Performing science outreach has become a common alternative career for many classically trained scientists. Whether it’s running a popular YouTube channel where you perform chemistry experiments for kids or writing articles for medical magazines, there are plenty of ways in which you can work within science outreach once you’ve defended your dissertation! Just ask the fine folks at ComSciCon, who are pretty much the United Nations of science communication with their impressive diversity in subject matter.
My Journey into informal STEM education
Before starting my doctorate, I did archaeological research as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. I realized the kids on the field trips were much more interesting than the shell midden I was analyzing. Why did everyone love being inside a museum more than a science classroom? How could we tell they were engaged? And Why? Was it because of my awesome Hamlet impression using a skull of a cave bear?
My experience at the museum led me to informal science education research, a field that’s garnering more attention. Today, kids are often learning outside of their traditional school settings, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to school closings and prompting students to learn elsewhere.
While completing my doctorate in Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I worked in two different science museums and conducted research about informal science education. Currently, I’m the director of STEAM and Innovation for the Boy Scouts of America in Chicago. I oversee all STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programming, which runs the gamut of different mediums of science outreach, from videos to after-school activities! I’m fairly extroverted, so doing this work is quite a joy.
Outreach through writing
I’m also a writer, mostly for mainstream online mediums. In most of my articles, I unpack challenging scientific findings and make them easy to understand. This kind of work is perhaps one of the most common jobs we think of when it comes to science outreach, i.e., the scientist penning a brilliant and retrospective piece for National Geographic. However, there are issues when it comes to writing, especially with presenting current research to a wide range of audiences. Sometimes the science itself is challenging to slough through (such as my Kavli Award-nominated piece on Neanderthal DNA in modern humans). Sometimes, it’s emotionally hard to work through (such as my article on the history of American eugenics). But kindling a sparkle of interest in someone’s eyes when they learn something new brings me such joy and fulfillment, and I bet it does for you too.
If you’re still interested in doing this as a career, awesome! I love my job, and I can’t recommend it enough, especially for those passionate about making science engaging and inclusive for everyone.
Here are some tips on how to get started:
1. Identify what medium you want to do: Are you chatty? Think about public speaking, a video series, or even serving as a scientist-in-residence at a museum (think Emily Gaskin of the Field Museum’s The Brain Scoop). But not everyone is outgoing, and some may prefer writing or drawing their science out. Heck, with all the animated modes that exist now, I’ve seen some brilliant work explaining challenging science in less than 5-7 minutes on teded.com. However, be honest with yourself: how do you like best explaining challenging subjects? On that note...
2. Identify your audience: Who do you want to explain scientific findings to? It’s easy to say kids for most communicators. After all, children are young, they’re excited, and a little bit of foam and lightning gets them cheering. However (and I say this as both an educator and as a parent), certain subjects work better with older age groups, as well as humor. If your humor is a little of the dark and cheeky side, you may get some surly middle-schoolers engaged in physics. If you’re into bright and straightforward science that focuses on size, pre-kindergarteners may be your audience. But don’t forget their parents: adults are the largest audience for science communication and can understand more complicated concepts. With that being stated, as we’ve seen with the last four years of the Trump administration, science denial is a real thing and can be crushing to hear as a novice science communicator. Science denialism is especially relevant when it comes to what you are presenting on….
3. Identify your subject: Some folks within science communication love to focus on one specific topic, such as neurology or wildlife ecology. However, plenty of informal educators focus on a wide range of subjects, such as myself or my fellow communicator, Sadie Witkowski at PhDrinking. Give yourself some thought: which topics make you passionate to write about, heck, to sell? There’s plenty of folks that groan at theoretical physics but squeal with joy when presented with the opportunity to give a tour of invasive plants in a prairie ecosystem. Speaking of green...
4. Look for work (if you want): If you’ve read this far and are going, “Yaaassss, Dr. Voggut Vegeta-barge! This is me, and this is the song of my people! I want to work in science communication!” Awesome, love to hear it. And don’t worry, boo, no one can pronounce my last names. Remember, there are a ton of different jobs to find, with various titles. Always look for the descriptions:
5. Start your own work (if you want): A few folks have successfully trekked out on their own as guest speakers, authors, and illustrators. Self-starting and free-lancing can be challenging to do, as it requires not only grit (think rejection after rejection...but everyone reading has at least one failed NSF project under their belt, so y’all get it), but a fair amount of paperwork. It can be done, though! I’m currently getting paid for many of my articles through taking part with MassiveSci, where graduate students can gain experience, network, publish, and find out new paid opportunities for both contract and full-time work.
This list, and my experience, is far from exhaustive. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me or to many of the brilliant people running ComSciCon, which was the basis for me getting back into writing.
Just about anyone who has come into contact with popular neuroscience and psychology has surely heard of the trendy notion that our brains are "hard-wired" in certain ways. A simple search of "hard-wired" in Google News demonstrates how pervasive this idea is:
Let's dig into that last link. Here's a quote:
"It makes more sense to see traits such as cooperation, egalitarianism, altruism, and peacefulness as natural to human beings. These were the traits that have been prevalent in human life for tens of thousands of years. So presumably, these traits are still strong in us now."
This is the classic argument so often presented: that although the world around us has changed drastically in the last 5,000 years, our brains haven't, and that is why we are ancient brains living in a modern world.
It's easy to see why this argument is so popular. For one, it's intuitive. Evolution occurs incredibly slowly. That's why it took so long into human history to discover it, and it's one of the many reasons people today deny its existence. If evolution occurs slowly, then our biology is likely extremely similar to the biology of ancient humans.
But I also think these "hard-wired" arguments are popular because they subvert our responsibility for our own behavior, and it can go both ways. For behaviors we feel guilty about (such as prejudice and racism), "hard-wired" arguments offer excuses for immoral behavior. Similarly, for behaviors like altruism, "hard-wired" arguments let us point fingers away from ourselves and instead at systems and institutions which have supposedly betrayed our natural tendencies.
A common thread in the above links is that the trait which is supposedly "hard-wired" is whichever trait fits a narrative—it's racism if we're talking about mass incarceration or it's cooperation if we're looking to inspire institutional change.
Yet, in my view, none of these "hard-wired" arguments seem to have any respect for our developmental potential, our changing brain, and the complexity of human behavior.
Our Changing Brain
It's probably obvious to most that a child's brain has the capacity to change, develop, and adapt to their environment. As just one example, a child's prefrontal cortex, compared to adults, is very underdeveloped— therefore, a typical child is less effective at making complex, long-term decisions.
Yet, in the past few decades, neuroscientists have begun to have a much deeper appreciation for the adult brain's capacity for change—a term known as "plasticity." For example, we now know that adults, too, grow new neurons in some regions of the brain and that the brain undergoes profound differences throughout one's lifetime.
Imagine for a moment that the neurons in your brain are a series of connected roads, crisscrossing and linking to each other like a complex city. The neurons in your brain change in two prominent ways.
First, the intersections between roads are either formed or lost in a process called synaptic plasticity. Some intersections become stronger and more efficient, such as a cloverleaf interchange between highways. Others become weaker—maybe a four-way gravel road with a flashing red light.
Second, the capacity of each road can change; some become 6-lane highways and others two-lane streets through a process of myelination that is performed by the supportive glial cells. (Written about in an article of mine, here.)
These processes are happening constantly throughout childhood and into adulthood. It's believed that plasticity influences our effect, character traits, and of course, behavior. None of what I described is compatible with the notion of "hard-wiring" in our brain.
It’s time to give up our supposed evolutionary baggage
The problem with the "hard-wired" argument is that it is inherently rigid and, I think, potentially dangerous. From Barbara King at NPR:
"A big problem with words like "hard-wired" and its familiars is their fuzziness, particularly in regard to what they might imply about the human capacity for learning and change."
One common argument amongst evolutionary psychologists is that our brains are hard-wired to feel more empathy toward people within our own tribe—our own social status, race, sex, etc. This trait stems from an ancestral world in which it would be advantageous to vigorously protect your own group and be suspicious of difference which may introduce conflict. Indeed, I can understand this line of thinking—it is very difficult to extend compassion beyond our close inner circle, people who share our experience.
But this fact doesn't abrogate me from the practice of intentionally mixing with groups from different backgrounds and certainly doesn't provide any evidence of a "hard-wired" opposition to difference. Feelings of love and hate are "triggered under given circumstances, facilitated or hampered by social conditions and structures" (Anthropologist Patrick Clarkin).
In fact, there is strong empirical evidence of our social group's influence on our view of others — not our brain's hard-wiring. Psychologists Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp carried out an extremely extensive meta-analysis of over 1,400 papers that analyzed the effects of intergroup contact and found that an astonishing 94% of the studies showed that increased intergroup contact was associated with less prejudice. An association is, of course, not exactly a causal link. Yet, impressively, the study ruled out the possibility of a reverse causal sequence, publication bias, and other alternative explanations to put forth the most substantive evidence to date that it is our social structure, not our inherent biology or "hard-wiring," which influences our prejudice.
It goes without saying that this is an extremely complex and nuanced topic. Certain aspects of human nature are inherent, such as those embedded in the genetic code itself. Yet my point is to simply urge you to think critically about popular arguments that attempt to portray your brain as already formed, ancestral, and incapable of change. If 2020 has shown us anything, it's that we don't have a choice—we need to change ourselves for the better.