Around the Pier: A Story about Science

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Kathryn Furby wants to tell you her story.

Her story begins at a personal scale, expands to a global scale, and hits upon universal human experiences along the way. Furby, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego doctoral student in marine biology, was one of three student speakers selected for TEDxUCSD. The May 11 conference at Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall was a San Diego edition of TEDx, a national program that brings together leading creative thinkers to share ideas that matter. And Furby’s idea matters to all of us.

Furby’s TEDx idea is that we need to put the humanity back into science. We are all naturally curious about the world around us, Furby argues, but that innate scientific curiosity is drained from us when we are told that science is hard, or we are not smart enough, or we have to get an ‘A’ in junior high algebra or we’ll never be a scientist (for the record: not true!). Instead, Furby believes that if science education could just be a little more like storytelling, more people would hold on to their natural curiosity. And if more people liked science and believed they could be scientists, just imagine the wealth of innovation and rate of scientific advancement that society could enjoy.

Furby leads by example as she tells her own personal story of deciding to become a scientist. As a small child, she was allowed to stay up late on special occasions to stargaze through a backyard telescope with her mom. When she asked why her mom, who clearly loved astronomy, never became a scientist, her simple explanation was, “I didn’t feel smart enough.” Furby also loved art, and science seemed hard, so she initially followed a path toward becoming an artist. But then, after seeing the beauty of the ocean and enjoying the satisfaction of scientific inquiry, she decided that through marine science she could find a way to satisfy both her curiosity and her creative instincts.

Today, Furby is a Ph.D. student at Scripps Oceanography. She studies some of the most remote coral reefs on the planet, examining how climate change impacts these beautiful, important, and fragile ecosystems. Her work is exciting, adventurous, challenging, and rewarding, and when she explains it to people she tends toward tales of discovery rather than dry graphs and lists of numbers. She turned to TEDx to share her idea about bringing humanity back into science because, as she says, “TED lets you have your own style and share your story. Traditionally, there’s no room for style in science.”

To illustrate that point, Furby tells an anecdote of presenting her research at a scientific meeting and receiving negative comments not for the quality of her work but for the way her titles were punctuated. Scientists are so used to seeing boring figures, data, and PowerPoint slides that most of them can’t see past any hint of personality injected into research, Furby said. But for the rest of us, it’s that personal story that captures our attention and makes us care.

This is exactly the kind of scientist that we need, says Furby’s doctoral advisor, Stuart Sandin. “Science is universal,” Sandin says, “but our regimented endpoint is less accessible.”

The U.S. may be a global leader in scientific research and innovation, but we are falling farther behind in public understanding of, and interest in, science, he added.

“We need to address that disconnect. We need to find a new way in. People love stories and characters, and [what Furby is doing] is an inspiration to fellow students and faculty here at Scripps,” Sandin said.

At the same time that she is working to protect coral reefs, Furby is working to change the pervasive attitude that science is out of reach, or boring, or only for the smartest kids in the class because, she says, ocean conservation is critical for all, but it will only happen if people care about science. And more people will care about science if they have personal connection to it, which Furby is providing through her storytelling.

Video of Furby’s TEDxUCSD talk, plus other TEDx talks, is expected to be online later this month.

 Jill Harris is a fourth-year graduate student in the laboratory of marine biologist Jennifer Smith (who loves listening to stories about science).

Related Image Gallery: A Story About Science

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