Pop culture is often a good starting point for talking about science and research, says researcher Raychelle Burks.

Superheroes help research communicators

Svenska 2018-12-11

As a nerd, one wants to find out everything there is to know in one’s field, such as the science behind zombies, aliens and superheroes. This drive is something that teachers and research communicators should use more, argues Raychelle Burks, a chemistry researcher at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

Raychelle Burks is a chemist, and in her everyday life she develops tests to detect chemicals that can be used in forensic science. Yet she is also deeply committed to research communication; among other things, she makes short YouTube clips for the American Chemical Society.

In one such clip, she explains how to protect oneself from a zombie attack by producing the perfume Eau de Death, which contains the same molecules as the scent of dead bodies. Pop culture (in this case the series The Walking Dead) is often a good starting point for talking about science and research, she says.

“If you start with what someone really likes, it’s easy. It’s a way of reaching out and something that teachers and research communicators should use more.”

According to Raychelle Burks, the most important thing is not that someone is clever or possesses certain subject knowledge, but rather that he or she has an interest – a passion.

Double roles as a scientist and fan

She describes herself as a nerd who likes movies and series. Zombies and aliens are one interest, and series like Star Wars and Star Trek are another. As a scientist, Raychelle Burks discovered that there is a great deal of science in popular culture. She began to think differently about what she saw on the screen.

“I play double roles – as a scientist I see what’s absurd, but as a fan I’m fascinated by the fictional world. That’s what makes it fun to figure out how to explain certain phenomena in a scientific way.”

One example is the Ironman costume – what material would be able to protect the wearer against attacks of various kinds, while simultaneously withstanding extreme heat and remaining light enough for lengthy flights?

“Many people laugh at my reasoning at first, but they listen. They also don’t notice that you’re talking about rather complicated things such as thermodynamics, particle physics and chemistry.”

Tough questions from the fans

Yet what Raychelle Burks offers is much more than a popular science lecture. She often participate in panels at comic cons (trade fairs about comics and series), where she receives many challenging questions from the fans.

“They’re often tougher than the questions I get from my colleagues at scientific conferences. The fans are experts; if you’re talking to 400 people about the chemistry of Harry Potter, you can be sure that everyone has read the books at least once, seen the films and perhaps written some fan fiction. If you say something wrong, you won’t get away with it.”

She admits that it can be fairly nerve-wracking.

“You have to be able to work with hypotheses, to try to explain the seemingly impossible. It becomes like exploring something new.”

The fairs are also truly interdisciplinary, she says. Figuring out how an alien insect works requires a biologist, an entomologist, a physicist and a chemist, among others.

“It’s great fun to sit in a panel with all these creative, intelligent people and engage in cross-subject discussions.”

From fun to serious

Talking about the science behind series such as Games of Thrones is nerdy and fun, but the discussions can also lead to conversations about more serious societal problems such as racism or climate change. According to Raychelle Burks, there are many parallels with reality, even though the characters and stories are fictional.

“For example, I have been in a panel about the superhero Luke Cage, and it was difficult to talk about him without talking about the social dynamics of New York and the United States.”

According to Raychelle Burks, one of the keys to successful research communication is creating context for the research or science being discussed.

“Most people already have a lot of knowledge about other things – they have interests, thoughts and musings. It’s all a matter of finding a context that makes what you tell them interesting and relevant.”

Real-life examples

One example from reality is the contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, which particularly affected the poorer part of the city. Following the revelation that the water had been contaminated with lead for an extended period, it was necessary to communicate a great deal of facts and science. What is lead, why is it dangerous, where does it come from and how do you test water quality? It was also important to discuss the larger picture.

“What happens in society, how could this happen and how could it go on for so long? These are difficult topics to discuss, but it’s made possible by the fact that there’s a connection to people’s lives – it affects them in their daily lives.”

Similarly, the discussion on climate change should revolve around how it affects other factors such as the economy and health, argues Raychelle Burks.

“That’s your stage where you can set up your story with the help of things that people can relate to. Ultimately, it’s all about creating the conditions for making a decision.”

One Lego piece at a time

Many researchers panic when faced with presenting their research in a few minutes in a popular scientific way. Raychelle Burks’ advice is to resist the urge to try to explain everything at once, and instead address one thing at a time. The subject can be something as small as a single word or a concept.

“Think of it as a Lego piece that you can build upon. In the end, your audience can construct a Death Star – if that’s what they want to do. But start with something familiar that falls within your area of expertise.”

Text: Natalie von der Lehr