This week on #meetascientist, scientist, conservationist, and artist Kika Tuff shares her work at the intersection of science, art, and outreach. She's managed to escape being pigeonholed, seamlessly bridging the worlds of science and art. She now runs a science communication agency called Impact Media Lab after finishing graduate school. We're thrilled to share her insights with you all!
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research today focus on?
I didn’t use the term “scientist” until graduate school. I grew up thinking that to be a “scientist” you had to conduct experiments, wear a lab coat, work indoors in a laboratory. Instead, I used “herpetologist,” since I always preferred to be bashing around in the bush catching frogs and snakes. I was a self-proclaimed herpetologist starting around age 11, when a zookeeper introduced me to the term.
But during graduate school, I learned about the activity where kids are asked to draw a picture of a scientist, and they almost unanimously draw white men with crazy hair and lab coats. Now I tell people I’m a scientist as often as possible.
I don’t actually do research anymore, but my PhD was in thermal ecology. Since graduating in 2016, I have been running a science communication agency called Impact Media Lab, that helps scientists develop innovative outreach campaigns to share their work.
Your vibrant website highlights that you're not just a scientist, you're an artist. So when did you first identify as an artist? How do you see your art playing into your work as a scientist?
I have always loved creating art. I took coloring seriously as a kid, and drew the cover for my elementary school yearbook a couple of times. I took art classes all throughout high school school and into college, dabbling in all sorts of media—ceramics, painting, graphic design, and, my truest love, photography. Photography has always been a part of my plan for a science career, but I had no idea that the scientific community would be so receptive to art/science collaborations. I have been absolutely amazed at how easy it is to merge the two!
With Impact Media Lab, I create art, based on science, almost every day. We make films, build apps, design websites and interactives that engage the public with the science. We have built some really beautiful work (check out our newest film, above) but we’re just getting started. Please reach out to me if you’re interested in collaborating on a project about your work.
What advice do you have about communicating science, while balancing getting your Ph.D.?
The thing that worked for me, in terms of practicing my communication and developing an expertise during my PhD, was to weave science communication into my existing obligations as much as possible. When I TAed courses, I did all sorts of weird SciComm activities with my students. When I was in an RA position, I used my extra time to develop workshops for the department, like the UpGoer 5 Challenge, Design for Scientists, and Developing An Elevator Pitch (which we ran like speed dating). I practiced on other grad students and learned lots from hosting workshops and studying what did and did not work for others.
During grad school, you are surrounded by young scientists with time, energy, and enthusiasm. Take advantage of that to practice any new skills you are interested in, including science communication. It is true that you will never have the kind of control over and flexibility with your time than you have during graduate school, so use it to cultivate any skills you’re excited about. You never know what may change the course of your career (500 Women Scientists is a perfect example of that!).
How did you get involved with 500 Women Scientists? What do you hope to contribute and get out of the organization?
I remember the day the 500 Women Scientists' pledge arrived in my inbox, sent by one of the original members Sarah Wagner. I was so thrilled at the idea of a cohesive community of women scientists—it was both perfect timing and long overdue. I signed the pledge, joined the Facebook group, and have delighted in watching the organization grow and expand ever since. I attended my first meeting at ESA 2017, and it was such an amazing experience.
I enjoy being a member, reading the Facebook posts and pitching in on the weekly actions when I can. There are times in life when I have a great abundance of time and energy to give to organizations. However, I just had a kid and started a business, so this isn’t exactly one of them, haha. So for now, I am just excited to cheerlead the founders and help out in small ways when I can. I get a lot out of just being a part of the 500 Women Scientists community—reading, sharing, rejoicing in all of the awesome activities that members are involved in. There are so many exceptional women in this group that I am constantly inspired, even as a more passive member.
And in a few years, when life calms down a bit, I would love to spearhead a film or conduct some branding exercises or develop a fun outreach campaign to help spread the word about this great group of people.
You clearly have a lot of interests outside of science. What are some of your favorite ways to unwind?
I have proven to be a bit of a collector of weird hobbies. My two favorites at the moment are djing electronic music and building really elaborate frog tanks. They seem unrelated at first glance, but both activities are very hands-on and mathematical while still being creative and exciting. I started djing in graduate school, following about 15 years of fantasizing about it. And it's more fun than I even imagined…and desperately needs more women!
And as for the frog tanks, I am basically trying to build a fully functioning rainforest in a box. The temperature, moisture, light, and humidity have to be just right so that the air stays fresh, and the soil isn’t too soggy, and the light cycles simulate seasons so that the frogs will breed. Building a tank is challenging and exciting and really just good clean fun. And if you mess it up, it just means you get to get another tank and try again, so mistakes are highly encouraged.
And both of these hobbies are things I have dreamed of since I was a little kid. So there, it’s never too late to pursue what you love! And my only regrets are that I didn’t have the courage to do them sooner. No better time than today to cultivate a new passion.
Kika Tuff is a scientist, a conservationist, and an educator. She is the founder of Impact Media Lab. She is an award-winning nature photographer, a filmmaker, an electronic music dj, and a global citizen. She received her doctoral degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder, under the guidance of Dr. Kendi Davies. Her research explored the curious and often surprising responses of wildlife to forest loss and fragmentation, to better understand biodiversity conservation in a rapidly changing world. Learn more on her personal website.