July 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 spaceflight that successfully landed humans on the moon for the first time. In the last half a century, the world has seen stupendous success in the field of science and technology. We went from development of polio and smallpox vaccines to CRISPR technology, from first communication satellites to almost 24/7 access to the internet, from first and second generation of computers to smartphones, cloud computing, and AI. The list can go on. This is the result of decades of collaboration between scientists, governments, and citizens across the globe. More recently, however, there has been a growing distrust regarding science and scientists among non-scientists. While this may be attributed to a number of factors, it is important to rebuild the bridges of trust and confidence to ensure that decades of unprecedented scientific and technological advances are not undone.

We spoke with Sarah McAnulty, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, who recognized this problem and launched an initiative called Skype A Scientist to encourage one-on-one dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. In this interview, Sarah discusses the inspiration behind this initiative, the challenges that she faced on the way, and the importance of science communication.

Rohit Arora: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Sarah. Tell us something about your research background.

Sarah McAnulty: I am currently a Ph.D. student in my sixth year at the University of Connecticut where I study molecular and cell biology. Before this, I went to Boston University to study marine science. In addition to this, I worked in Berlin, Germany on diabetes research for about a year and a half with obese diabetic mice.

For my Ph.D. project, I am specifically working on the symbiosis between the Hawaiian Bobtail Squid and a bioluminescent species of bacteria Vibrio fischeri. My project is specifically about understanding how the immune system of animals, broadly speaking, differentiates between the bacteria you want in and on your body, and the bacteria that you don’t. The Hawaiian Bobtail Squid is very nice for this kind of research because they have an organ where they keep these bioluminescent bacteria. They only have one species of bacteria in this organ. If, for example, you study a mouse, they have hundreds or thousands of species of bacteria, which is like trying to listen to a communication in a crowded bar. In the squid, it is like two people talking back and forth, which makes it a nice model organism for this kind of research.

Some background on this- the Hawaiian Bobtail Squid keeps the bioluminescent bacteria in an organ called the light organ, and they use the light from the bacteria to camouflage against the moonlight, so a predator from below wouldn’t see a squid shaped silhouette with the light coming down from above.

RA: Let us now talk about your online science communication initiative “Skype A Scientist”. Can you please explain to us briefly what this is all about?

SM: Sure. “Skype A Scientist” started back in January 2017. I basically noticed a growing lack of trust in science and scientists among the general public, and I wanted to figure out what scientists could do about it. I noticed a lot of anxiety in the scientific community after Trump’s election, and I wanted to harness all that negative energy and do something good for society. I thought that one of the reasons people didn’t trust scientists is because they didn’t know any scientists.

So, I thought that the first step towards fixing that would be to get people to talk to us.  I started with schools because we thought that would be an easy starting place. I put out two google forms, one for teachers and one for scientists. We got about 800 people in the first semester, which was great, and since then we have reached around 11,000 classrooms. We have also recently expanded to include groups of adults. For example, if there is a reading session at a library or a book club, we can Skype with them as well. The main idea is that we have scientists, and you can choose between 24 different categories of scientists, and you can request to speak with a scientist over video chat for 30 to 60 minutes Q&A sessions. These sessions could be about whatever you want and in basically any language you want. We have scientists who speak most of the commonly spoken languages. We are in 43 countries right now and we’ve got at least a classroom and a scientist from every state of the United States.

The goal of the program is to basically just start conversations. There are a lot of resources online for people to listen to scientists talk, but it is rarer to find opportunities for scientists and the public to have conversations. We wanted to get scientists practicing talking to non-scientists, and also to provide kids the information that they actually want to know as opposed to what the scientists think they want to know. We believe that having that personal connection and being able to have a conversation instead of one-way delivery of information will be really good to change people’s perception of what a scientist is.

Another nice thing about this program is that you can request a scientist of a given ethnicity. For example, if you’re a classroom in Queens and have over half Latin American kids, you can request a scientist that looks like those kids, so that the kids, we think, have a higher chance of relating to that person and seeing themselves in science.

RA: Do you know if any similar program existed before you started “Skype A Scientist”?

SM: There is a program in the UK called I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! but it is conducted differently. Instead of having one-to-one voice chatting they have a scientist come on and then the students in a classroom can log on and type their questions. I thought it would be nice to have face-to-face interaction. Clearly, the most useful thing would be in-person interaction, but video chats are the next best thing that we can do. Apart from that, as far I know, there are no other programs which do what we do at the scale that we do it at. I think some universities in their departments have tried to do this kind of thing, but not at this scale.

RA: Given that your program reaches roughly 43 countries and you receive thousands of applications to be matched, how do you manage the logistics? Is this done using a matching algorithm of some sort?

SM: Exactly, yes. It is still tough even when you have a computer do the job for you; inevitably, there are issues that come up. There are many little fires to put out everyday, but generally speaking the algorithm that my good friend David Jenkins, who is currently a bioinformatics Ph.D. student at Boston University, wrote in Python does this matching automatically.

We are a two-person team for the most part, but we also have a volunteer, Julia Kennedy, who has been very helpful with marketing. She has helped us with social media. She has also been helping us with branding and graphic design. She’s great! We’ve also had graduate students help out a couple of hours here or there but it’s mostly just the three of us.

RA: That’s very impressive. Earlier you spoke about the importance of representation. Did you have a specific group of people in mind when you started this program? Or was it more science communication in general?

SM: We don’t turn anyone away from this program. I think that a lot of times teachers who are active on twitter and are actively seeking this stuff out are the really excellent teachers. Some of those wonderful teachers work in higher income schools, some in rural schools, and some work in private or prep schools. We certainly try to get the word out. I spend most of my energy, time, and money to target schools in rural and lower income areas. Low-income students probably aren’t going on field trips and may not have enough money to do lab work in their schools. The rural students may or may not have enough money, but they may not have access to places like science museums or may not meet scientists in their everyday lives, unlike some kids in the cities. So those are the two populations that we are trying to focus on, and we try to record if a classroom checks one or both of those boxes. We put energy into that because we think that more often than not private or prep schools will find us. So, we make sure that this program is for everybody.

One great thing is that we have a huge number of scientists who volunteer their time so we are not limited by that at all. We can handle almost twice as many classroom sign-ups than we currently have because of this huge volunteer effort from our scientists, and Twitter has been very helpful for that. Another thing is that this is one of the easiest forms of outreach for scientists. You could be doing a “Skype A Scientist” session, for example, while your experiment is running. Other forms of outreach take a lot more organization. So, even for scientists, this is easy and fun.

RA: It’s good to hear that scientists are so enthusiastic about this program. You mentioned that this program reaches many countries, so do the scientists also participate from different countries?

SM: Yes, absolutely. We have many scientists from Europe. Basically, if you’re an English-speaking scientist, our Twitter circles will probably reach you. We have a fair number of both scientists and classrooms from Australia, UK, Germany, and Scandinavia. We also have a fair number of scientists from Japan, because I know some people in Japan who found out about it and spread the word over there. One country we need more scientists from is China, because we have had classroom requests for Chinese-speaking scientists. We also need more meteorologists. If teachers want to talk to the kids about weather, climate, precipitation cycle, etc., they request to be matched with a meteorologist.

RA: Speaking of international classrooms, do you make a special effort to reach lower-income countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh etc. with large English-speaking populations but lower literacy rates? Some places in these countries don’t even have internet connections let alone video-conferencing facilities. Do you currently have a special focus on these classrooms, or do you plan to do that in the future?

 SM: We do get requests from these places, but we don’t currently advertise to those places. Most of our energy is spent keeping this ship afloat. During the first semester or two, we did get some feedback about the classrooms having poor internet connections and the lack of sufficient upload and download speeds for an effective session. One thing we have tried to do help out the classrooms which do not have great internet connections is to add on a “Skype A Scientist Live” component to the program. We have 10 scientists a semester who do YouTube live sessions. The classrooms can submit questions ahead of time and then watch the YouTube video later of the scientists answering those questions. This helps the students have their questions answered without requiring a very strong internet connection. This is also a good idea for homeschooling classes where we ask that there are at least 7 students together for a scientist’s time. If we have maybe 2 students being homeschooled, you can just hop into the live session, but the only difference is that you type in your questions instead of saying them out loud.

RA: Earlier you spoke about how the distrust of science and scientists prompted you to launch this program. We see examples of this on platforms like Twitter. Do you think that what we see on Twitter is a microcosm of how people actually see scientists, and what do you think about the general state of science communication today?

SM: Twitter is useful for some things but definitely not for everything. Broadly speaking science communication has come more into the forefront of importance in maybe last 5 years because I think we are seeing that the world is on fire around us and people don’t understand why. Scientists are realizing the importance of getting the word out and people are also realizing the importance of science communication. In terms of Twitter being the microcosm, someone recently showed me a pie chart which showed that people on Twitter who are already on the same page as us are a small sliver. The people who are anti-vaccination, deny climate change, and generally are against scientists are another small sliver. Then, there are about 80% of people who don’t pay attention or don’t really care; those are the people we should be targeting. We should not be wasting our energy on people who have made up their minds.

Twitter is also useful for humanizing scientists. My brand on Twitter is pretty silly. I talk about science, of course, but I also make dumb jokes all the time. I think that the part of the reason I have a decent following on Twitter, particularly from non-scientists, is that I don’t take myself too seriously and I think that’s helpful. Also, Twitter also involves a lot of one-on-one conversations. I have done “Drink with a scientist” sessions where we will go out to a bar and bring a bunch of stuff for people to play with. We’re up in a part of Connecticut called the Quiet Corner and a lot of bikers go through here. I will try to go to biker bars and my goal on a given night is generally to entertain people, but if I can get a biker to say play with a microscope then I’ve succeeded that night. I think reaching people where they are is the key to getting them on board with trusting scientists. The point is to make a personal connection between scientists and non-scientists, and it will take all of us to engage to make that happen.

RA: Finally, do you have a specific story or experience from the “Skype A Scientist” initiative that you can share with us? For instance, the impact of any of the scientists on the kids they interact with?

SM: We had one scientist that emailed me and he said that he received an email from a teacher he had a session with who said that there was one kid who wasn’t particularly engaged, and after interacting with the scientist he thought that science was cool and became more interested in it! I’m sure there are more stories like this all the time but one of the bad things about being at the helm of this thing is that I know that things are happening everyday all over the place, but I don’t see them because my eyes are not on all of these classrooms. One thing that’s fun though is that if you’re having a sad day and if you look up #SkypeAScientist on Twitter, there are tweets from scientists describing the classroom sessions they had and that’s very uplifting. You can see what’s going on in real time and the impact the program has brought about.


Liked this post? Check out more media coverage about “Skype a Scientist” and follow Sarah on Twitter @SarahMackAttack

The squid biologist connecting schools and scientists worldwide

Uconn Scientists Uses Skype to Teach, The Chronicle, Claire Gavin, December 18, 2017

Skype a Scientist, UConn Magazine, Fall Magazine, Kim Krieger 2017

Visiting Engineers Virtually. The k12 Engineering Education Podcast. October 1, 2017.

Don’t phone a friend, skype a scientist! Science Friday. Public Radio International. July 7, 2017.

About the Author: Rohit Arora obtained his Ph.D. from ENS in France. Post-PhD he worked as a postdoc in France in collaboration with a major pharmaceutical company. He is currently a research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. His research focus includes understanding biological structure-function relationships and developing novel tools to make sense out of “big data” in biology. He enjoys reading about the history of mathematics, geometry, logic, and philosophy.