Don’t Phone A Friend. Skype A Scientist!

9:38 minutes

Scientists do incredibly cool things on the job: They simulate Mars missions on Hawaiian volcanoes, track polar bears from helicopters, and investigate the unusual fluid properties of substances like ketchup or queso. But the way scientists often appear in popular culture is more akin to Einstein: older and male, with wild hair, and perhaps donning a white lab coat.

Sarah McAnulty, a biologist who studies the microbiomes of squid at the University of Connecticut, says she wanted to change that stereotype by introducing schoolkids around the world to real, working scientists using videoconferencing tools like Skype and Google hangouts. The program she founded, called Skype a Scientist, has already connected scientists to over 800 classrooms in nearly every U.S. state, and in more than a dozen countries around the world.

One of the participants in the program (and also someone with a really cool job) is Emily Green, who works in an ant lab at the University of Connecticut. In this segment, McAnulty and Green talk about their experiences with the program, and why connecting scientists with students is more important than ever.

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Segment Guests

Sarah McAnulty

Sarah McAnulty is a squid biologist and the Executive Director of Skype A Scientist. She’s also a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut.

Emily Green

Emily Green is a PhD student in microbiology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’ll indulge me for a second, I want you to close your eyes and picture a scientist, right? If you picture the Hollywood version, you see the typical scientist– what, white lab coat, geeky crazy hair. There’s always a Bunsen burner, right, with some green liquid in the background, isn’t there?

Well, if you listen to this show, you know that vision is pretty outdated and inaccurate and that scientists do a whole lot of different things, from researching the fluid dynamics of ketchup to the microbiome of squid to designing high tech wheels for the next Mars rover. And my next guest wanted to represent that diversity of people and interests and areas of expertise and just get the message out, well, hey scientists are people. What’s the best way to do it? How about talking to kids?

Her program is called Skype a Scientist. And it’s already connected real scientists with over 800 classrooms around the world. Sarah McAnulty is the founder of Skype a Scientist. She’s a PhD candidate in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of Connecticut. Welcome back, Sarah.

SARAH MCANULTY: Hey, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the idea behind the program? Basically to network with scientists via Skype?

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, exactly. So effectively, I match scientists with K through 12 classrooms for question and answer sessions with the scientist. And these sessions can cover the scientist’s area of study or it can be a general discussion of what it’s like to be a scientist.

And the teachers can choose what kind of scientist they want to talk to you. So for example, if you have a chemistry class, they can talk to a chemist. An elementary school class can talk to someone who works with animals.

And I also try to match classrooms that identify themselves as having students from under-represented groups with scientists from the same ethnic or socioeconomic group so that the students can interact with a scientists that they can really easily relate to.

IRA FLATOW: So how far has the program spread? Have you been able to get scientists into classrooms in some of those hard to reach areas?

SARAH MCANULTY: We have. So it’s pretty crazy. As you said, we’ve reached 800 classrooms last semester. And we’ve had 500 signed up so far for the fall. And we’ve reached 47 of the 50 states and 28 different countries. And these aren’t all just in metropolitan areas. We’ve gotten to rural areas as well, which is pretty exciting.

IRA FLATOW: And pretty shocked yourself, you must be, about how well this– how successful you’ve been.

SARAH MCANULTY: Absolutely, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Is it possible by Skyping with a scientist to push back on biased textbooks we know where you might have creationism being taught in science classrooms?

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, I wonder if we would even get classrooms signing up from those schools. I mean, if you have a teacher that doesn’t approve, maybe, of the textbooks that they’re using, they could get a real scientist in the class to debunk the kind of stuff that they might be seeing. But we haven’t had any major pushback from principals or anything yet. But that would be a way that we could help out.

IRA FLATOW: There was a really exciting moment on Twitter a couple of months ago. So many different types of scientists from all over the country were tweeting with the actual living scientist hashtag. What was that in response to?

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, so many scientists have just sort of felt like there are a couple scientist celebrities kind of that have surfaced– so, of course, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. And there was another one of these Twitter campaigns called Bill Nye meet science twitter. And this was very similar to actual living scientist. And the real goal of these kinds of things is just to show people what– the diversity of scientists that are out there.

So just like you said in the opening, you have these pictures of scientists like kooky white men with crazy hair. And we want people to see that, really, scientists are just regular people. And we have hobbies just like everyone else. There are a number of hashtags. Like there was scientists who do yoga and scientists who brew beer and all those sort of things, just to show that we have hobbies like everyone else. And we’re just not as pretentious as we may seem in movies.

Yeah, because if you believe the movie stereotypes, it’s kind of amazing what, you know, what you come up with. Of course, our segment really couldn’t be complete if we didn’t Skype a scientist ourselves. And we have tried to do so, believe me. But our Skype doesn’t want to talk to their Skype.


IRA FLATOW: So we’re going to bring– yeah, I’m sorry. We’re going to bring Emily Green in by telephone. She is a PhD student in microbiology at the University of Connecticut too. And she joins us by phone. Welcome to Science Friday.

EMILY GREEN: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you participated in the Skype a Scientist program. How was it? What classroom did you meet? Tell us about your experience.

EMILY GREEN: Yeah, so about in the Spring semester, Sarah got the Skype a Scientist all set up. And so the classroom I was paired with was in a rural part of Vermont. And I contacted that teacher.

And she’s taught seventh and eighth grade science for that school. And as we were talking, it was realizing that I had a lot in common with these kids. I’m from a small town in central Ohio. And so it was neat to be able to connect with these kids and sort of show them my path into a PhD here in Connecticut and show them that even though they’re from a small area, that there’s so much out there, and even just so much in science that they can start looking at and get interested in.

IRA FLATOW: Did you think you change their minds about what a scientist is and can do?

EMILY GREEN: I think so. They were super into asking questions about the organism I study, about the ants that my lab is studying. And I feel like they realized being a scientist wasn’t– as Sarah was mentioning, something that’s in the movies. But we’re real people. And we can do other things outside of the lab that we’re in.

IRA FLATOW: Were they able to get a new appreciation for the ants also when you talked?

EMILY GREEN: I think they were. They were pretty interested. What was awesome about doing the Skyping is that I can show them the colonies.


EMILY GREEN: And so I’m able to take them around the lab. And they’re able to see the people that I’m working with, as well as the neat little creatures I get to study.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask both of you, Emily and Sarah, a question. We’re living in an era of so-called alternative facts, science deniers that think climate change is a hoax, vaccines are evil, and so on. And as we just heard in the previous segment, scientific advisors are being neglected in Washington. How does this program fit into that landscape?

EMILY GREEN: So, I think being able to reach out to the younger generations right now is so important. Getting them to realize what science is all about and not believing the unfortunate things that are going on in the media and the press, I think this gets them a chance to see the truth and be able to rely on their teachers for that scientific information.


SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, I agree with Emily. And also, I think it’s really important for us to make emotional connections with people. And I think if you have these personal experiences with students or with adults, it really helps them foster trust in you as a person, and not just this imaginary science that they have in their head. I think a lot of times people might also, in addition to the mad scientist stereotype, might also have this– like on the internet, you hear about scientists being funded by corporations and lying to the public.

And if you meet us, you realize it’s not really what’s going on. And I think that helps a lot. And I think also when you talk to a bunch of kids, they can maybe bring it home and talk about it with their parents, which could help. So this is an interesting way that you could approach this pretty big problem.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so we have scientists now listening to– I’m sure we do– our program. How can a scientist sign up? How can they get on with your program?

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, we’d love to have help from scientists. And we’d love to have teachers sign up as well. So all you have to do is go to www.skypeascietist.com. And there will be sign up forms and more information for both teachers and scientists. And we’d love to have.

IRA FLATOW: Are you able to handle the flood that’s going to come your way?

SARAH MCANULTY: I certainly hope so. I have a software engineer named Dinesh who’s been helping me auto-match the program so that I don’t have to sit there and match individually, which has been super helpful. Thanks Dinesh. Yeah, so we should be all right. We should be able to handle it.

IRA FLATOW: And Emily, are you going to continue talking to the kids?

EMILY GREEN: I absolutely am. I am looking forward to the fall. I’m actually going to be working with the same teacher and hopefully many more teachers all across the US around the globe.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I wish you both good luck. And check in with us again, would you?

SARAH MCANULTY: Sure, sure. Thanks.

EMILY GREEN: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Sarah McAnulty, founder of Skype a Scientist, PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut. Emily Green is also a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. I want to thank both of them for joining us today.

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