Last Monday, October 17, 2016, Springer Nature Storytellers returned to the stage and opened the fall season with a live surgery-themed show in Washington, DC, the location for the 2016 American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress(ACSCC).
After a busy first day in the exhibit hall, Springer staff, authors and curious members of the public gathered at Busboys and Poets, a beautiful local neighborhood hangout in the historic Mount Vernon Triangle district, just steps from ACSCC, for an evening of storytelling by surgeons themselves. Guests staked out their spots in the theatre-style set-up, enjoying a drink on the house and indulging in complimentary refreshments as they waited for the show to begin.
Without a chair to spare, co-hosts, Shane M. Hanlon and Farah Z. Ahmad, both members of our partnering organization, The Story Collider, took the stage and warmed up the audience with anecdotes and experiences related to surgery, from their own lives.
Our first storyteller and Springer author, Dr. Mahul B. Amin, Editor in Chief of the much-anticipated 8th edition of the AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, took the stage with a smile and an enthralling tale of growing up in India, remarking on how his father’s career as a door-to-door physician impacted his work in developing personalized patient care as one of the world’s leading pathologists.
Dr. Marie Crandall took our breath away with first-person accounts of the devastation a trauma surgeon witnesses due to gunshot fatality among Chicago’s youth. Her passion and motivation to change the circumstances within which she works, including details of the incredible research she has led, left the audience suspended in disbelief.
Before a brief intermission, Amy Oestreicher, a storyteller from The Story Collider, injected a patient perspective into the mix with a remarkable personal account of having experienced over 30 surgeries to-date.
With drinks topped off and guests back in there seats, Dr. Kathy Hughes shared how building a social media presence and committing to science communication has helped her create an important balance between the nature of her job as a surgeon and her life-long dream of being a writer.
In January 2015, Dr. Kaspar von Braun, an astrophysicist at Lowell Observatory, told his story at our Springer Nature Storytellers event in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. We asked him to share his experience and advice for future storytellers. His response can be summarized in two words; “Do it.”
On January 6, 2015, I had the honor of participating at a Springer Storyteller event in the old Town Hall in Seattle. There were about 300 people in attendance (some astronomers but largely members of the public), 5 speakers (all professional astronomers), and a team of MCs to warm up the crowd for the next speaker.
As many astronomers can attest to, one tends to give a large number of talks in the field, normally around 45 min in length, supported by 30-60 PowerPoint slides that illustrate the subject. Not in this event, however. The goal was to tell stories, not present science: campfire over conference, so to speak. The only prop was a microphone on stage, which the speakers were told not to touch for noise reasons as the talks were being recorded as podcasts. There was no projector, no screen, no podium, no laser pointer, just you and the mic, and you had 10-15 min in which to tell your story, for which the speakers were encouraged to emphasize the personal and human aspects more than the science. I very clearly remember the moment of walking up to the microphone on stage with nothing in my hands, no computer waiting for me on some podium, and no projected talk title with my name underneath it. Adrenalin is a good drug.
To be honest, this challenge was one of the fondest memories I have of that evening: memorize a short, personal, and coherent story, and thereby not using any props at all. The single best aspect of the evening, however, was the quality of the talks given by the other speakers — I went last, and as I listened to the other speakers, I felt increasingly inadequate the closer it came time for me to talk. It turns out that I was not the only one thinking like that. Later, as we speakers enjoyed a “we did it” drink together, we all confided the exact same emotion I had felt: “Your stories are so terrific! What am I doing here???” There were serious masterpieces where you could feel that the story does not often see the light of day due to its very personal nature. Every astronomer goes through some trials and tribulations, but also quite funny experiences, on the way to being a full-time scientist, and all presentations one tends to give along the way are, by request and necessity, practically only about the science. To glimpse an insight into the personal histories and experiences of some fellow astronomers was a big honor to me and hopefully to the public audience — this is very, very rare.
I would be amiss if I did not mention the quality of the overall setting — the preparation of the event was exquisite, the mood of the audience was fantastic, and the little warm-up skits performed by the MC pair in between our talks were of high, stand-up comedian level. It was truly a humbling and at the same time adrenalin-filled experience, and I would recommend doing this to anyone who is not afraid to speak in public. The Storyteller team did a great job of preparing me to give a talk like that weeks ahead of the event, but at the same time never tried to influence what I was going to say. They just gave advice on what to emphasize.
To offer advice to anyone contemplating doing this — in two words: do it. And when you do, focus on the personal aspects and let the science take a back seat.
Interested in becoming a Springer Nature Storyteller? Visit our pitch page to submit your idea and learn more about the program and our upcoming fall shows!
Springer Nature Storytellers is a unique program available to Springer Nature authors (read: have published with Springer, Nature, Macmillan Science and Education, Palgrave, BioMed Central or SpringerOpen brands) to harness the power of storytelling and increase exposure to their work within their field and beyond their scholarly circle.
Our storytelling events are an empowering opportunity for authors to talk about what they do and why it’s important to the public at large and we’re very excited to bebringing this live event to three conferences this fall:
We want to hear your story!We’re looking for researchers with engaging stories that will leave their audience with a strong message (This podcast is one fantastic example of the type of storytelling we’re looking for).Stories may address:
-What inspired authors to become researchers
-Why a researcher studies his/her field
-What a researcher hopes to accomplish through his/her work
-A researcher’s most surprising finding(s)
-Obstacles overcome and surprise twists that led to new discoveries
-And anything else specific to your experience as a researcher!
If you would like to tell a five-to-ten minute story at one of these three meetings, in partnership withThe Story Collider, please send a two-to-three-paragraph summary of your story idea firstname.lastname@example.org include the intended conference name in your subject line, e.g. “Story pitch for ACS meeting.” Please submit your story idea before the respective deadline: August 12th for the DC show, September 16th for the New Orleans show, and October 7th for the San Francisco show.
“Would you like to write a book together?” I asked her.
Seemed like a logical thing to ask her since she was planning to get English and writing degrees. Although initially she was hesitant, she finally agreed to do it and we started writing together. Mostly it was my stuff that she contributed to, until the day she agreed to write one of her own, on cake preferences. That didn’t go so well since we have very different writing styles. Over time, we figured out those differences and made Food Bites work out – it was great to see it published. I think we were both pretty happy that we had worked together to get something in print.
After finishing Food Bites, we took some time off from writing together, even though the idea for the next book began to take shape. I took a sabbatical at the college she was attending to work on two books, one of which was Candy Bites. One chapter in particular came together that year – the one on the Baby Ruth bar in the movie, Caddyshack.
For this chapter, we conducted an experiment to test whether a Baby Ruth bar actually floats. We put college pool water on our kitchen counter and tried to float a variety of different candy bars. The only one that floated was the 3 Musketeers bar. The Baby Ruth bar sank immediately, proving that the moviemakers were taking unscientific liberties to jazz up the scene. For us, it was a fun way to work together and we got an interesting chapter out of it.
It took several more years before we compiled enough new chapters to complete Candy Bites, but we’re pleased with how it turned out. So pleased, in fact, that we’ve started working on ideas for the next one, Chocolate Bites (forthcoming).
How did I get to this point, where I can write books on ice cream and candy? Actually, a lot of people ask me that question these days, but my research work is on candy, chocolate and ice cream, so it’s a natural step for me.
My career certainly wasn’t something I mapped out and planned as a little kid. No, my career has been a series of stumbles and uncertain steps, at least until I got hired at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is where I’ve really been able to blossom, in part because of the mentorship I received early in my career as a professor and in part because of the opportunities. The University of Wisconsin, particularly the Food Science department, already had an established reputation in ice cream and confections before I ever started. But my background was almost ideally suited to this environment.
In my first year, one professor put his arm around my shoulders and said “Rich, you know something about sugar, so I’m going to introduce you to the candy and chocolate industry.” The next year, another professor put his arm around my shoulder and said “Rich, you know something about crystallization, so I want you to work on this ice cream project with me.” Twenty some years later, I’m the expert.
Why do I write? I don’t know, probably for the same reason I like to teach. It forces me to learn new things and to focus my thoughts in such a way that others can understand them. Although sometimes it can be extremely frustrating, like when the words don’t come together very well or when my ideas are all jumbled, when the words do fall into place, there’s no better feeling of accomplishment. My wife says I should get a hobby, but really, my hobby is writing.
But I also write, in part, because it lets me work with my daughter in some meaningful way. Being able to say I wrote this book with her is a pretty cool feeling. Not everyone has that opportunity and I feel pretty fortunate.
“Think that might be something you’re interested in doing?” he asked.
I hesitated. “I don’t know, Dad. It sounds like a lot of work and what with classes and everything, I don’t know if I’ll have time to help,” I finally replied. I wasn’t lying, writing a book did sound like a huge undertaking, particularly right before my junior year of college. But it was something we’d always talked about doing, something we had planned for and dreamed about.
“We’ll use a lot of the articles we already have,” Dad said. “It won’t be any more work for you than writing those were.” It was like he’d already thought of all my arguments before we’d even started talking.
I sighed. There was no refuting that argument. “Okay, let’s do it.”
He smiled. “Good. But I don’t think we should include any of the candy articles. Save those for the second book,” he said. I shook my head. It was just like him, planning the second book before the first was even written.
“Sounds good. And maybe don’t include the boxed cake one,” I added.
The first time my dad asked me to help him write, I was in high school. He had been writing articles for the local newspaper, trying to explain food science to a general audience. A friend from the University of Wisconsin, where my Dad is a professor of Food Science, had been helping him but the librarian had other duties and I had always done well in my English classes.
I was ecstatic about it. Seeing my name in print, like a real writer! It was all I had ever wanted, since I was in the second grade. For a long time I didn’t think it would happen. When it came to reading and writing, I was a late bloomer. I went through several years of special reading lessons at elementary school. It was actually these lessons that solidified my desire to be a writer. I was fortunate to have them.
Our writing sessions were always relaxed and informal. Once a week or so, we’d sit around the kitchen table and read what he had written. I’d offer suggestions—a different word here, a change in verbs, or even a different avenue of thought. Sometimes, I’d ask questions. A lot of the science was too advanced for me and I’d need clarification. If I asked too many questions, he knew the article wasn’t ready and he’d have to work on it more. If it wasn’t clear to a high school student, it wasn’t at the level the newspaper expected.
During that first year together, we started to dream of the book. Any great idea either of us had was saved for the book. We visited candy factories and discussed the ramifications of automation. “That’s one for the book,” we’d say. I took a class in Latin American history and talked to him about the impact of sugar and cacao plantations. “That’s one for the book,” I’d say. We even went as far as taking pictures for the cover. It was just a big idea but it gave us something to aim for.
When I was a senior in high school, about a year into our partnership, Dad asked me to be the lead writer on an article. “I thought you could write the boxed cake versus home made cake article,” he said. “You could do a taste test in one of your classes.”
I accepted the challenge with relish. This was my opportunity, my chance to really show who I was as a writer. And, since this was less about science, I could make it all my own. I thought I was brilliant—what teenager doesn’t—and wanted to show off. The article I gave Dad was nothing like anything we’d ever submitted to the newspaper before.
That week, we gathered around the kitchen table as usual. “Here’s the article. I made a few changes,” Dad said, handing me a paper copy of what I had written. And it was completely changed! All of my brilliant turns of phrase, my irreverent style was gone! It was just like every other article we’d written together. I was crushed.
“But Dad, this is completely different. You said I could write this one and you’ve gone and changed it!” I said. I could feel tears coming. I’d worked so hard and now it was gone.
Calmly, he explained that we were a writing partnership and that meant that one article couldn’t stand out from the others. They had to be consistent. It was a science article, after all, and we needed to focus on that.
I didn’t take it well. I screamed and cried and vowed never to speak to him again. I made the family miserable for a week. The article came out and I saw my name first in the byline, ahead of Dad’s, but I still wasn’t happy. I neglected my English work and became obsessed with biology and geology. We still had our weekly article meetings, but I was less enthusiastic about them. The glow of seeing my name in print had gone.
When I went off to college, we stopped writing the articles. The newspaper we wrote them for was bought out and the new owners decided not to continue the articles. But the idea of the book never really died. We talked about it less frequently, but it was always there, in the back of our collective minds.
At college, I started taking many writing classes and tried out many writing styles. Reluctantly, I began to realize that Dad had been right. While my original essay may have been a better reflection of my particular style, it wasn’t in fitting with the tone we had cultivated by writing together. I was still disappointed, but no longer resentful.
And then, almost out of the blue, he called and asked if I wanted to write a book. It was almost like not talking about it was the secret to making it happen. The first book came together easily, just as Dad had promised. It wasn’t long before we were toasting to our success.
A few years later, he called again. “It’s time we did the second book,” he said.
I was out of college, working full time as a proofreader, and this time, I didn’t fight it. “Okay, let’s do it.” But I was more hesitant than ever. This time, there would be no articles to rely on and no excuses not to help write chapters. The sting of the boxed cake article was still fresh after all those years.
I had nothing to worry about. Even though there were still fits and bruised egos, we had learned from our mistakes. And while it was never as easy as the sessions around the kitchen table, it went smoothly. Our partnership matured and our books are better for it.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Antonia Zaferiou, perfectly blends her interests to find her true passion
My childhood dream was to have a different job each day: dancer on Monday, singer on Tuesday, architect on Wednesday, doctor on Thursday, and artist on Friday. I had loving parents who encouraged me to dance, sing, build, deconstruct, and explore. I was enveloped in a world of artistic expression of moving and singing within, and through, different types of music. I am thankful that this cascade of influential experiences and people in my life eventually led me into my current fields of engineering and biomechanics. It all started in a dark corner of my grandparents’ home in Flushing, Queens, in New York City.
I have fond memories of the basement in that house, which lent itself to highly competitive cousin ping pong tournaments, and building fort labyrinths in the empty basement bar. We were initially confined to an area including oval-framed, yellow-tinted grayscale portraits of distant relatives on the wall, a ping pong table, a stationary bicycle, a small couch (for whoever was on deck to play ping pong next) and the oversized bar we called “the cave.” When we were about nine, we were officially allowed into the back room.
At first we were all pretty scared of this room; it had been dark and elusive for so long. We would fight over who had the responsibility to go back there to retrieve the ping pong ball that snuck through the tiny mouse-sized hole at the bottom of the door to the back room. I’m not sure why we wouldn’t cover this hole with a couch cushion, but I suppose they were all used up for building our fortifications. The room’s cold concrete floor sent ominous shivers up our spines. There was a deep walk-in closet that smelled like something strange and old immediately to the right after entering. Now we recognize that smell as the odor from mothballs; it was a perfect grandchild deterrent. Beyond the closet, there was a large table centered in the room, loud laundry machines, a large sink, a dangling single lightbulb over the table, and a monstrous oil burner in the corner.
My grandparents used this room to teach us some important life skills. My grandmother taught us how to sew and do laundry, and one day, bored with our sewing assignment, my older cousin dared me to sneak past the oil burner. Clinging to the wall opposite the oil burner, carefully shuffling past its radiating warmth, I discovered a dark room with another dangling single light bulb that I was too short to reach. It was, in fact, my grandfather’s mini machine shop. The room had a single counter I couldn’t quite reach, and tools hung organized on the wall, the only one of which I could reach was his meter-long T-square. After telling my grandfather about my discovery, he started to teach me how to use some of the tools, like the vice, and how to create technical drafts with his T-square. I found out that he was an engineer, which meant that he could design, make, and fix things.
Around the same time, I can also recall the excitement and butterflies I felt when I was deemed ready for ballet pointe shoes. I was convinced that these shoes were going to be so much fun. Ballerinas effortlessly floated on the tips of toes, elongating their lines, spinning like tops, all due to these magical shoes. I had been so excited that for years prior, I would secretly build my own pointe shoes by stuffing Legos and blocks into my ballet slippers. Little did I know, the actual shoes would inflict the same amount of pain on my toes as did the Legos.
The dance teacher told my mother that because I was about to embark on this new pointe-shoes adventure, it would be very important for me to take more ballet classes and keep my weight to a minimum. I became a weight-obsessed awkward pre-teen, terrified to wear sandals that would expose my raw blistered feet. After years of this routine I still felt the ability to be lost in music when I would perform or take a dance class. But by the time I turned 16, I grew weary of ballet’s strict guidelines of artistic expression. Luckily I would find another outlet for this lifelong passion, only this time, I would find it in science.
As a junior in high school I had an energetic physics teacher who understood the importance of hands-on activities to embed physics fundamentals. He once brought us outside and challenged us to try to break an egg by throwing it as hard as we could at the blanket other students held as a target. Through exercises like this, I found – and was surprised by the fact – that physics came to me so easily. Ballet training developed my habits of perseverance and perfectionism at an early age. But finally I was a natural at something. I now had the tools to relate to the motion I observed in our surroundings, and indeed felt as a dancer.
I decided to take AP Physics the following year. My teacher, Ms. Pritchard, was a female engineer, and I suspect that she had a lot to do with the decision to apply to engineering programs. It’s not as if I remember the exact moment that this occurred to me, because at the time I was applying to 17 schools with interest in majoring in dance, singing, education, psychology, and/or physical therapy. But interacting with this teacher was when it all came together. I now realize that all of the moments leading up to that class – loving design and building, understanding what an engineer was from an early age, and being a natural at physics – were finally working together, pushing me towards my eventual course of study in engineering. Ms. Pritchard seemed to be able to have a career in both engineering and teaching, so maybe I could do the same. We were assigned a project to explain physics fundamentals as they related to our hobbies. I presented the “physics of ballet,” but didn’t realize that this was more than a project. It was foreshadowing of things to come, the very things I now study.
I strategically applied to The Cooper Union early decision for mechanical engineering. Just as ballet is a good base for other forms of dance, engineering, I thought, would provide a robust foundation to pursue other careers, and provide me with a hirable skill-set upon graduation. I was attracted to Cooper Union because it offered a full-tuition scholarship and was situated in the East Village. With its pay-it-forward model, I was excited to attend, and to be able to give back to the small and rigorous school after graduating. I knew that engineers help create the world that we want and need, but I wasn’t so sure how much creativity could be involved.
In my first semester at Cooper Union I was randomly assigned into a section of an “Engineering Design and Problem Solving” class led by an adjunct professor who studies sport biomechanics. This put biomechanics on my radar as a potential field of study I could use to weave dance into mechanical engineering. In the meantime, I persevered through chemistry and math classes that were completely unnatural to me. Finally, when classes became more hands-on, visual, and design-oriented, I flourished and acknowledged how natural and exciting engineering was to me. The professor who introduced me to biomechanics also helped me secure a research internship at a dance biomechanics lab. Eventually I was an undergraduate attendee of a national biomechanics conference.
At this conference I saw a flyer for a PhD studentship that must have been MADE for me: “PhD studentship focused on biomechanics of performing arts.” If someone had asked me to do so, I could not have written a more perfect opportunity for my interests. The next day I met the professor who posted it, introduced myself with my resume, shared a lunch with her, and secured the position. She has remained my advisor and mentor throughout my pursuit of a PhD. She guided me through developing my specific aims and designing my experiment to mitigate measurement error and challenge the performer sufficiently to reveal preferred mechanical strategies, using dancers as a model system.
Ballet dancers spend years undergoing very specific training. This leads to very well practiced, deliberate, and goal-directed movement patterns that allow for systematic research on the subject. Turning is something we all have to do in daily life to circumvent obstacles and navigate our surroundings. Dancers can perform multiple rotations supported by a very small base, and typically perform these turns in a position that makes it challenging to maintain balance. Our goal is to understand how dancers overcome these extreme challenges, in hopes of helping others who have physical limitations that reduce their ability to turn in daily life.
I have been using my mechanical engineering foundation to uncover the control strategies dancers use to push on the ground prior to different types of turns, and how they balance during these turns. I have also collaborated with the VA to uncover how older adults perform changes of direction during walking. I strive to creatively convey my findings so that a person who wants to learn how to turn can do so in a fun way. This may include developing systems that interact with a user in real-time to communicate mechanics through sound.
Through these collective pursuits I see that my creativity can be intertwined with research, so that I am a hybrid scientist-engineer-dancer-teacher. My dream is to uncover mechanisms as a scientist, and design creative interactive products, to provide these findings to an end-user in an artistic way. For example, I have been developing a system to provide real-time sound feedback to communicate successful patterns of how to push on the ground for balancing, weight shifting, and performing dance turns. By encoding certain force patterns into music patterns, a dancer can interact with music to learn about movement.
As a fellow of a NSF GK-12 and USC Viterbi grant, I had been given an unbelievable opportunity to partner with a local middle school science teacher to infuse engineering into the curriculum and learn how communicate my research to larger audiences (especially and arguably, the toughest crowd – middle school kids). They ask the best questions, ranging from, “Why do we close our eyes and tear when we yawn?” “How do rubber erasers erase?” and, “Can black holes collide?” to “Why are you studying how dancers turn?”
While I have learned a great deal from these students, the thing I can’t seem to overcome is the realization of how stacked the deck is against these kids. Engineering is not on their radar as something “cool” to do, especially for the girls. So I hope my work can inspire the idea that a really creative career can emerge from pursuing interests outside of school, in tandem with hard work in the classroom.
I believe that efforts to infuse engineering into K-12 curriculum, the popularity of characters like “Tony Stark,” and engineering-oriented toys like “GoldieBlox,” are monumentally important to promote engineering as the amazing and empowering field I know it to be. After all, not every student is blessed with supportive parents, an insightful and handy grandfather, and the opportunities I was afforded growing up in a good school district. I believe it is our responsibility as scientists to ensure that today’s generation of ballerinas can grow into the engineers of tomorrow.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Michigan
Originally from New York, Antonia earned a B.E in Mechanical Engineering from the Cooper Union and recently earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation focused on the body’s control and dynamics during turning tasks. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She aspires to help individuals with control deficits by creatively communicating results of mechanically-founded investigation of movement performance. Antonia is dedicated to teach scientific fundamentals in creative ways and is thrilled to participate in various STE(A)M outreach activities.