with how much fun I found it.”
Spines and Rocks
The greatest undertakings of Berwald’s career so far are the two books she has written, both of which reveal her beloved, mysterious ocean world through deeply personal reflections.
The decision to write a book at all stemmed from Berwald’s desire to leave behind a legacy. And when she was fact-checking another science article, inspiration struck.
A graphic in the article showed the “winners and losers” of ocean acidification, which can prevent sea creatures from being able to create shells. Accordingly, on the “winners” side were jellyfish, whose numbers were skyrocketing.
Berwald asked herself, “How much do we really know about that?” A quick review of the scientific literature informed her that not much work had been done on the impact of ocean acidification on jellyfish. And what research had been done left scientists divided on many important questions.
This kicked off the arduous process of writing “Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone.”
As she began, Berwald recalled receiving a crucial piece of advice from a former Amherst roommate and professional writer, Margaret Stohl ’89: “Write the worst book you can, but write a book.” Employing this mindset, Berwald felt liberated to explore her creativity throughout the writing process without any expectations for herself.
The final product was a set of stories about the many unique facets of jellyfish — interestingly told through an analogy to Berwald’s own personal life: an imperfect past romantic relationship.
This is where the subtitle comes from, Berwald explained. “I retrace my steps through this dysfunctional relationship as I’m talking to jellyfish scientists. I’m kind of like, ‘How did I grow a spine to get out of that relationship?’”
The decision to incorporate memoir, which Berwald said is unconventional for science writing, was about more than just self-exploration. “I felt like the way I could get people to read jellyfish science was to also tell the personal stories that I felt amplified the jellyfish story as well.”
“I think that the jellyfish book was sort of my dodge,” Berwald added. “Like, I really want to write about coral but I’m not ready to yet.” After the success of “Spineless,” Berwald decided it was time.
“Life on the Rocks” deals with the “grim prognosis” for coral reefs, which are facing devastation from climate change and pollution, but it focuses on what can be done to help the reefs that are still alive.
“There’s a lot of restoration work happening,” Berwald said. “There are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about assisting evolution to get coral to evolve faster to these more challenging circumstances they’re going to be living in. There’s a lot of coral husbandry happening. There’s genetic banking happening. There are a lot of things happening.”
Like “Spineless,” the book uses elements of Berwald’s personal life to explore the scientific topic at hand.
Berwald’s daughter, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), began to deal with significant challenges to her mental health during the same period that Berwald was working on the book.
“I was running around the world, looking at restoration projects, and these issues of mental health and coral health started blending together in my mind,” Berwald told me. “All of these things that are foundational, like mental health, like coral reefs, like understanding climate change … they’re often so invisible.”
By reflecting on her daughter’s battle against mental health challenges, Berwald aimed to demonstrate that seemingly insurmountable problems, like those facing coral reefs, can still be combated if you have the right tools in place.
Under the Sea
As our time was coming to an end, I had one last question for Berwald. It was clear that her work as a writer was the perfect venue to grapple with her intense, lifelong relationship to the ocean — and also with the tensions of her personal life.
But I wondered if — in addition to the lengthy bouts of reflection, the efforts to solve the puzzle of writing — Berwald ever still had first-person encounters with the ocean, and coral reefs, like the one that first sparked her entry into this world so many years ago, in the Red Sea.
As it turns out, to this day Berwald is able to share that same sense of wonder and relief with those closest to her.
When her daughter was very sick, she told me, their family had the chance to visit a coral reef in Indonesia for Berwald’s work on “Life on the Rocks.” But part of her daughter’s OCD was an aversion to tests, and Berwald worried whether she would be able to pass her certification.
In the water, though, things were different. “She was a mess up here on land, but in the pool she was perfect,” Berwald recalled. “It was like things just got better for her. … I went on the certification dive with her, and she was amazing.”
It led Berwald to think about all the different ways that being underwater can soothe your nervous system: how the water compresses your body, that the goggles limit your field of vision, the emphasis on steady breathing.
“I think it’s really part of why I love the ocean so much,” she told me. “It gives me this sense of calm.”
Perhaps it’s this sense of calm, sustained throughout her life, that has allowed Berwald to always stay afloat.
Berwald will be on campus this spring to give a campus-wide talk on sustainability and visit several classes.