To see a system or process as purely the sum of its parts, in scientific terms, is referred to as reductionism. It is common in all types of research, and involves, for example, studying neurons’ plasma membranes to better understand human consciousness. But this approach offers only a sliver of the whole picture of the human experience, which is inextricably linked to language, culture, art, and social sciences.
Knitting together different topics and disciplines expands scientific conversations and insights, and requires a holistic perspective. Bridging the divide between these two modes of thinking are science communicators, who break down complex and hyper-focused scientific studies into language laypeople can understand by translating jargon, drawing connections to other disciplines, and connecting cutting-edge research to potential impact on daily life.
It is with a holistic frame of mind that science communicator and neurophysiologist Dr. Kirsten “Kiki” Sanford works when sharing fascinating flashes of cutting-edge research to her audience of science enthusiasts and, as she puts it, “people who might have flunked chemistry.” Though reductionism is critical for researchers, who must undertake meticulous, isolated projects in their field, reaching an audience of non-scientists is better accomplished through the lens of holistic thinking.
“It was something I struggled with as a grad student,” Dr. Kiki said. Her research during her PhD involved dissecting birds’ brains. “I had to think hard about ‘How is this contributing to knowledge about the world?’” She acknowledged that a narrow focus is necessary for most types of research; however, for better or worse, funding is frequently tied into scientists’ ability to provide evidence of the broader impacts of their work, forcing a holistic viewpoint from the outset.
Dr. Kiki is the host of two science podcasts: The Stem Cell Podcast, and This Week in Science (TWiS), which she began as a radio program while she was attending graduate school at the University of California, Davis. The shows often focus on the absurd, humorous, or culturally topical. Past items of discussion have included insect evolution, the link between entropy and intelligence in humans, global warming’s impact on bird migration, and male newt kidneys (Sexy! Who knew?)
Science communicators have the opportunity to apply a holistic framework to polarizing issues, and tease apart politics from factual, observable evidence. Citing a recent study of 25 developed nations, Dr. Kiki explained that of all the countries that were studied, the United States was an outlier in having climate change denial so closely tied to a specific political identity. She mused, optimistically: “That makes me wonder if someone with the opposite agenda—if you could modulate identities…”
Vehement climate change deniers are a small but vocal minority. Many people have simply not yet made up their minds. Armed with an understanding of how global warming impacts our daily lives through effects on the economy, national infrastructure, and human health, scientists and science communicators can locate entry points in the wider conversation to de-emphasize the issue’s political aspects. Doing so also allows them to consider the range of effects people will have to contend with as climate change ramps up in coming years.
For example, changes to the weather patterns and ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico can impact the viability of shellfish fisheries and efficiency of shipping supply chains—these are perhaps more meaningful than, say, Stormtracker images of a hurricane. When people’s finances or convenience factors are impacted, they can become more willing to make changes to their routines to help mitigate those impacts. That can also serve as a jumping-off point to talk about some of the most dire and urgent impacts of climate change, such as the disproportionate effect it will have on low-income people and developing nations.
A resolute realist when it comes to factors that influence decision-making, Dr. Kiki knows that communications require a firm understanding of human behavior and rhetorical strategies in how to best educate an audience, inspire curiosity, or incite action. Although the current federal administration has, for many groups, renewed participation in grassroots-level organizing, there are far more people who don’t get involved for lack of perceived incentive, time, money, or resources to participate in weekly meetings or donate to help out. Dr. Kiki acknowledges that “the average person is [so] focused on what’s happening in their daily life, there have to be incentives or something that encroaches on [that].” Hence, the connection to shrimp availability and gas prices.
Another crucial role that science communicators play relates to public perceptions of the discipline, and the shifts occurring in scientific workplaces. Even in 2018, women often find themselves leading the charge to make space for themselves in science in very basic ways. The hashtag #Stillascientist began trending on May 7, 2018, and was initiated by wildlife biologist and PhD researcher Imogene Cancellare to call out the misogyny behind comments she had received that her appearance was too “glamorous” for a scientist. More women used the hashtag to point out that scientists’ hobbies or backgrounds may be widely varied, and none of which negate their work in their field. Images and lists unfolded of women scientists wearing dresses and makeup, being mothers, struggling with depression, cosplaying, pole dancing, riding horses, or describing growing up in a different country. Embracing a holistic framework in science means widening the public conception of who scientists are, what they do, and what they look like—women are not content to squeeze into the narrow boxes of prior generations.
A 2015 study from the National Science Foundation found that in the United States, white men still hold an overwhelming majority 48.7% of all jobs in science and engineering; white women hold the next-highest percentage at 17.9%, and the numbers only shrink from there (Hispanic women hold just 1.8% of these jobs). Dr. Kiki looks forward to seeing more women moving into leadership positions at research institutes, onto panels at conferences, nominated for prestigious awards, and heading up scientific publications, though she is uncertain of what the effects might be, long-term. It is conceivable that, with a broader talent pool and greater diversity of perspectives given space at the table, both methodologies and applications of research could be altered for the better.
Dr. Kiki recently sat down with her son to watch the launch of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket, and recalled watching NASA launches herself as a child, on a black and white TV in the rural California home where she grew up. Despite always being encouraged to ask questions, engage with the natural world, and explore the environment around her, Dr. Kiki was at a loss for role models when she first felt herself drawn to the field. Still, she was confident about the direction she wanted to take her academic career, and noted the constant intersection of her twin interests in science and communications. Of watching the rocket launches, she said “I do think it makes a difference. Reaching into space adds to that sense of wonder and what else humanity can do to drive creativity and innovation.”