Interview with a Scientist: Science Communication Fellows James Gardiner and Djuna Gulliver

by Lorren Kezmoh

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, starting with James Gardiner and Djuna Gulliver. 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, James Gardiner

Introduce yourself in 5 sentences or less: My name is James Gardiner and I do research on how energy production affects water quality. I think it’s funny that I became a scientist because I honestly didn’t like my high school science classes. It wasn’t until I went to college and was able to do more hands on research that I became fascinated with the Earth’s chemical and physical processes. For hobbies, I really enjoy listening to music and playing music. I listen to many genres, but here are my favorite artists in no particular order: Lou Reed, The Clash, A Tribe Called Quest, Kaki King, Phoenix, Vampire Weekend, and Tom Petty.

Why did you become a scientist? As an undergraduate, I spent a summer in New Mexico, where all of the colors and layers of the Earth were exposed, making me wonder how and why they formed. I would end up spending the next decade studying geology and groundwater issues and becoming the scientist I am today.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done at work? The most exciting thing I’ve done was taking water samples from streams at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in eastern California. It was definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

What skills do you use in your job? I use my analytical skills (observing and identifying issues) a great deal, but I also use a lot of other skills that you might not expect to be necessary for a scientist. Communication, planning, and creativity play an important role. When we’re planning an experiment, we do it as a team, and it involves a lot of problem solving that can be fun when you’re working together.

What is your favorite part of your job? My favorite part of my job is being able to go out into the field and collect samples. Field work gives you the chance to observe firsthand what you’re studying—for me, it might be a set of water wells in New Mexico or a natural gas field in southwestern Pennsylvania. You learn a lot from this exposure and meeting the people who live and work in the area.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be? I’d probably be a DJ or a music director at a radio station. I worked at a college radio station during college and loved it—I definitely miss having a radio show and would love to do that again!

Why is science education important? The fundamental aspect of science—the scientific method—can be used across all disciplines, even if they’re not considered a science. I’ve used my science background to diagnose car problems and plumbing issues in my house. When coupled with other educational cornerstones, like strong writing and reading skills, science education helps to create a person who can understand and address more complicated problems, like how to build a bridge or how to answer tomorrow’s energy needs.

Science Communication Fellow, Djuna Gulliver

Introduce yourself in 5 sentences or less: My name is Djuna Gulliver, and I am an environmental microbiology and environmental engineer. I look at the DNA of microorganisms that live in rocks, soil, and water. I then figure out what the environment does to these microorganisms, and what these microorganisms do to the environment. The chemistry, physics, and biology of our planet are all intertwined, and are constantly affecting each other. The Earth really is a living, breathing thing.

Why did you become a scientist? As a scientist, I am constantly learning about fascinating phenomena that is on par with even the wildest of imaginations. I learn about microorganisms that build tall thin tentacles that stretch to food sources. There are microorganisms that shield themselves in a cocoon to wait out a catastrophic event. There are even microorganisms that use magnets in their bodies to help navigate the terrain.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done at work? Field work is always something of a treat.  My last field site was on an oil rig set up in the sweeping plains of Kansas. We stayed up until 3 am, prepping and waiting for samples. And then, of course, we all slept until noon.

What skills do you use in your job? Problem solving is used every day.  Often the types of microorganisms that appear are unexpected.  It’s my job to figure out why those microorganisms are there. The ability to work with others is another vital skill. No scientist can be an expert in everything. It’s important to recognize when you need help, and to be able to work with other experts to get the job done.

What is your favorite part of your job? My favorite moment in my job is when I finally see all of the microorganisms of a new sample. It’s something of an unveiling of the environment, and the “ah-ha” moment that we’ve all been working towards.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be? I would open an Aerial Silks Studio. Nothing helps reset the mind like climbing 20 feet in the air and dropping.

Why is science education important? The more we learn about science, the more we can appreciate everything around us. You begin to realize that the Earth is a miraculous thing, and something we should all appreciate and look after. Also, science is fascinating, and can insight curiosity and wonder.

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