Skype A Scientist: Online Science During The Coronavirus Pandemic : Short Wave The spread of the coronavirus has led many to stay home in recent weeks. During that time, the non-profit Skype A Scientist has seen a surge in demand for its service of virtually connecting students to scientists. Maddie talks to Sarah McAnulty, executive director of the group and a squid biologist, about bringing science to kids and, at the same time, confronting stereotypes about who can be a scientist.

Stay Home And Skype A Scientist

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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SARAH MCANULTY: Welcome, everybody, to Skype a Scientist Live. Just as a heads-up, we are running these about once a day, Monday through Friday-ish, during this delightful quarantine time that we're all in.

SOFIA: Sarah McAnulty's just starting up a video livestream. She's the executive director of the nonprofit Skype a Scientist.

MCANULTY: Generally, we match up scientists with classrooms and other groups to chat about science and generally make science accessible for as many people as possible and make people feel as welcome in science as we can.

SOFIA: The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down a lot of businesses, but Skype a Scientist saw a massive spike in its audience over the past couple of weeks, as schools have closed and more and more people stay home.

MCANULTY: Before, we may have had, like, 20 people show up to a livestream. And now we have, like, over 500 showing up every livestream, which has been amazing.

SOFIA: Plus, Sarah says they've had a similar boom in scientists reaching out to lead the live sessions.

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UNIDENTIFIED PALEONTOLOGIST: All right. So I'm a paleontologist, and I'm so excited to be here today. First, this is the first human interaction I've had in about a week. So I'm real sorry if I'm really excited, but I haven't talked to anybody in a long time outside my house. So...

SOFIA: In these days, the questions the scientists are getting are just as silly and insightful as ever, like, do rats fart?

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UNIDENTIFIED SCIENTIST #1: I actually don't know. That's a good question. I don't know if they fart. I do know that they eat their own poop, but I don't know if they fart.

SOFIA: How does bacteria survive inside a squid?

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MCANULTY: When the squid are babies, they don't have any beneficial bacteria inside them, so they actually get them from the seawater. There's a special organ inside the squid...

SOFIA: And, of course, have you ever eaten the bear?

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UNIDENTIFIED SCIENTIST #2: Have you eaten the bear? I don't know how to answer that question. But, no, I have never eaten a bear, but I watched a bear eat...

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SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. Today on SHORT WAVE from NPR, finding scientific joy in the middle of a pandemic - how one group is bringing science to kids out of school and confronting stereotypes about scientists at the same time.

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SOFIA: Sarah's a scientist herself. She does very cool squid stuff, by the way. And she felt like there was this disconnect between scientists and the public. So she thought, well, OK, let's bring them together. But...

MCANULTY: I noticed that there wasn't a super-easy way for scientists to get in touch with the public sort of in a way that was easy for them and fit into their schedules.

SOFIA: But, hey, it's the 21st century. That's what technology is for.

MCANULTY: And so I wanted to sort of have this streamlined way to get scientists talking with nonscientists, just to give people the opportunity to meet a scientist.

SOFIA: Now, the setup's pretty straightforward. You're a teacher, and you want to teach your kids about squids. Scroll through and find a squid scientist and request them. Don't have a specific topic in mind? That's cool, too. Just pick something more general, like biologist. Fill out the form, and, boom, you've got yourself a scientist.

So when you first started Skype a Scientist, part of your motivation was to clear up some misconceptions that people might have about scientists, like who they are and what they do and what they're like. So what did you guys want people to know about scientists?

MCANULTY: I really wanted to show people the diversity of scientists. I think we really get this kind of oversimplified view of who scientists are, how we behave, what we're interested in outside of science in TV and movies. I mean, you get this pretty much almost all white guys, all straight people, all - yeah, just white guys that are socially awkward with varying levels of social skill.

And so we know that scientists are just as varied as any other group of people. And so it's not necessarily that I want to say scientists aren't like this. It's like, scientists aren't only this. Scientists are all of these different ways of being. And so in our program, we also ask our teachers if over half of their students are from an underrepresented group in STEM so that we can match them up with a scientist from that group because we really want to show everybody that there is a place for everyone in science.

SOFIA: Yeah. Let's talk about that a little bit, 'cause I think we know now - like, scientifically, we have data that suggests that when kids see people that look like them doing science, they can imagine growing up to be scientists, too. So you really build that idea into the scientists that you pair with the classrooms.

MCANULTY: Yeah, absolutely. We want to give as many students as possible a window into science that they can relate to.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. And, OK, speaking of relating, I want to play a clip for you of microbiologist Ruth Isenberg. She's reading a question submitted in a live chat.

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RUTH ISENBERG: So the question is, is there any advice that I would give to a young student right now that might show an interest in becoming a scientist from a small town? OK, perfect. So I actually come from a pretty small town where not a lot of people went to college in general. So if you have an interest in science now, I would say keep that passion alive. See if you can get involved in science activities like presentations or anything that the community can participate in. A lot of colleges...

SOFIA: And I really like that because it sounds like, you know, the scientist herself would've loved to have that program when she was a kid. Is that something that you hear from the scientists who do these calls - that that's part of why they participate in this?

MCANULTY: Yeah, totally. I hear that all the time, yeah. So a lot of scientists that are now adults working in science never really saw people like them when they were growing up. And so I think that's one of the reasons scientists are so enthusiastic about participating in this program, because they wish they had something like it when they were young.

SOFIA: Yeah. No, I mean, I do. (Laughter) Don't you?

MCANULTY: Yeah, big time.

SOFIA: I mean, that's probably why you made it, right?

MCANULTY: Totally. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SOFIA: I mean, I think I remember the first time I met a lady scientist who specifically did the thing that I wanted to do, and that - like, that was a transformative moment, I think.

MCANULTY: Yeah, I hadn't even met a white woman scientist until I was, I think, a sophomore in college.

SOFIA: Yeah.

MCANULTY: Even in my department, I was studying marine science, and we had zero female professors (laughter) at all.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah.

MCANULTY: So, I mean, and that's as a white woman. So imagine how much worse it is for some of the other folks. It's just like - yeah.

SOFIA: Yeah.

MCANULTY: Anything that we can do to show people how welcome they can be in science, the better.

SOFIA: What other kinds of feedback do you get from scientists, from teachers, from kids?

MCANULTY: We've gotten a lot of feedback that I didn't necessarily expect to get. So for example, our scientists will say that when they talk to people who have never really thought about their area of science before that they'll have these questions that are like, oh, my God. Why have I not thought of it that way?

SOFIA: Yes.

MCANULTY: You kind of...

SOFIA: I love that.

MCANULTY: ...Get these, like, totally cool things that are like - will blow the mind off somebody who's been studying this stuff for 20 years.

SOFIA: Well, can I - can we talk about that? Because that's a point that when - I think when people think about scientists doing outreach, they really think that the benefit is only for the person that they're trying to reach out to. But in reality, you get these people who haven't been thinking the same way that all the other academics that you've been surrounded with are thinking, and you can get, like, really good ideas about your own science from having those conversations.

MCANULTY: Yeah, absolutely. A person who hasn't been taught to think in the exact rigid way that your field thinks - having that kind of, like, naive insight can be totally amazing. It's like - it's definitely not - it's a two-way street. And that's one of the great reasons to have conversations with people and not just deliver information at them. A lot of really awesome stuff can come from those conversations.

SOFIA: Yeah. So what has surprised you the most since launching this project?

MCANULTY: So many things have surprised me that it's kind of hard to pin it down. I think when scientists participate and they get, like, a bunch of fourth-graders so, like, electrically enthusiastic about what they're hearing about, that really reminds scientists how cool their jobs are. Because when you're working on a grant and you're reviewing other people's papers and you're trying to get your own work published, it can kind of disillusion you on how totally cool our jobs are. And then when you have, like, a fourth-grader just, like, beside herself, shaking about hearing about your squid or your termites or whatever you're studying, it can be a real, like, just awesome reminder and get you excited to go back to the lab the next day.

SOFIA: Yeah.

MCANULTY: So that's been amazing.

SOFIA: So I have kind of a bigger question for you. What does it tell you that people have this much interest in talking to, you know, real, live scientists over video chat?

MCANULTY: I think people are just really thirsty for authenticity today. I mean, I think you get so many things kind of filtered through various forms of media, I guess. And they're just - they just want something real. I feel like a lot of people just want to see partially, like, behind the curtain of how things are really being done and just want something directly from the source.

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MCANULTY: And so I think that that's why our program has been so super successful, because we get people direct access to the science right as we're learning that information.

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SOFIA: Sarah McAnulty is the executive director of the nonprofit Skype a Scientist. You can find out more about their live sessions, how to sign up, all that jazz at skypeascientist.com. We'll put a link in our episode notes, too.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le. Special thanks to Emily Vaughn for her fact-checking and production help. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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