Meet some of the female science communicators who engage their communities with science. We dive into how many have succeeded by utilizing a mutual ground technique that personally connects them with their audience.
Building Knowledge on a Mutual Ground
When an expert attempts to describe the structure of the atom, they might say the atom is like the solar system to an audience already familiar with the latter. The expert uses the idea of the planets orbiting the sun to describe a new concept: the electrons moving around the nucleus of the atom. Despite its limitations, this analogy provides a mutual ground through which the expert and the audience can both step in and understand one another. Science communicators frequently use this strategy to discuss various scientific concepts. Women have been doing science communication (often overlooked) for centuries through sophisticated outreach strategies and by building mutual grounds within their communities. Here we highlight just a few historic and current female science communicators, focusing on how they utilize mutual ground in their communications.
Science as Edification: Margaret Bryan
Very little is known about the life of Margaret Bryan. She was a science educator who ran a school for girls in England. But in addition to running the school, she wrote three books, including "Compendious System of Astronomy," and helped to create a board game that taught its players astronomy. Bryan worked within the social conventions of the period, framing her teachings as a way to educate girls about faith, morals, and domesticity. By doing so, she managed to garner recognition as a scientific writer and educator from the male-dominated intellectual establishment of her time. She also was able to connect her teachings to the audience at the time by relating them to the morals and values they upheld.
A Woman's Journey: Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville was asked in 1827 to write a condensed version of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s "Traité de mécanique céleste" that an educated but non-expert public could easily understand. Her work, "Mechanism of the Heavens," took her four years to write and was so popular it went through 10 editions, selling 17,500 copies. The book made its way in to schools, British colonies, and libraries. She used the story of her own life and struggles to promote the causes she embraced, including women’s rights to education. By conveying her personal story, she was able to connect on an emotional and relatable level to her audience.
Let's Talk about Astronomy: Mary Proctor
The daughter of well-known astronomer Richard Proctor, Mary Proctor grew up assisting her father; among other things, she helped him produce a British popular science magazine called "Knowledge." Science communication skills ran in the family, and Mary soon made a name for herself after giving astronomy lectures in the Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She went on to write several books popularizing astronomy, many of them intended for children. As such, she became known as “the children’s astronomer.” Proctor lectured extensively throughout her career, reaching tens of thousands of people with astronomy talks that relied on a conversational style of speech and the use of visuals in the form of lantern slides. This allowed her audience to understand her better than her more formal academic counterparts.
At the Planetarium and Beyond: Maude Bennot
In 1937, Maude Bennot became the Acting Director of the Adler Planetarium, taking effective leadership of the institution. She was likely the first woman to hold such a position in the world. While serving as Acting Director until 1945, Maude regularly held lectures, gave tours, and participated in radio programs about astronomy. She ran a weekly program entitled “Exploring Stars,” effectively reaching thousands in their own homes; and ironically replaced a program called “Men Behind the Stars.” By utilizing the radio to communicate astronomy, instead of waiting for the public to come to her at the Adler, she was able to reach far more people and introduce astronomy in a much more comfortable setting.
Connecting Communities, Cultura, and Science: Mónica Feliú-Mójer
Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer uses cultura to connect underserved communities with science. As a science communicator, she draws on her training (a PhD in neurobiology), personal background, and culture (a woman from rural Puerto Rico) to make science relevant and relatable, especially to Puerto Ricans and Latinxs. Dr. Feliú-Mójer understands the importance of storytelling and using a cultural lens to empower people and change stereotypes about science and scientists. To do this, for the past 14 years, she has led multiple science communication efforts—from publishing a book, to producing short films, to training scientists in culturally relevant science communication—with the non-profits Ciencia Puerto Rico and iBiology.
"I had become a scientist way before getting that PhD" - Mónica Feliú-Mójer
"Growing up in rural Puerto Rico, I loved science, but I had no role models. I didn’t see any scientists who looked or sounded like me, or who shared my identities and background. Not in the media, not in books, not even in school. Still, I went to college to become a biologist. Then, as an undergrad I slowly started learning about and meeting Puerto Rican, Latin American and Black scientists. For a while, I thought about my own journey to become a scientist from a perspective of deficit—the girl who became a Harvard-trained PhD-scientist IN SPITE of being from a rural working class community in Puerto Rico, lack of role models, lack of educational opportunities. But then at some point I realized that I had become a scientist way before getting that PhD. I became a scientist observing lizards in my balcony every afternoon after school. I became a scientist shadowing the old wise man with an elementary-school level education from my barrio who taught me how to milk the cow. I came to realize that it was precisely because of those identities and life experiences -because of my background - that I had become a scientist.The power of that realization inspires much of my science communication work today."
Bridging a Deep Gap: Katharine Hayhoe
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on understanding what climate change means for people and the places where we live. She is a professor at Texas Tech University, but Dr. Hayhoe may be best-known to many people because of how she’s bridging the broad, deep gap between scientists and Christians - work she does in part because she’s a Christian herself. She’s been named by Christianity Today as one of their 50 Women to Watch and currently hosts the PBS digital series, "Global Weirding: Climate, Politics and Religion."
"The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Fight Climate Change: Talk About It" - Katharine Hayhoe
"The most important thing to do is, instead of starting up with your head, with all the data and facts in our head, to start from the heart, to start by talking about why it matters to us, to begin with genuinely shared values. Are we both parents? Do we live in the same community? Do we enjoy the same outdoor activities: hiking, biking, fishing, even hunting?...If you don't know what the values are that someone has, have a conversation, get to know them, figure out what makes them tick. And then once we have, all we have to do is connect the dots between the values they already have and why they would care about a changing climate. I truly believe, after thousands of conversations that I've had over the past decade and more, that just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate. They just haven't connected the dots. And that's what we can do through our conversation with them."
Weaving Art, Science, and Culture: Annette S. Lee
Dr. Annette S. Lee is an astrophysicist, artist, the Director of the Native Skywatchers research and programming initiative, and Director of the St. Cloud State University Planetarium. She has over 28 years of experience in education as a teacher, university instructor, program administrator, professional visual artist, and researcher. Dr. Lee's work weaves together art, science, and culture to promote community wellness and inspire sustainable relationships with the sky above and the Earth below. She seeks to remember and revitalize indigenous star and Earth knowledge, promoting the native voice as the lead voice.
"We Come from the Stars" - Annette S. Lee
"Whether we use an indigenous astronomy lens or the western science lens, the same amazing truth is one of my most passionate talking points. I love this idea, ‘we come from the stars’...We have looked at the stars for tens of thousands of years. And yet, this legacy of our species - connection to sky - is in critical danger. Our relationship with the dark night sky is threatened... Indigenous voices are leading the way in revitalization efforts. Language is a vital source. Many people today have curiosity, excitement, even a craving for a connection with the night sky. I like to think that when I share aspects of indigenous astronomy, it is like a springboard for all to strengthen our human connection to the stars."
Space for Opportunities - Ellen Ochoa
Dr. Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She flew in space four times. Dr. Ochoa became the 11th Director of the Johnson Space Center, becoming the first Hispanic director, and the second female director of the Johnson Space Center. Dr. Ochoa is passionate about communicating with the public on human space exploration, especially her personal experience from 4 space shuttle missions, and the opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups in STEM.
"So many ways to go from there" - Ellen Ochoa
"Fortunately, space in general, and human space flight in particular, are areas that fascinate many people, so it’s not hard to engage. There are so many ways to go from there: the actual experience of living and working in space, how one trains for space, the international cooperation inherent in assembling and operating the International Space Station, research and development in microgravity, what is needed to land on the moon or travel to Mars." By starting with a common fascination, like space travel, Ochoa can dig deeper in to science communications; a key to mutual ground communication, start from a shared experience and then branch out.
The staff of the Adler Planetarium thanks all those who contributed to the creation of this exhibition:
Guest Curator - Dr. Reyhaneh Maktoufi
Featured Scientists - Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Dr. Annette S. Lee, and Dr. Ellen Ochoa
Visit us here: http://www.adlerplanetarium.org