OK, what is a "Story About Science"? Scientists edition

Last week science journalist Virginia Hughes called me up to ask me a simple question: "How do we get scientists to tell good stories?" Embarrassingly, and entirely predictably, I didn't have a good answer. Fortunately, she went and wrote a great article anyway, about the need for scientists to tell stories, and how Diane Kelly prepared for hers. So that's all right then. The interview got me thinking, though: At The Story Collider, we have people tell stories about science. Stories about how science has been a part of their lives. Stories about how science has affected them and changed them. Stories both hilarious and heartbreaking about the real impact of science on daily life.

But, uh... what does that actually mean?

That is, what does a story about science look like? Is it different from any other kind of story? Is there something special about science when it's inserted into stories? We've been doing this for two and a half years now, pretty much entirely by the seat of our pants. When we started I knew we had no idea what the answers to those questions were, that we'd figure it out as we went along. Well, it's been a while, so maybe we can start to get a handle on the problem.

I'll start by just looking at some of the stories. What role does the science play in the narrative? At least, the kinds of narratives that make up Story Collider stories. And, since it was Hughes's interview that got me thinking, I'll start with something relevant to her post: What does science look like in stories told by scientists? (The majority of our stories are told by people who are not scientists, I'll look at those in future posts.) So, here are 1o stories by scientists, and some scattered thoughts on the role of the science in the story.

Also, it's not possible to do this without giving away a lot of the endings, so: massive spoiler warning. 

What it's like to be a scientist

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Doug Fields describes the pure joy of discovery -- both in the first major discovery he made as a scientist, and in a scene from his childhood watching a majestic hawk.

This is one of the classic forms of storytelling around science: the pure awe that it can evoke. What makes this a particularly personal story is that Doug describes what it feels like to be the scientist. He makes a fascinating move, one I haven't seen elsewhere: he put the childhood bit at the end. The structure is: "Here's this experience you've probably never had, but I did. It was a lot like this other experience I had, one that you can relate to." He moves from the mysterious to the familiar, rather than the other way around. It's not a technique I'd recommend often, but here it works quite well.

Of course, he does ease into it with some easily relatable bits at the beginning ("I knew what I was seeing: dinner"). You have to get the audience on your side; that's non-negotiable.

This was also an almost-explicitly political story. Doug is a section head at the NIH, and he was trying to make the case for funding fundamental research. He mentions that very briefly, for the most part letting the story speak for itself. I think that's the perfect mix. Without that one comment the point might have been lost; any more and it would have sounded preachy.

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Lou Serico wanted very much to be a scientist. But when he got a job working in a lab that researched herpes and started becoming the butt of oh-so-many jokes, he realized something was wrong. Specifically, he hated his work. A few steps later, he ended much happier -- as a forensic scientist for the City of New York.

The flip-side of Doug's story: what happens when science isn't inspiring. The story itself is a view from the inside as a bushy-tailed grad student who comes to learn the politics and pressures of research life. Science is again the motivator, but the end result is very different: "I had realized my childhood dream. And it sucked." This is a tough story to tell. Particularly in the science communication world, our instinct is to stay away from things like this -- the goal is to get people excited about science, or learn about it. We at least want failures to be as spectacular as possible, hopefully with explosions or plagiarism. Why talk about the times it's kinda meh?

I think these are actually some of the most important types of story to tell. If you only talk about the positive, people can tell you're leaving something out. They know you're painting a distorted picture. What's spectacular about this story is that it gets at the everyday mundanity of research while still having an interesting hook ("Really, people study herpes??").

From a craft point of view, this story works for two very simple reasons: Lou is incredibly funny, and he cares deeply about what he's talking about. If he cared but didn't have a sense of humor about it, that could have been awkward. If he just made herpes jokes without caring... well, it would have been like 90 percent of open-mic stand-up comedy shows -- soul destroying.

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The story that started this post: Diane Kelly always loved animals, and quickly realized she wanted to be an anatomist. But how could she do her studies when even the thought of killing an already-dead frog made her faint? Well, simple: use roadkill! Hijinks ensue.

To me, this is a classic humanizing science story: Diane works in a field that is both arcane and vilified -- animal anatomy. She makes clear why she does what she does (more on that). But, more importantly she gives a crystal clear sense that she cares about animals, and that she has all kinds of normal human emotions. The bit where she nearly faints at the dead frog is completely counter to the image of scientist as robot/psychopath. That trait isn't universal, but not uncommon (fainting, that is. Not being robot/psychopaths is pretty much universal).

The other lovely things about this story is how extraordinarily well she deals with a fairly taboo subject -- penises. There's a sense that if a subject like that comes up a scientific context it has to be discussed in the most dispassionate, clinical terms possible -- otherwise it'll descend into a puerile morass. In contrast, here Diane masterfully acknowledges and has fun with the audience's reaction, while still presenting sharp and important science.

(For more on how the story was written, and some of Diane's thoughts on it, see the wonderful post at The Last Word On Nothing.)

Science and the people around us

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Daniela Schiller never understood her father -- in particular how he, an Israeli holocaust survivor, behaved during the moment of silence on memorial day. She grew up, went to school and became a psychologist studying the neuroscience of emotions. Her growing understanding of how emotions and memory relate gives her an insight into her father.

This is pretty straightforward: studying science helped Daniela understand her own father. It's one of the promises and hopes of much research -- that understanding esoteric things about the function of neurons and whatnot will help us to understand ourselves and our lives. Of note, though, is that it only works as a story because it let her understand her father. If her research had shed light on her friend's father it would have been interesting, but not nearly as powerful.

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David Carmel grew up reading Oliver Sacks and loving the weird stories of what goes wrong in people's brains, often as the result of a stroke -- so, he became a neuroscientist. Then, his own father had a stroke, and developed bizarre symptoms David had never heard of before. That raised the question, should he approach this situation as a scientist, or as a son?

This is one of my favorite kinds: The science is an integral part of the story; it's the core of the drama. The conflict would never have existed if David wasn't a scientist, and if he didn't study neuroscience in particular. There's a wonderful moment in the middle where he explains to us what a homunculus is. It's the kind of lecturing we normally try to avoid, but it's absolutely essential to the story that the audience understands this. Because of that, it doesn't feel at all like a lecture, it feels like plot development. Ideally, every bit of science in one of our stories would be like this.

It's also beautifully crafted. I'd love to take credit for it, but the truth is that David spent hours working with Daniela Schiller, a veteran of many storytelling stages, and the inimitable Steve Zimmer, 17 time Moth StorySLAM champion. People say there's no replacement for hours of work and practice, but that's not true: Hours of work and practice with two of the world's best storytellers is a fantastic replacement.

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While reading a book by Carl Sagan, his hero, David Morgan notices a small problem with the text. So he faxes him (faxes??!!?) and is shocked to get quite a nice reply. Years later, in preparing to tell this story, he finds out the correction even made it into future editions.

There's a sense among a lot of scientists that there should be no heroes or celebrities, only the science itself. Of course, that isn't true. We all have our heroes, and the experience of meeting them -- or getting a fax from them can be life-changing, even if only because we see things in a new way. What's important about this story is how much it clearly meant to David, and how easily relatable that is to anyone listening -- the celebrity could be any musician, actor, poet (yeah, okay), or politician. That said, the fact that it is Carl Sagan gives David the chance to listen to some of the science, and show people what he cares about and why.

Adventures as a scientist

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Maiji Neimisto teaches on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a boat dedicated to protecting the environment. One day while in dock, an old man demands that she follow him. She does, and ends up discovering, and stopping, a major source of pollution.

We almost titled this one "CSI: Yonkers." It's all about how science, in this case environmental science, can lead to wild adventures. It also very nicely ties the adventure/science part, finding the illegal dumping and the testing that required, to a broader social social issue -- the iniquity of a rich town dumping waste into a poorer one.

What I find fascinating about this one, story-wise, is that it has almost exactly the structure of the archetypal hero-myth, of Joseph Campbell fame: A hero, living in the 'normal' world, is called by a stranger to adventure. Reluctantly, she agrees and sets off through various obstacles (okay, in this case it's a couple hills in Yonkers, but still). At the end of the path she's confronted with a truth about the world and herself. Getting that message back requires further adventures (for real this time!), after which she returns to a changed world.

There's a metaphorical sense in which most stories have that structure, but it's rare to see it laid out so literally. To have it happen in a science story has the myth/science nerd in me skipping-for-joy happy.

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Phoebe Cohen heads out to the wilds of Alaska to find some of the most ancient fossils ever formed. Unfortunately, nearby there is a not-at-all fossilized bear.

Even more wild adventures, this time with a bear -- the ultimate villain, as we all know. The role of the science again, is to get Phoebe out to a remote part of the world. What I love is the contrast of live bears with the fact that they're searching for the oldest fossils on Earth. They're looking for 4-billion-year-old fossils and could be killed in a few seconds. That highlights the incredible scales of deep time better than many other attempts I've seen.

Science is the MacGuffin

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Ibrahima Bah wants to study physics. The Immigration and Naturalization services wants him to be documented. This sets off a wild set of bus rides to get the stamps he needs to start grad school on time.

A MacGuffin is Alfred Hitchcock's word for the thing that keeps the story moving, but isn't what the story is about. It's the thing the protagonists wants -- in this case the ability to study physics. The story is really about the heartlessness and rigidity of bureaucracy, and what it's like to be lost in a strange land. In principle, Ibrahima could have been studying anything: business, art, medieval literature. But it's science, and that gives the audience a chance to see how and why science means so much to the people who do it. (This is a lot like David Morgan's story in that regard.)

The other aspect of this story, though, is that he is from Senegal. Problems with immigration occur in all fields, but probably far less in medieval literature than in science. One of the under-sung features of the science world is how incredibly international it is, particularly in fields like high-energy physics or astronomy where massive cross-national collaboration is the only way to get projects done. But of course, the rest of those countries don't always (well, ever) keep up, so stories like Ibrahima's are inevitable and common.

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Deborah Berebichez loved physics, but learned early on that that's not something women do. A class early on in college convinces her to go for it, but she learns it's too late, unless she can master higher math in one summer. It seems impossible, but she gives it a try, with extraordinary help from a TA who, it turns out, is paying off a debt of his own.

Again, the fact that she want to study physics in particular isn't strictly necessary for the narrative to work. This is a story about the lengths humans will go to help each other, and the reasons for that. The story itself has a bit of a "Karate Kid" feel, with Rupesh, the TA, playing the role of Mr. Miyagi. (I just spent half an hour trying to argue that the absurdities of the University system -- which is why she had to learn math in a summer -- played the role of The Cobras. But no, Ben, sometimes similarities just break down.)

Anyway, the idea that someone would want to train to be a scientist in the same way that Daniel wanted to learn Karate is pretty incredible but totally believable once you hear the story. The big emotional punch of the story, though, comes when you learn why Rupesh spent so much time helping her -- that someone had once done that for him, and he was repaying the favor.

What did we learn about how science works in stories?

I don't know. This was an exercise in thinking out loud, and I'm just getting started. Next installment I'll start looking at the stories by non-scientists, and this is just a sampling of stories by scientists, so we can come back to the others.

In the meantime, I would love to hear what other people think. We (very intentionally) don't have comments on The Story Collider, but you can tweet at me (@BenLillie) and I'll set up a post on my blog for comments. What are the big categories I missed? What seems quite wrong (or right!) about this way of organizing them? What are other great examples?

Comments (off-site) >>

Deborah Berebichez: Passing on the gift

Deborah Berebichez was told she couldn't study physics because it wasn't for girls -- until she got assistance for an unexpected reason.

Please note: This story is also available in Spanish here.

Deborah Berebichez is the Chief Data Scientist at Metis, a Ph.D. physicist and a Discovery Channel TV host. She is the first Mexican woman to graduate with a physics Ph.D. from Stanford University. Dr. Berebichez is the co-host of Discovery Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science TV show (2012 – present) where she uses her physics background to explain the science behind extraordinary engineering feats. She also appears as an expert on the Travel Chanel, NOVA, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and numerous international media outlets. Deborah’s passion is to empower young people to learn science and to improve the state of STEM education in the world and her work in science outreach has been widely recognized. She is a John C. Whitehead Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and a recipient of the Top Latina Tech Blogger award by the Association of Latinos in Social Media LATISM. Currently at Metis she leads the creation and growth of exceptional data science training opportunities. 

You can also find the story Deborah told later with her partner, Neer Asherie, here.


Episode Transcript

So, I’m going to tell you a story that’s not just a short story but it’s really the story of my life.  I grew up in Mexico City in a fairly conservative community where, since I was very young, I was pretty much discouraged from doing anything technical or scientific or mathematic.  My mother came from Guatemala and married my father when she was 19 years old and had me when she was 20 and pretty much told me that I better not like anything studious or academic because no boys would ever talk to me.  To be honest, I think she was right.  But I kind of, you know, I keep hoping.

So I grew up in this community and I was just really curious about math and physics and all that, but I never had the courage to do it or explore it because it just wasn’t allowed and it just wasn’t for me.

Then also, I happen to be kind of gregarious and social, so forget about it.  It’s like even worse because you’re either social and you have friends or you’re studious and you do math, that’s it.  

So I grew up in this community and I really was extremely inquisitive.  I annoyed pretty much everyone around me, my teachers, my parents, my friends, because I ask everything, “Why?  Why?  Why does this happen the way it does?”

And in came high school and I said, “I want to study physics and philosophy.”  I guess, I thought philosophy is kind of like physics.  It uses a different method but it still asks questions about the world and why things happen the way they do and so on.  But it didn’t really go well with anyone.

My mother was appalled.  Like, “No way.  You should just study a more feminine career, you know, like entertainment or communications, if it is that you’re going to school.”

And my counselor in high school was, “Math is not really for women and let me help you and gear you towards a more feminine career.”

My friends were the same.  Like philosophy and physics have nothing to do with each other.  So I decided to repress those feelings and really focus on something that was more viable.  So after high school, I enrolled in the philosophy department in a private college where all the nice kids went in Mexico, and all my friends and what they call in-the-meantime, while you find a husband and you can get married and so on.  

So I was studying philosophy but, quickly, I realized that the more I tried to suppress those feelings of passion for math and for reading the biographies of all these amazing scientists that I couldn’t share with anyone, the more I tried, the more it was bursting.  I really felt like I couldn’t take this anymore and I was just faking it through the world.  I saw my life as meaningless because I had to pretend that I didn’t like all these things that were surrounding me.  I didn’t have all these questions.

So I enrolled in philosophy and, after two years, I was devouring the courses like philosophy of science and logic and all these equations and all that that I got a glimpse of, but I was terrified.  I wasn’t really the typical student that was great in math, like the math wizard in the class.  I wasn’t bad at it but I really wasn’t... like I didn’t have parents who were incredibly cultivated who had PhDs in Engineering from the United States.  Nothing like that.

So I said, “Okay, this is really not my lot in life.”  I continued with philosophy until, one day, I just said, “I gotta try.”

I applied to schools in the U.S. because I found out that in the U.S., you can study many subjects, not just one.  So I got a scholarship, fortunately, to attend Brandeis University which is a small school in Massachusetts.  I arrived there and I realized that there were other women studying math and science, and I was very happy about that.

I enrolled very fearfully, but I enrolled in this course that was a very intro course called Astronomy 101 where we were like 200 students and there was a microphone in class and there was no identity.  It was just like a sea of faces trying to pass with a good grade and that was it.  But I was so curious and so passionate about every little thing they said that I became very good friends with the teaching assistant who was a graduate student from India.  And I just got back from India a day ago, so this is pretty special for me to tell you this story today.

This man by the name of Rupesh just told me that my eyes would light up every time that I asked questions about the universe and the planets and the orbits, and I wanted to talk to him beyond the tasks of my assignments.  I was really deeply curious about why the world worked the way it did.

So one day, we’re walking, I was selected to attend the leadership course that summer, and we’re walking.  I had a scholarship for only two years because I was a transfer student from Mexico.  I was walking in Harvard Square in Boston and I sit down next to the Divinity School and a tree and something just burst in me.  With tears in my eyes, I tell Rupesh, “I just don’t want to die without trying.  I want to do physics.”

We didn’t have cellphones at the time but he called his adviser, who was my professor at the class.  He didn’t even know who I was.  And he said, “I have a student here.  She’s is Philosophy.  She is dying to do physics.  She has a scholarship for only a year-and-a-half more, two years.  What can we do?”

So this adviser says, “Bring her to me.”

I go to a meeting, he hands me a book and he says, “This is a book called Div, Grad, and Curl,” which is vector calculus.  Pretty advanced math for somebody who didn’t even remember algebra.  And says, “If by the end of the summer you can do this, we’ll let you skip through the first two years of the physics major.”

I’m like, “Holy cow!  This man is joking.”

Not only that, but I find out that the reason why they’re doing this is because there’s another person quite a bit older than me, Ed Witten who, by the way, is a genius in physics and he’s the father of String Theory, a famous physics theory, who had done this before at Brandeis.  He switched from history to math.

So this professor thought, “Oh, she’s going to be able to do it.”

So I spent this crazy summer where I was so hungry for knowledge and so incredibly interested and passionate about physics that I persevered like crazy.  I saw no other thing than my first love, which were equations.

And Rupesh, this Indian man, sat with me every day after my two hours of lab in the morning and taught me.  But because of time constraints, it was like, Saturday, derivatives.  You got to understand.  I mean, people took derivatives for like a whole semester or a quarter.

And then Sunday, integrals.  I didn’t even have time for the theory.  It was really just like practice and practice.  That’s why I always tell people that if I was able to do it with that background, anyone could do it.

So I persevered and across two months in that summer, Rupesh managed to not only believe in me but tutor me and mentor me in all these topics.  And I presented the test come September and I passed and I enter the Physics major in the second-and-a-half year.  

And here I am in class.  Rupesh says, “Now, you’re on your own.  Goodbye.”

And here I am in class and I’m like, “Holy cow!”  All these people.  These are like the physics geniuses, the math wizards whose parents were either the top engineers or Nobel Prize winners and all that.  And here I am, little me, I have no background, very little knowledge of things.  So I just tried to not burn too many capacitors in the electronics lab and kind of walk my way through things.

But I’m really in love with knowledge and I keep hiding it from my parents.  I recall my visits to Mexico where I was mostly introduced to potential bachelors and I had to hide the fact that I like math.  Sometimes I would read books about the history of science because I wasn’t really allowed to confess that I was studying science.  

It’s kind of a funny thing because I guess, in the U.S., I learned that it was kind of prestigious to be a scientist and, back home, it was something that I had to hide.  So it was a big realization that I was sort of a strange person within my community.

So I graduated, after a lot of work, with highest honors in physics and philosophy from Brandeis.  Then I went back to Mexico and, a few years later, I was crazy enough to… not even really knowing who I was writing to, but I wrote an email to this researcher in California who invited me to do work with him.  Basically, I got admitted to do my PhD with the most current Nobel Prize winner, who is now the Secretary of Energy, Steve Chu.

I worked at Stanford and I managed to finish my PhD.  In 2005, I became the first Mexican woman to gain a PhD in Physics from Stanford.  Thank you.

Then the reason why I find the story about Rupesh compelling is because, for those two or three months when Rupesh was teaching me and believing in me nonstop, I always wanted to compensate him for his tutoring. 

I asked him… you know, every day I would buy him lunch or something but there was just so many things that I wanted to do for him or pay him back.  And he said, “No, let me tell you a story.” And this is, I believe, a very sort of Indian culture story.

He said to me, “When I was growing up in the mountains in Darjeeling, there was an old man who used to climb up every day and teach me and my sisters English, math, and the tabla, which is a musical instrument.  And every day my father said, “Let me pay you because you’re educating my children.”

And this old man said, “No.  The only way you could ever pay me back is if you do this with someone else in the world.”

So Rupesh chose me and he did that with me.  That’s how my mission to encourage and educate other people who, like myself, feel attracted to science but that for some reason, whether it be financial or social or any other reason, feel that they can’t do it, those are the people that I try to reach and encourage and illuminate and tell them that no matter what, education is the best gift that you can give to yourself and to your loved ones because nobody can ever take that away from you.

Thank you.

IAmScience - call for stories

http://vimeo.com/35829872 How did you get into science? We're making a magazine, a show, and a video, and we want to know.

A couple of months ago, Kevin Zelnio was annoyed at the idea that there's only one way to a career in science -- go to college, go to grad school, do research, get a tenure track job. That didn't sound like him, or many of the people he knew. So, he challenged his friends on Twitter: what is your story of a life in science? Within days there were hundreds of tweets and other responses tagged #IAmScience, each one sketching a story of a life outside the traditional path. Today it's kept alive by the IAmScience tumblr. Mindy Weisberger put together the wonderful video of the tweets at the top. Kevin is putting together a book to collect and spread the stories further.

And we're going to help. May at the Story Collider will be #IAmScience. Our online magazine will feature #IAmScience stories, and our May 22nd event -- also our second anniversary -- will be themed #IAmScience.  We're also teaming up with Mindy Weisberger to make a live version of the video above, to have people tell tweet-length versions of their story.

And for all of that, we want your stories. What was your path to getting into science? Let us know:

  • If you want to write your story up for our magazine
  • If you'll be in or near NYC in the next month or so and want to be in the video
  • If you will be in NYC on May 22nd, and want to tell your story live on stage

If you want to be part of any of those, write us at stories@storycollider.org.

(Correction: We originally stated that This Is What A Scientist Looks Like was inspired by IAmScience. It was not.)