Journalist in Residence
Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics
Jennifer Ouellette is a nationally recognized science writer and the author of four popular science books: Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self (2014); The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (2010); The Physics of the Buffyverse (2007); and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics (2006), all published by Penguin. She also edited The Best Online Science Writing 2012 (Scientific American Books/FSG). She is currently working on a book about phase transitions and criticality.
She is former science editor of Gizmodo, a popular technology/science daily news blog that garners over 35 million page views per month. Her freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Book Review, Discover, Slate, Salon, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, Pacific Standard, Alta, Nature, Physics Today, Physics World, and New Scientist, among other venues. Her 1997 article on concert hall acoustics for The Industrial Physicist magazine won a science writing award from the Acoustical Society of America. Ouellette maintains a blog called Cocktail Party Physics (hosted by Scientific American from 2011 to 2015) -- and has also written for Discovery News (2008-2012), NOVA’s Nature of Reality blog, and Nautilus’ Facts So Romantic blog. She is a regular contributor to Quanta, an editorially independent online publication of the Simons Foundation.
From October 2012 to June 2015, Ouellette served as a co-host for Virtually Speaking Science, a weekly conversation with a prominent scientist or science writer hosted by the Exploratorium in Second Life and aired as a podcast by Blog Talk Radio. She makes frequent public appearances, including stints on National Public Radio, and an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in February 2011. As a bonus, she won one of the show’s coveted “Golden Harmonicas.” She was the founding director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a Los Angeles-based initiative of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at fostering creative collaborations between scientists and entertainment industry professionals in Hollywood. She holds a black belt in jujitsu, and lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband, Caltech physicist Sean (M.) Carroll, and two cats.
As a science writer, I'm accustomed to approaching the challenge of effective communication of physics from the perspective of reaching the general public - a target audience often reluctant to hear or read anything about a scary topic like physics. At the KITP, I had the opposite experience: reaching out to a target audience that is highly specialized and a wee bit suspicious of attempts at "popularization." Good communication is a universal asset, however, regardless of the technical level one is attempting to convey; the same skill set applies across the board.
For my tenure as Journalist in Residence, I devised a series of 10 weekly workshops, each focusing on a different aspect of science communication. I tried to include an interactive element whenever possible, because I firmly believe that good communication skills are developed through practice, not by passively listening to someone give PowerPoint lectures. That said, the first few workshops did employ the traditional PowerPoint approach, with only minor audience participation required at the tail end of things. I thought it best to start with a format most folks would find familiar.
Once everyone started getting a bit more comfortable with the workshops, I was able to take a few risks and move away from the comfy PowerPoint format a bit. Three of those sessions worked out spectacularly well; I'm sure it's just coincidence that I didn't run any of those myself. One highlight was "Inside the Actor's Studio," featuring UCSB actress/PhD candidate Ottiliana Rolandsson, who ran everyone through some basic drama exercises with an eye towards improving their presentation skills. Another was the workshop conducting mock TV interviews with journalist Jerry Roberts, featuring KITP's own Joe Polchinski and The Physics of NASCAR author Diandra Leslie-Pelecky.
Another highlight: in March, UCLA physicist David Saltzberg (technical consultant for The Big Bang Theory ) and TV writer David Grae (Without a Trace, Gilmore Girls, Joan of Arcadia) entertained a packed room with their insights into the interactions between scientists and Hollywood. After some lively discussion about the portrayal of physics (and physicists) in film and TV, Grae turned the tables and created his own "writer's room," wherein participants tried to create their own ideal science-centric TV series. If nothing else, I hope the workshop gave the attending physicists some insight into the inner workings of the creation of a network TV series.
They couldn't all be smashing home run successes, however. Most of the workshops were closer to solid base hits. The workshop on "The Art of the Book Deal" was more of a meat-and-potatoes format: interesting to scientists with hopes of writing a popular physics book, but others would likely find the focus on the industry's minutiae somewhat tedious. Sometimes the actual workshop went very well, but the interactive element never transpired. For instance, the session on science blogging was well-attended and fostered a lively discussion, but hardly any of the visiting scientists took advantage of the KITP "practice blog" I set up for that purpose. (We did come up with a terrific name for the blog: Far From Equilibrium.)
Really, the only unqualified strike-out among the 10 workshops was my attempt to use the concept of PowerPoint Karaoke to launch a discussion about communicating across disciplinary boundaries. Hindsight is 20/20. It was -- in retrospect -- ill-conceived from the outset. I plead guilty to becoming infatuated with my own concept, and thus did not abandon the scheme even when it became abundantly clear that my target audience just wasn't ready for that kind of interaction. Perhaps copious amounts of alcohol would have helped. Had I to do it over again, I would have organized a more conventional panel discussion featuring a couple of scientists with interdisciplinary interests to jump-start the dialogue, then had a wine and cheese party afterwards featuring the PowerPoint Karaoke, after folks were a bit more loosened up. But sometimes, you've got to take the risk and try something new.
Through it all, I received terrific support from KITP staff and permanent members. I greatly appreciated the fact that all the talks at KITP are taped and posted on the Web, along with relevant PowerPoint slides and other materials; it provides an ongoing resource beyond the immediate session. (The streaming video is slow, however; if funds ever permit, perhaps an upgrade of the technology might be in order.) I was able to draw not just on my own friends and acquaintances as resources, but also on the broader UCSB community, such as Jerry Roberts, Ottiliana Robertson, Jatila van der Veen, and KITP Artist-in-Residence Jean-Pierre Herbert, all of whom helped run a workshop at one point. I also made some wonderful new friends and acquaintances that I hope to maintain once I return to my regularly scheduled like in Los Angeles.
The only somewhat discouraging factor was the strong reluctance of many visiting scientists to engage in the interactive portions of the workshops, with a few notable exceptions. That has more to do with the culture of physics in general, however, not the KITP. Still, it's worth pondering how to address that entrenched reluctance for the benefit of future Journalists in Residence, who will likely encounter similar resistance. I'm sympathetic to the physicists: there were so many talks throughout the week, that people were understandably worn out by the time Friday afternoon rolled around. It's tough to get pushed out of your comfort zone at the end of a long, exhausting week, even though I tried to make the workshops as entertaining as possible.
Also, the Journal Club sessions don't seem to be viewed as an integral aspect of the KITP by most of the visiting scientists - as compared to the KITP leadership and permanent members, who very much embrace that aspect. Based on many of my conversations, the visiting scientists come to KITP to focus, laser-like, on their fields of expertise - something many don't have enough time to do over the school year, when they must grade exams, advise students, apply for grants, etc. That rare opportunity to focus into one's research is certainly an invaluable part of the KITP's fundamental mission. How best to maintain that invaluable aspect, while still encouraging them to branch out occasionally and explore things like communicating their research to diverse audiences?
I don't have an easy answer. But I do think it's important to reach out to the younger generation of up-and-coming physicists, including grad students, post-docs, and even promising undergraduates in the UCSB physics department. Perhaps if we get them interested in developing their communication skills when they're young, they'll carry those skills with them into their professional careers, along with a more positive general attitude towards science communication.
This being the first time I've tried anything like this, the experience helped me crystallize the thoughts, strategies and underlying philosophy of science communication in all its forms that I've been mulling over for several years now. I learned a great deal, particularly about how to best foster audience participation (as well as how not to go about it). I even picked up some handy tidbits in theoretical physics and neuroscience, thanks to the various programs being offered at KITP during my stay. Many of those talks and experiences found their way into blog posts on Cocktail Party Physics. (A list is below; no doubt there will be a couple more in the future inspired by my KITP experiences.)
It wasn't always comfortable, but I wasn't looking for comfort; you never grow if you're always comfortable. Instead, I found the Journalist in Residence fellowship to be challenging, invigorating, and enriching, both personally and professionally. The atmosphere at KITP is such that I felt comfortable risking failure to try something new. The KITP will always have a special place in my heart, precisely because it gave me the freedom to explore new ideas and approaches to my field of expertise (science communication) - the same reason, I suspect, so many theoretical physicists fall in love with the place, although the beachside location and spectacular weather no doubt play a role as well.
KITP-RELATED BLOG POSTS:
"At Play in the Ivory Tower?"
"A Little Light Housekeeping"
"By a Whisker"
"Cosmos: The Untold Story"
"A Thousand Paper Cuts"
"Into the Infrared"
"Tools of the Brain Trade"
"Survival of the Fittest"
"Without a Trace"
"Inside the Actor's Studio"