Category Archives: Science Communication

When Your Science Hero is Problematic

We all have heroes, people we look up to and whose achievements spur us on to do our own personal best. And, especially in this era where women are saying #metoo and finally being heard, we have probably all had the experience of finding out that one of our heroes has done some less than heroic things. This has come up a lot for me recently with the deaths of some very famous scientists and science fiction writers, men I greatly admired when I was a kid, who I’m now discovering were frequently awful to women (i.e., people like me).

I think this happens more than usual in science, a traditionally male-dominated field where a culture of elitism and privilege has been embedded for a long time. And it’s tempting to view things in black and white: either my hero is amazing for their achievements or they are garbage for their behaviour. We know in our personal lives that people are multi-faceted, yet we’re slow to allow public figures that same understanding. If a famous male scientist discovers lots of things, and is a great collaborator with other men but acts differently toward women, consciously or unconsciously, how are we meant to think about that?

As a physicist who loves to write, I’ve had to consider this before, because one of my early science heroes was Richard Feynman. Feynman was a brilliant theoretical physicist, a Nobel laureate, and worked on the Manhattan project building the atomic bomb in my hometown of Los Alamos. He also wrote a series of very enjoyable popular science books, which were also quite personal and effortlessly engaging. A quote from an interview that immediately stuck with me:

Omni: As we came back to the office, you stopped to discuss a lecture on color vision you’ll be giving. That’s pretty far from fundamental physics, isn’t it? Wouldn’t a physiologist say you were ‘poaching’?

Feynman: Physiology? It has to be physiology? Look, give me a little time and I’ll give a lecture on anything in physiology. I’d be delighted to study it and find out all about it, because I can guarantee you it would be very interesting. I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.

As someone who is omnivorous about knowledge, I found that quote resonated with me deeply. Science is fascinating because it shows us how the world works, how things which might appear separate are deeply connected, and the overlapping intricacies behind the everyday we take for granted. I now do my research on nanoscience, a strongly interdisciplinary field that draws from chemistry, electrical engineering, materials science, and plenty more beyond the physics that I got my degrees in. I admired Feynman for not letting other people dictate the questions he could ask, for being a physicist in what felt like a subversive and wide-ranging way. He was also famous for his sense of humour, his love of non-scientific things like playing bongos, and for generally not being as formal and rigid about anything as physicists tend to be.

The author having a Feynman bongo moment at the No-Ball Prizes. Photo by Ian Bowkett.

Of course, if you read Feynman’s books you’ll also find less inspiring stories, if you are a female scientist. He writes about doing his calculations in a Hooters, negging women in bars, and pretending to be an undergraduate to pick up grad students’ wives. This is less subversive, and more what we might generously call ‘of a time’. Feynman did plenty to promote the status of women in physics, encouraging his own sister to study it and eventually get a PhD. But reading through these differing accounts of his behaviour, female physicists are left wondering whether this great man of science would have seen them as colleagues and equals, or as prey.

I still find a lot in Feynman to look up to, as a physicist who did amazing work but cared about communication and didn’t give in to pressure to conform. However I can still acknowledge the women he mistreated, or perhaps even drove out of the field which is a terrible loss to science. He had a complexity to him, and my initial hero-worship of Feynman when I was younger has been replaced by equally complex feelings, of respect for his scientific and communication work alongside frustration at his mistreatment of women. But there’s no such thing as a perfect hero anyway, and if I needed one in physics, I might be waiting a long time. We have many historical women in physics to look up to, like Lise Meitner or Emmy Noether, and yet often these women were denied resources and opportunities that their male colleagues had, which can make them feel like amazing but also tragic figures. I would hope that women working in science today can be heroic without the tragedy.

Perhaps looking for heroes in science is a fundamentally flawed endeavor. Science is at its heart collaborative, and the sheer scope of human knowledge means that it is impossible for one person, toiling alone, to conquer it all. We must talk to each other, work together, and build on existing work, as famously stated by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The great man theory is as flawed when it comes to science as it is when it comes to history. We all seek out role models, but we must recognize that they worked with others, seen and unseen, and that science is a societal effort and not the work of a lone genius.

While Feynman is long gone, there are other scientists still living, still contributing, and still behaving badly. It’s important that we not let them off the hook. Feynman lived decades ago, and certainly the standards of behaviour were different then, but today’s harassers and discriminators have no such excuse. If science is truly a collaborative effort, then it loses strength every time a person is pushed out of science by harassment. We can have complicated feelings about prominent scientists of the past, but there are a lot of people working in science today who are doing it right, and can serve as inspirations.

For example, tomorrow is the first ever LGBT STEM day, being celebrated with events around the world. Our Irish LGBT STEM network, House of STEM, has done so much to organise and promote this event, and founder Shaun O’Boyle explains why it’s desperately needed here:

The past is full of problematic yet successful scientists. Yet I’m hopeful that the future will have a broader array of amazing scientists, working together, who are also amazing people.

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Why Use Comedy to Communicate Science?

Comedy is a tool for change. It changes how people think about the world we live in, about complex ideas, and about each other. In this talk from TEDxTUM this winter, I explain why comedy is a great way to communicate science, to foster new ways of thinking, and even to show our humanity during the toughest times.

I’m very proud of this talk and I hope you enjoy it. It’s dedicated to my father.

Good partnerships take time

The Royal Society’s Partnership Scheme is a funding opportunity for UK schools to work in partnership with a practicing STEM professional. Intended to fund projects with an investigative bent and a clear goal to benefit pupils it sounds pretty ideal, doesn’t it?

However, part of the project eligibility criteria states:

Projects must demonstrate an appropriate level of innovation and therefore not be part of continuous project schemes and established outreach programmes.

At first glance this might seem reasonable – innovation is good, right? But the implications that established projects can’t be innovative is actually quite confusing. What’s more, it’s criteria like this that leaves so many otherwise great projects floundering after the first year, unable to ‘bed in’ and establish themselves as anything other than a flash in the pan.

Further down in the judging criteria it states simply that they are looking for ‘sustainability’. Clearly these projects need to have a plan to exist beyond the initial set-up for them to be of use to the communities they’re intended for. And yet without funding to continue the good work a project’s cost must be absorbed by the partners or it will die.

You can’t even re-apply to the Partnership Grant to continue your scheme without changing it somehow. If your investigation takes longer than you thought, engages the students so much that they want to continue with it or requires additional time because of internal or external factors, too bad.

Previous recipients of a Partnership Grant may apply for further funding, as long as the new application is made one year or more after the previous application. All applicants must ensure that the new project is not a simple extension of the previous one and must involve a new investigation.

One of my most exciting and successful partnerships has been growing since 2013. While the project itself has maintained the same aims and content we have been able to slowly build from engaging one after-school club to two primary school classes and finally to our ultimate goal of working with five primary school classes and their feeder secondary school beginning next year. Without the scope to slowly grow this partnership and learn as we went along we never would have reached this point, and I’m sure that’s true of many successful partnerships. The STEM professionals need time to prove themselves trustworthy and capable, and their community partners need to embed the projects within their many other commitments and pulls on their time.

Funders need to understand that partnership working and high quality projects take time. Refusing to consider applications from established projects hurts both those projects and the ones that are successfully funded, for they are soon to become the established programmes now ineligible for further money. Let’s have a culture of support that recognises the need for long-term projects and puts its money where its mouth is when it talks about sustainability.

Science Communication: Just Do Everything

Practice makes perfect, with science communication as with most other things. The more you hone your skills, especially in front of an audience, the more you learn what works and what doesn’t. And this is the best time of year if you are looking for science communication opportunities in Ireland.

The author at Bright Club Galway, photo courtesy Steve Cross.

Right now all of the following opportunities are open for submissions:

  • Bright Club: The one and only research/comedy variety night, get in touch for upcoming dates across Ireland.
  • Soapbox Science: Science takes to the streets, highlighting women working in STEM fields. Apply online by 23rd February.
  • Pint of Science: Informal science talks in the pub, apply here by 26th February.
  • Flame Challenge: Written/video competition, this year to explain climate to an 11 year old. Apply by 2nd March here.
  • Famelab: 3 minute talks on any scientific topic, apply to regional heats or online by 4th March.

Some of these events are recurring and some are once a year, and there’s also more competitions like I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here which occurs in the fall. You may feel more drawn to some of these formats than others, but in my view any practice is valuable. The first couple years I started to do scicomm talks in earnest, I did ALL the events listed above. Except since Bright Club didn’t yet exist in Ireland, I had to start it myself.

It turned out pretty well, and I’ve gotten lots more opportunities and even career advancement since. So take a risk, register for one of the events above. Or all of them. You never know.

The Far Northland

Over the summer I spent some time on a ship at the end of the world, as part of a science/art residency in the Arctic Circle. It was such a unique experience, and a visceral reminder of the many ways we are changing the world we live in. But I also took some videos while I was there, the first time I have marked an experience this way. While I love to take photos and find them very evocative, I was surprised how videos can bring back the immediacy of an experience like this, a reminder of the power of video for scientific communication too.

Now that I’ve finished processing them, here are all of my video missives from the Arctic, so that you can share the experience with me. And, if you are an artist or scientist and think this trip sounded amazing, you can apply for the same program here to go next year!

Where Do Scientists Come From?

Some people want to be scientists from the time they are children. Some people are influenced by scientists in movies and TV, or hear about famous scientists and want to be like them. Some people grow up with scientific role models, and some only come to science later in life, with lots of other experience under their belt.

But when I ask this question in talks, where do scientists come from, this is the photo I always show:

That’s me and my dad, somewhere between Oregon and Tennessee. He was a biochemist, but more importantly he was one of those rare people who does not lose their childlike curiosity about everything as they become an adult. My dad wanted to know how everything worked. How does a cell know to build part of a liver instead of a blood vessel? How do neurons build something whose topology leads to learning and memory? How did the building blocks of life first come together? How did the universe begin?

I lost my dad this week. I still have an unread email from him, a link to an article about the inflationary universe and the new things we are learning about it.

One of the things we used to talk about too was the importance of knowing your audience. My dad loved science but he didn’t only want to talk to other scientists, or to only discuss biology with biologists. He thought long and hard about how to explain things, talking and writing all the time about science. But he also knew that discussing an interesting topic with someone who has a different perspective than you so often leads to new insights and ideas. Talking about science shouldn’t be one way, it really has to be a dialogue to mean anything to either side.

I learned a lot more from my dad than just science and how to communicate better. But I can say unequivocally that he shaped me into the scientist that I am, and even our jokes back and forth to each other were a huge part of what led me to do science comedy.

Soon I will be going to London to receive the Institute of Physics Mary Somerville Prize, an early career public engagement award. It is dedicated to my dad, whose love of science and the world around us I am proud to carry forward. I will miss him fiercely.

Science Shouldn’t Stop at the Border

I’m a physicist and a science communicator, and I’ve had a lot of unique experiences in my life as a result of those passions. But I never expected to be detained at UK border control for three hours, and eventually denied entry and sent back to Ireland, just for doing science communication.

You see, although I have lived and worked in Ireland for the last 6 years, I have an American passport and no special privileges in any other part of Europe. And I have been all over Europe as part of my job in Ireland: to attend research conferences, be hosted as a visiting researcher in another lab, speak on panels, and give public lectures and science comedy performances as to engage the public with science. I came to Europe as a postdoctoral researcher and am now a lecturer at NUI Galway, running my own research lab and a plethora of public engagement events like Bright Club and Soapbox Science in Ireland.

But when I showed up in Cardiff to do a science comedy show as part of a festival, I was stopped at the border. I was not going to be paid for my performance, and had paid for my own travel out of pocket. However the border agents considered the festival ticket and parking pass that I had received (for an event I was to speak at) as a form of ‘payment in kind’. This is equivalent to saying that invited speakers at a conference are paid if their conference registration is covered, and nothing I (or the festival organisers who were phoned) could say convinced them otherwise. Throughout this process I was left alone for long stretches, told not to use my phone, and all my travel documents (from both the US and Ireland) were taken off me. It’s a process that is designed to make you feel powerless, and it works. Finally I was fingerprinted and photographed, served with refusal paperwork, and sent back to Ireland. There is now a black mark in my passport indicating I was refused entry to the UK.

This is especially ironic given my next planned trip to the UK will be to collect the Mary Somerville Prize from the Institute of Physics, a significant public engagement award which I am honoured to receive for my efforts to communicate science to the public. And yet apparently I am not allowed to do public engagement activities, not just for free but at my own expense, in the UK.

Jessamyn at the March for Science Ireland, holding a sign that says Science Is For Everyone.

Me at the March for Science Ireland in April 2017.

Mobility is a critical issue for physicists. We may need to travel for a conference, to visit collaborators, or even to move abroad to start a new career stage. Recent political developments such as Brexit and the Muslim travel ban in the US have been rightly criticized by researchers around the world for failing to account for how necessary the free movement of people is to science today. Early career researchers who can’t obtain travel visas easily are at a heavy career disadvantage. This is why mobility was a core issue of the recent March for Science.

To me, this is also indicative of how toxic our conversations about immigration in general have become. The border patrol officers I dealt with were as kind as they could be to me, but they were tasked with enforcing a system where all immigration is considered negative. Never mind that immigrants are often young, hard-working, and full of ambition. Never mind that immigrants drive social change, spark innovation, bring new perspectives, and in fact draw less on social safety nets than citizens do (both because of their demographics and often because they aren’t allowed to). Never mind that in science, many researchers move internationally, often multiple times, and in fact a huge number of Nobel Laureates are immigrants themselves. The narrative we hear about immigration often seems to have a Schrödinger’s Cat quality to it: immigrants as lazy welfare cheats, who are also stealing our jobs.

We should respect just how much immigrants contribute, scientifically and otherwise, to the countries they have chosen to call home. I hate that this disrespect starts at a very early stage: the recent story of the Afghan girls’ robotics team who were initially denied entry to the US for a robotics competition is heartbreaking. I was glad to see the decision reversed, as setbacks to girls in science and engineering are plentiful enough already.

I’m an immigrant, a physicist, and a science communicator, and I’m working hard to make the world a better place. Ireland has been welcoming, for me at least, so I’m doing a lot of that work here. But if other countries want talented young people to come enrich their societies, they should actually make that possible. Otherwise we’ll go somewhere else.

Crossposted at the Institute of Physics blog here.