Category Archives: Science Communication

In Search of Polar Perspectives

Perspective changes everything. Seeing things from a new angle, in a new context, can lead to some incredible realizations; just ask the astronauts who look down at our planet from orbit, seeing everything that means anything floating on an island in space. It is hard to have that perspective from close up, as author Ursula Le Guin put it:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death. 

Earthrise, taken by William Anders from the Moon.

To me, this is the uncomfortable comfort of wild spaces – of the wilderness. I grew up in the high desert, where what lies between towns and cities is mainly wild and mainly not for us.  It may sound strange, but it gives me a sense of peace to be somewhere where my presence is incidental, in the grand mountains and epic skies. That landscape’s vastness was there long before I was born, and it will long outlast me. There is a temptation when we find a place with this cosmic perspective, to use it as a kind of blurred backdrop to bring our own lives into sharper focus. However, this temptation must be resisted. The wilderness is not a canvas for your projections, not a metaphor for what you have finally realized about your own life. It just is, independent of you or your narratives.

Such grand places give perspective because of their immensity – they evoke a feeling of the sublime. But this can affect people in different ways. Sometimes the sublime in nature can inspire us, make us feel that we are part of something greater than us. Other times, being such a small piece of such a large thing can inspire fear, even existential dread, as we realise our own insignificance. But we are unique among creatures in being able to perceive and witness this. I think the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen described it well:

The starry sky is the truest friend in life, when you first become acquainted; it is ever there, it gives ever peace, ever reminds you that your restlessness, your doubt, your pains are passing trivialities. The universe is and will remain unshaken. Our opinions, our struggles, or sufferings are not so important and unique, when all is said and done.

I felt this keenly two years ago when I went to the Arctic. It was incredible seeing the glaciers and the icy seas, a brutal but beautiful environment at the roof of the world. But my sense of peace was shattered by the evidence, all around us, that this wilderness was not so long-lasting as it might seem. Climate change had shrunk the glaciers from their former size, whaling had destroyed formerly huge populations of beluga whales, and even isolated beaches had plastic garbage washing up on them as litter was conveyed on the ocean currents from other parts of the planet. I’ve described these things as if they happened passively, but we humans have actively caused these changes to occur. In the past, we had the excuse of ignorance. We know now exactly what we are doing.

Arctic mountains, glaciers, beaches… and trash.

Our planet may continue to float perfectly suspended in space, a blue marble in an ocean of emptiness, but our place on it will evaporate if we continue our current course. There is a drastic need for change. This is why I am taking part in Homeward Bound, an initiative bringing together women in science to become leaders in climate action. Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership despite high ability and skills, due to patriarchal ideas which we must dismantle if we want to use the full complement of human ability. My cohort of 100 women from across the globe is currently training in visibility, strategy, and science leadership, and in November 2019 we will set sail to Antarctica.  This will be the largest female expedition to Antarctica, and there is no more appropriate place than the continent which is most affected by climate change, and which for so long was considered the sole purview of men.

The cost and the carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica is high. Would it be better to not make the journey, to preserve the place by avoiding the carbon emissions? And more broadly, is it better to preserve wild places by leaving them be? Few naturalists have advocated for our planet’s wild places by avoiding them. But I believe the question is worth considering, and when I was in the Arctic my shipmates and I discussed this at length – if we believed that the Arctic was under threat, then what were we doing there? My own conclusion was that the trip was indeed wasteful, if I did not use it as an opportunity to raise awareness of climate change and produce broader societal value. So I wrote and spoke about the Arctic, I worked with artists to create new works about science, and stepped up my advocacy to be in line with my values. My Homeward Bound journey, similarly, must be larger than the physical trip – like an iceberg whose visible piece is but a small fraction of the whole.

Why not ask about the impact of not just our big gestures, but the smaller choices that make up our lives? What impact does our travel have, our energy consumption online, our food choices? What must I achieve to be worth my carbon footprint? What are we doing to justify this impact, or minimize it?

After coming back from the Arctic, I became vegetarian. That was the right choice for me, though others may view it differently and make their own individual choices. But we must remember that we are not acting on our own – our choices contribute to climate change, to the destruction of the planet we call home.  How will we justify them to our neighbours, to our children? Why not choose to act, in both our personal choices and our collective action toward corporations and governments?

Perspective is important, but perspective without action will not be enough. We must face our discomfort, and look for new solutions, if we are to have any hope of preserving what is sublime on our planet and in ourselves.

I am fundraising for my Homeward Bound journey; you can donate here if you want to help. 

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Expressing Nanoscience through Dance

Growing up, I was a dancer – I performed in salsa, swing, and ballroom competitions, trained a little in ballet, and was the captain of my high school dance team. When I went off to college to study physics and math, I never imagined that I would get to bring science and dance together someday.

But in 2017, when I was selected for a science/art residency aboard a ship in the Arctic, my roommate for three weeks in close quarters was Deidre Cavazzi, a choreographer specializing in interdisciplinary dance projects. Deidre was a wonderful companion on the journey we shared, and is now a good friend, so I was delighted when she suggested that she might be able to come to Ireland during her next sabbatical to choreograph a dance piece based on my research in nanoscience. I felt really honoured, because I had seen her previous work based on things like the Fibonacci sequence and banned books and to me, the idea of translating these ideas into physical movement and shape and tempo was fascinating.

So it was very exciting when Deidre came to Galway in autumn 2018, supported by a public engagement grant from the Institute of Physics. She came to my lab, talked with me about my research, and read everything she could get her hands on about nanoelectronics and memristors and novel devices that are mimicking the brain. We got a beautiful venue courtesy of the Discipline of Drama, Theatre, and Performance at NUI Galway, and then for two nights during Science Week we invited people to a free event where I gave a short introduction to nanoscience, and then Deidre introduced a dance theatre piece that explored the same concepts, with images from my research and movement choreographed and set to music by Deidre. The full show was recorded, and you can watch it here:

Video of my talk and the dance performance that Deidre created.

One of the best things for me about this project was that Deidre asked me if I wanted to be one of the dancers! I had a wonderful time, and seeing how she brought nanoscience concepts to a whole new context was truly inspiring. You can read more about Deidre’s process on her blog here, where she describes her process and her time in Ireland. I enjoyed my collaboration with her so very much, and we are hoping to repeat it again sometime in the future! But I couldn’t actually sum up the project better than this quote, from one of our audience members:

The scientist and the choreographer had understood each other so well… I loved the blending of science and art, I think both can benefit hugely from each other as each has a unique perspective but are trying to answer similar questions.

Science Communication and Cultural Translation

I’m American, but have done most of my science communication in Ireland and the UK. That’s pretty much a fluke, a result of the fact that I didn’t have the time or confidence to pursue science communication during graduate school, and that the timing of my move to Ireland coincided with an explosion of opportunities – Soapbox Science, Pint of Science, Famelab, and of course Bright Club – for talking about science.

That means I do a lot of my science communication outside of the culture and educational system I grew up in, which can be a challenge. References, attitudes, and even just ways of talking about science are different in different places, and most places are pretty different from the science town where I grew up: Los Alamos, New Mexico.

I’ve been working with scientists in Nairobi, Kenya, to challenge myself even more. The Institute of Physics have funded me to work with the Mawazo Institute twice now, a research institute which funds and trains female African scholars in science and social science policy-relevant disciplines. I’ve helped them put on public-facing events, connect to local universities and informal science educators, and most recently returned to Nairobi to run a full day course about effective communication of research.

Working with the amazing Mawazo Fellows in Nairobi.

On my science communication walkabout, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

  • Metaphors are great but they may not translate. See for example, all my baseball and basketball metaphors (it’s a home run! a slam dunk!) that I left back in the US.
  • The slang of where you grew up is as much a sort of jargon as scientific terminology can be. Change how you talk, or at least define your terms.
  • How direct and emotive a communicator your audience expects may vary wildly between different places! This can work to your advantage or disadvantage, but at the very least you have to be aware of it.
  • Also consider the level of formality your audience expects, and be conscious about your choice to match or subvert it as this can have different meanings across cultural divides. My personal style as well as my nationality is less formal than lots of the places I end up speaking, and I have to think about what cues I can use to show I’m worth listening to.
  • And finally, consider how fast you talk! You may have been told to slow down when doing public speaking in the past, to be easily understood, but consider that fast talking will compound when people aren’t familiar with your accent (even in a country speaking your native language).

It’s a tough feeling when you move somewhere new, or go on an exciting trip to talk about science, and suddenly realise that in this new context you are not the effective communicator that you were back home. But I think that most of the skills we develop by talking about science are transferable, it just takes some thought and attention to the new context. And as always, know your audience!

Why teach physics?

To me, teaching at the university level has three specific roles:

  • Student empowerment
  • Democratization of knowledge
  • The betterment of humanity

As an educator, my job is first and foremost to empower students by helping them to learn, access information, and create new knowledge. This process is inherently democratic as it is meant to equalize access to knowledge, so that any student can learn any subject regardless of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, or other factors which they cannot control. Empowering individual students in this way leads to a society that contains more and more well-informed, competent and capable individuals, who will use their knowledge and talents to contribute to the betterment of the human condition. My teaching is meant to be a public good.

The author closing TEDxTUM 2017. Photo by Wade Million.

This may seem like an obvious, if lofty goal. However, there are challenges which must be addressed, especially in the teaching of science generally and physics more specifically. Physics requires not only topical knowledge and strong math skills, but also critical thinking and problem solving, which can at first seem at odds with the way that many students have prepared themselves for the Leaving Cert. In the Irish context, teaching first year physics, I try to help students transition from a rote learning mentality to embrace more complex modes of understanding. I must also address a common fallacy about science, that it is a collection of facts. Showing students how these facts are connected, and that science is a creative endeavour at heart, is needed to progress their understanding.

There is also an elitism around physics, sometimes perpetuated by physicists themselves, that must be broken down. Physics relies on math in a way that few other subjects do, and while math is essential to understanding physical concepts, many students experience ‘math anxiety’ that must be addressed. Using language, demonstrations, and math together helps students cement the basic concepts. Studies have shown that the use of humour in lectures also aids students to remember information better, which comes as little surprise to me after my experience running Bright Club.

A talk I gave about using humour to communicate tough topics.

Often, whether or not students choose to pursue a topic depends not so much on the topic itself as on their own identity: whether or not they can see themselves in physics, whether they ‘fit in’. My own experience growing up surrounded by scientists helped show me what a scientific career looked like and how to access it. But students without this background need more from their instructors: to see scientists as real people, to understand the steps to a scientific career and where it can lead them. This is especially important for women and other underrepresented minorities, who are still sorely needed in physics. Even if the students who take my classes choose not to study physics, I aim to leave them with a solid understanding and positive attitude toward physics, to understand that physics is a way to understand the world around us, and an important part of everything we do.

I do my best to actively engage students in lectures, problem-solving, and laboratory, remembering that people often say that you cannot teach anyone physics, but empower them to learn it themselves. My role is to find as many ways as there are students to present the information and connective ideas of physics. I am inspired in this by my own undergraduate physics mentor, Richard Muller at the University of California Berkeley, who was famous as a teacher for his course Physics for Future Presidents. He understood that everyone, not just future physicists, will benefit from a solid understanding of physics, and designed a seminar style course focused more on interesting and relevant science topics rather than historical sequences of discovery. I take the liberal arts view that physics is for everyone, the same way literature is for everyone.

My aim as a teacher is not merely to get as many people as possible to study physics. It is to improve engagement, understanding, and attitudes toward physics, which is a central science of relevance to every single person. I want to empower students to understand physics, improve their access to that knowledge and understanding of how it is connected, and help scientists and non-scientists alike to work for the betterment of humanity. This makes better physicists, but it also makes better people.

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.

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.