The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead: Telling stories about science

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

In the warm glow of vintage stage lights, with a full house packed into worn leather and velour seats, a woman approaches the mic almost tentatively. “I used to be a dancer”, she says, “and I would probably be a lot more comfortable on this stage if I were dancing”[i]. It wasn’t a typical opening line for a science talk.

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead, hosted at Calgary’s Royal Canadian Legion No. 1 on September 15, was definitely not what you might expect from an evening of science talks–even I got more than I expected. The event was part of Beakerhead, Calgary’s science, art, and engineering extravaganza (they call it a “smash up” rather than a festival). The seven wonderers were seven experienced science communicators and journalists there to share their personal stories of curiosity and wonder.

Torah Kachur, science columnist at CBC Radio, opened the night sharing her realization that her grandfather had pioneered the life-saving cardiac surgery that her newborn daughter needed. Rose Eveleth, host and producer of Meanwhile in the Future, took us on a fast-paced ride to meet the scientific mentors in her life, a journey the climaxed in a dark alley in Costa Rica faced with how to answer the question: “You’re a scientist, right?”. The crowd laughed along with her and experienced for themselves what her research mentor meant when he said, “You know, not everyone has to be a scientist. You’re really good at talking to people, you should be a journalist”.

Nadia Drake, the former dancer and now science reporter for Wired, National Geographic and others, followed Rose and spoke earnestly about her first encounter with mountain lions and the difficult struggles she saw them face once she joined a research team tagging and tracking the animals. Raj Bhardwaj, a physician and CBC health columnist, was up next with a humorous tale of an awkward ER conversation (“Actually doc, you’re not going to believe this but…”) that served a rich background to explore the responsibilities that doctors have for really listening to their patients, understanding that medicine “is not about fixing bodies, it’s about communication”.

The second half kept us all laughing, with science comedian Sarah Chow sharing some of the difficult tasks she’d been given by her production company (Find out something interesting we can do about breakfast foods, now!) and Jennifer Gardy, regular guest host of The Nature of Things, sharing her acquired wisdom about TV documentary work through humourous lists, such of rejected names for The Nature of Things (“This Hour has 22 Beavers”) and unsuitable documentary titles (“Inside animal colons!” and “Myth or Science: Pants”). John Rennie, a former standup comedian and past editor-in-chief of Scientific American, wrapped the night in a scientific bow with a tale of trying to master his fear of bugs by eating them. Spoiler, this did not go well.

The evening was a great fun, but I think there was more to it than that. There was a lot more comedy than in a typical night of scientific talks, but to me the star of the show was narrative: the story telling form. All of the Wonderers spoke from personal experience and shared something that had directly happened to them, along with the self-doubt, surprises and self-reflection that come along with human experiences. And in doing that, using the narrative form, they said things about science that almost no research talk ever could.

Thinking about narrative as a valuable tool for science writing, science communication and science education is not by any means a new idea. Story Collider, for example, makes a thought provoking podcast and regular event out of it. I even tried my hand at organizing a science and story-telling event in Edmonton a few years ago. Colleagues of mine in science education have also studied how stories about science might help students to be more interested and understand scientific concepts better.[ii] The usual story about narrative in science is that it represents a familiar kind of writing and speaking so it can make science more accessible and hold a reader or audience members’ attention better than a plain explanation. Most often it’s seen as a pedagogical or communications tool, a way of connecting ideas in a more engaging way.

Tonight something else really struck me, and I thought about science narratives in a way that I hadn’t before. In my own research I’m often interested in how people find or make places for themselves in science or, on the other hand, distance themselves from it or are excluded, maybe feeling like they just aren’t the right kind of people to participate or be welcomed. Doing that kind of research means spending a lot of time thinking about how to help people articulate the relationships they have with scientific communities and concepts.

What made me so excited about these stories was how well they accomplished that difficult task and expressed very different relationships to science. In both Nadia Drake’s cougar story and Raj Bhardwaj’s ER story there was responsibility and respect. In both of those stories, being a part of science and medicine was both an honour and a duty. There was a passion and love for science in Rose’s story and a struggle about maybe not being up to the task, good enough to really be a scientist. Sarah on the other hand owned the science in her story. She told us that one of her main motivations was protecting science from the way it was often misconstrued in media headlines. And John joked about his place in science, said he was being entirely non-scientific in his fears and set himself up as maybe being different from the entomologists who were organizing the event. He was a guest into that world in his story.

What I loved about the stories was that science became a character in some way in all of them: they protected it, they loved it, it excluded them, scared them and sometimes embarrassed them. That complex relationship to science is something that is often unspoken and hidden, especially from students.

Everyone who took the stage would, I think, be considered an insider to science. Some have graduate degrees, others have come to it later or from other backgrounds but all are now deeply immersed in it in some way. Young students often think that there are only two relationships you can have with science—in or out. You’re scientific or you’re not. I love the idea that, through stories, students might be able to see more clearly the complex relationships people have with science. Maybe they could even be able to think more explicitly about their relationship to science through telling stories like this, to see the insider in their outsider stories and vice versa. [iii]

So, I want to say a big thanks to the Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead. The evening will definitely stick with me and not just for the mental image of John Rennie trying to decide whether to eat a cockroach head or back end first.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] All of the quotes from that night were hand written, which is to say scrawled as quickly as I could into my notebook as the speakers told their stories. I’ve written them here as quotes but they are only my best attempt at recreating of the words of the speakers as they spoke.

[ii] For example:

Avraamidou, L., & Osborne, J. (2009). The role of narrative in communicating science. International Journal of Science Education, 31(12), 1683-1707. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09500690802380695

Norris, S. P., Guilbert, S. M., Smith, M. L., Hakimelahi, S., & Phillips, L. M. (2005). A theoretical framework for narrative explanation in science. Science Education, 89(4), 535-563. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.20063/abstract

[iii] The idea of using narrative as a tool for research and understanding also isn’t new. Narrative researchers, like Jean Clandinin, have pioneered methods for understanding all kinds of experiences by the stories that people tell. In science education, John Wallace and William Louden’s book Teachers’ Learning: Stories of Science Education opens with a really thoughtful history and framework for narrative as a research method and its relationship to science and scientific practice. What I’d personally never quite made the connection to before was the value in making science a character with a place in the story.

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