Connecting science back to humanity

This week on #MeetAScientist, we're thrilled to have Philadelphia pod member Dr. JoEllen McBride. An astrophysicist by training, Jo is committed to bringing science to everyone as a professional science communicator. Thank you for sharing your story and your work!

When did you first identify as a scientist? Can you talk a bit about your work in astronomy, and what are you up to now?

My first memory as a scientist happened at the age of 5. I was playing in my sandbox in Stephenville TX while my mom and brother watched. Out of nowhere I had a burning question. So I turned to my mother and asked "Mom, what's on the other side of zero?" She said "Negative numbers." I said "Oh ok." and went back to playing. But, like all children, I questioned everything and broke stuff to figure out what was going on inside. I first fell in love with astronomy though when I was about 7 or 8. My mother rented Carl Sagan's COSMOS series from the library and I was just hooked on it. Astronomy seemed inter-weaved in everything: history, philosophy, linguistics, biology, chemistry, physics, religious practices and society in general. I thought studying the stars and galaxies was a way to bring me closer to humanity.

 "Andromeda galaxy, our neighbor. It's just SO beautiful."

"Andromeda galaxy, our neighbor. It's just SO beautiful."

My work in astronomy involved studying galaxies, which are huge groupings of stars and gas. We live in a galaxy called the Milky Way, which is living close to some other similar looking galaxies named Andromeda and Triangulum. I always wondered what would happen to the Milky Way and its neighbors as the galaxies got closer and closer together. Right now, all three of us are creating new stars and happily living out our lives. But if you look at galaxies that have lots of neighbors you see that many of the galaxies aren't making stars anymore. So I looked at other groups of galaxies to see if they are still making stars. 

Right now I teach part-time at West Chester University and run a new consulting business. My passion lies with science communication and I see a huge disconnect between scientists and, well, everyone else. So I help researchers promote their work to everyone, not just their colleagues. 

You've got quite a good deal of science communication experience on your own and as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow. How did you find your way into this space and what is the best piece of advice you've gotten engaging with new audiences?

I found my way into science communication as a way of dealing with the failure of my first dissertation project. I knew I loved science and I was good at it, but I saw my career as an astronomer going nowhere. Explaining science to everyone is just connecting science back to humanity — the reason I fell in love with astronomy in the first place. The best piece of advice given to me, so far, is if you don't grab them in the first five words, you've lost them. It's what I aim for in all my science communication.

 JoEllen with the failed instrument she tried to install on the SOAR telescope in Chile.

JoEllen with the failed instrument she tried to install on the SOAR telescope in Chile.

You've also made trips to the Hill to lobby for graduate students. What issues are you most concerned about in graduate education?

I'm concerned about everything in graduate education. To me, the system is horrid. It takes the most passionate, hard working and intelligent people and makes them question their intellect and abilities at every step. I am most concerned about the "I went through it so you have to as well" attitude and the lack of support both financially and emotionally for graduate students. It needs to change.

I lobbied on Capitol Hill for increases in federal research funding, methods to help students deal with their education debt and visas to help international students have a fulfilling graduate experience. Harassment in a huge issue in graduate education in all fields. Discrimination as well. There are so many things that keep graduate students from performing their science to the best of their abilities and these things also end up pushing brilliant students away from the fields they once loved. 

How did you get involved with 500 Women Scientists? What are you most hoping to get out of joining the community?

A good friend of mine forwarded me the petition and I signed it. Later, I looked up my local group and found the Philly pod. Their goals aligned with mine so I quickly joined. We all have the goal of bringing science to everyone. To make people trust scientists. That's what I hope to get out of joining this community. 

 "Me with my 8 week old looking like a mom."

"Me with my 8 week old looking like a mom."

How do you unwind when you're away from you're not stargazing or communicating science?

I watch TV, mostly comic book based TV series and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I also like to watch science-y YouTube channels like Veritasium or Vsauce. Watching movies and scrolling through Facebook and Twitter are also part of my evening down time. 

Jo is paid to be a part-time adjunct faculty member of the Physics Department at West Chester University and a science communication consultant for academics looking to promote their work to the public. She earned her Phd in Physics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016 and was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Voice of America last summer. She has two daughters, Carina and Alessa, and two cats, Thelma and Louise, who she is raising to fight the patriarchy and be social justice warriors. Her partner, Ed, helps too. Jo also volunteers her time writing about science for the Scizzle (www.myscizzle.com) and editing student work for the Pippettepen (www.thepipettepen.com). Her writing and other information can be found on her website www.astropunkin.com