Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to know how the world works. I fell in love with biology in high school, and I studied it in college. For my Master’s degree, I trained grey seals to vocalize on command. I studied how wild Norwegian killer whales feed and vocalize for my Ph.D. About a year before graduating, I realized I wanted to pursue a path outside of academics and research. I made my way to Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole (the same place where I was doing my Ph.D.), and started reporting about science on the radio. My new challenge became one of getting scientists to tell their stories. Not in science-speak, but in a way that was engaging, clear, and enjoyable.
Last year I worked on a project where the people I interviewed did this beautifully. It was an audio slideshow about an open house hosted by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory last fall. The Lamont scientists invited everyone who visited – families, kids, college students, senior citizens, teens – to touch the science, and learn about everything from the Gulf oil spill to the Iceland volcano. Hands on activities. Riveting demonstrations. Soundscapes. Everyone was excited to be there. Including me. Here’s the piece:
I gradually came to realize why I adored this project. The whole experience of that day – of so many people embracing science, the laughter, the looks of wonder and curiosity – that’s what I feel inside when I think about science, and why I love it. It’s the feeling I had in high school when I learned incredulously about how a cell works. It’s what happened in college when I took my organic chemistry class and watched chemicals change before my eyes – acrobatically transforming in the beakers, and shape-shifting on the chalkboard.
And it’s what I loved about doing research on whale behavior and communication in graduate school. Science can be a wildly joyous sensation. You just have to hold your gaze upon a corner of the universe so that everything else gives way…and you come to understand something about the world we live in deeply and beautifully and personally.
I feel like the Lamont-Doherty Open House actualized that inner experience for me. I hope I brought it to life in the slideshow, too. In fact, it’s the kind of enthusiasm that I try to instill in many of my science pieces.
That feeling – it’s something that’s inside all of us. Especially scientists. They’re adults that have held onto that part of them that leaps into the air when they learn something new about how the world works.
When I do an interview with a scientist, I try to unlock the inner kid. He or she is in there somewhere, running around, knocking over a vase, making a snow angel, and my job is to figure out how to get them to throw a snowball at my microphone.
And you. Loot. Throw.
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A few tricks.
One: Try to find out what makes them do science – their first memory of science, how they got immersed in their current field, what it’s like to get into the zone. Ask them about a time when they felt like they really connected with the universe or their study species or an equation. Ask them to describe it. It’s okay if they go a bit nerdy on you. Then have them pull back and explain what it felt like inside their hearts too.
Two: Check out their natural habitat. If you’re interviewing a scientist in their office or lab, take a look around and try to find something personal to ask them about. It could be a portal into just the interviewing opportunity you’re looking for. For instance, I interviewed an oceanographer at Rutgers University a couple years ago. Tacked to his wall was a note that his daughter had written to him when she was in the second grade. The teacher asked the class about how the ocean impacts their lives. And his daughter wrote about how the ocean took her dad away from her – how he would go to sea for weeks at a time. This oceanographer told me he looks at his daughter’s note everyday – it’s what motivates him to build instruments that sample the ocean remotely without requiring anyone to go to sea. That note from an 8-year-old girl was a doorway into this man’s science. Find those clues in a scientist’s lab, in their office, in their car. They’re people, too, and if you can help make them a person in your story, it can only help.
Three: Let them play. I’ve watched entomologists frolic in a vineyard searching for invasive beetles, herpetologists splash around in a creek scanning for tadpoles, and even physicists gaze at an equation and have it transform into the reality all around them. Get them in this place where they love to be – where they’re at on their best days – and have them tell you why they love what they do. Why they care about the science and the world around them.
I’ll leave with you a short clip from a piece I did about mangroves for the Encyclopedia of Life’s podcast One Species at a Time. Candy Feller and Dennis Whigham are ecologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
It happens at 1:20. You can hear the duo light up, connecting back to their 5 or 6-year-old versions, wide-eyed and curious about everything around them. Try to get that joy on tape. And try to find it inside yourself, too. Trust me: it’s in there.