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#SFN18 Science and Storytelling (Theme J)

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The Stories We Tell

I love stories. As long as I can remember, stories have played an integral part in forming my love for science, and my dreams to be a scientist. It was the story about Gregor Mendel, a gardener who became the father of modern genetics. It was Dr. Har Gobind Khorana, the first Indian-born Nobel prize winner in physiology or medicine. It was Ada Lovelace, a technological visionary and the first programmer. Which is why I could not miss the second ever SFN “Telling Stories in Science” minisymposium on Sunday chaired by the incredible Wendy Suzuki! It was an afternoon full of beautiful synchrony between the scientific values we care about and the deeply human ways in which it affects our lives, either good or bad, painful or exhilarating, easy or complex. Here I share a few of the talks and personal stories that resonated deeply with me.

Who speaks for Science?

Dr. Monica Feliu-Mojer started off the event with aplomb. A passionate scientist and science communicator, Dr. Feliu-Mojer is the Director of Communications and Science Outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico, as well as the Associate Director of Diversity and Communication Training. In her talk, Dr. Feliu-Mojer reminded us that stories are a powerful way of sharing science and a compelling way to connect with people. But most importantly, she asked the question: Who speaks for science? Which community is being represented?

It was a question that surprised me. Not because I didn’t immediately recognize its immense value, but because I had never thought to ask that question myself. Dr. Feliu-Mojer made her stance crystal clear and one I agree with entirely: science has consistently failed to represent minority groups, and consider race as a factor in assessing and interpreting data. Which makes one thing clear: it is integral to connect culture and context with science. In addition, as scientists, we need to ask ourselves how we can leverage our individual privilege to help other communities.

I was blown away by Dr. Feliu-Mojer’s erudite and succinct summaries of the issues that impregnate the scientific field. We have the power to make all voices matter, and this is a call to action with important consequences.

Our Brains on Storytelling

You know when you have a conversation with someone and it feels effortless? As if there is a seamless exchange of ideas? Dr. Uri Hasson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University studies that very process, which is the neurological basis of human communication and storytelling. His research using fMRI shows the intriguing phenomena that people listening to the same stories show synced or aligned brain activities. The talk was fantastic, and here is his TED talk you can watch!

Neural Entrainment. (Courtesy: TED)

Personal Stories

It is difficult to summarize the personal stories. The emotional effect of these narratives came so much from the speakers’ candor, personality, and courage to share difficult memories, and it almost feels like an injustice to try and surmise them in words.

Dr. Rachel Yehuda’s story was a gripping tale about the struggle to find the scientific truth about stress, trauma, and its biological underpinnings while walking the fine line of reducing people’s traumatic experiences to their science alone. To hear her story, check out this Story Collider episode.

Dr. Jean Mary Zarate, a Senior Editor at Nature Neuroscience, really pulled at my heartstrings with her deeply personal narrative. She spoke about the battle between following your dreams as a musician while pursuing her career in the sciences. Zarate’s story is many of our stories, and I saw my own fears, concerns, lows, and highs in her. As an Indian Ph.D. student who loves storytelling and has a passion for writing, I too had to find a way to create a synthesis of those two worlds. Zarate spoke with understated passion, and I am ever grateful to her for recollecting this struggle.

Dr. Wendy Suzuki ended the event by telling us a shatteringly beautiful story about her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, her struggle to help while being a memory researcher, and the unending power of love.

Overall, the nanosymposium was an unmissable experience and an emotional rollercoaster that reminded me of the very humanness of the scientific practice. For those of you interested in more, here is a paper published by Journal of Neuroscience on storytelling and science with the speakers!

Prabarna Ganguly
PhD candidate
Northeastern University

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