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genegeek CAN

Hi. I'm genegeek (aka Catherine Anderson). Thanks for stopping by. I realized during my PostDoc that I preferred learning and explaining new results to doing science so I started a non-traditional career of teaching and outreach. I'll be using this space to explore public perception of genetics and other cool molecular biology stuff.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

In case you missed it, there has been lots of discussion about two campaigns to popularize science: Rock Stars of Science and Science Cheerleaders.

First, I have to say that I agree with the efforts to highlight science and scientists. I've been running science outreach programs for a few years now and I know how hard it can be to start new initiatives. My biggest issue is: what is the point? I've included more on these campaigns at the end of this post.

What are they trying to do…

Make science cool? Break down stereotypes?

I know lots of cool scientists who are accomplished outside the lab. They run marathons, travel, play in bands, etc. And my experience with kids (and some adults) is that we need to get more scientists out there! On more than one occasion, kids have been amazed that I'm married - and to a non-scientist! When I explain that I go hiking or go to parties, kids are amazed! I was in a successful rock band too but I get more interest from the kids when they realize that I'm not so special. We can then have a conversation about all the possibilities.

For my outreach projects, I've found that projects target one of the following areas:

acknowledgement that science impacts our lives --> curiosity about how things work --> understanding concepts --> doing science -->  a lighthouse/leader for the other levels

In my experience, an outreach program can only take people up one notch on the scale. You can get people to appreciate science but the same program won't create scientific leaders. It seems to me that the Rock Stars and Cheerleaders are trying to engage people with science at the lower levels to get them interested. Other programs are then needed to help people to do science.

I think a successful outreach program for building interest is to make the science relevant. If you are really into rock stars or cheerleaders, these campaigns may work. My dad and I were just talking about an interesting campaign in Vancouver, Canada. During the 2010 Olympics, there was lots of information about the physics of curling (yes, I like curling and I know it takes away any cool points that I have). Some curlers saw it as new information but not my dad; he taught me about friction and angles on the ice (and in the pool hall). My dad was mentioning that one of his rinks is partnering with a school to help see physics in action and to bring new curlers to the sport. It seems to be working because they have more curlers and the students are passing their exams. From the physics perspective, the students seem to be moving from curiosity to understanding.

I love that people are starting to think of new ways of engaging with science. I just want them to be clear about their goals so we aren't criticizing them for a lack of new scientists when they are trying to raise the profile of science.

More about the campaigns

The Rock Stars of Science pair scientists with rock stars in a photo shoot for GQ. Martin Robbins had some good critique and Chris Mooney responded on his blog. I was interested (from a program perspective) on the demographic of GQ - are older, successful white guys the best target? It might be - they seem to want to raise money for research.

I did notice that the biographies of the stars are more interesting than the scientists. It would be interesting to have the publicists from the music world try to write the story of the scientists - I came up the hard way, looking for ways to fund my education. I was lost until I discovered that I could trouble-shoot a protocol better than anyone else. As I honed my craft... (OK, over the top, but you know what I mean).

They've made a point of getting rock stars interested in science. Jay Sean has the headline: I was halfway finished with my medical degree when my first record deal presented itself…’ This gives the message that rock star is cooler than doctor (let alone scientist) - and honestly, for fame and fortune, rock star is the way to go.

I'd love to see a campaign that had rock stars doing science - or at least talking about impact of science on their lives and/or music. I love this story of making music with electric fish. I have my own crazy ideas. I'm working on creating some music based on DNA sequence. Once it is palatable, I'll share (may take some time).

Science Cheerleaders has professional cheerleaders to promote the involvement of citizens in science and science-realted policy (from their blog). I've only seen one cheer but they don't seem to do science-based cheers. There has been lots of discussion at LabSpaces. A lot of the discussion relates to the portrayal of women and stereotypes. Scicurious makes some interesting points, including the fact that cheering means that you aren't doing.

The Science Cheerleader website does seem to be trying - there are links to citizen science and information about scientists. But I'm concerned that they are trying to do all 5 levels of engagement with one approach.

I have to point out that I don't *get* cheerleading - or football. We didn't have it in my neighbourhood and we didn't have a lot of scientists either. So I was probably never in the target demographic but it also means that I don't have a visceral reaction to cheerleaders either.

One thing I find interesting is that the cheerleaders seem to be using the stereotype that people who work in science are smart (one way that they are 'busting the stereotypes') but some of the dumbest people I've met have advanced science degrees.

One last thing about the campaigns: Scientists, rock stars and cheerleaders work hard to get to the top of their profession. I have a friend who is a successful pop star and he works harder than any one I've met (despite his reputation as a slacker). I have another friend who cheered for the BC Lions and her workouts were intense. I mean no disrespect to any of the professions discussed.

cross-posted at


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Cool post. Good point on the science peeps can be stupid remark.. same goes for engineering..

Also, looking fwd to DNA music!

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Liked the post very much. Not having grown up in the US, I too don't have a visceral response to cheeerleaders (or rockstars for that matter).

You make an excellent point that any good outreach program is only able to get people one level up on the scale of appreciation/interest/ability, and how very different approaches are needed to successfully address the vastly different audiences at different levels.

Doctor Zen
The University of Texas-Pan American
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You do not lose points for enjoying curling. You just out yourself as Canadian.


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Thanks for all the comments :)

Dr. Zen, I added a few items to your Canadian list. Keep your stick on the ice


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