PROVOCATION: What is science and how do we do it?

I have to start this provocation with acknowledging how exciting it was to see resources supporting the ideas I’ve been working with for years. The AAAS’s “Vision and Change” guide on undergraduate biology education is actually something I’ve read back when I was in undergrad when I was working on a project to rewrite lab curriculum. The research paper “Engaging students in Authentic Microbiology Research…” was also a great read because not only was it a format of paper I felt comfortable reading, it was a great example of the research going on in pedagogy. As we’ve talked about many times in class, it’s really hard to get more senior professors on board with new pedagogical techniques. When it comes to scientists, who KNOW research is constantly reviewing, critiquing, and putting forward new theories, having pedagogical research in a research paper format with statistical analysis they’re used to is really important to push these pedagogical techniques forward in the field.

The most accessible parts of this week’s reading were the Science Forward videos and the Washington Post article, so I assume that’s what most of you engaged in and connected with. One of the moments of these videos that made me cringe was hearing about “numbers sense” and how you can’t do science without math because math is “the language of science.” While math is used frequently in science, it’s typically simple math that you repeat a lot, so once you get used to the calculation, you do it all the time. Obviously statistics are a huge part of research, but as a PhD student, I haven’t ever been required to take a statistics course. Everything in science is about collaboration and asking for help from labs who are more experienced. We do that with statistics as well. We show our data to experienced statisticians and ask for help. Considering so many people place themselves in the box of either “math people” or “creative people,” I think opening with the idea that you need to be good at math to do science was odd to throw into this video about public engagement in science.

Science is constantly changing, and the foundation of science is that there are multiple theories, and we’re always working to support our theories. The public perception can sometimes be that we’re just “changing our minds” all the time, but really, we’re updating our ideas. In any other field, like history for example, as we learn through storytelling or finding old primary sources, we start to realize how marginalized groups have made major contributions that have been erased by the majority who write the textbooks. We have to update history. We also have to update science. My research topic specifically focuses on a protein, called APOL1. This protein protects us against infection by a parasite called the African Trypanosome. The trypanosomes have evolved to outsmart our immune system, with a few species that are able to now infect humans (causing African Sleeping Sickness). Humans evolved back, and there are multiple variants of APOL1 that will protect you against these other species. However, this comes at a cost. These specific variants cause you to be more likely to develop end stage kidney failure. African Trypanosomes live mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, meaning people in Africa/people of African descent are more likely to have this variant that protects against more species of parasite, and therefore have the variant that is associated with kidney disease. This all comes with a huge caveat: that this one small variant in this one protein does NOT mean an individual will absolutely have kidney disease, there are many, MANY, other environmental and genetic factors. However, this science has been manipulated, because it hasn’t been communicated properly, and it’s often the foundation of the argument that “black people are more likely to have kidney disease” that is all over the medical field. It’s critical for scientists to continuously update our language and theories to match the current world we live in, in order to build that trust between scientists and the public, and to prevent these biases from continuing to persist. 

Confirmation bias was described in the Science Forward video as how we accept the information that conforms with our world view. Based on this research paper I read last semester, the authors describe how people tend to form ideas based on what they perceive to fit into their group’s belief system. I think this definition is really important because it outlines the requirement of a diverse team of science communicators who can communicate science to their communities with the cultural competency to ensure that the information is passed along in a way to fit their belief system.


What science do you see in your day to day life? Do you ever think of yourself as “doing” science? Based on the definition from the Science Forward videos of “asking questions and making hypotheses and testing them,” do you “do” science? 

How do we strike a balance of encouraging people to be skeptical of science but also to trust scientists? We always say scientists are “peer reviewing”, but is that accessible to the general public?

My PI (principal investigator aka “boss”) always says “we never confirm a hypothesis, we test it.” How do you feel about the way science is designed to always be changing? Does that impact your ability to trust it? Does that make you trust it more? Do you perceive science to have this ability, or do you see it as stagnant? 


Some of my favorite science communicators on social media that you should follow!

Raven the Science Maven, generally awesome content on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, but, here’s a song about antibodies to the tune of Body by Megan Thee Stallion 

KizzyPhD, one of the amazing scientists behind the mRNA COVID vaccine

Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, an incredible science communicator who frequently posts very thorough explanations of COVID tracking, vaccines, treatments, etc.

Our Collective Fabric

Hi sorry this is massively late, I did not read the instructions carefully enough clearly!

My project for ITP is going to be primarily focusing on science communication and science literacy: how can we make science accessible to all populations? One of the big questions I have had since COVID-19 hit was “how are people denying the science? How is this becoming political? How are people I thought were so smart not following the experts?” I think I found part of the answer during my literature review. When people hear new information, they accept or deny it based on how they perceive it to fit into their belief system and their community’s belief system. It doesn’t matter how “well educated” someone is, because it’s not about intelligence at all, it’s about fitting into your community. The only way to effectively communicate science is to have a diverse team of science communicators and to encourage people to look at data/ideas from different perspectives, and use that to confront their own perspectives.

The Collective Fabric is a project I have been working on for about 7 months. I spoke at a symposium last Saturday at the Civic Art Lab to explain the progress. Essentially, we’ve completed a prototype within my research lab, where we created take-home kits containing agar plates (which grow bacteria), cotton swabs, and instructions on how to plate their microbiome (the community of colonizers living on your skin, in your mouth, in your gut). We also asked them to answer questions of stillness in response to their life changes since the pandemic: what is something that has surprised you? What is something that has challenged you? What is something you miss? From here, we took the images of the grown bacterial plates and generated digital collective fabrics, using the answers to this questions as the thread to pull the plates together. There are three members of my team, one undergraduate Hunter student from Queens, and a African-born Dutch artist who works in residence in my lab. Each of us constructed our own fabric, touching on concepts of the essential role that diversity plays in our microbiomes and in our society, how data is biased by the person interpreting, and how discussing how people answer questions differently gives space for us to confront our own perspectives and question oru belief systems.

This project hits a lot of the goals I have grown to have throughout ITP. For my project, I would like to turn the Collective Fabric into an educational opportunity, focusing on young children (possible within Hunter College’s early education schools). I think the process of streaking bacterial plates helps people become comfortable with scientific concepts in their everyday life, building trust in scientists, and the process of discussion allows them to get comfortable talking about our differences and celebrating them, understanding how we’ve been affected differently, and systems in place that causes those differences. I have to do more work to decide exactly which concepts would be best for different age groups, and then decide which group would be best to focus on. Overall, I think I have a base prototype that I could adapt to a digital humanity project, creating a website to document these fabrics, answers to these questions, and watching bacterial growth.