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Q&A With IF/THEN Ambassadors Sam Wynns and Beata Mierzwa

Woman with blue hair and lab coat, Woman with green top w/ short red hair
​AAAS IF/THEN ambassadors Sam Wynns & Beata Mierzwa, Photo credit IF/THEN Collection

After captivating the audience at San Diego Comic-Con in July, we caught up with AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors, Sam Wynns and Beata Mierzwa. Sam, a conservation biologist, and Beata, a molecular biologist and artist, gave us an exclusive peek into their thrilling San Diego Comic-Con experiences and shared with us how their work as IF/THEN Ambassadors has significantly shaped their career journeys. The AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors program brings together women from a variety of STEMM careers to serve as high-profile role models for middle school girls. Through in-person summits, personal press kits and entertainment and media content features, Ambassadors show young girls the different career pathways they can pursue, as well as how STEMM impacts their lives every day.

How has being an IF/THEN Ambassador helped you in your professional and personal endeavors?

SW: You know those pivotal life moments? Those significant instances you'll measure your life by "before" and "after?” Becoming an IF/THEN Ambassador was one such moment for me. Before the ambassadorship I was an early-career scientist filled with passion, drive, and a (un)healthy dose of self-doubt. I was just getting my bearings after a career-change to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a conservation biologist...and then I was invited into an incredible community of dreamers, achievers and supporters. The acknowledgement, validation and growth that I have experienced as part of the IF/THEN initiative is like nothing I've ever experienced and has enriched my life in immeasurable ways. From funding opportunities where I can participate in creative collaboration (such as taking part in San Diego Comic-Con), to a network of women who lift me up, each opportunity has helped me build my self-confidence as a scientist. And with that self-confidence I can now serve my community better and more fully by mentoring underserved youth and fostering environmental stewardship in all whom I engage with. I've probably gushed enough, but I could go on... and on... 

BM: Being an IF/THEN Ambassador has been a life-changing experience for me in more ways than I can list. By providing amazing opportunities to interact with female students and reach larger audiences, the ambassadorship has dramatically increased the impact of my outreach. Opportunities like speaking at the San Diego Comic-Con and being featured in CBS’s Mission Unstoppable have not only been incredibly rewarding, but also allowed me to gain invaluable experience in public engagement and science communication. This ambassadorship has opened doors for me that I could have only dreamed of before – like the #IfThenSheCan Exhibit, where I got to see a life-sized statue of myself among the most amazing women I’ve ever met, and the IF/THEN She Can Change The World grant opportunity, where I got to create Microscopya, a video game that highlights the beauty of the molecular world. I have loved video games since I was a child, and often thought to myself how amazing it would be to create my own fantastical worlds for others to experience. I would have never imagined that this ambassadorship would have led me to all of these amazing experiences!

What was your experience like at Comic-Con? What was your favorite moment?

Woman holding a snake, Woman w/ crown
IF/THEN Ambassador at Comic-Con

SW: There were too many wonderful moments to pick just one! From laughing with my IF/THEN sisters, to seeing kids light up with joy at the STEAM Fair at the Comic-Con Museum, to visiting with friends from across the world, Comic-Con is about community – and my heart was absolutely full by the end of it.

BM: San Diego Comic-Con was a truly excellent experience! I’ve been attending Comic-Con for years, so being a panelist is really special for me. I was so thrilled to see how interested everyone was in the IF/THEN panels and overjoyed that these talks with women in STEM were to full rooms of engaged listeners. My favorite moment may have been during my own panel on ‘The Science of Superpowers’ because I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a supportive and excited audience. The panel was near the end of the last day of Comic-Con, so I would have expected a smaller, quiet group. I was thrilled to see that we had a completely full session, with an amazing audience that required us to take applause breaks almost every time we spoke. They asked super interesting questions as well, so the discussion at the end was a real highlight.

Another really special moment was at the Comic-Con Museum, where we had rotating booths set up for the IF/THEN Pop-up STEAM Fair. We had hundreds of kids coming through to learn about science and chat with us, and several who remembered us from other events and were really excited to see us again. Seeing firsthand how much of an impact we are having on these kids is unbelievably rewarding, so it’s difficult to pick just one moment!

What makes you love what you do?

SW: I'm a passionate person, with many interests, but two of my absolute favorite things are 1) science and 2) sharing my love of science with others. As a biologist and science educator for the National Park Service, I have the great fortune to hold a job that supports both of these loves, with the added bonus of being out in nature, exposing people to national parks, and getting people to care about the environment. If you were to ask 7-year-old Sam what her dream job was, it would be exactly what I'm doing. I am very privileged to do this work, something I acknowledge and am grateful for every day! 

BM: Seeing our next generation engaging with scientific material on a deeper level is incredibly inspiring to me, and a huge part of what makes me love what I do. There are sometimes these moments during outreach when you get to see something click, like you’re watching the interest spark in their eyes, or the pride and satisfaction on a child’s face when they grasp a concept that they hadn’t expected to be able to understand. I wouldn’t trade these tiny moments for anything. They’re the embodiment of why I and the other Ambassadors do what we do. Through representation, patience and interaction, we get to plant the seeds that will grow and shape future career choices in the decades to come.

Why do you think it is important to bring scientists and pop culture together in a setting like Comic-Con?

SW: For decades, people have thought of science and art as separate categories, but they are actually interrelated! Without science, technology and engineering many of our favorite popular arts wouldn't exist – from the camera, to the internet, to printing techniques, STEM is what makes the creation of many popular arts possible. I think this sort of exposure makes science more accessible and more appreciated by folks who may not have thought of that. Additionally, meeting real, diverse scientists who have the same interests as you makes becoming a scientist seem like a possibility...which is the whole purpose of the IF/THEN Initiative!

Kids surrounding woman in a green top
IF/THEN Ambassador at Comic-Con

BM: There is an overlap between the traits of scientists and Comic-Con attendees that might surprise some people. Walking through the convention, you get to see thousands of people embracing their passions, immersing themselves in what they find interesting, harnessing creativity to create amazing things, and sharing their knowledge and excitement with those around them. These are the same traits embodied by scientists. Many of the people attending Comic-Con are already passionate about science or science fiction and are primed to learn more. Bringing scientists and pop culture together in this sort of setting is the perfect opportunity to show them how fascinating science can be, and how much they fit in with the science community. All of the full sessions about science over the past two years at Comic-Con are a great example of just how well these groups go together, and how important it is to keep connecting them.

What's the last sci-fi book, comic, movie, or other media type you got into?

SW: I have a secret to divulge: I am a lifelong geek. Anime, sci fi, fantasy, horror, books, comics, manga, movies, games (RPG, tabletop, and video), cosplay...you name it, I'm into it. Right now, I'm reading The Inheritance Trilogy by the incredible N.K. Jemisin (epic fantasy), just finished the video game Stray (sci fi) and am eagerly awaiting the American release of the last Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) movie (anime). I finally saw the new Indiana Jones movie, and I found it to be a lot of fun... gah. There's just too much good geeky media out there, and not enough time to consume it all!

BM: The most recent sci-fi book series that I have been reading is The Expanse, and I actually got into it at last year’s Comic-Con! I was on a panel with all of these amazing, inspiring and intelligent women who work in astrophysics, space and engineering, and they were talking about how this one sci-fi gets the science right and is really exceptional. I started watching the show that same week and quickly started reading the books once I saw that I liked it. In the year since then, I’ve almost finished the series of books and have really been loving it.

I am a huge fan of sci-fi in general, and while The Expanse is the most recent one for me, there are so many more science fiction books that I think everyone should read! Solaris by Stanisław Lem, the Jean le Flambeur series by Hannu Rajaniemi, the Space Odyssey book series by Arthur C. Clarke and the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons are just a few of them that I love. Raised By Wolves and Fantastic Planet are also excellent, for those who would rather watch their science fiction than read it.

Who is your favorite superhero and why?

SW: Don't roll your eyes when I say this, but Captain Planet. Biodiversity needs our help, and I love that there's a superhero out there that, with the help of a group of youth, saves the planet. Not from an asteroid or a random supervillain, but from humanity's bad choices. An imaginary character that is doing the real work conservationists, like myself, and youth activists, like the kids I mentor, do every day. In fact, answering this question has made me realize that I want to cosplay Captain Planet for next San Diego Comic-Con, so thanks for that!

BM: My favorite superhero is Nausicaä, from Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. She is a fearless adventurer and scientist who has a secret laboratory that she uses to discover why the forests of her world have turned toxic. She is my favorite superhero because she uses traits that all of us have inside of us, like bravery, ingenuity and empathy for living things, to save her world. In a time when our planet needs this more than ever, I think it is important to remember that we can all be the superheroes that the world needs.

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Michelle Hampson

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