November 22, 2019
When I was eleven, I was at a youth program when a family friend came up to me. I remember he smiled and asked, “Are you a math and science person, or a history and English person?” I looked at him like a deer in headlights. I didn’t know how to answer. Though the question was merely small talk, it stuck with me. Could I be both? Neither?
In many ways, I’m a “science person.” During high school, I did biology research. My earliest project was related to antibiotic resistance, so this research was relevant to people’s lives, but it often took some work to make that connection clear.
And I did that at science fairs. There was nothing like the moment when a grin of understanding appeared on the face of a little 5-year-old who had come to listen. I saw the same look in others who stopped by. There was an “aha!” moment where it clicked.
I realized that as much as I loved doing science, I also loved translating science. Looking back, this wasn’t surprising. I certainly had what the family friend had called a “humanities” side.
In middle school, I self-studied Modern Greek for three years so I could understand this one Greek song… it’s a long story. Around the same time, I taught myself how to code, and I designed websites in my free time, thinking about how to communicate people’s personalities and businesses online in creative ways.
I wanted to learn more about how to bridge science with the people that it impacts. I saw lots of examples of science communication: articles in the technology section of The New York Times, pamphlets at the doctors office, and videos on Khan Academy.
I discovered that there are people who film nature documentaries and turn research into policy. I thought it was so cool that people were doing this work! But how could I get there? Why wasn’t I learning about these careers in school?
In my experience as a high schooler, science communication was not accessible to me. So I decided to seek my own solution and start an organization called Science and Us. I don’t want other students to face those same obstacles: not knowing what science communication is, and not knowing how to get started with it.
I gathered a small team of high schoolers from surrounding schools. In a year and a half, we’ve held three events at local universities for over 100 middle and high school students. We’ve had dozens of invited guests, who illustrate science comics, preserve artifacts from outer space missions, and produce podcasts about technology and the future. We’ve shared our ideas with and learned from other science communicators at conferences nationwide.
There are other organizations doing similar work. ComSciCon has workshops across the country for and by graduate students who lead science communication initiatives. The Story Collider has over 50 events per year for people to share evocative stories of how science has impacted them. But the closest other science communication organization that I’ve found for high schoolers is run by a university in Hawaii.
With my organization Science and Us, my goal is to change that, and we started by hosting events. At our first event, I remember meeting an eighth grader whose parents had made her come. She was a self proclaimed theatre and art kid, ready to have a really boring day at Science and Us. But she became intrigued when a presenter began talking about using Twitter to communicate her research.
By the end of the day, this eighth grader excitedly applied to join our organizing team and is now our youngest member. A few months later, she voluntarily went to a talk about the science of happiness, which sparked a new interest in neuroscience for her.
The other day, I asked her, “Is neuroscience something you would’ve been interested in before Science and Us?” Her response was, “No way, Jose! Science scared me.” She still loves theatre and art, but has realized that she doesn’t have to choose a side - she can do both.
What I see as the successful part of this story isn’t that science has gained another person, but rather that, for my friend, these fields are no longer closed off. Both art and science are equally valid parts of her identity, and she now feels comfortable embracing that.
Science and Us is not trying to promote what many people refer to as STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Instead, I want to take a step beyond that. Instead of crossing the boundaries that divide fields, I want to eliminate those boundaries.
I want to live in a world where we don’t feel pressured to fit into a box labeled “science person” or “humanities person.”
I’m concerned that as we hyper-focus on pushing students into STEM fields, we forget about teaching and practicing science communication.
When you communicate a science topic, you’re approaching, breaking down, and explaining a complicated topic. These tools are not exclusive to science, and they help people define and solve problems using varying perspectives and a shared language.
Now more than ever, we need young people with a rich array of perspectives and the ability to share ideas clearly. And this I believe will help us to solve society’s biggest problems.