Category Archives: Science Communication

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.

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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.

Let Me Sing Your Thesis

I spend a lot of time thinking about new ways to communicate science. One of my favourite recent approaches combines science with musical improv, a thing I love dearly. This video from Bright Club Dublin shows me telling a few science jokes and then improvising a song about theses written by a few audience members. Increasing thesis citations, one verse at a time.

I did the same thing later at Bright Club Galway, but it lasts a lot longer because it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand one of the audience member’s thesis titles… to the great amusement of the rest of the crowd.

Stop doing evaluation!

Anybody who has even dipped a toe into the waters of public engagement recently will know what I mean when I talk about the dreaded ‘i’ word.

Impact.

It seems to be everywhere – in funding applications, at conferences, even (for those of us fortunate to work in higher education) in the REF case studies. Impact is the word of the day, and proving that you have it is everybody’s goal. After all, why fund something that isn’t having an appreciable effect? Why spend time and resources embedding something into your practice if it isn’t going to change hearts and minds?

The problem, of course, is how to measure this. Evaluation is impact’s much talked-about but highly misunderstood little sibling. Sure, we need to evaluate our projects, but not just any evaluation will do. This is why I have massively stepped back the evaluation I do of my programmes, all but eliminating the usual gamut of questionnaires and surveys that used to be a must-have for any robust initiative.

Performance Evaluation Form Feedback

Think about it this way: have you ever ever gotten a truly surprising answer to ‘did you enjoy this activity/event/project?’ Most people will have done, a few people didn’t, and that tells you… precisely nothing. Sure, if you’re developing something particularly new or experimental it might be worth checking if your audience enjoyed it, but nine times out of ten you’ll be able to tell how enjoyable something was without asking.

Same with ‘did you learn anything today?’ The facts and figures people might be able to recall and parrot back five minutes after finishing your event are all but worthless in measuring whether you had a real impact on their knowledge. I can memorise a phone number that I need to call – that doesn’t mean I learned it or that I’ll remember it tomorrow, much less in a year’s time.

True evaluation of impact is going to take a lot more effort and a lot more care than what we’re used to. We need to look at long-term changes, all the while understanding the many complex and intersecting factors at play when it comes to affecting people’s attitudes about science. Groups like the British Science Association and Wellcome have started undertaking studies into longer-term impact of STEM projects, among other things, but it will still be many years before we have the data we need to know what makes a good, impactful project.

Despite the click-baity title this isn’t a call to stop all evaluation ever. But think about the questions you’re asking and what they’re telling you. Are they really informing best practice and proving impact, or are they just a waste of your audience’s time – and yours?

So: what questions are worth asking, and what impact should we be aiming for? That will be the subject of future blogs but I invite you to continue the discussion below!

Art and Science in the Arctic

I just returned from two weeks aboard a sailing ship filled with artists and scientists. Your first question might be, why?

I heard about the Arctic Circle residency program during a transitional time in my life. I was weeks from unemployment and had been applying for jobs for several months already, and I didn’t really know what was coming next for me. I had been living in Ireland for more than four years and I loved it, but was it better to stay or to go back to the US? And I loved my work as a nanoscience researcher, but I had also become very active in science communication and various forms of public engagement, so would I be better off making a career transition? Was it possible to live in a way that I could do everything I loved doing, or would I have to pick and choose?

In the midst of all of this, the idea of a science/art experience, aboard a ship in the Arctic, was like a dream. Not a research expedition, not a creative hermitage, or perhaps both of those things and more. True interdisciplinarity, in a creative and inspiring environment.

And what an environment! I love the wilderness, the mountains and the sea, but the Arctic has long held a special fascination for me. It’s such a stark environment: brutal and yet full of life and beauty too. The stories of Scott, Amundsen, Nansen, and Shackleton are inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. While I have no desire to freeze to death, I wanted to see the edge of the world, to listen to nature and search for humanity.

So I wrote to the Arctic Circle, talked about projects I could do on board as well as my history of science communication and science/art collaborations. I was delighted to be selected for a 2017 expedition, to take place over the summer solstice during the season where the sun never sets. It was somewhat strange to have 15 months to think about and prepare for such an incredible journey, and in the meantime I got a new job, moved to a new city in Ireland, and came to a very different place than I was in when I first seriously thought about going to the Arctic.

I’ll be writing more about the trip, which one of the other participants pointed out was like an iceberg: the part that’s visible, the trip itself, is only a small fraction of the total. It was amazing but will take a long time to process and sort through. But to start out, I did some vlogs (a first for me so they are pretty raw), and you can watch the first one, from the day we set out, here:

Know the rules so you can break them

Whenever you get up to speak in public, the audience has certain expectations about what you are going to say and how you’re going to say it, based on context: where you are, what you look like, who the audience themselves are. This is perfectly satirized in this meta-TED talk:

Everything about the TED format is pointed out and executed perfectly. It’s almost difficult to watch TED talks after watching this talk, because so many of them are cast from the same mold. It reminded me too of this classic example of a meta-academic talk:

There is only one word in this talk. And yet the tone of voice, the graphs and bullet points, and the story arc of it are all clear and very familiar if you’ve ever sat through a research talk. (This is also a common improv game of scenes done in gibberish, which shows you don’t need words to tell a story.) In both cases, the speakers are showing that the performance element of their talks, the delivery (from vocal inflection to props to body language) can be completely divorced from content. Delivering material in a certain style tells the audience what to expect.

This is as true in comedy as it is in academia. Experienced comics will tell you that you can write a brilliant joke but if you don’t say it in a way that tells the audience to laugh, or if you talk right through them as they laugh, it won’t land. There’s a style of presentation in standup comedy, outside of actual humorous content, that tells the audience what they can expect.

At a first pass, if you’re looking to give a good talk, or tell a good joke, or communicate basically anything to any audience, it helps to be aware of the norms around how material is delivered. Basic storytelling and conversational tools are important too, of course.

But I think these rules are also made to be broken. Going outside the norm when you’re giving an academic talk projects confidence and mastery. Well crafted comedy can be used to discuss tough real-world subjects in memorable ways. Taking tips from performers on timing, stagecraft, and the many ways an idea can be explored helps you to not only understand the expectations of an audience, but also to surpass them and create something new.

Diversity in Science Communication

I have been thinking lately, about how much public engagement is aimed at people who already have access to science and education (too much), about the importance of science in public debate (see: March for Science), and about whose voices are routinely excluded from those discussions. So with thanks/apologies to Flavia Dzodan & DN Lee, my science communication will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

I want everyone to have access to scientific ideas, to scientific habits, to the radical notion that we are each entitled to talk science with each other (though we may come from different backgrounds, whether in science or in culture). But we must acknowledge that some people already have this access more than others. Science communication should not only be aimed at those from highly educated backgrounds, those with family wealth, those with internet access and science capital and a sense of entitlement. If we ignore the vast majority of people who can engage with science, who can become scientists, then what are we really even doing?

President Barack Obama hosts the second White House Science Fair celebrating the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from across the country. The President views exhibits of student work, ranging from breakthrough research to new inventions, in the Red Room of the White House, Feb. 7, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Part of the appeal of science is supposed to be our wonder at the way the world is, a willingness to look below the surface and upend our pre-existing assumptions. So why would we accept a system in which access to science depends (still! after all these years!) on surface traits like skin color, gender, or age? It may be tempting to stick to our ideal vision of science as a meritocracy, where all will be rewarded according to their capability, but decades of research on unconscious bias in hiring, retention, and negotiation across science and engineering fields show that if we passively wait for things to get better, we are really just endorsing the status quo.

I love the community of people I have found in science communication. But I can’t help but notice how much of the administrative and organizational work is done by people who are still being disadvantaged in mainstream science: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Even the fact that so much of science communication is done by younger researchers, who face a perceived stigma around this work, rather than older researchers with more career stability, is incredibly unfair. We need to actively include these communities in our engagement programs  without asking them to shoulder an unfair portion of the load. Science communication has never been about clever men showing off, but it sometimes looks that way, which is just as bad for the future of science.

You might ask, why do marginalized communities and young researchers take up the banner of science communication more often? Who stays in science is largely determined by how well they feel they fit in. People who don’t resemble the stereotypical scientist know the importance of representation, the importance of seeing people who look like you in the field you want to pursue. Younger researchers are also closer to career decision points, remember the factors that led them to choose science, and still have the passion to provoke that decision in others. It’s encouraging that so many people are still working hard to communicate science well to all audiences… but we must continue to support that work if we want it to continue! Science is an activity done by people, and it is at its best when it makes use of the full spectrum of human experience and knowledge.

I refuse to let science communication put people in boxes, when science is about thinking outside the box. We can do better.