Scientists, They’re Just Like Us

We asked The Story Collider’s Artistic Director, Erin Barker, to share her behind-the-scenes experience working with Springer Nature authors in preparation for our live storytelling events. Here Erin remarks on a single moment from Col. Robert Lim‘s story, explaining how personal stories have the power to humanize science in an unparalleled way. Stay tuned for Col. Lim’s story airing this Friday, February 17th! 

Written by Erin Barker

At the Story Collider’s “Surgeons” show with Springer Storytellers in DC last October, military surgeon Col. Rob Lim described standing at the border of Iraq in darkness before the initial invasion began in 2003, counting down, waiting for shock and awe. “We saw the planes go over, heard the artillery fire, it’s happening,” Lim said in his story. “I turned to one of my buddies and said, ‘How do we do our laundry?’”

Erin Barker, Artistic Director of The Story Collider

This, to me, is the perfect example of what makes the kind of true, personal stories The Story Collider and Springer Storytellers produce so special. We often hear about medicine and international conflict, but we don’t often hear about the everyday, human aspects of being a person embroiled in these things. We can learn countless facts and figures, but to really understand what it feels like to be a part of it, in the moment? You can’t find that anywhere other than a true, personal story from someone’s life. These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have. They allow us to connect with someone we’ve never met. And building this connection between scientists and the public is becoming ever more important.

These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have.

For example, Stanford psychologist Susan Fiske has found that the general public respects scientists, but doesn’t quite trust them. According to Fiske, there are two factors that influence our perceptions of strangers: competence — how knowledgeable and capable we seem; and warmth — whether we have our our audience’s best interests in mind. In order to be seen as trustworthy, and communicate effectively with the public, we need to be perceived as both competent and warm. And in fact, warmth matters a lot. In her 2006 paper “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence,” Dr. Fiske tells us, “warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.”

Unfortunately, when she conducted her study, asking her subjects to rate different professions and groups of people according to these qualities, scientists ranked high in competence but low in warmth.

I probably don’t need to tell you that scientists often focus on competence, and even deliberately tamp down perception of warmth to emphasize competence. It makes sense when you consider that, in many ways, scientists are trained to reduce their intrinsic warmth. It’s a natural instinct for a profession that, quite rightly, values objectivity. But when we focus on competence at the expense of warmth, we miss out on a valuable opportunity to connect with and inspire our audience.

So can scientists emphasize our warmth? According to Dr. Fiske, people trust people they think are like themselves — people who share their values and goals. And not only that, but they will go out of their way to support these folks. When we share stories that reveal our humanity, our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, our humor, we show our audience that we’re like them, and that we’re trustworthy.

When Col. Lim shared his story with our audience, he became something even more than a surgeon who has saved lives on and off the battlefield — he became a real, live human being. Someone we feel like we know, and want to root for. When I worked with Col. Lim on his story in the weeks leading up to the show, I encouraged him to include not only the kind of details that let the audience visualize the experience, but also those that let us in on his mindset. For example, the fact that he was unable to shower for eighteen days as they made the long, slow trip into Baghdad. Hearing his human reactions to these things makes us think, Scientists–they’re just like us.

 

Moran Cerf: Well, That Escalated Quickly

Dr. Moran Cerf  shares a humorous anecdote about the time his team’s new publication picked up rapid-fire media coverage…for entirely the wrong reason. Listen below or stream the official podcast!

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Janet Silbernagel: The Calling of the Cranes

Dr. Janet Silbernagel‘s personal and professional worlds collide in China, where cranes begin to stretch her perception of connections across landscapes. Listen below or stream the official podcast!

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Janet Silbernagel is a landscape ecologist with a design background, specializing in landscape conservation strategies, applying landscape ecological theory, scenario modeling, and geospatial analyses.  Silbernagel started her career as a landscape architect with the US. Forest Service before receiving her PhD in Forest Science from Michigan Technological University. Previously, Silbernagel served on the faculty of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Washington State University. She has been on the faculty at UW-Madison since 1999, where she directs the Professional Master’s program in Environmental Conservation within the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, designed to train conservation leaders internationally. Through these roles and her research, Dr. Silbernagel travels between the Great Lakes, Europe, and China.

Recently she has worked on scenarios of forest conservation effectiveness in a changing climate (with The Nature Conservancy); citizen engagement and spatial literacy in Great Lakes coastal communities (with NOAA Sea Grant); landscape connectivity of conservation subdivisions (in WI); and studies to understand dynamics of wetland systems for crane conservation in both China and Wisconsin (with the International Crane Foundation).

Etienne Hirsch: The Curious Boy in the Garden/Le garçon curieux dans le jardin

French neurobiologist Etienne Hirsch recollects his use of Claude Bernard’s scientific methodology from boyhood to adulthood in his journey to alleviate Parkinson’s Disease symptoms. Listen below or stream the official podcast!

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Etienne Hirsch is a neurobiologist involved in research on Parkinson’s disease and related disorders. He obtained his PhD in 1988 from the University of Paris VI (Pierre et Marie Curie). He is currently the director of the Insitute for Neurosciences, Cognitive sciences, Neurology and Psychiatry at INSERM and the French alliance for life and health science Aviesan, the associate director of the research center of the Institute of Brain and spinal cord (ICM), head of “Experimental therapeutics of  Parkinson disease” at the ICM at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris and since November 2015 in charge of the research aspects of French national plan on neurodegenerative disorders . His work is aimed at understanding the cause of neuronal degeneration in Parkinson’s disease and is focused on the role of the glial cells, the inflammatory cytokines and apoptosis but also on the consequences of neuronal degeneration in the circuitries downstream to the lesions. He is member of several advisory boards including, French Society for Neuroscience (past-President), Scientific Advisory board at INSERM. He obtained several prizes including Tourette Syndrome Association Award in1986, Young researcher Award, European Society for Neurochemistry in 1990, Grand Prix de l’Académie de Sciences, Prix de la Fondation pour la recherche biomédicale « Prix François Lhermitte » in 1999, Chevalier de l’ordre des palmes académiques in 2009, Prix Raymond et Aimée Mande of the French National academy of Medicine in 2011, Member of the French National Academy of Pharmacy in 2011. He is author of more than 200 peer reviewed articles.

Virginia Dale: The Model of a Question

Dr. Virginia Dale realizes that the value of a question lies equally in the asking as well as the answering, while on a trip to the rainforest to conduct ecological models on land-use change. Listen below or stream the official podcast!

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Virginia H. Dale, PhD is a mathematical ecologist who uses a landscape perspective to understand patterns and processes. Her research interests include environmental decision making, forest succession, effects of climate change, land-use change, landscape ecology, ecological modeling, and sustainability of bioenergy systems.  She is a Corporate Fellow in theEnvironmental Sciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and was selected as the 2006 Distinguished Scientist for the Laboratory, where she is currently Director of the Center for BioEnergy Sustainability.  She was among the members of the science community that contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Scientific Assessment that in 2007 received the Nobel Peace Prize. Virginia completed her PhD at the University Washington just in time to be able to join the first group on ecologists entering the “Red Zone” after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. She continues to monitor vegetation reestablishment on permanent plots she established there more than three decades ago. She often refers to herself as a disturbance ecologist, for she studies natural and human changes on many landscapes. Virginia has enjoyed sharing her expertise by service on national scientific advisory boards for five federal agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency and US Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and Interior) and on several committees of the US National Research Council. For thirteen years, Virginia was Editor-in-Chief of the journal Environmental Management and still serves on the editorial board of several journals. Virginia has been active in her community as a scout leader, soccer coach, and protecting ecosystem services and was selected as a Top Citizen of Oak Ridge. Her son is an aerospace engineer, and her daughter works on environmental policy and is mother to a vivacious girl and has a second child due in July.  Virginia enjoys traveling to visit family and to explore new areas and swims wherever the water is warm.