“There is a common misconception that science isn’t for everyone,” says Sarah McAnulty, a squid researcher, science communicator, and founder of Skype a Scientist.
McAnulty wants to change that, and one part of her work to do so is Skype a Scientist.
Skype a Scientist is a grassroots organization dedicated to connecting scientists with the general public and with children in particular. Its goal is to change people’s perception of science and scientists by allowing people to get to know the “real person” behind the researcher.
This past November, the Center for Communicating Science and the Virginia Tech Science Festival welcomed McAnulty to Virginia Tech to give talks about science communication and the drive behind her organization.
“People think science isn’t for them for a number of reasons,” McAnulty explained.
Early on in the education system, for example, we sort students into a science track or a non-science track, implying that some students are smart enough to be scientists and some are not. These beliefs are often carried by the student into adulthood.
In addition, McAnulty highlighted that for many people, their only exposure to a scientist is through the media. And many of the scientists represented in pop culture are male, white, socially inept, and even perhaps actively evil.
“If you look into social psychology, you’ll see that people tend to trust those they feel are more similar to themselves,” McAnulty explained, “and if all we have representing scientists in the media are white, male, and socially awkward people, that is leaving out a huge portion of the population in terms of inherent trust.”
McAnulty is working to fix these issues at the grassroots level. Skype a Scientist connects scientists to the public in a variety of ways: by bringing the lab to the classroom, Skyping a selected scientist into a class of children; by hosting Skype a Scientist LIVE sessions on YouTube; by having live shows hosted at bars and other venues; and by hosting online conference calls on Zoom.
Skype and video sessions are specifically designed to be question-and-answer so that the scientist doesn’t end up lecturing the audience.
“We encourage a back and forth dialogue so that people feel like they actually got to meet the person behind the scientist,” said McAnulty.
Over the last three years, Skype a Scientist has connected 21,000 scientists with children from 70 different countries, and they particularly emphasize reaching out to schools in areas that may not otherwise have access to a science center or museum. To broaden students’ understanding of who can be a scientist, the program works to match scientists to classrooms by discipline and by demographics, providing schoolchildren from underrepresented groups with opportunities to see and communicate with scientists from those groups.
In a 2018 survey of Skype a Scientist participants, 95 percent of scientists and 95 percent of teachers reported that they would be likely to recommend the program to their peers, and 58% of teachers reported that their students are more confident in science as a result of the interaction.
In addition to the virtual sessions, Skype a Scientist hosts live shows for children and adults at venues all over the East Coast. The live events are packed with games, scavenger hunts, and interactive displays. McAnulty highlighted that they try to make the events as fun and engaging as possible “so that we can get rid of any intimidation before people even step in the door.”
Skype a Scientist is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and its work is dependent on donor support and scientist volunteers. Inspired by McAnulty’s visit to Virginia Tech, wildlife photographer and Virginia Tech employee Alex Freeze has volunteered for a Skype a Scientist LIVE session. An assistant researcher/science communicator at the Center for Animal Human Relationships (CENTAUR) at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and adjunct professor of environmental biology at Radford University, Freeze will answer questions about wildlife biology and conservation photography at 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 3.
By Lauren Holt, Center for Communicating Science student intern