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Seeing Science Through a Historical Lens and How It Could Help Our Future

Jocelyn Bosley speaking at an event
Jocelyn Bosley speaking at a faculty science slam. Photo credit: Ashley Washburn of UNL Research Communications.

Science historian Jocelyn Bosley is all about breaking barriers, whether they’re divisions that foster rigid thinking or socio-cultural constructs that impede talented scientists from fulfilling their potential. She thrives on discovering interconnections between entities that have been defined as separate—say, STEM subjects and humanities disciplines—and has found ways through her work to share the value of such outside-the-box thinking. 

Bosley is an ambassador in the AAAS IF/THEN program, which brings together women from a variety of science, tech, math and engineering careers to serve as role models for middle school-age girls. She is also the first-ever research impact coordinator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), a role which allows her to help individuals with education and outreach programs across disciplines, departments and colleges, facilitate partnerships and support, and focus on ways to make sure UNL research benefits society at large.

As an IF/THEN Ambassador, she has participated in events and given talks in classrooms that have focused on what she calls “habits of mind.” These are skills cultivated by the arts and humanities that she thinks are important for doing good science, such as visualizing what cannot be observed directly and considering a problem from multiple perspectives.

“I think my focus through all of my ambassador activities has been to talk about breaking down this idea of two cultures or this idea that there’s a division between language and art on one hand and science and math on the other, and showing specifically how the skills that you hone through arts and humanities actually make you a better scientist,” says Bosley.

This affinity for seeing relationships between things harkens back to her own experiences as a student. “As an undergraduate, I had commitment issues,” jokes Bosley. “I was interested in everything and ended up with a major in mathematics, minors in physics, chemistry, biology, English and gender studies.” But the more she focused on one subject, she says, the more she realized what really interested her was the connection between all the different areas of study. Then, she says, she discovered the field of history of science.

“This seemed like a perfect fit for me because it let me bring the critical analysis that I was doing in my humanities courses to the content I was learning about in my science courses,” she says.

While her fellow history of science graduate students were going on to become professors in the topic, Bosley heard another calling.

“I had this feeling that what I was learning about in the history of science could be useful and applied to the way that science is taught and even practiced today,” she says. “Just like with anything, if we study history then we have a better sense of how it works.” During this time, as she was starting to think about alternate career paths in academia, she worked as a mentor to highly gifted middle school students in the Lincoln, Nebraska public school system.

In many ways, Bosley’s work today as an IF/THEN Ambassador aligns perfectly with her other endeavors to promote diversity and inclusion in science, among both students and the public at large. Working with middle school students in particular has proven to be a rich source of inspiration and ideas, and has informed the work she is doing today in science communication.

“By middle school, students are capable of grasping some very abstract and sophisticated concepts and following along with some really big ideas and reasoning,” she notes. “But they’re still open—they haven’t pigeonholed themselves as, ‘I’m a science person’ or ‘I’m an art person’ and they still can kind of move freely among ideas and make those connections.”

Case in point: Funsize Physics, a website she co-founded, features content from condensed matter physicists and materials scientists across the country and aims to share compelling scientific work without talking down to the audience. “We started telling contributors to write so that a bright, interested middle school student could understand it… and it created much better content,” says Bosley.

Jocelyn Bosley speaking, orange sweater
Bosley speaking at SciComm. Photo credit: Craig Chandler of UNL University Communications.

Other STEM initiatives she’s worked on include science slams (like poetry slams, only with science work presented in a fun, compelling way for an audience to pick a winner), an annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences (WoPhyS), and SciComm, a conference on effective science communication founded at UNL in 2015. She’s also been part of a podcast called Science! With Friends, which features Bosley and her cohost chatting with scientists, whom she calls “some of the coolest, funniest, most interesting people I know,” about a myriad of topics.

For Bosley, inclusion and science literacy are goals that can both benefit from a change in perspective. “The key to science literacy—and I’ve been more and more convinced of this over the past couple of years with the pandemic and misinformation and disinformation problems that we’re seeing—is really an understanding of the scientific process, not content,” she notes. “If you have an appreciation for the way science works and why it’s a uniquely powerful way of looking at the world and understanding reality, then even if you don’t understand a particular piece of science content, you can get there.”

And, she adds, the real magic of science comes from people looking at things from multiple perspectives and converging on a solution, rather than everybody following a rigid, uniform method. “To me, this does really two things: It is the key to improving science literacy generally and it also makes science more appealing to diverse people, including people of diverse genders,” says Bosley.

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