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Rewards are Robust for Everyone When Science is Fun

Not a lot of people go out of their way to learn about physics. But when the media highlighted “deflategate” – a 2015 controversy in the NFL when quarterback Tom Brady was accused of using a deflated football – AAAS Member Ainissa Ramirez found that the public was suddenly fascinated by this real-world application of physics.

For weeks, she answered questions about “ideal gas law” for football fans. Twitter followers flooded her page with their genuine curiosity. And with Super Bowls often getting more than 100 million viewers, an opportunity arose to link sports and science for a new audience.

“I think it was unique to the topic and unique to the medium of Twitter to make that happen,” said Ramirez.

Ainissa Ramirez
Ainissa Ramirez. Credit: Bruce Fizzell.

The lively give and take also helped Ramirez’s reputation as a “Science Evangelist” soar and she has lived by the mantra “make science fun.” She promotes a love of exploration to groups as diverse as the National Science Teachers Association, the American Film Institute, Ted Talks, and on national radio and television. For example, she appeared on PBS NewsHour to explain why leaves change color in autumn, making a complex scientific process both clear and mesmerizing to just about everyone. And she’s writing a children’s book about a former slave who became an inventor and earned a patent.

When trying to energize younger audiences, Ramirez discovered that hooking them with some “wow” goes a long way.

She credits the  lively scientific exploits of kids on the PBS children’s show 3-2-1 Contact with hooking her on becoming a scientist, even though she says there were not many black scientists in her hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey.

Before going down her unconventional science path, Ramirez excelled in the top tier of industry at Bell Labs and academia at Yale University after earning her doctorate in engineering and materials science from Stanford University. When she did not receive tenure at Yale, she saw this not as an obstacle, but as the beginning of unique possibilities as a science communicator.

And while she said the move away from academia was scary at times, her bold choices have paid off.

Her deflategate knowledge, for example, came easily because  in 2013 she co-wrote a book on the science of football, “Newton’s Football,”  despite having minimal background on the sport at the time.

“Scientists should always be in the posture of being curious, even though it’s not exactly their field. I was also very lucky I was working with a sportswriter, Allen St. John, who was very good, “ said Ramirez.

“Also, if we as scientists want to communicate science to the general public, we have to talk about things that are not always interesting to us but are interesting to other people,” she said.

While her younger audiences are already nimble with social media, older scientists and academics need to dive in, too. Her tweets often include a little nugget about a science story in the news.

“People love to have little facts they can share with someone at lunchtime,” she said. But, when communicating about science through social media, she cautions to beware of jargon. While the precision of scientific language may be important for journal submissions, it tends to push most people away.

A few decades ago, renowned astronomer Carl Sagan used jargon sparingly, and his inclusive approach brought thousands into the tent of appreciating and exploring the wonders of the universe. Ramirez feels an affinity to this fellow maverick.

“He didn’t get tenure and he didn’t get inducted into the National Academies. Can you name a person in the National Academies? No. So what he did was, he lived his best life, and he let his work speak for him, regardless of awards and accolades, or what the tenure committee had decided. And that speaks to me,” she said.

Ramirez says she too receives pushback from traditional academics who question her first selling the sizzle of science to spark interest. Her two materials science video series, Material Marvels and Science Xplained, include a segment using a blowtorch on space shuttle tiles to show the safety they provide as insulators. The video is used by science teachers all over the country to get kids fired up in chemistry and physics classes.

“It is not based on rigor, it is about introducing something they have never thought about, and when they leave, hopefully they are curious enough to learn more,” she said.

The journey to love science comes in many ways, not necessarily from classrooms. Ramirez’ patient parents encouraged her early exploration, even when some home appliances suffered a little for it.

“They had a slide projector, and I was just intrigued by it.  I would take that apart and sometimes I had extra screws. I was very fortunate, they realized I wasn’t being mischievous, I was just being curious,” she said.

And that made science fun.

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