500 Women Scientists is thrilled to partner with Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) on our newly launched, pod-wide Science Salons for Puerto Rico campaign. CienciaPR is a nonprofit organization dedicated to using social networks to improve public understanding of science, transform K-12 science education, and support the career development of young scientists. In honor of the campaign, we'll be featuring CienciaPR's leadership team, all of whom are women scientists themselves.
This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know CienciaPR's Director of Communications and Science Outreach, Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer. Mónica started her career as a neuroscientist, leaving the bench for an established career in science communication and outreach. She is also Associate Director of Diversity and Communication Training for iBiology. You can find her communicating science and advocating for her fellow Puerto Ricans on Twitter at @moefeliu. We highly recommend reading her most recent op-ed for Scientific American "Rebuilding Science Education in Puerto Rico."
When did you first identify as a scientist? What did your research center on?
That is a great question. I have never actually thought about this before. I think I probably first identified as a scientist early in graduate school. As an undergraduate I knew I was training to be a scientist, but I never saw myself as one. Which is funny to think about because now I tell undergraduates that I mentor that they are scientists!
I am a neurobiologist by training. As an undergraduate my research was focused on understanding how addiction to cocaine was developed. As a postbac (a research technician, really) I did learning and memory research and as a graduate student I was looking at how the communication between neurons is regulated by proteins.
Today, your work centers on science communication and outreach. How did you make that career transition? What advice do you have for scientists who are compelled to leave the bench for a career like yours?
I stumbled upon science communication. When I moved from Puerto Rico to Boston, I developed a strong interest in giving back to my community. I wanted to somehow use the training and knowledge I was getting to contribute to science in Puerto Rico. I didn’t know what that would look like or how I would do it, but the desire was there. During graduate school interviews, I met Daniel Colón-Ramos, who at the time was a postdoc at Stanford and is now a professor at Yale. He told me about an organization he had just founded: Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR). One of the main goals of CienciaPR was to connect Puerto Ricans scientists around the world to contribute to the advancement of science back home. Immediately, it clicked. This was the opportunity I had been looking for.
The first project I was assigned to was a collaboration between the organization and El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, which gives members of the CienciaPR community the opportunity to publish popular science articles in mass media outlets. I started writing and editing articles. After a while — about halfway though graduate school — I realized how much I loved telling stories about science and helping others do the same. At that point, I didn’t really know that science communication could be a career, but I decided that is what I wanted to do for a living. So I took as many science communication courses and found as many mentors as I could. I started to learn about other ways to communicate science beyond writing.
Based on my experience, my suggestions to people who are interested in transitioning from the bench into science communication:
- Volunteer. It is a great way to gain relevant communication’s skills and experience, as well as to expand your scicomm network.
- Take any courses or workshops you can find, not just in science communication, but in storytelling, public speaking, and performance (I particularly love improv).
- Use social media to connect with other people who are interested in scicomm. Science communicators are particularly active on Twitter.
- Look into opportunities like ComSciCon, the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, and the Friends of Joe’s Big Idea community.
On that note, 500 Women Scientists is thrilled to partner with CienciaPR on our Science Salons for Puerto Rico Campaign. Can you talk about your role there and what are your goals moving forward?
I was a volunteer for 9 1/2 years and became the organization’s second employee 3 years ago. I feel very fortunate to have been there almost since the beginning because if afforded me incredible opportunities to be creative. Pretty much any idea for a science communication project that I had, I was able to develop and execute. That allowed me to develop my skills as a communicator and a manager. I have been able to contribute to the evolution of the organization and at the same time evolve with it as a person and a professional. CienciaPR truly changed my life, because it helped me find my passion. It also allows me to serve Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican science, which is incredibly important to me.
We are embarking on a 10-year plan of transforming science education in Puerto Rico. My goal in the next couple of years are to keep growing the organization, making sure that it is sustainable so that we can maximize our impact to achieve our bold new vision. I also want to continue using my expertise in science communication to help our science education efforts.
You've been using your social media platform and communication skills to continue reminding the community of the ongoing crisis (I'm not sure if my word choice is correct, so if there's a word you prefer here, feel free to swap it in) in Puerto Rico. As scientists, what are some concrete actions we can take to help in the relief efforts?
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, I decided that I would use my communications knowledge and platforms to raise awareness about what is happening. Given the crazy news cycles we have these days, keeping Puerto Rico in people’s minds is going to be key to get people there the help they need. Recovery is going to be a long and hard process. Here are a few things people can do:
- Pay attention. Don’t forget about Puerto Rico. I recommend following Arelis Hernández (journalist with the Washington Post), Julio Ricardo Varela (journalist with the Futuro Media Group), Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism), Latino USA, and David Begnaud (journalist with CBS). They have been doing a remarkable job reporting on Puerto Rico’s situation after the hurricanes. For example, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo did the investigative reporting that has led to multiple other reports (by the New York Times and many others) about the death count after Hurricane Maria.
- Support non-profits focused on long-term recovery. In addition to supporting CienciaPR’s efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico through science education, I recommend supporting the Center for a New Economy, ConPRmetidos, and CenadoresPR.
- Whatever space you occupy, you can become an advocate and ally for Puerto Rico. Following Hurricane Maria, CienciaPR received more than 200 offers of aid. We have seen institutions thousands of miles away open their doors to scientists from Puerto Rico. After Maria, for the first time in my life, I became politically active, calling Congress to advocate for Puerto Rico (I wrote about my experience here). I have been following a group called 100 Days for Puerto Rico, which regularly shares simple actions people can take for Puerto Rico.
There's certainly a lot going on in the world to keep you occupied, so what do you do to relax and unwind?
Ha! Self-care is actually super important to me. I have learned that in order to be productive and accomplish my goals, taking time to breath and unwind is critical. But it is something I have to actively remind myself to do. I workout about 3 times a week. I live and die by my calendar, so I make sure my workouts are on it. During the hour or so that I am at the gym I focus on the moment. I try to avoid thinking about anything but the moves that I am making. I love walking and hiking with my husband and dogs. We live in the Bay Area, so there are lots of great outdoors and parks to do that.
Dr. Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer grew up in rural Puerto Rico, surrounded by nature and with a cow in her backyard, which sparked her interest in all things biology. A scientist-turned-communicator, she uses cultural relevance and storytelling to make science accessible to individuals from underrepresented communities, particularly Latinxs. She also uses online and community-building strategies to engage members of the scientific community in communication, outreach, mentoring and professional development initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion in science. She is the Director of Communications and Science Outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) and the Associate Director of Diversity and Communication Training for iBiology. You can reach her via email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter @moefeliu.