This week, we present two stories about communicating science, whether it's through journalism or over a fragile Skype connection.
Part 1: Science journalist Judith Stone worries about causing conflict when she writes about cultural differences aboard the International Space Station.
Judith Stone is the author of Light Elements: Essays on Science from Gravity to Levity, a collection of her award-winning columns from Discover magazine. Her book When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race was named one of the Washington Post’s annual top 100 books. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Mysteries of Life and the Universe: New Essays from America’s Finest Writers on Science and Life’s a Stitch: The Best of Contemporary Women’s Humor, as well as in The New York Times Magazine; Smithsonian; O, The Oprah Magazine and many other publications. She was on the founding board of The Moth, and is currently an instructor in The Moth’s community outreach program. During the Late Cretaceous Epoch, she was a member of The Second City touring company.
Part 2: Nurse Anna Freeman is frustrated by the limits of technology when she attempts to advise a Syrian hospital over a shaky Skype connection.
Anna Freeman is a nurse and quality improvement specialist at Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders. She has worked in humanitarian response in ten countries over the past ten years, focusing on refugee health, infectious disease, and quality of care. Anna is an excellent dancer, an enthusiastic fumbler in any foreign language, and one of the world’s worst surfers.
Part 1: Judith Stone
When I was a kid, I showed no detectable aptitude for science, but I was very enthusiastic -- until the fifth grade, when I entered the school science fair. My not-very-pioneering project was a cutaway view of our Earth built in an old aquarium with layers of sand dyed different colors and labeled.
But I was a little late in applying the food coloring to the sand so it was still wet on the day of the science fair, and the red of the core and the yellow of the mantle and the brown of the crust all ran together causing one of my teachers to quip within my hearing, “Huh! First time anyone ever entered lasagna in a science fair.”
I was humiliated and it was over between me and science. In college, I took the two required science courses pass/fail and I’m not particularly proud to report that I passed Geology by writing an epic poem about lateral moraines.
As a young adult, I was uninterested in technology and intimidated by math, and I was given to making wise-ass remarks such as, “If God had wanted us to use the metric system, she would’ve given us ten fingers and ten toes.”
Nevertheless, my first big job in magazine publishing was as a senior editor at Science Digest. The editor-in-chief hired me as his specimen humanities person. I believe he thought that if I understood an article, any idiot in America would understand it. And I believe that because he said that, jokingly. Ish.
I had doubts about my ability to do the job given my lack of background, but things went very well. The women and men of science who featured in the articles I wrote or edited, were wonderfully generous about discussing their work, and I really did my homework because I wanted to ask sensible questions.
I was getting the science education I missed the first time around. I was very excited about what I was learning, and my confidence rose. Eventually, Science Digest was killed and eaten by Discover Magazine and I became a contributing editor at Discover with a nice, new boss. I sometimes still asked myself what I was doing writing for a science magazine. Luckily, though I did some serious pieces on subjects ranging from astronomy to genetics, my chief task at the magazine was writing the monthly humor column, Light Elements, which was a mix of gravity and levity. It was a heavily-reported piece but about the wackier reaches of science.
So, for example, I wrote about a psychology professor at Duke University who studies the effects of smells on mood and behavior. She had been hired by an undisclosed client to come up with a fragrance that could be sprayed in New York City subway cars to increase friendliness and reduce commuter aggression. I told her I thought her best bet was chloroform.
So one day, my boss asked me to write about a problem that NASA was facing and the interesting fix they were pursuing. This was a couple of years before the International Space Station was to be assembled and then inhabited. Officials at NASA were concerned about possible culture conflicts among the international partners: the U.S., Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency, initially Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Italy.
So, for the first time ever in NASA’s history, they’d hired an anthropologist to look into the matter and pinpoint potential pitfalls so they could be avoided. Dr. Mary Lozano and a colleague had given extensive questionnaires to the astronauts and their teams, and they’d done interviewing. The Russians were going to be partners in the space station but they weren’t part of this inquiry.
Dr. Lozano wanted to know what the concerns of the international astronauts were and she was especially interested in whether they had any preconceived notions about people of other nationalities. She had gathered some interesting preliminary data and she was ready to share it with Discover.
In the first of many phone conversations that we had -- she was in L.A., I was in New York -- she gave me some highlights from her findings: The Americans thought the Germans would be pompous, the Italians would be emotional, and the French would be arrogant. Everyone else thought the Americans would be arrogant.
The Italians worried that their colleagues, especially the Americans, would challenge their opinions and they’d be forced to defend these opinions which they considered a violation of privacy.
The Canadians were concerned that everyone would automatically assume that they were just like the Americans, and the French were afraid no one else would take the food seriously.
In this first conversation, Dr. Lozano delivered some caveats. “This is a very delicate situation,” she said. “You really have to be sensitive. If you were to insult any of the international partners, it would be terrible.”
I assured her that I would proceed with the utmost sensitivity, and I meant it, but my mandate was the poking of fun and her findings were certainly a gift to anybody writing a humor column.
So I wrote the piece and it went through fact-checking. The magazine had a lead time of a couple of months and, during that period, Dr. Lozano started to get cold feet. At one point, she asked me to completely call off the story. I told her it was too late for that and I assured her that she had nothing to worry about.
Yet worry she did and, as she grew increasingly anxious, every phone call was a variation on, “I hope you were sensitive,” “I hope you haven’t insulted anyone. It would be a disaster.”
I assured her that everything was going to be fine, but I was terrified. I hadn’t said anything really horrible but I’ve been pretty hard on the French. The lead was “The Japanese think American-style split-second decision-making is dangerous. The Americans think the Japanese preference for protracted deliberation could be lethal in an emergency. The Italians are worried about their privacy, and I’m afraid the French are going to make everyone watch Jerry Lewis movies.”
It doesn’t get any cheaper than that--except that I also made a crack about French astronauts arguing about what wine goes with space food sticks and other cracks of that ilk.
My confidence plummeted and I went back to thinking, “What is a person like me doing writing about science when the stakes are so high?” I could vividly picture the disaster that Dr. Lozano had warned me about. I imagined the Japanese and the Europeans withdrawing from the space station in outrage. I didn’t think the Canadians would say anything because they’re so nice.
I was actually worried about the space station itself because it wasn’t too many years earlier that creepy senator William Proxmire had mocked NASA’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence and he had actually gotten Congress to de-fund the program. You know, I thought things were funny when I wrote them but by now I thought they were incredibly rude and incredibly stupid. I thought, What if my stupid, rude column gets the space station de-funded? I was miserable.
The second we got first bound copies of the issue back from the printer, I FedeExed one to Dr. Lozano. This was in the days when my wood-burning computer had no scanning capability. And I spent a horrible night. I was sure that I had set the American Space Program back by several decades or perhaps destroyed NASA.
I tossed and turned and I thought, “What made you think you could write for Discover Magazine? You entered lasagna in the science fair.”
The next day, just after 10:00 a.m. California time, my phone rang and it was Dr. Lozano and she was happy. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for being sensitive. Thank you for not insulting anybody. It’s accurate, it’s amusing, I’m so relieved.”
Me too. I was so, so relieved.
After we hung up, I started thinking about what she had said. “Thank you for not insulting anybody.” And I realized that besides giving me the gift of peace of mind, she had bestowed another boon, a nugget of life wisdom that could be a mantra in times of trial and it’s this. When in doubt, trash the French, because nobody cares.
Still, I was really shaken by what I thought was a close call and I had deep lingering doubts about whether I have the skill to cover science the way it deserved to be covered.
A few months after the space station story ran and NASA remained intact to my great joy, I was interviewing Dr. Neil Postman, the brilliant and much-missed media ecologist and social critic, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death and other fabulous books. And he said, “Being scientifically literate isn’t just about knowing the current, complicated facts about some branch of science. It’s knowing how scientists think and how they solve problems. It’s understanding the scientific method at its most basic: coming up with a hypothesis and testing it through systematic comparative study. It’s knowing what evidence is and how to evaluate it.”
And then he said, “You know, the great tool for dealing with the world is asking questions.”
Now, there was a nugget of life wisdom. Simple, profound, reassuring, very moving, I thought, and empowering. I could ask questions. I knew how. I was already doing it. I would never, ever be an expert in matters scientific but I could be a conscientious amateur asking good questions.
So ever after, when I’m in a cloud of unknowing and my confidence is flagging and I’m not sure how to proceed, I think about Dr. Postman’s words. Though I would much rather take the easy way out and just trash the French, instead, I say to myself, “Isn’t this the right time to start asking good questions?”
You can hear Judith’s story on Soundcloud.
Part 2: Anna Freeman
As Paula said, I work in humanitarian aid and I work for Doctors Without Borders, which we usually call by its French acronym which is MSF. I did my first assignment ten years ago and I was very young. Like many young people, I was very naïve and very optimistic about what I was going to be able to do.
I went to Eastern Congo and I worked in a trauma hospital for six months. And when I came home to North Carolina, I was totally devastated by the experience. I was just so sad and so angry and so frustrated. Most of all, I was really ashamed by what I couldn’t do in the face of this humanitarian crisis. I felt like what I could offer was so insignificant and so I thought, “I will never, ever do that again.”
So I started working again as a nurse in North Carolina and, over the following couple years, I ended up doing a couple more assignments with MSF. I found that with time and with experience, I was able to kind of manage those feelings and do this work that I really loved and I really cared about but also take care of myself.
So I started working full-time for MSF and worked in a lot of different places around the world and in a lot of challenging settings. Then last year, I got a call asking if I would go to Syria to do an evaluation of a hospital that MSF runs. I’ll give you some information about this hospital and where it is in Syria.
As I’m sure you’re aware, there has been a multi-year civil war in Syria and in this part of the country where the hospital is located, there are a lot of people who have been displaced. So they’ve fled their homes because of violence and are living in camps. So what that looks like is that extended families live together in canvas tents and they have poor access to things like water and electricity. For cooking, people use basically like camping stoves with unrefined fuel.
Unrefined fuel is very unstable and so it’s very explosive. And what happens often is that the stoves will explode and cause a fire. The hospital that I was being asked to evaluate is a hospital that treats explicitly only patients who have burns that come from either these kind of cooking accidents or from things like shelling.
When I accepted to go to this evaluation, what was explained to me was that this part of Syria is very, very unsafe and it’s actually too unsafe for MSF to send international staff there. So there is a Syrian staff that runs this hospital and then there’s a support team of international staff in a neighboring country in the Middle East that provides support to the hospital.
So they said, “You know, you’re going to go to this neighboring country and you’re going to do your review,” what we call cross-border, so remotely from this other country. So that’s what I set off to do.
I get there and I find that the team has set all this stuff up for me. So they’ve hired a translator named Nur who will work with me and there are boxes and boxes of documents for me to use in my evaluation, and they’ve got a computer with Skype, which is the best, most reliable way to talk to the field team.
So Nur, he starts translating all these documents for me and the first thing that I do is I go through the emergency department logbook where all the patients are listed. I’m thinking that this will help me understand the activity in the hospital, to get a feel for what they’re doing and what it’s like.
What I find is that this logbook actually really gives me an idea of what it’s like to live in this part of Syria because every time there’s an attack in the area, I can see that in the book because there will be a bunch of patients who come with traumatic burns. Or every time there are new people who come from a different part of Syria who have fled, I can see that in the book as well because there’s a new camp that appears. So I’m getting this idea of what it’s like to live there.
Meanwhile, Nur and I are talking to the team in the field and setting up interviews with different staff and it’s going terribly. The connection is so bad we can barely talk to anybody. We can hardly hear with Skype. It’s just a nightmare.
And I’m hit with all of the same feelings that I had when I came back from the Congo of feeling so sad and I’m reading about what it’s like to live there and all I can offer is like the world’s worst phone call. I mean, it’s a terrible, terrible feeling. I was so ashamed that I couldn’t do more.
But of course we press on and we’re trying to figure out a way to make this work. And so Nur and I realized that for us to best communicate with the field team, that we will use this computer with Skype and we’ll have to use earphones to hear. So he and I are sitting next to each other like sharing an earphone, like this, and it’s connected to the computer, of course, and we’re like making full body contact going on this side, which is pretty uncomfortable in a Middle Eastern context. So we’re both talking like… you know, it’s terrible. It’s really uncomfortable.
And Nur has his computer open as well because he has the translation software, since even if his English was fantastic, he didn’t have a phone with that medical vocabulary. So while translating, he’s also looking words up on his software. And I’ve got my phone with WhatsApp, which is what I’m using every time Skype fails which is like every five seconds. I’m texting the team and saying, “Stand by. We’re calling you back,” or whatever. So this is what we find we can kind of work with.
And we’re interviewing all these people in the hospital and we start to interview somebody named Wayel who is a physical therapist for the team. Burn patients, especially people who have really serious burns, they need a lot of rehabilitation. It can be like twelve to eighteen months’ worth of physical therapy. It’s a long, long time. And in order to have that, we’re asking these patients to come back to the hospital two or three times a week.
So I’m talking to Wayel and I’m saying, “How are we making sure that happens? What are we doing to make sure our patients can come back for all this long-time,” and I’m really pushing him on this subject and I’m basically saying like, “Are we doing enough? Are you doing good enough to make sure that this happens?” I’m really pushing him.
Finally he says, “Habibi,” this means like, “my dear” in Arabic, he says, “we’re doing everything we can but we can never do enough for our patients because we can’t take away their burns.”
That comment really sticks with me. Nur and I, we continue our interviews and the next day we’re interviewing somebody called Jihan, who is the counselor for the hospital. We’re talking to her and, for once, the connection is actually pretty good so the conversation is flowing and we’re talking.
I realized that Jihan, like all of our staff, she is living in this area so she’s exposed to all of these same traumas with the attacks and the population shifts and displacement and all of these things that our patients are exposed to, she’s also living. But then in addition to that, as the counselor, she absorbs all of our patients’ stories all day, every day. She’s hearing about their trauma and their loss and their grief, and I think that must be so hard.
So I say that to her. And I say, “Jihan, how do you take care of yourself? You’re so exposed. So what do you do for your own mental health?”
And Jihan says… well, Skype froze, and I was so frustrated. I turned to Nur to say, “Look, okay, what are we going to do?”
And Nur stops me and he says, “I think she’s crying.”
And I realized that he was right. Skype actually hadn’t frozen. She was silent because she was trying to compose herself.
Finally she says, “No one’s ever asked me that before and I’ve never thought about my own mental health.”
And I realized that talking to Wayel and talking to Jihan, we were just people talking to each other. Even though we could sometimes barely hear each other, there was the translation, we were just two human beings talking.
Then I got to the end of my evaluation and it was almost time for me to go and I offered to the team to do kind of a debriefing or like give them feedback on my review before I left to go back to the States. So I asked the nursing director if he could set up a time that we could do this.
So his name is Abdumalik, and I said to him, “You know, this is not mandatory. People can come if they want to. They don’t have to come.”
So he's sets this up and we get everything ready to go and he had this good idea. He took a picture of the room and sent it to me through WhatsApp, because we couldn’t use the video on Skype. So we’re about to start and I open WhatsApp and I have this picture and this room is just jam-packed with people.
And I’m thinking like, “Oh God, they probably all felt like they had to come to this evaluation because somebody is here from headquarters that’s reviewing them.”
So I’ve got Abdumalik on the phone and I say, “You know, this is wonderful and I’m so glad everybody is here, but I hope that nobody felt pressured to come.”
And he says, “Well, Anna, for one thing we know, we all want to provide the best care that we can for our patients so we all want to be here to hear what you have to say.” And then he says, “But more than that, when people like you come and work with us, we know that the world hasn’t forgotten us.”
You can hear Anna’s story on Soundcloud.