As a scientist, Dr. Raychelle Burks is analytical chemist that spends her days designing systems to find specific chemicals in a stew of chemicals. As a science communicator, she founded the DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon and created a “death cologne” to protect you from zombies.
You’re a chemist who’s done a lot of outreach about science and chemistry. How do you approach talking to people about chemicals and battling chemophobia? How can people incorporate chemistry into their everyday lives?
It’s easy to talk about chemistry — everything is chemistry! From our morning coffee to our shower soap to the chemicals that help break down our lunch to wine we might have with dinner to the medicines we may need to take. Chemistry is all around us — we’re bags of chemicals too! Focusing on the chemicals and chemistry of our everyday lives, listening and acknowledging concerns, is a good way to get — and keep — conversations going.
I’ve heard a lot about the DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon. What was it like establishing and running that, and do you think something like that could work at Dragon Con?
The DIY Science Zone is a great space where GeekGirlCon attendees of all ages can get their hands dirty with science. Getting it going took a lot of help — from GeekGirlCon staff, a crack team of scientists and science teachers that volunteered their time to work in the zone, and to all our donors that help fund it. Last year was our first year and it was a big success! We had a very diverse mix of experimenters that visited the zone — tinkering with science has mass appeal! I think if we give people a space to explore, they will come!
What drives your passion for chemistry?
I love solving mysteries and knowing how stuff works. Chemistry is my detective lens 😀
What are you looking forward to about attending Dragon Con?
The Science Track that Stephen and other volunteers are running has some really great programming scheduled, and I look forward to geeking out with my fellow attendees. I can’t wait to visit the comic & pop artist alley, horror fan track events, and see what fun nerdy items vendors have!
Raychelle will be exploring the science of the undead on Friday night, mocking SyFy movies’ science in general and Sharknado in particular on Saturday night, help run the hands-on science zone on Sunday morning, will answer your science questions on our “Ask a Scientist!” panel on Sunday afternoon, and is one of our scientist contestants on the Solve for X Science Show Sunday night. She’s going to be crazy busy, is what we’re saying.
Dr. Pamela Gay is the director of CosmoQuest, a citizen science project that lets you help map the moon, Mercury and Vesta. She’s been at the forefront of podcasting as one of the hosts of Astronomy Cast. She works to bridge the gap between scientists and the public.
How does “new media” help you communicate astronomy to the public?
I’m much more of a virtual person than a brick and mortar kind of girl. Using new media and social media, I’m able to take science to the world, and know that if someone can get just a bit of internet, they will be able to get a bit of what I have to share.
Over the years, I’ve gotten emails from soldiers in Afghanistan, random businessmen in the Sudan, and from all sorts of people in places and walks of life I would otherwise rarely, if ever, encounter. Their message has been consistent: because of the podcasts I’ve been part of, they’ve found an escape that lets them learn about the stars (and everything else beyond our atmosphere).
What are some of the challenges and rewards of science outreach?
The rewards of doing science outreach — and science outreach online in particular — are simple: I can help people become scientifically curious and more scientifically literate without having to put on pants.
There are mornings where the bed is warm and my iPhone is in reach, and I can stay snuggled-in while I catch up on what is new and pass on my take on the latest discoveries, all before coffee. There is a lot of ignorance in this world, and much it comes from people simply never being given the chance to learn problem-solving in a way that also encouraged curiosity. They hear weird stuff presented as facts, and don’t know to question.
If, in school, you learn that science should have prescribed results and be memorized as a series of facts, how do you ever learn to question? If I can get just the occasional person to stop and go, “Huh? Really? Why?” then I’ve succeeded. If I can do it by telling them how we know what we know so that they learn to always ask, “How do we know that?” when faced with new ideas — well, that’s the best reward I could ask for!
What would you consider your coolest discovery as an astronomer and what can you tell us about it?
I’m a computational kind of person, and sometimes the coolest thing you can do is only cool to you. I’ve done lots of science covering lots of areas, but the thing I brag about most to other astronomers was writing a piece of software that would run while I was asleep and sequentially:
1) Look for a file of coordinates for possible galaxy clusters,
2) Generate and run a series of pearl scripts to download survey images (.fits files) of the possible clusters in radio, x-ray, and optical light,
3) Use AWK to get out of a text catalogue the positions of all radio sources in downloaded images,
4) Run and IRAF script to mark the radio sources on the .fits files and generate .eps files,
5) generate LaTeX files that would create labeled multi-wavelength finders for each possible cluster,
6) generate .ps files from the LaTex so I could print everything with a single command when I got to campus.
That I managed to force that many things to all work together at once in the early days of the internet still makes me stupidly happy. I think this is when I learned that I can be happier working behind the scenes to write the software that makes the science happen, than I can be having to be responsible for coming up with the big science ideas.
It takes many different people to make science happen. Not everyone can be at the cutting edge: some of us are needed to do the followup observations, the computational work, and all other manner of support work that fleshes out the big picture of how our universe works.
What drives your passion for astronomy?
When I was in middle school, someone once said, “You think you know everything, don’t you,” and I remember responding. “No. Not yet.” It’s that “not yet” that keeps me going. I want to know what’s under the ice on Europa, and which came first – the black holes or the galaxies. I want to know so many things, and that keeps me getting out of bed even on those days when the room is cold and the bed is warm.
Pamela will talk about how science is represented in the media on Saturday afternoon, run one of the hands-on experiments for the Science Power Hour! on Sunday morning, and will answer your science questions on the “Ask A Scientist!” panel on Sunday afternoon.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and the author of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. As a journalist and writer she works at the intersection of science and culture.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of reporting science to the general public?
It’s always a challenge to get the science right, while still telling a story everybody wants to read. But when you succeed, nothing feels better. Nothing.
When portraying science in TV shows, how does one balance accuracy and entertainment value?
I don’t think you have to have fake or distorted science in order to be entertaining. Yes, you sometimes have to omit technical details because the story is about the story, not the process of doing an experiment seventy million times before you get a result. But there is no excuse for representing computer networks incorrectly, or writing about chemical reactions that could never happen. That’s just lazy writing, especially when there is so much good information out there online — and there are fantastic science consultants to help out.
I will make an exception for stories that are set in the far future or in alternate worlds, where science is so advanced that it’s possible we’ve done things like build wormholes. Still, there is no reason not to rely on speculation that’s supported by what we know now. Nobody is ever, ever going to be able to bend space with their minds due to quantum nonsense, for example. Not going to happen. Just stop trying to pretend it will.
In the event of an apocalypse, what would you do?
That all depends on what kind of an apocalypse we’re talking about. Famine? Pandemic? Megavolcano? Gamma ray burst? In all of these instances, except maybe the last, my first move would be to find my friends. And second, I would try to find emergency responders to see if I could help out in any way. Given my skill sets, and those of my friends, I’m probably the person most likely to be blogging via an open wifi network run by solar generators after the apocalypse.
What things are you looking forward to about being a guest at Dragon Con?
Pretty much everything. I love the parade, I love the people who come to Dragon Con, and I love the broad range of topics that are represented. Also, I love southern food. And southern accents.
Annalee will take part in a discussion of how science is represented in the media on Saturday afternoon, talk about what goes into writing great science non-fiction on Sunday afternoon, and discuss what scientific theories should show up in science fiction Sunday evening.
Do you like science? Do you like your hands? Have you occasionally thought, “Boy, it’d be great if I could get science and my hands together?”
Then this year’s Dragon Con is your lucky convention! On Sunday from 10 AM until 12:30 PM, we’re running the Science Power Hour! We’ve got twelve hands-on science experiments. How many of them can you do in an hour?
We’ve got a great team of scientists and educators volunteering their time to help people get their hands dirty for SCIENCE, including Liz Heinecke, the Kitchen Pantry Scientist; Dr. Raychelle Burks, founder of the GeekGirlCon DIY Science Zone; Dr. Pamela Gay, host of Astronomy Cast and director of CosmoQuest; Dr. Donna Governor, a science educator and master of hands-on events; and Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, an astronomer and science writer.
The Science Power Hour will be in the Sheraton Atlanta ballroom on the bottom floor of the hotel. If you’re at the Hilton, where most of the Science Track events are, head down Courtland Street towards the Sheraton. The Sheraton will be on your left. When you get to the Sheraton, go in one of the lower level entrances facing Andrew Young International Boulevard.
What kinds of experiments will be there, you might ask. I’ll tell you!
- A genetic taste test using PTC
- Extract DNA from strawberries
- Fold DNA out of paper
- Is your breath acidic or basic?
- Make Cartesian divers using of ketchup packets
- Experience radioactive decay with pennies
- Make oobleck
- Angry Birds (the science edition)
- Create a moon clock
- Make gak
- Make soda straw rockets
- Create a scale model of the solar system
- Explore the hidden colors of light with a spectrometer
- Ride a hoverboard
- And enjoy ice cream made with liquid nitrogen!
We hope to see you there!
As part of the run-up to Dragon Con, we’re interviewing several of the guests who’ll be taking part in this year’s science track programming. First up is David Shiffman, a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami, where he studies shark ecology and conservation. He’s also combined social media, scientific outreach, and research in a way that’s made him one of the most followed marine biologists on Twitter, and led to him consulting with Discovery about Shark Week and getting funding from The Asylum, makers of “Sharknado”.
What drives your passion for shark research and conservation?
Sharks are some of the most amazing animals on Earth. At the same time, they’re some of the most threatened, and some of the most misunderstood.
We’ve heard that the University of Miami received funding from Sharknado 2 for shark conservation. How did that come about?
I’ve been sending The Asylum fan mail since Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and after the unexpected success of the first Sharknado, they contacted me and wanted to give back to sharks.
What can people do to raise awareness about shark conservation?
The most effective things people can do to help sharks are learn about the problems and solutions, eat sustainable seafood only, and donate funds to shark research and conservation.
What are you looking forward to about attending Dragon Con?
A new audience to educate about sharks!
David will discuss how marine life reproduces on Friday night, talk about how science is reported in the media and about ocean research on Saturday afternoon, and be forced to watch Sharknado on Saturday night as part of the Science Track programming.