If there is one segment of society that is often misunderstood, it is people who work in science fields. Public perception of scientists tends to lean towards lab coats, crazy hair, and beakers full of chemicals, especially in the eyes of children. In reality, most scientists are just regular people who want to make the world a better place through scientific discovery. The best way to dispel the myth that scientists are boring or crazy is to get to know them; the purpose of this segment is to talk with real scientists to ask them what they love about their jobs and why they think their work is fun and important.
This week we will be featuring our Portal to the Public Science Communication fellows, Theresa Dankovich and Dorothy Borowy. The Portal to the Public program at Phipps seeks to bring scientists and public audiences together in face-to-face public interactions that promote appreciation and understanding of current scientific research and its application. As part of our Portal to the Public programming, Phipps will be holding it’s first “Ask a Scientist” public program this May where visitors can engage with our science communication fellows and learn all about their research and occupations and even see the very instruments and equipment utilized everyday by scientists. And, to kick off our “Ask a Scientist” event, which will take place Saturday, May 2nd from 11:00am until 4:00pm in the Tropical Forest Palm Circle, we want to introduce to you our scientists!
Science Communication Fellow, Theresa Dankovich
Introduce yourself in 5 sentences or less: I’m a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Environmental Engineering. I invented a new filter paper for killing bacteria in dirty water in developing countries. These filter papers are in “The Drinkable Book” — a manual for the how and why for clean drinking water. The Drinkable Book is a transformative tool for water purification — education plus technology. I have tested these filters in the lab and in the field in a couple different African countries.
Why did you become a scientist? I became a scientist because I wanted to work on projects that can improve people’s lives. I really enjoy the hands-on experience of learning science. Discovering how the natural world works has always interested me.
What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done at work? The most exciting thing I’ve done at work is to travel to Africa to conduct field studies. In Ghana, we showed people from traditional mud hut villages how to use The Drinkable Book to filter water. Little kids really enjoyed watching the filters in action!
What skills do you use in your job? I use many different skill sets in my job! These include the technical skills, such as experimental design, problem solving, and understanding the scientific material, and non-technical skills, such as communication and organization. The non-technical skills are very useful for sharing the knowledge gained from conducting scientific studies.
What is your favorite part of your job? I enjoy problem solving and working on creative solutions. I also really like how this Drinkable Book project cuts across so many different fields — I’ve worked with everyone from scientists and engineers to social scientists, physicians, designers, business people, and librarians.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be? I would probably be a chef, as I love to cook and to try different types of food.
Why is science education important? Science education is unique from other basic skills, such as reading, writing, mathematics, because of the emphasis on discovery as a means of inquiry. Encouraging curiosity in the natural world is very motivating and engaging for students. Science education is highly important beyond developing the skills of learning through discovery and curiosity. It also creates better informed citizens on numerous important issues from healthcare to energy to climate change.
Science Communication Fellow, Dorothy Borowy
Introduce yourself and your work in 5 sentences or less: My name is Dorothy Borowy and I am a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I study how plants interact with one another and the environment. If you look at a patch of plants growing together, you might assume that it’s just a random assembly of different species, what’s fascinating is that it’s not! Different processes are responsible for determining what species are found in a given location at anytime. I am interested in understanding which processes are important for determining the way different plant species are organized into these local patches and how they change in response to human actions.
Why did you become a scientist? I have always been fascinated with the natural world. As a child, the bookshelf in my bedroom was filled with David Attenborough documentaries, National Geographic magazines and a “precious” rock collection, which I later learned were just oddly shaped pieces of cement I found. Every time I learned something new about the world around me, I felt like I made a new discovery. Luckily my family helped foster this curiosity by always encouraging me to explore and by not freaking out when a clutch of gecko eggs I incubated hatched and escaped into the house! Being a scientist means I am able to always satisfy my “inner child” because the #1 requirement for my job is to explore the natural world and make new discoveries.
What part do plants play in your research? Plants play a major role in my research. Because plants form the living base of most ecosystems, they tell you a lot about the other organisms that rely on them for survival, both directly and indirectly, and ultimately how the entire ecosystem functions. Very few species could survive on Earth without plants; they are responsible for providing food, shelter and even oxygen to a host of bacteria, fungi, insects and animals. However, plants not only influence living organisms and the environment, they are also affected by them. Humans play a large role in determining which plant species are likely to be found in certain habitats and environments. This influence in strongest in cities where many people live and work. As a result, I study plants in urban environments so that I can understand why some species are able to survive and thrive in these harsh conditions and why others cannot. I hope I can use this information to help restore native plant communities in cities, which will benefit many other species, including humans.
What is the most exciting thing you have ever done at work? Being a scientist means I never relive the same day, which is pretty exciting. However, I think my most memorable experience was when I spent a summer monitoring lions on a game reserve in South Africa. We received a call that the two dominant males on the reserve had escaped into a neighboring cattle farm, which is like an all you can eat buffet for lions! We quickly assembled a team and set out to find and return them back into the reserve. Wandering through the bush at night looking for a pair of 400-pound lions was both thrilling and a little nerve-racking. However, the real excitement happened while the game warden and I were transporting one of the sedated males in the back of a pickup truck. Halfway to our destination, I turned around to see our once sleeping lion now sitting up and staring at me through the back window of the vehicle. Nothing makes a car stop faster than telling the driver there is a lion peering through the window six inches behind him. Luckily, we reacted quickly and were able to re-sedate our passenger for the remainder of the trip and safely release him back into the reserve.
What skills do you use in your job? My job has many components and each requires a different set of skills. Depending on the day, I may be conducting research in the field, organizing and analyzing data in the lab or writing. If I am out in the field, I need to be organized and efficient because I often only have a narrow frame of time within which to complete my work. I also need to be adaptable. I realized early in my career that nothing goes exactly as planned, so being able to adjust to a variety of situations is important, which is why I always bring duct tape and an extra pair of socks with me whenever I do field work. Working in the lab requires patience and attention to detail. Organizing and analyzing pages of data is not always the most exciting part of my job, but it is really important. I always need to make sure I am thorough and precise so that my work is represented accurately. Finally, writing requires creativity and clarity because these are the skills that allow me to effectively communicate my thoughts and conclusions to others.
What is your favorite part of your job? Learning something new and sharing that information with others. In college, my botany professor was fanatical about plants and this was reflected in the way he taught every class. I remember thinking that botany must be interesting because there was no possible way anyone could maintain that level of enthusiasm for an entire semester if it wasn’t. Dr. Windler’s energy soon rubbed off and botany quickly became one of my favorite classes. Getting the opportunity to interact with other people and share my passion for the natural world, in the hopes of engaging and inspiring them the way my professor inspired me, is by far the best part of my job.
If you weren’t a scientist, what job would you choose? Wow, that is a really hard question. Clearly I’m not in this for the fame or fortune, so I think actress or stock broker is out or the running. I would probably be a photographer or naturalist-a job that allowed me travel and spend much of my time outdoors.
Why is science education important? Science is the foundation of everything we know about the world around us. It ignites curiosity and imagination in children and has the power to guide decisions and influence policy. But these effects cannot be realized without first communicating and teaching this knowledge to both children and adults.