Understanding Our Curiosity

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Reyhaneh Maktoufi, a science communication researcher getting her PhD at Northwestern University and a producer for the science-inspired storytelling show the Story Collider. In this interview, she chats about her path to science communication. She also shares her latest science-art endeavor, which features insights from women sharing their approaches to weaving empathy and inclusion into their science communication efforts. You can follow her online at @TheCosmicRey.

How did you find your way to science communication?

When I was in high school, I was an amateur astronomer. I’d wear my hand-made, weird-looking NASA pin in Tehran, go to a park or our school with my binoculars, and talk to people about astronomy. I loved learning about science, but the joy I’d get from telling stories about science was something different. Between high school and my PhD, I studied physiotherapy and then health psychology and focused more on health communication. I’d wear a cancer awareness pin, go to public places with brochures, and talk to people about cancer screening!

After working with different nonprofits developing advocacy campaigns, teaching experts how to become better communicators for a few years, I started a PhD at Northwestern in Media, Technology, and Society. There I got the opportunity to do an internship for the Adler Planetarium, where I started to expand my health communication knowledge to my original love, astronomy and physics. Now I focus more on general principles of science communication in different fields.

What does your research on communication center on?

Ah, curious about my research? I focus on curiosity! (budum, tss!) I study what planetarium visitors are curious about, what encourages them to ask more questions, and how we can elicit more curiosity. I’m also running a study to see if stories told by a person who self-discloses as a climate scientist can make their audiences more curious. I want to see if that curiosity would lead an audience to trust the scientist more, as well as perceive the risks of climate change as more plausible. My previous research was mostly about how scientists use pop culture references and science fiction to build a mutual ground with their audience.

Before your PhD, you worked in Tehran, Iran as a health communication facilitator. How did that experience of on-the-ground communication inform your work today?

It’s all about empathy! I worked for a while in a hospice and for a nonprofit in cancer advocacy. I remember one of my patients in the hospice just wanted to tell someone that she is scared of death, and that she doesn’t want to try to be happy. And it was hard to do so when the family constantly is trying to tell her that she is not going to die, and that she should try to find ways to be happy. Empathy is about listening, understanding, and not constantly offering solutions. As scientists, it’s hard for us to just listen. We don’t get trained to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and most importantly, to not immediately focus on offering solutions. While the story of my patient might be a very intense example, it really made me realize what most of us truly want: to be given space, to be heard and seen. This is one of the reasons I study curiosity. I think being curious and asking questions helps us listen and learn from one another. So curiosity can ultimately make us more empathetic.

You also do quite a bit of communication through sci-art (or the intersection of science and art). You’ve got a project underway now featuring advice from women in science communication based on empathy and inclusion. Can you talk a bit about what inspired the project?

It all started when I attended a talk by Dr. Dominique Brossard about fake news and why people share fake news. Now, I’m a doodler, I usually can’t stop sketching when someone is giving a talk or teaching. The way Dominique talked about her research was so easy to understand and to follow that I could easily turn her words into sketches. I had an urge to share her words with others. I know many people like me are visual learners, so I went home, made a small simple comic about why people share comics, and posted it on my Instagram and blog. Some people seemed to enjoy it!

Learning about science communication from women I respected, like Dr. Katharine Hayhoe and Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer made me also realize different approaches they had as opposed to famous communicators like Bill Nye. While people like Bill Nye, who are role models to many young scientists, base they communication on anger, condescension, and rudeness, other women I knew were talking about empathy, understanding others, building mutual grounds, and understanding how our privileges affects our science communication. So I decided to start a project where I can share with more people their words.

What’s been the biggest take away from the project?

To be inclusive when talking about inclusivity. The main theme of the comics is empathy and inclusivity in science communication. When I was talking to NPR’s Madeleine Sofia (she’s a great mentor) about the comic, she reminded me of the importance of inclusivity in my own project. This was a good reminder for me to be more aware of who I’m representing in the comic series and who I’m missing out. I still have a long way to go through.

When you’e not working on your PhD or engaged in science communication efforts of your own, how do you relax and unwind?

Apart from staring at the wall and making up soap opera stories in my head, one of my favorite things is practicing samurai swordsmanship (Mugai Ryu style) at the Japanese culture center. While it just makes me feel badass, it’s a great way to meditate and build a community outside of school and academia!


Reyhaneh Maktoufi is a Ph.D. candidate in Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University. Her main fields of interest are science communication, curiosity, and public engagement with scientists. She works at the Nonprofit Network and Social Impact Lab where she researches nonprofit mergers and attitudes toward nonprofit-corporation partnerships. She is also a visiting researcher at the Adler Planetarium, where she studies science communication and facilitates workshops on communication skills and a producer at The Story Collider.

Before starting a Ph.D., Rey has been working as a health communication facilitator and cancer preventive/palliative care campaign manager in Tehran, Iran. Rey currently enjoys working with different nonprofits such as the Communicating Science Conference (ComSciCon). She also engages in science outreach through writing blog-posts and making science comics.