Andrea Barrett grew up on Cape Cod; her father was a ski racer and later a ski patrolman. Uncertain about a chosen career, she was in and out of graduate school in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, doing advanced study first in zoology and then in medieval and reformation history. She held a number of low-paying jobs—receptionist, billing clerk, customer service representative, greenhouse technician, clerk, secretary, and research assistant—and in the late 1980’s, she did freelance medical editing, book reviewing, and teaching. She has said she learned a great deal of biology and medicine from several of these jobs, which she has used in her fiction.
Barrett has said that she shifted from science to writing because she realized while in graduate school that what she had was a passion for the passion of science; she says that it took her many years to realize that what she mistook for her own obsessions with science were, in fact, other people’s obsessions. Although she devotes most of her time to research and writing, she has been a faculty member at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and has taught regularly in the M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where she was living in 2000 with her husband, a biologist.