Member Spotlight: Dr. Kelly Weinersmith
Interview by Dr. Susan Perkins (American Museum of Natural History)
Your research in parasitology – which has a large focus on host manipulation – has been a fantastic gateway to getting the public interested in biology and science in general. Talk for a moment about how parasites are a great “hook” for people’s curiosity.
Parasites are something to which we can all relate. In the US, our families, friends, and pets regularly encounter lice, pinworms, ticks, and fleas. Even though we hear about parasites a lot, most folks know next to nothing about these little creatures and their life cycles. Between how little people know and misinformation on the news, parasites take on an almost mythical nature. Knowing there are tiny creatures out there looking to infect us without understanding how to avoid them really freaks some people out (understandably!).
And parasites that manipulate host behavior add a whole new mythical layer! Now there are these tiny creatures, with amazingly complex life cycles, that can hijack host behavior without the host knowing it?! That blows a lot of people's minds (myself included!).
You’ve been very successful at combining active research with scientific communication. But, it’s not as easy as it looks. What are some “myths” about doing “SciComm” either part-time or full-time?
It's pretty common for scientists to propose science communication projects as part of their "Broader Impacts" statements in National Science Foundation grants. This has a lot of us thinking that SciComm is a thing scientists can naturally do well "on the side" - rather than a separate skill that takes time to develop.
I worry a bit when fellow scientists say things to me like, "I'm thinking of going into science communication if I don't get a tenure track job." This might work for some folks, but the competition for well-paying SciComm jobs is fierce! Depending on the job, you may be in an applicant pool with folks who have degrees in science journalism, or who have been writing for a general audience for years. They've figured out things that a scientist-turned-SciCommer will have to figure out on their own - like what terms are too jargony for a non-scientist audience, how to use humor when explaining a complicated topic, or what kinds of discoveries the general public is actually interested in hearing about.
Plus - other folks applying for SciComm jobs have had time to build an audience. Having a pre-existing audience helps if you're going to pitch your ideas to publishers, newspapers, and major websites. Publishers are taking a chance on you if you don't have a pre-existing audience. You're asking them to take less of a chance if you already have a big audience, since the size of your audience suggests some minimum number of book sales, page clicks, etc that the publisher can expect to get if they pick-up your work. Building these audiences can be a slow process that takes place over years. So if you are considering a career in SciComm after grad school, now would be a good time to start practicing the craft and building an audience!
Several years ago, you took on a major new project – writing a book called Soonish for the general public about ten emerging scientific technologies and the benefits and risks of each to humanity – which made it to the New York Times bestseller list and was both a Wall Street Journal and Popular Science “Best Science Book of the Year”. This was a collaboration with your husband, Zach Weinersmith, who is a scientific cartoonist. Tell us about that whole process. How did you split up the work? What were the major hurdles? How did it change you as a scientist?
Writing the book was both super stressful, and really fun. And I don't mean "it was super stressful" in the way we as academics sometimes say stuff like this to impress folks by how hard we work. Finding time to write the book while doing a postdoc and having a kiddo was really too much (I have an anxiety issue now to prove it!), but the research part and the working with Zach part was a lot of fun!
We assigned a "chapter leader" for each of the 10 technologies we discussed. The leader's job was to do the initial research (reading scientific manuscripts, technical books, etc), and write up a rough draft. Then the other person would read the rough draft, and figure out what needed to happen next. Maybe that was more reading on a particular topic, or maybe it was a lot of rewriting to make things clearer for a general audience. Once we had a decent rough draft, I would schedule interviews with experts so we could get quotes, ask some questions, and try to get a general feel for the "culture" in each field. Then I'd integrate the interviews, and shoot the draft back to Zach. He would do some editing, then write some jokes and add in comics. Then we'd send the draft to experts to review the technical details, and non-experts to confirm we explained things clearly enough. Each chapter took at least a month of work! The most frustrating part was when we'd get a few weeks into researching a topic, and then decide for whatever reason that the technology wasn't a good fit for the book. Our last chapter includes a "graveyard" that talks about some of the topics we started to research, but ultimately did not include. I love researching parasites, but it was nice to have an excuse to read more broadly.
The one big lesson I took away as a scientist is that we often don't think hard enough about the potential negative implications of our work. During the interviews I was repeatedly surprised that the interviewees often didn't have a thought through answer for the question, "How might your work negatively impact society?". It's easy to get excited about a project, but also important to consider how things could go wrong after the technology or finding is shared widely.
Your new adventure is launching a field station in Virginia! What was the motivation for doing this and what do you hope will come out of this project?
That's right! I'm starting a small field station in Central Virginia! The success of Soonish opened up some new opportunities. I wanted to be able to spend more time thinking about natural history and working on SciComm, and when the opportunity arose to buy land with some family we went for it. I'm working on converting a big, modern barn into lab space, and will start some of my own experiments here soon.
I'm hoping this space will be useful to other parasitologists. In my dream world, lots of parasitologists will drop in to collect animals or run experiments, and to some extent I'll be able to recreate the intellectually stimulating environment that attracted me to academia. I'm also hoping the space gets a lot of use from students, so I can still do some mentoring and teaching. We don't have cabins built yet, but in the next year or so we'll have some facilities so folks can stay here to do research. Anyone who wants to drop in to say "hi" or do some collecting in Central Virginia should shoot me an email at Kelly.Weinersmith@gmail.com!