I can’t quite believe it but this is the penultimate Scientist in the Spotlight of the 2nd Spotlight September feature on my blog. I seriously don’t know where September is going … especially when I have 7 days left to complete, print, bind and submit my thesis! Yeah I’m starting to completely freak out now! But what better way to continue my endless methods of procrastination it seems than to introduce you to another awesome scientist! Today’s scientist has a take on scicomm that I love being the nerd and geek that I am. His passion for this and building an incredible community of science communicators around the world is what I admire about him and his social media accounts, and I’m pretty sure you will too. So, let’s get to it. Please allow me to introduce to you, Daniel K.
Hey Dan! Let’s start off my asking you to tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Dan: Hello everyone! I’d first like to thank Soph for allowing me the opportunity to let you all know about why I am so passionate about science communication. My name is Daniel Kennedy and I am a freelance science writer and researcher. Many of my past articles can be seen in condensed form as posts on my Instagram page, @dan_the_biology_man. I promise I will get back to posting regularly on there soon! I’m from a small New Jersey town just a stone’s throw away from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am a passionate Philadelphia sports fan. For the most part, being a Philly fan is a lot of letdowns and heartache, but the Philadelphia Eagles are fresh off of their first ever Super Bowl win, and I am still on cloud 9!
Tell us a little more about your science journey.
Dan: My science journey began when I was 15 years old. It took a life-altering event that persuaded me to pursue science over my previous pre-university goals of becoming an attorney at law. A sudden onset of neurological symptoms led me to spend a good portion of my life from age 15 to 17 in the hospital. The cause of my loss of coordination, balance, and motor function was due to a congenital condition known as Arnold-Chiari malformation, a defect that was causing herniation of my cerebellum. Surgeries corrected the issue and my doctors were so fascinated by my personal condition that I was asked to help them compile data to help them better understand the the neurological disorder. In some instances I was asked to have my gait recorded as I was covered in little ping pong ball-like recording devices. All of the different approaches, professions, and techniques used to treat and improve future understanding of a single condition made me realize that science was what I wanted to do. I just wasn’t sure on what capacity just yet.
I was lucky enough to finish high school in the top 3 of my graduating class, earning me a scholarship to a two year college to allow me to pursue an associate’s degree in my field of choice. At this point, I had chosen to major in exercise physiology, as it would allow me to at least work as a certified personal trainer or sports injury prevention specialist. Nearing the end of my two years, I was offered a scholarship opportunity to the nearby Rutgers University, and I took it immediately upon graduation.
Once at Rutgers, I had the opportunity to continue my exercise physiology education as a physical therapy major or go in a different direction. I chose the latter and majored in biology as I had decided at that point that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon to help others just how I had been helped as a teen. I would go on to graduate from university Magna Cum Laude with my MCAT scores ready to send out to various medical schools throughout the country. I would go on to be accepted to all of my safety schools as well as both medical schools that were my top two. Something very unexpected then happened. I wasn’t happy. The rush of joy that I had played out in my head so many times upon reading the acceptance letters never came. I would go on to take a year off between graduating from Rutgers and starting medical school to give myself a chance to figure out what I really wanted.
During this time, I fell in love with writing, something that I never thought would ever happen. I began writing for local newspaper outlets and would soon look to writing online. By the end of my year long hiatus, I knew that I had found what I wanted to do and I would never look back.
So what does a typical day in the life of a science writer look like?
Dan: A typical day for me starts with reviewing the list of my current deadlines and then deciding which of the corresponding topics I’m feeling for the day. My tactics in terms of deciding what to write about and when change frequently to suit my incoming projects. Luckily, a majority of the topics I am asked to cover can be separated into two different types: an exposition of a biological phenomenon that is geared to individuals already interested in science, and an explanation on how everyday experiences can be explained to the non-scientist.
I will typically try to get one of each done every day as the audiences of the two may be different, but it allows me to figure out the most effective ways in creating universal content elsewhere that science professionals and the general public can get use out of.
How do you mix writing with freelance research?
Dan: In order to be the best writer that I can be, I know that I must continuously improve my own understanding of science as a whole. While at Rutgers, I had the incredible opportunity to study under under Dr. Alex Roche, who is one of the top authorities in the world in organoflourine chemistry. He taught me that my undergrad research approach in drosophila melanogaster egg morphology could be translated into organic chemistry or any other field. This idea baffled me at the time as the two fields were so different in my mind, but through taking his advice, I learned that research is a skill that can be utilized to bridge the gap between various disciplines. By forcing myself to find connections between organic chemistry and the genetics of egg morphology, I came out of it with a hyper-vigilance to look for connections everywhere.
Before I start writing anything, I will learn as much as I possibly can about the given topic with the mindset that I am looking to bridge the gap between two things that may at first seem like they have nothing in common. I recently wrote an extended article geared towards people who have just stopped smoking and are looking for tips on how to reduce nicotine withdrawal effects. I decided that they best way to help them conquer these uncomfortable symptoms was to give them some insight on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and what actually is happening to the body to better understand how to combat it. I used this approach to take cigarette smoking and infuse it with varying chemistry and physiology concepts to help explain why no one should ever smoke and why anyone who does should stop immediately. Easier said than done, but by doing so, I was able to bypass talking about the Emphysema and other pulmonary disorders that many are already aware of and show the reader that the entire body is affected and not just the lungs.
One thing I love about your account is how you blend pop culture into science. What is it that you love about using pop culture for your scicomm?
Dan: I use pop culture references as my primary gap-bridging tool between the general public and any topic I choose to explain. By doing so, I am able to direct my writing to already established audiences interested in movies, tv, music, sports, literature, trends, and anything else that the huge umbrella of pop culture encapsulates. In one of my favorite Instagram posts, I explained why our recorded voices sound so different than the voice we hear when we speak in real time. Many of us don’t like what our voices sound like when we hear them projected in a recorded format. To strengthen the idea that people are not alone in their dislike for their own voices, I used legendary Beetle, John Lennon as an example of someone who absolutely hated his voice. By giving the science behind the reason for self-doubt and then letting readers know that one of the greatest voices of all time also wasn’t a fan of his recorded voice, I gave the tools necessary to help others love themselves just a little bit more.
So, I was asked this question at an event in the summer and given you love for pop culture and science, I would love to know your answer. Who do you think is the most scientifically accurate Avenger?
Dan: I’m going to answer this in terms of the original Avengers because I could go on forever if we introduce any others. If I want to go with easiest route, I could say that Black Widow is the most scientifically accurate as she owes her abilities to her previous training as a KGB operative and doesn’t have any superhuman capabilities aside from that fact that she’s just awesome. Hawkeye too is an Avenger without any superpowers, but he does have the precision and accuracy to hit any target, just as some real life people dedicate their lives to mastering. Both of these characters are representations of people that exist among us already, so that’s not really all that fun. Gamma radiation exposure would absolutely not be a beneficial experience, so Hulk is out. The only human-lightning interaction I can think of is Lichtenberg figures as a result of being struck, so I don’t see someone like Thor existing in real life. That leaves us with Tony Stark, who when adorning the physical manifestation of his engineering genius in suit-form is Iron Man. I believe that there one day will be multiple people in our world capable of creating such a suit because engineering is now reaching heights we never before thought were possible.
Well its good to know we are on the same wavelength haha! Where do you get your scicomm inspiration from?
Dan: As cliché as it may sound, my biggest scicomm inspiration was Bill Nye. He’s such a positive inspiration in so many of our lives because he was able to teach various science subjects in innovative ways that made learning fun. I am a firm believer that learning must be fun in order to associate the learning experience with a pleasurable reference that is more likely to stick with someone for his her or their life. When it came time to create my name for my instagram page, dan_the_biology_man was the instant choice because I wanted to pay a little homage to Bill. I am still a huge fan of his work today on Bill Nye Saves the World, but my biggest inspirations right now are the scicommers of the SciCommunity. One of my favorite aspects of our community is that we are all willing to help each other, bounce ideas off of each other, and learn from one another in terms of the most effective scicomm. This sense of community is my what now motivates and inspires me.
What have you learnt about how to create engaging science communication? Any advice for people looking to make their content more engaging?
Dan: I have learned that the best way to create engaging science communication is to go into each content offering with the mindset to try to reach as many people as possible using an approach that is geared towards inclusivity. While targeting a specific audience can be extremely effective to start a conversation with fellow individuals with a similar expertise or knowledge background, going into a project of any size with the mindset of including everyone can be great. The feeling that I get when I see commenters talking to each other and teaching each other concepts related to whatever my current topic may be, is just awesome. The goal of any scicomm offering should be to not only inform, but to allow the dialogue door to be open to learn something yourself.
You and many other men out there advocate for women in STEM. Why do you think it’s important for men to show their support too and not just women fighting for equal opportunities?
Dan: In order for us as a civilization to truly incite change and thrive, we must show younger generations that women are just as important to the future of science as men are. As scientists and science communicators, we should want to see science reach heights never thought possible, and the only way that is going to happen is if women are involved just as much as men. Without total inclusivity, we are only hindering what science is capable of.
Who or what is The Sci Community? What are you all about and how did it start?
Dan: The SciCommunity began as what I thought at the time of its inception would be a page that featured some of my favorite scicommers. I wanted to create a single destination where my favorite scicommers could meet and collaborate. I thought I would just be curating a revolving door of featured scientists. Never did I imagine that I would develop such strong friendships and bonds with people that genuinely wanted to work together to change the way science is communicated. The SciCommunity is now a global think tank of science communicators that have developed strong bonds that extend outside of social media. We exist now to work collaboratively to find the most effective methods to improve the way science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics are communicated to the world.
What are your long term goals for The Sci Community?
Dan: The current goals of the SciCommunity are to develop the most effective means of science communication to reach as many people around the world as possible that are willing to listen. A current focus is on member-produced original video series made by our members for our YouTube channel called Nexus. Aside from the Nexus portion of the Scicommunity, we want to help all members achieve their own personal goals of science communication through public demonstrations, podcasts, blogs, utilization of other social media platforms, and any other methods.
When you’re not science-ing, how do you like to spend your time?
Dan: When I’m not science-ing I love to follow my four favorite sports teams that all happen to reside within the city of Philadelphia. I am also a Nintendo fanboy through and through, so you can bet that I’ll be playing the Legend of Zelda at least once a week. Music is also a huge part of my life. I cannot go a day without at least an hour of music. I also enjoy singing, but I won’t be selling out Wembley Stadium any time soon.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Dan: In ten years time, I see myself enjoying life with the people that matter most to me. Wherever all of this eventually goes, I know that I have gained some amazing friends out of it that I hope to have in my life ten years from now and beyond. For now, I’m just living my best life and making sure that the SciCommunity continues to grows and evolves into the best platform that it can be.
And finally, where in the world should I be visiting next?
Dan: Now I am completely biased in this answer as I have not yet left the United States, but Philadelphia is a an amazing place to visit. Not only will you be able to see the birthplace of the nation, but you can also visit a vast array of some of the most fun, interesting, and interactive science centers there are. And also, cheesesteaks!
And that’s another wrap! Huge thanks to Dan for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions for me. I hoped you loved it as much as I did! If you too like a side of pop culture with your science then head over to Dan’s social media pages here:
Also, if you aren’t getting your fill of scientist stories from my Scientist in the Spotlight feature, then head over to The Sci Community social media pages where you can meet hundreds more scientists and learn some awesome science on the way. Check them out here:
S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E R 2018 is coming to an end for another year, but I am still very excited to bring you more stories from scientists across the world. Make sure to check back in next Monday and Friday to meet another scientist and learn about their story, and catch up with our previously featured scientists too. Did you enjoy this story today? Is there anyone you would love to see featured on my Scientist in the Spotlight features over the next year?
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