Recently I interviewed supercool blogger and science advocate, Sheril Kirshenbaum. I spoke with her for Under the Microscope. The interview is up at UTM but some of the questions I asked got cut for space constraints. I’m posting the full interview here because there are some issues I asked her that don’t necessarily relate to the topic of female scientists’ careers but should still be discussed.
Sheril is an associate at Duke University and holds master’s degrees in Marine Biology and Marine Policy from the University of Maine.
KN: You have a fascinating career and you have many interests. Can you begin by telling us how you came into marine science, did your other interests blossom later or did you have a clear idea of what you liked?
Sheril Kirshenbaum: I was always interested in science. I was always in the back yard exploring when it came to science professionally it found me by accident. It involved a series of events that I won’t go into…but marine science came much later after I had a really great professor who turned me on to ecology when I was an undergrad at Tufts University. Then I applied for one of the REUs [reseach experiences for undergrads] and I got one that happened to be in marine science. And I know at that point I was interested in conservation.
KN: You have also worked as congressional staffer. Where did you work and what came out of that?
SK: When I had started grad school I got into a program where I was getting a Masters in Marine Science but also in Marine policy. So I was thinking about conservation and economic factors as well as biology.
There are fellowships offered through NOAA [The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association], and there was one for marine biologists. You’d do a fellowship for a year on Capitol Hill; you work with congressional offices, committees, or throughout their agencies. The number [of students] they accept varies each year but I got one! So I spent a year working with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and I began working on these issues involved with the ocean and very soon became immersed in fields dealing with energy, conservation, animal rights and beyond and it’s really changed the scope of what I thought I wanted to do.
I saw this great gap between the science I was studying in academia and in NGOs…between the science that needed to be communicated to impact the people’s lives and the world beyond our own interests so I became interested in communicating all I had learned to policymakers and the public which led me to writing and working with science from another angle.
KN: You also had a hand in creating ScienceDebate 2008. Can you tell us how that came about?
SK: I blog regularly with Chris Mooney. Chris and I constantly write about science and policy and people who are in the spotlight with each. It’s titled [The Intersection] because it’s supposed to be the intersection between science and politics. As the election was coming up, we started discussing how little science gets attention on the campaign trail, when other issues were prominently featured over and over.
We got together with a few other writers; Matthew Chapman, who happens to be Charles Dawrin’s great great grandson [who is] also a screen writer who wrote Runaway Jury…. an astrophysicist, a philsopher, other writers…a hodgepodge of people. We put out a call for the presidental candidates to engage in science issues – in some medium. We didn’t, in the end, get a public debate on television but we did get them to address issues in questions put together with people in academia, university presidents, nobel laureates and from normal citizens who got involved and came to our website to ask about climate change, human health, stem cells or ocean acidification. Well, that last one I just throw in there because we don’t hear nearly enough about that.
It got some attention during the debates, and hopefully it can continue on. It really set up a model of what we can do next time.
KN: Can you go into whats in your new book?
SK: Well my next book is going to be on the science of kissing. It’s really neat because its a typical human behavior that almost everyone around the world engages in and yet it’s never been discussed in a way where all these different fields are able to converge. [In the book] I’m able to look at it though anthropology and endocrinology and neuroscience, all these different fields of science to discuss.
But that won’t be out until next January so I’ve got some time.
KN: That’s really interesting and it’s unfortunate that interdisciplinary sciences often get a lot of flac for not being so specialized. They’re regarded as being inferior when you can get some really interesting insights into whatever you’re studying.
SK: Absolutely, and it’s very interesting because this book isn’t exactly a topic that I had considered. I’d written about a lot of topics online and in articles that are really timely because I want to reach people who wouldn’t normally think about science and how science is related to what they do everyday. I’d [write about] the science of how alcohol affects the brain or why the leaves change during autumn and as it happens I did the science of kissing in a few paragraphs a few years ago on Valentine’s Day and it got this huge response. It quickly became this thing that people were coming in and asking questions about so it allowed me to open to broader audiences how hormones work and how the structure of your brain is affected when you’re engaged in real world activities, it’s really cool.
Nowadays I think more and more scientists are being trained in variety of skills and are trying to leave behind that ivory tower which is great because those are the skills they need to advance science and advance better policies and to create a more engaged public.
KN: That’s really one of the biggest issues nowadays – I’ll take a recent example; after long last The Lancet entirely retracted the Wakefield study on MMR vaccines. But the public outcry after that study was initially published did damage to people’s trust in science. You also went into that in your last book.
SK: What we talk about in the book is that we really must engage people in ways that counter a lot of the other influences in their lives or at least better inform them to be prepared to participate in scientific discussions because there are a lot of forces at work that are influencing people. Hollywood and the media, for one – you see scientists portrayed as villians or geeks or just totally social rejects (like Rick Moranis in every movie). There are exceptions, of course, like Contact and very recently Avatar. I think [Avatar] did a good job of portraying scientists in more positive manners…in attitudes that are real and relatable. There is also politics and policy in which science becomes a very charged issue and it’s no longer about the science itself but the partisanship. Of course, there are the conflicts with religion and fundamental values…how science relates and when it’s appropriate for science to engage them in those discussions.
It’s a very complicated mix of problems. On top of that the mediums in which science journalists are trained and told to cover are being dropped…So people go to the internet and you can google whatever, for example, autism, you can find websites that sound very credible but aren’t. It’s really a wild west spreading misinformation faster than we’ve ever seen before.
As technology advances, we’ll see breakthroughs in neuroscience and genetics which can really scare a lot of people, but shouldn’t have to. We should have the policies in place to address these issues. That’s what we covered in the book.
KN: I’m curious whether you’ve found that ability to distinguish credibility and sound arguments is going out the window?
SK: I’m very concerned. We just saw this hack into e-mails of client change. Most people made very quick judgements wihtout full understanding the context of what they were reading. So you see a rise in climate change denialism. [There is] a survey just released by George Mason University and Yale Center for Climate Change Communication – it’s a dismal report, people more than ever, that “believe” in climate change.
The big point here is that pseudoscience is on the rise. We’ve seen the rise of these groups that arise that pat each other on the back for like-minded views and the dialogue isn’t moving past the [views of] people that are either side of it. It’s dangerous and I’m not sure what it means for the future of science and it’s a big red flag in terms of where we’re going. Science needs a better platform. It’s certainly not about PR in a traditional sense but we have to think about how we’re represnted when we’re working against so many other forces that have a certain vested interest when we’re trying to emphasize the best research when it’s a very dynamic, and there’s no black and white in the way that the pseudoscientific [groups] want to represent things.
KN: Can you give us just a few exmples of what we can do to benefit science literacy?
SK: I think just being engaged and being interested is a big part of it. Looking for sources that you should be able to trust like Universities. More and more young scientits are creating their own websites in order to counter the rubbish that’s out there. I’d love to see more young people engaged in their communities – like those that have a Bachelors of Science degree but are unsure whether they want to go to graduate school…[to see them] get engaged in writing op eds or working with local politicians or schools. And of course, asking questions to the people who are good sources.
KN: Any tips you have to relate to people studying science?
SK: Try everything you’re interested in. Science is changing so fast, the way we do science is always changing. Pursuing whatever you’re interested in to the furthest extent possible will really make you better suited towards that of course, and developing other skills. There’s a lot to be said for the traditional route [in science, academia] …but I think don’t discount other ways to be involved. Politics is so important.
There are hardly members of Congress who have a science background. I’d love to see people who have a science education run for office. There are so many ways to do it and don’t let anyone tell you how to do what you’re interested in.
Hope you enjoy.