STPF Fellows Get Personal

The four scientists gathered to give talks on a Thursday night in Washington generated more laughing, crying and shouts of support from the audience than one would expect. That’s because these weren’t ordinary talks. The scientists, all current and alumni AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, who participated in a Story Collider show held in March, were there to share a personal experience relating to science. Speaking without notes, they took hold of the listeners’ attention and tried to not let it go for the next 20 minutes. 

“The first time I smoked weed was with my older sister…. She was smart and insightful. She wasn’t just popular, she was the leader of the popular girls,” began Maureen Boyle’s (2010-2012 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Institutes of Health) talk about her love for and frustration with her sister, who has struggled with addictions and mental illness. Boyle, a neuroscientist and chief of the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has studied the biological causes of addiction. She knows it’s a physical illness. But it’s still hard to love someone who lies, steals and doesn’t show up, she said. “All the science doesn’t tell you how to have a relationship with someone in the throes of an addiction,” she said. 

Afterwards, Boyle said she decided to share the story publicly to bring attention to the support families need when they love a person with an addiction. “I wanted to try to foster a conversation about these more challenging parts of the field,” Boyle said. “It has already started some important conversations about what more we can do to help support families in crisis.”

The Story Collider is a seven-year-old non-profit that seeks to build people’s connections to science through sharing true stories. “We feel strongly that science is a part of everyone’s lives, and that everyone has a science story to tell,” said Artistic Director Erin Barker. The program accepts pitches from anyone, scientists or non-scientists, and holds regular shows in Washington, New York and Boston. 

Gifford Wong, an earth scientist and current fellow at the Department of State, shared how he had jumped at the chance to see Antarctica by working as a general assistant at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station. While there, he got drafted into helping two researchers resuscitate an anesthetized seal. His job was to lie on the ground and hold the seal’s lower jaw open while another researcher stuck his hand down her throat. 

“Not only do I feel just a little vulnerable, but…all that fish breath is wafting over me,” he recalled for the audience. However, that experience was “the reason why I started my slippery slope into sciencedom,” Wong concluded, which included seven more trips to Antarctica. 

Astrid Caldas told the audience about her transition from ecologist and professor to climate scientist. She studied insects, but her experiments kept going wrong. “Then, it finally dawned on me. Climate change was screwing up my experiments. And if you mess with my insects, you mess with me,” she said. It wasn’t easy—she had to start over as an intern after leaving academia. She became a 2013-14 Executive Branch Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and she now has her “dream job” at the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

Ian Simon, a microbiologist and 2011-2013 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of State, described being sent to South Korea. He was immediately asked to give a talk on science policy to a large audience, a topic he had only begun reading about three weeks prior. To add to the pressure, someone then told him that the audience expects that “since you’re black, you’ll be representing the Obama administration’s policy platform.” He survived, though, and was subsequently asked to work on fostering international research collaborations. 

Many of those who present stories share the experience with their friends, who end up applying to present as well, said Story Collider Washington D.C. co-host Shane Hanlon. If the number of fellows on stage and their supporters in the audience is any indication, there will be more fellows sharing their funny, gripping and personal stories about science. 

Hear more stories on the Story Collider podcast