Celebrating Scientists' Challenges, Triumphs and Identities

October 12, 2022

Science often evokes images of white lab coats, test tubes, and computer programs, all confined within imposing laboratories and classrooms. But the outside world does, and should, make its way in. People’s lived experiences are unique, comprised of the many moments where actions and identity combine to make meaning of the world we live in. The lived experience influences the way in which people think about science questions and conduct research, as well as the ways both individuals and communities interact with scientific results and knowledge. From environmental issues to public health to personal data tracking, these experiences can help generate new questions, redefine prior scientific narratives, and highlight inequitable systems. This semester, the Center for Science and Society will focus on lived experiences in science, showcasing stories from grant awardees and program participants. 

Scientists can take different journeys through their careers. Some might work in academia and do research their entire professional lives, while others might start out working in unrelated fields, or move in and out of positions at private companies like the Center’s new postdoc Hadeel Assali. Others find ways to combine science with their other skills and interests like science journalist Latif Nasser.

Leslie Sibener, Ashlea Morgan, Michelle Stackmann, and Giulia Zanni recognized this diversity within scientists, not just in career paths but in personal backgrounds as well, and sought to celebrate it. Together, they founded Scientist on the Subway (a 2021 CSS Public Outreach Grant awardee), a website showcasing the lives of scientists inside and outside of the university setting, highlighting their challenges, triumphs, and multifaceted identities. The founders are joined by 20 volunteer writers, all current Columbia students or postdocs. Through training workshops and review cycles, Scientist on the Subway (SciSub) has helped these writers, who are all scientists themselves, hone their science communication abilities with accessibility in mind. 

Scientist on the subway logo

SciSub was founded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country. Psychiatry postdoc Zanni and neurobiology and behavior PhD candidates Siberner, Morgan, and Stackmann, began informally discussing ways to make science more accessible. “We didn’t have yet an idea of the mission being a blog, but we knew what we wanted to raise awareness on and what type of scientific outreach we wanted to make,” said Zanni, who was working in the same lab as Morgan. After alternating between a few ideas, Scientist on the Subway was born. “We wanted to capture the idea that being a scientist is not just a direct path you need to take … and we’re all based in New York so we thought something related to the subway would be appropriate,” said Stackmann, describing their process. The website officially launched in September of 2020 with its first three stories. Many of the blog’s early features were understandably centered around resilience, given their publication during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Ashlea Morgan, Leslie Sibener, Michelle Stackmann, and Giulia Zanni

There are two main themes in SciSub’s profiles. The first is to feature scientists from all walks of life and points in their career. By spotlighting people in underrepresented groups in science and those who took unconventional career paths, SciSub aims to inspire a broad swath of readers to become interested in the field.. As Stackmann explains, “You don’t have to be a professor to be a scientist. You can be a scientist as an undergrad, as a high schooler, as a kid if you’re observing things, looking at things in a scientific way.” The second emphasis for SciSub’s features is on failures. A large part of the life of a scientist is working on experiments, hypotheses, or research methods that have unanticipated results, or often simply fail.. SciSub’s writers make sure to focus on early trajectories in scientists’ careers along with their path to success, specifically spotlighting the failures it took to get them there. While these stories are often omitted in the narratives we tell about scientific discoveries, sharing these personal experiences serve an important purpose in distilling the truth of the career path of a scientist, and in encouraging readers to persevere in the face of their own failures and setbacks.

With these themes in mind, SciSub strives to inspire young readers to pursue science by dismantling the myths and stereotypes of being a scientist. With every feature, they also try to include resources and advice for students in underrepresented groups in science. Many of the stories link to university websites, grants, and other sources from which the students can access additional information if they are interested in learning more. Zanni noted, “We wanted to give, in our interviews, a full spectrum of tools and trajectories and inspiration that students can see themselves and say ‘I could apply for this’ and ‘that fits my social status’ so they don’t feel isolated. They have actual tools they can use to move their trajectory where they want to, if they want to.”

Aspiring to appeal to younger readers, SciSub collaborated with BioBus, a science outreach organization (and 2020 CSS Public Outreach Grant recipient), to create educational materials based on the website. Sibener and one of SciSub’s writers, Ben Silver, led a BioBus program for middle and high school students to practice their science communication skills by interviewing each other about their life experiences and career goals.

Effective science communication is an important part of SciSub’s mission. From middle schoolers to industry professionals, this blog hopes to share informal and informative stories about scientists’ lived experiences to inspire science careers and break down myths about the “right” pathway to a career in science. In the years ahead, SciSub hopes to expand its roster of writers as well as create a new podcast version of the blog. If you are interested in becoming a writer, contact [email protected] and if you have a scientist you would like to nominate to be featured on SciSub, fill out their form. Learn more about SciSub and other Public Outreach projects in our newest video!