We have reached an interesting crossroads. One path, the one we are on, further disconnects the scientific community and the general public. This path includes future dangers like eradicated diseases re-surfacing, disregard of ecosystems, widespread famine… The other path promises prosperity, a deep connection, understanding, and appreciation that is shared among scientists and civilians alike. What scientists do in the coming decades will determine what path we will choose. It seems obvious which path we should
choose and I’m going to put the responsibility on the scientists because we have clearly dismissed the inquiries of the general public and now they are making their own terrible decisions on things we could have discussed with them a long time ago (ahem – the rising vaccination concern). Now I know that there are other factors influencing people to misinterpret scientific claims (i.e. Jenny McCarthy’s *medical* opinion on vaccinations, President Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax, etc.) but the leading scientists in these fields know more about these issues than anyone and it is imperative (and a growing requirement for the future welfare of the planet) for scientists to stop ignoring the anti-vaxxers and the creationists and instead start engaging. I know this is a tumultuous and exhaustive effort. It is going to take everything
we have. But humankind is counting on it. Otherwise, we will
be our own demise.
The first vision I will share with you will be the effort as an astrophysicist to communicate often with the general public. Ways I currently do this include the Clemson University planetarium. The shows are open to the public and are available upon request, free of charge. We accept requests of many topics. At one point in my time as a planetarium operator, I gave a show to a private (religious) elementary academy that teach their children creationism – that the Earth is merely 4,000-5,000 years old. They specifically requested that I not mention things that conflict with their curriculum. Upon this request, of course, we all scoffed. And then, no one bit. No one wanted to take the show. I even wanted to be dishonest to my commitment as an educator and take the moment to tell the kids that everyone in their life is in denial and that I have all the answers. But I realized this will do nothing but create animosity in the kids towards scientists. Surely, they are much too young to fully comprehend their curriculum or even the rest of the world’s for that matter. Make no mistake, I will not lie and create a show to their liking and their beliefs. What I decided to do instead, is give the children a planetarium show just like like I would any other group. I talked about the constellations and their meanings, the planets and their atmospheres, how the Moon stabilizes the Earth’s wobble on its axis, and we flew out of the galaxy and saw everything we know about in our galaxy like pulsars, supernova remnants, gas clouds, nebulae, and more. I want the children to know this stuff exists. I want them to think for themselves. To wonder. To ponder. To pursue. I want them to not be punished for their parents’ actions. They deserved a planetarium show like anyone else. Just because all of the adults in their lives are (very much so) disadvantaging their children, it is not the child’s fault. And what I can do, as a science enthusiast, is give them the tools. Let their gears begin to turn. And hope as they grow older, they think for themselves.
Because what late Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson have taught me is that people who do not understand do not respond to condescending reactions. You can cause more damage making someone feel dumb rather than just engaging. And if you’re really good at it, you can share your interests (and scientific facts) without them quite knowing it that will stay with this person. It will fester and grow on its own. Patience. That is my first vision: bridging the gap between the scientific community and the general public; opening up the conversation to include civilians. Ask me what I do and why I do it and how I learned it. I want you to understand, too.
My second vision will be addressing underrepresented groups in STEM. I want to use my position in STEM and public and educational outreach to serve as a role model for other women and I want to reach out and work alongside with other disenfranchised groups so they know they have my support and that the global support is growing. To do this, I want to become an influential figure who is open and honest. I will do this through my academic success and growth/development in my field by traveling to conferences and giving talks and serving on student panels, sharing my challenges, fears, goals, hopes, dreams, with anyone who will listen. I want to share my experiences with those who can understand that it doesn’t matter who you are – you are human: you experience failure, you experience embarrassment, but that you should overcome all of that for the g o o d stuff. And many times, it’s easier said than done. Which is why outreach is so, so important. Providing support groups, clubs, and events, where underrepresented groups can come together and not be alone in their struggles and where well-represented groups can come and learn how they can be more inclusive. Workshops and social gatherings focused on these issues will be essential in a global conversation in equalizing the playing field in STEM.
These are some serious tasks and I cannot do it alone. I am applying for the Toptal scholarship this spring (2019) in hopes of gaining the support and mentorship to face these problems head-on. Hopefully, I will be able to reach a wider audience with my message, my research, my advice, support and comfort to other underrepresented groups. Through it all, we need to remember, scientist or not – we are in this together. We’re stuck on Planet Earth together. We’re like siblings forced to share a bunk bed until one of us goes to college. So we’ve got to work it – we’ve got to work together and reach a balance; an understanding. To do this: Global conversations and networks. Certainly won’t happen overnight but through widespread student panels with these discussions, attending conferences and sharing current research, holding open forums where the general public can ask whatever questions they want to a leading expert, raising awareness, being open to new (and possibly uncomfortable) ideas, and making an effort to make room for everyone. And as we face the most challenging aspects of this we must remember (especially when dealing with people very different from us and we want so bad to tell them that we have all the answers and they have it all wrong):