[Q&A] Graduate Student and Podcaster Aubrey Paris on Science Policy and Communication
By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry
Thursday, Mar. 17, 2016
Aubrey Paris is a first-year chemistry graduate student at Princeton in the Bocarsly lab working on the electrochemical CO2 reduction using bimetallic thin film catalysts. She graduated in 2015 with B.S. degrees in chemistry and biology from Ursinus College where she conducted undergraduate research on electro- and photochemical CO2 reduction using ligand-modified cyanoferrate catalysts under the direction of Professor Brian Pfennig. She is currently a senior fellow and podcast manager at the Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP), and co-host of a science policy podcast called ISGP’s “The Forum” as of November of last year. We asked her about her experiences in and passion for science policy and science communication. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is ISGP?
The Institute on Science for Global Policy or ISGP, as we like to call it, is essentially a non-profit think tank in the science policy sphere. We bring together scientists, policymakers, industry leaders, students and other stakeholders in a variety of science and society areas to talk about different science issues facing society. We deal with areas like climate change, infectious disease, food security, and science communication. We hold conferences where stakeholders basically meet to discuss the issues: the current state of the issue, the opportunities and challenges associated with it from their unique perspectives and what they think should be done about it. And then after these conferences we put together essentially a book that summarizes what all of these groups have said collectively. It’s a unique format because very rarely do you get all of these interest groups together in one room to talk. We try to do it in a not for attribution manner as well.
How did you get involved with ISGP?
The summer after my sophomore year, I got an internship with them and really just fell in love with the idea because I think science communication and science policy are two things that go hand in hand, and they’re both so important. After the internship I stuck around as a volunteer the last two years of my undergraduate, and following my graduation I did more serious work for them culminating in where I am now. I still edit some policy position papers for them, I still go to some conferences and moderate debates, and now I work on the podcast as well.
What’s the goal of the podcast?
So the podcast itself is essentially taking these books we’ve published from the conferences and taking specific debates from the conferences and translating them into a less jargon-y style for people who don’t necessarily want to read the book. The books are made available publicly on the ISGP’s website, we also have print versions that get sent to our mailing list, and we bring the prints to all of our conferences; they’re all free. The question is how many people are going to read them. That’s another reason that the podcast became an attractive alternative, to attract more people and a more diverse array of audiences. The podcast has allowed a lot more people to listen to what we’ve had to say.
Who came up with the idea for the podcast?
It came out of a conference that we had last August in NC, which was called “Communicating Science for Policy.” It was our first official science communication conference, and it was held in conjunction with Sigma Xi. Being around of all these really well known science communicators inspired us to be a voice of science communication ourselves as the ISGP. It was kind of the idea of all the staff collectively. Myself and the two other girls that co-host (Cleo Warner and Barbara Del Castello, also recent college graduates) kind of said, 'Give us a shot at making something, we’ll pitch it to you and we’ll see what you think.' The rest is history I guess you could say. So within three months we had a product and we launched on November 2nd.
What’s the format of each episode?
So each episode is 15-25 minutes long, and essentially we try to walk you through what was discussed at these debates. We come in and introduce the topic and the conference at which the debate occurred as well as the presenter whose debate we’re featuring. We go through the paper that that presenter wrote, as well as the debate that surrounds, it relatively sequentially. We go through the current realities of the situation. What is the current state of DIY biology, for instance. Then we go into the challenges. So we have this great tool, DIY biology, what are the challenges posed? Well there’s potentially a bio-terrorism threat or there’s a whole new sector of scientists now that we have to figure out how to regulate. Finally, we get to the policy issues. So based on those challenges and knowing that we have this opportunity at our fingertips what should we do about them, based on all these expert opinions around that debate table? Should we have organizations like the FBI regulating, or we should we be careful not to overregulate because we might stifle intellectual curiosity? When writing the podcast, something that we’re very careful about is that everything can be understood by an audience that might not have any scientific background, so we make an effort to define things that we think might be jargon-y, explain scientific concepts that might be helpful to explain.
So you’re writing scripts?
Yes, mostly because the ISGP can’t have any opinions so if we ad-lib it can get a little sketchy. We definitely have our personalities in the episodes, but we can’t say anything like, ‘I think vaccination is good or bad’; anything that might come off as an opinion we have to omit because we’re a not for attribution, non opinionated organization. We promote rational thought – as a think tank would… It’s tricky, you’re trying to balance what you want to do creatively with what this organization that’s hosting you wants you to do based on their needs and their goals for this project. That’s kind of how we came up with the scripted but informal conversation with three co-hosts that definitely have personality.
Logistically speaking, how do you record the episodes?
We actually record by Google hangout and essentially do a live YouTube recording, rip the audio, and one of the staff members will then edit it together because it’s really hard to record in one shot. It does not work (laughs). We record lots of comments, edit them together, I do the episode releases on Mondays and then we usually have a one-hour live tweet, and I’m usually in charge of the rest of the advertising.
Who is your audience?
In terms of conversations we have with people on twitter, lots of science communicators, also lots of grad students that get involved in the conversation, especially people who are involved in plant science or infectious disease research or climate modeling, directly related to the topics we’re talking about. It’s great to hear expert insight from behind the lab bench and from a younger generation as well. In terms of who’s listening online, basically from the statistics I’m getting from Soundcloud, we have reached 40 countries, and over 40 US states. The only continent we have not reached is Antarctica. We were really excited about that. We’ve released 12 episodes and our 13th is coming up.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Yeah, my favorite episode is probably the science communication one, Episode 10: Stories by Scientists, for two reasons. One, I wrote that one, and also I moderated the debate that it was about. And it got a really good reception from the science communicators out there. So recently we were named amongst Kirk Englehardt’s SCICOMM25 for the month of February, the top 25 science communication stories for the month, so that was exciting and it was for that episode.
The debate (led by Liz Neeley) was about story telling in the sciences and if it should be used as a communication strategy, and if so, who should be doing it. Should we be teaching scientists to be storytellers? It was actually a really heated debate because there were a lot of scientists around that table that said, ‘I feel uncomfortable telling stories because to me it seems like you’re persuading someone to take a certain opinion and that’s not my job as a scientist.’ I think that just goes to show how storytelling is really an art form, and in order to have scientists perform storytelling effectively, you probably have to train them to do so, so that they don’t compromise the ethics of science but can still get across their point, because studies have shown that people do respond more favorably to storytelling; it sticks in their head better.
I think it’s easy for people to gloss over scientists on social media and their role there but it makes a lot of sense for scientists to be there. Who knows that science better than the scientists themselves, right? … And with social media, you’re reaching a whole different audience, the younger generation for the most part. And if you want to inspire them to care about something or even perhaps pursue it themselves in the future, it’s a great way to reach their ears. But it is of course a challenge because nowhere are scientists taught, at least not in normal grad or even undergrad programs, to be able to translate their research to a more general audience, especially with things like 140 character limits.
How do you juggle all this?
So I’m a fan of multi-tasking, and most of the stuff I do for the ISGP is at night back at home, if I’m editing a paper or writing a script it’ll be at home or on the weekends. If I am doing live tweeting on a release day, I find that when I’m running an electrolysis, or taking GC samples, that’s a really good time to do some live tweeting because it’s hard to do productive things in those little spurts of time.
Are you hoping to transition into a career in science policy?
That’s the current plan, I’m in the camp that thinks that there are not enough scientists in the policy sphere, and the only way to change that is to start encouraging scientists to take that route. I’ve always had the perspective that applications based science has been attractive to me, seeing the application directly and making decision on things like alternative energy or vaccine development. Those are all things that scientists obviously have the clearest scientific grasp on so how can you expect people who don’t have that grasp on science to make rational decisions? You can’t, I think it’s impossible. I’m interested in everything, but if I had to pick one area I’d pick alternative energy, which is why I do CO2 reduction in Andy’s lab. I’d like to be considered an expert on the floor of alternative energy and be able to go to the DOE or whoever and be a science advisor.
What are you working on in the Bocarsly lab?
Right now, I am working on transforming CO2 into alternative products, ideally products that we can use as fuel sources. Specifically the catalyst system that I’m working on at the moment, bimetallic alloys, involves taking two metals, putting them together and seeing if they can perform this CO2 transformation. It sounds kind of simple, but as scientists would know and non-scientists may not, CO2 is a very strong molecule thermodynamically, so breaking that molecule and turning it into something else is hard to do; it takes a lot of energy. So I perform these reactions electrochemically, using our favorite tool in the Bocarsly lab, the potentiostat, which essentially applies an electrical potential and lets chemistry happen.
Anything you’d like to add?
I would just encourage people to check [the podcast] out. I think it’s a very accessible and digestible version of scientific issues that impact everyone. Even in chemistry you might hear about DIY biology or infectious diseases and think, ‘I don’t really care about that; I’m a chemist,’ but you’re also a person, and as a person these are issues that should matter to you, like food security. As a scientist, I’m trying to better society so I should probably understand the issues facing society to do that.
I wish I knew that [the science communication/science policy route] existed when I was in high school. I feel lucky that this fell into my lap, and I’m the kind of person that takes an opportunity and runs with it. Not everyone is that lucky to have opportunities fall into their lap. I think we may be at a time where that stigma of being a PhD scientist who leaves academia may be breaking down a little, and in history these very important areas of science have been neglected. I’m also of the camp that tenure decisions should include some sort of science communication or at least engagement aspect. You should get some kind of credit for blogging or doing different kinds of outreach. And my eyes were opened to all of this through the ISGP and its programs. I’ve learned so much from working with them.