L E T ' S S E E W H A T H A P P E N S
W H E N W E P U T S C I E N C E T O W O R K .
C U S T O M A R Y I N T R O D U C T I O N .
STEPHANIE FINE SASSE, ED.M.
I'm an affective and cognitive neuroscience researcher by training, a science communicator by trade, and a social activist by default (you'd understand if you met my mother). I spent my college years with one foot in the research lab and one foot in community organizing, and by the end of it all, I was convinced that my seemingly disparate worlds actually had quite a bit to offer each other (if they could learn to play nice). When it came time to apply to neuroscience graduate programs, my mentors encouraged me to cut out all the "unnecessary education stuff" in favor of my research experience to avoid coming off too "well-rounded". It was solid advice, but I didn't like the sound of trimming off half of who I had been, so I started looking for a program that wanted the whole kit and caboodle instead of trying to squish myself into a box that wasn't made for me. In 2012, I was awarded the Leadership in Education Scholarship to attend Harvard Graduate School of Education - which did its job of inflating my ego just enough to convince me to pursue the terrifyingly-less-travelled path towards a future where science and society symbiotically serve one another. There was no rule book on how to do this successfully - no About.com "How-to", no Ted Talk to guide my next steps - just a mission, a few inspiring tweeters, and an invincibility complex.
Since earning my degree, I've developed and taught a portfolio of curricula, workshops, and seminars focused on engaging adult learners with science, scientists, and socio-scientific issues online and across Harvard. As the feedback poured in and the requests for materials grew, I began to work on leveraging design, psychology, and marketing techniques to improve the relationship between science and society on a larger scale. In 2013, with the help of decades of research from the fields of science literacy and public understanding of science, I co-founded the Brain Education Project, now supported by the National Science Foundation, and became the Executive Director of a science communication initiative called The People's Science. By working across scales - from one-on-one consulting to freely available online platforms - I believe in surrounding these problems with solutions on all fronts. I continue to be inspired by the growing community of science journalists, educators, and researchers who are connecting the dots and actively working towards an informed citizenry, an engaged scientific community, and a new chapter in lifelong learning. Collaboration is everything in this pursuit, not just because we're fighting centuries of well-preserved habits, but because working together is generally the best defense against being a blockhead.
B Y T H E N U M B E R S .
Teacher gives my paper a C- with no explanation beyond the note: "Don't try to be Hemmingway".
...I decide to give homeschool a shot (and an education reformer was born).
After spending a few years trapped in the Millenial vortex of choice, I began to settle on that one domino - that one thing that I could dedicate my life towards changing - that would have the greatest impact on the issues I care about: using the self sciences to be better to each other, and at everything else.
The number of years I've spent working in neuroimaging labs at Oregon Health & Sciences University and Harvard University where I've studied how the brain changes across time and different environments. Also the number of years that I've been convinced this information deserves a marketing campaign way more than bacon or grumpy cat (not to say I don't deeply appreciate both).
The number (according to my Masters market research analysis in 2013) of freely available online programs delivering a high quality user interface, equally high quality research content, and skill-building tools to ensure that users can access and responsibly apply presented research. UGH.
The number of graduate and undergraduate students, educators, and high schoolers that have taken one of my courses or workshops on information and science literacy skills through Portland State University, Oregon Health & Science University, or Harvard University over the past five years. If you build it...
t h e "w h y"
Welcome to another tiny slice of the internet dedicated to making the world look a little bit more like we thought it would before we knew better. Soapbox of choice? The tragically underachieving relationship between science and society. It’s the classic tale of misguided frenemies that are too caught up in politics and power struggles to see how much more they could accomplish together than apart... So how do you save a soured relationship when neither party wants to put in the work? Well, usually I'd tell you to get yourself some Pad Thai and a box of wine, rent The Land Before Time, and just let it all go - but this is a partnership worth fighting for. And that means taking that crucial, groan-inducing step towards a healthy, adult relationship: We have to learn to listen.
As anyone who's ever tried to take that advice knows, it's a tall order. I have exes who still think it was about the nail and I have struggled to understand why it drives my now-boyfriend crazy when I say I'm "voting" for a sports team in the playoffs. Society doesn’t raise us to be good listeners - we’re raised to stand for something and take no prisoners in proving that we’re right. Science doesn’t train good listeners either - unless what you’re listening to was experimentally tested and supported by a p-value of <.05. We live in a culture of caricatures, where it’s in fashion to devalue and disregard competing ideas by exaggerating their most absurd features. We leave little space for grey areas or nuance or the possibility of multiple true, albeit different, experiences of the world. We do it to everything - dismiss at the first sign of discomfort - and we’ve got it all wrong. Discomfort is where the learning happens; it supplies fertile ground for change. And our all-too-common backwards approach has led to a world brimming with make-believe divisions that keep apart people, organizations, and worst of all, ideas that shouldn’t be.
But true to our self-contradicting nature, it’s not all bad. At the same time, as a society, we often keep the right kinds of heroes around. We look back and admire those who chose to stand up for someone else, listen to the perspectives of others, stand by the oppressed, or change their minds and act in light of new evidence, regardless of their affiliations' position. We tell the stories of those who acted with humility against social inertia, who nurtured curiosity, or allowed compassion to reign over ego. The way we tell the stories of the past should guide the way we approach the future, and as a society, we need to start acting like the people we admire. We need to choose to err on the side of history that gets passed through the generations. Many of us grew up wanting to change the world, but at the risk of sounding trite, the problem is, it’s not the world that needs changing. The roots of our problems are, most often, ourselves. We’re the issue, and we have the answers strewn across disciplines and perspectives, but we’re not paying attention. We don’t need to change the world; we need to change people. And you can’t change something that you don’t take the time to understand. (Confession: I honestly have no expectation of ever fully understanding how glow sticks work, let alone people. But we're a lot farther for trying.)
My work uses evidence from across domains, particularly the Human Sciences (or what I like to call the "Self Sciences"), to tackle those problems that start with us. I collect and synthesize as many perspectives as possible, find the patterns, reconcile the disparities, and try to come up with something useful. That means aligning policy and personal decision making with evidence, opening lines of communication between reluctant communities, and reigniting the “But Why?” kid in all of us. I use art, design, and anecdote to breathe life and dimension into evidence-driven issues that are uncomfortable, pervasive, or taken for granted. We have to be more driven by getting it right as a community than by getting it right as an individual, and set the stage for our ideas to fall in Nicolas-Sparks-love with each other. We have to find comfort with the self-serving balls of bias that we are, accept our shortcomings, and grant ourselves permission to listen and change. Because so far as I can tell, it’s the only way to change anything else.
T h e "H o w"
I hear blogs are the protest song of the 21st century, which is great for everyone who may otherwise have been forced to listen to me sing. Check out my highly neglected blog here, which features hot-off-the-brain snippets on the intersection of science and society. As a freelance writer, I borrow from multiple lenses, including neuroscience and psychology, to examine personal and social issues. I also manage, edit, and contribute to a blog aimed at bringing accessible and relevant researchers to educators.
Contact me here for writing related inquiries.
Education, at its finest, is the missing link between ideas and the people that they benefit. Too often, we stop providing these links once formal schooling ends. My work focuses on lifelong learning opportunities, from one-on-one consulting to group workshops to large scale informal learning platforms and curricula.
The bulk of my educational efforts these days is filtered through my 501(c)3 non-profit, The People's Science. We develop and research a number of initiatives aimed at improving the relationship between science and society.
Also, every penny earned by The Scientish Shop goes straight to the cause.
Design is a trojan horse that sneaks information into places that it may otherwise not be welcomed. For far too long, it's been hoarded by commercial, for-profit endeavors to draw in customers and make an extra buck. It's high time that science and education got the same advantage. In addition to using visuals to complement written work, I use creative design solutions to communicate complex concepts, highlight key research findings, and develop informal learning elements. Information is best served pretty.
I love working with others to improve their understanding, use, and presentation of research. You can check out my professional portfolio and see the sorts of projects I take on through my consulting firm, Ambi.