I hope you have appreciated my first two posts: my "Ode to the Higgs" and "Gravity: the dance of space and time"; I'll return to them in the future but now it is time for me to tell you something about me: Who am I? What brought me here? Why do I like being a Scientopia guest blogger? When did I start doing what I do? Where have I made my experiences so far?
Before you give up reading let me assure you: I'm not going to write a novel of my life but, as I feel some background is important, I'll just sketch a few chapters of my biography anyway 😉
Who. I like to define myself as a "sociable physicist", that is to say someone who is equally appreciative of the conquests of the human mind, as well as of them being shared with those who did not take part in the endeavor … other than paying for that through their taxes. And that is What brought me to this point of my life, where I've realized that my deepest passion for the physical sciences has to be expressed through what it is generally called public outreach. I've recently read a blog post debating about what meaning to assign to "public outreach": is it something resembling preaching to the converted or does it really reach out to people who do not know why science concerns all of them? As much as I value initiatives falling in the first category, such as public lectures or popular science books, I believe they have to be accompanied by a larger set of efforts. This attitude is best defined, I think, as a marketing strategy for fundamental science, which is how I called it in a paper you can find at this address: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082. There I explore why it is important that the scientific community reaches out to the largest public, through a variety of means and approaches that are tailored on the target audience. Another salient aspect of my proposal is the somewhat invasive character of the suggested outreach: you have to use your target audience's interests in order to have it pay attention to a scientific content whatsoever. That's where marketing kicks in. Of course among the means I propose to be more efficiently used and exploited by the scientific community are internet and the world of social media: you can't hope to reach out to the public if you do not have a presence where the public is and spends time. Therefore I couldn't be happier when I was offered the chance to participate as a Scientopia guest blogger: I've just started browsing the many blogs the Scientopia community comprises but I could already gather that it's a very convenient setting to have diverse interests and backgrounds all hosted under a common umbrella. Why: check.
When and Where. About a year ago I took the decision: I put aside research and committed to popularizing science. I was starting my second year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington DC, which I had joined after four years of doctoral training in theoretical physics at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. All along those years I've promptly taken any occasion to share tales of my personal journey in the world of the physical sciences: be them related to the exploration of advanced concepts or concerning visiting scientific cathedrals, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. However most of the people with whom I could talk did not show the interest I was hoping for: in general they did not feel much drawn to the theoretical aspects, however fancy their names were, or proud citizens of a country that sponsors the pursuit of knowledge. They did not know that those cathedrals I revered so much serve two purposes: the first is the scientific goal they are after, the second is to empower mankind with new means for growth and prosperity. The most eloquent examples of how this is true are both related to CERN (before being a physicist I'm Italian and I'm proud of my country being among the pioneer countries which founded CERN just after World War 2). First, the Large Hadron Collider, the experiment that has discovered a new particle of Nature, be it the Higgs Boson or not, has the word "hadrons" in its name: this is a category of subatomic particles subject to the strong nuclear force; had scientists not been curious about what lies at ever more microscopic scales and how it behaves, we would have not known that hadrons exist and that they can be used as very precise projectiles to be shot at tumors lying deep down inside the human body. Second, the World Wide Web, the network we now massively use to communicate, work, exchange and look for info, travel, buy, etc: its father, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, was working for CERN when he invented it. Both connections between fundamental physics and everyone's life are so profound you'd wonder how we (read: our governments) do not try and find more ways to keep this healthy process alive. That is the mission I've chosen for myself: to make people aware, first, and appreciative, afterwards, of why science is both beautiful and useful. I'm confident this experience at Scientopia will serve this purpose of mine, as well as teach me how to do it better along the way.
Our solar system is in a sparsely populated part of our galaxy and thus, fortunately for us, encounters with stars are rare and distant. However other regions in the Universe, like the center of our galaxy, are more crowded: they are packed with stars that either orbit each other or a central massive black hole. In the vicinity of heavy objects in fast motion, space and time do not behave in the way we are familiar with; rather, they behave as a single dynamical entity, space-time, such that its fabric stretches, twists, torques and even vibrates like the membrane of a drum, giving off the "sounds" of the Universe in the form of gravitational waves.
Around these subjects of cutting edge research a dialogue has been established between a couple of enthusiastic scientists and a curious, inspired community of artists: the result is "Gravity", a dance show that has recently been performed at the University of Maryland. Take a look at its recorded video and stay tuned for some more detail on the blending of physics with dance.
Choreography: Adriane Fang
Costume Design: Kate Fulop
Projection Design: Andrew Kaufman
Lighting Design: Paul D. Jackson
Performers: Star Cluster: Jennifer Alcott, Chelsea Brown, Christina Camacho, Ellen Clark, Kayla Coutts, Katie Gundlach, Rachel Mucha, Nicole Turchi
Gravity Grads: Robin Neveu-Brown, Erin Crawley-Woods, Jessie Laurita-Spanglet, Nicole Y. McClam, Megan Morse-Jans, Lynne Price
This work was created in collaboration with Professor Cole Miller of the Astronomy Department and Doctor Umberto Cannella of the Physics Department. Special thanks to Laurie Frederik Meer and James Forsberg for their valuable input.
Name: Kim Arcand
Science outreach and visualization coordinator for high-energy astrophysics
Newbie co-author (“Your Ticket to the Universe” coming out April 2013)
NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was little, every year I would pick a new career, and they all had something in common: science. Nurse, doctor, astronaut, environmental scientist, veterinarian, microbiologist. My parents were supportive, and each Christmas there would be some special gift, a chemistry set, a microscope, a stellarium. I loved science, or what I thought of as science: the idea of discovering something new, of figuring out puzzles, of contributing to people's lives in some significant way. That first crush never went away.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
It’s hard to pick just one! Can I have two? I have to start off with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It's an engineering and scientific marvel. A sister telescope to Hubble, Chandra orbits the Earth out to about 1/3 of the distance to the Moon. The phenomena it studies are exotic – black holes, exploding stars, huge clusters of galaxies to name just a few. And the incredibly beautiful images and the discoveries they lead to are awe-inspiring.
Working for Chandra led me down a new path in scientific outreach. I organized a project called "From Earth to the Universe" that brought astronomical discoveries into unique locations – picture large images of planets, nebulas and galaxies set up in public parks, metro stations, shopping malls, art festivals, and even prisons. My colleagues and I created a framework for organizers around the world to easily adapt the free materials for an exhibit in their desired locale.
We started out hoping for a couple dozen exhibits that would be run during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. We ended up with about 1,000 different sites all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica and translated in over 40 languages. Some of the exhibits are still ongoing today. We could never have personally disseminated astronomy to so many people, but by enabling others we were able to reach exponentially more people.
Role models and heroes:
My mom. Growing up, I watched her juggle kids and family, going back to school for nursing, and working the late shift as a waitress. I would sit near her as she did her anatomy homework on the dining room table, or go with her to the local community college to buy the mammoth-sized books for her class. She made it seem completely normal and doable. I secretly hope that my own son and daughter might feel even a tenth of that for me some day.
Why do you love working in STEM?
Our collective scientific viewpoint is always changing, as new discoveries are made, old discoveries shift, and cultural frameworks evolve. So we're always learning and adapting to new things. It’s exciting to work in a field that is so dynamic, and that touches everything, everyone, everyday in some way. In my day-to-day work, I am most directly involved in astronomy, of course, but science is so much bigger than one specific field. There are connections everywhere.
My colleagues and I are just about to launch a new project that celebrates that fact. “Here, There, and Everywhere” will explore the connections that exist between the seemingly incongruous - how are a bumblebee, farmer and starburst galaxy related? Can you think of how a neon sign in Las Vegas, an Aurora in Norway, and an exploding star light years away from us might be somehow connected? The intent of the program is to help to demonstrate the universality of physical laws and the connections between our everyday world and the Universe as a whole.
 http://hte.si.edu (Goes live on August 27, 2012)
Advice for future STEMinists?
Find something you're passionate about. Your passion will help you succeed, even if it's something that's difficult. I don’t know how many people can say that science is an easy subject in college, but it wasn't easy for me. At university, I would breeze through my literature courses (I was and still am a Jane Austen junkie), but struggle in my science classes.
I managed to get through the physics, chemistry, microbiology and anatomy courses, but I can vividly recall getting a D in genetics. I had never gotten a D before, and it made me doubt my abilities and that I should even continue with a degree in science, never mind a career.
But I stuck with the degree in biology, rounded out my skill set in computer science to be safe, and eventually found a niche that I was very comfortable in – communicating science with others, and researching how people respond to certain aspects of science (mostly imagery). I had the background to feel at home in the scientific content, but also an understanding that science can be alienating, or frightening, or just plain boring to some.
And to me that is such an exciting opportunity. How can we help others find their niche in science? I'm interested not only in people who might want to pursue a hobby or career in science. I also want to help foster the larger population's perspective on and awareness of science as a whole.
This week is National Engineer's Week in the US. Universities across the country are engaging in activities, competitions, build challenges, and outreach activities. GeekDad over at Wired has a great list of engineering links so you can celebrate the week with the young people in your life. I love the outreach aspects of this because I think engineering, but science in general, is often done behind the curtains from the public. And while I wouldn't advocate every single kid grow up to be an engineer they shouldn't be afraid to be an engineer and those who are not should still have some idea of what the profession is.
Today's day in E-Week is Introduce a Girl to Engineering. It's not been too long since we've had our first engineer barbie so we're at that point where it's easy to feel like we're succeeding. Like Luke in fending off TIE fighters we have to be reminded, great kid, now don't get cocky! Over at Engineer Blogs my colleague Fluxor wrote a great post about women in engineering. And this is where you see the total disconnect of those that get it and those that don't. The comments there were generally supportive but the comments on the article over at reddit are enough to make me sick. Bitter enough I ranted angrily on my own blog. The comments were of the flavor that women engineers are basically taking jobs away from qualified (white?) dudes (they took 'r jooobs!) and doing some piss poor justifications that women aren't as good as men.
But the post on my own blog shows that what they won't say to your face will still come all wrong. And it's frustrating to have to deal with that crap every day. I know so many women in academia, industry, science, engineering, technology- who all have to deal with that daily battle. And even at my youngish age, you just get tired. And thankfully I can come here and write about it and laugh about it and feel like I'm not alone and that not all men are total douchebags (just the ones I work with apparently). But I've also seen my industry serve as a training ground to indoctrinate once decent fellows into the ways of the sexist and racist dinosaurs that run the place. So I'm not convinced a sudden infusion of women or minorities is going to change anything.
Which brings me back to introducing a girl to engineering. Sometimes I feel like the young women I know and care about, there is no way I would want to convince them to go into this field. I would have a hard time being genuine in encouraging them. Or a hard time glossing over all of the tough parts. I mean, don't get me wrong. Most professions have their pitfalls and require a lot of hard work and dedication, at least at some point, that might or might not pay off later. But when a woman has to work 2.5 times as hard as a man to be considered equally capable it's difficult for me to sell the parts of the field that I love. This article from womens enews provides a great rebuttal of a lot of the articles lately that have chimed in with some false research conclusions about how it's all okay now and women having supposedly achieved parity.
But past all the difficulties and drudgeries and long, angry days, I do love engineering. It's going to be less than two hours now until the final Space Shuttle launch at NASA. I hope on this day that girls, and boys, and all of us supposed adults have a chance to watch this memorable day. It's hard for me to think that the space shuttle era is an era at all. That it has to end. That I won't be able to stream live launches anymore of the shuttle that means so much to me. I'm not sure why it's emotional to me, but maybe because the shuttle was to my youth what the Apollo program was to the generation before me. I'd go buy this shirt but I think wearing it will only make me sad.
When you hear the astronauts speak, many of whom are training on future missions that will be using the Russian's Soyuz rocket to get people to the space station, they don't sound sad at all. They know that closing of certain programs is just something that happens in technology and another era will eventually take its place. They know whatever the future of space flight is that there will be a future and that whatever that future is it's worth believing in and worth taking risks for.
And maybe that's how I should look at engineering. It hasn't been easy and sometimes it tries to break my heart but sometimes it gives me gifts and fulfillment I never would have suspected. I know that for me at least the risk is worth it that had I to do it all over again I would do everything exactly the same.
So how about you dear readers, do you ever have trouble trying to encourage young people into your discipline? Do you wonder whether the pitfalls of your particular field were worth it, or maybe worth it only for you? Do you think it'll be better some day, that telling our daughters to go into STEM isn't sending them into an ultimately frustrating place? Do you worry the general attitudes towards STEM fields in general will discourage people or do you think the future will be brighter? Are you as heart broken as I am about the final shuttle launch?