Interview with the Science Communicator

By Guest Author 21/07/2010


By Sarah Morgan

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For the first two weeks in July Tom McFadden was in town to take part in the NZ International Science Festival, care of the Otago Institute and Genetics Otago. You may or may not recognise the name — but Tom is the man behind the glasses in the Science Rap hits on YouTube — indeed if you are a first year at Otago Uni and studying CELS191 you would have been shown the ‘Hi Meiosis‘ video already. I highly recommend going for a look — the lyrics are witty and accurate, and the production values are great considering the hobby-nature of the entire venture. A brilliant pick-up for any biology lecture or lab, and an excellent example of a novel Science Communication concept.

Whilst in town Tom toured Primary and High Schools around the region and ran a workshop for kids interested in writing their own science raps. The culmination of this not-inconsiderable effort was seen on Sunday the 11th where 12 boys and girls aged between 8 and 15 preformed their creations on stage at the Fun & Food FIESTA with the Cadbury Chocolate Carnival & Dunedin City Council. I was a ‘guest judge’ for this and was blown away by both the kids’ abilities and Tom’s skill with children.

Tom will be returning to NZ in 2011 to commence studies under the University of Otago’s new Science Communication Masters degree, and I’m sure run-ragged touring schools and University lectures to  spread the good word (that being the sheer awesomeness of science in general).

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Tom with a 5th grade student from a class he volunteered with, on a field trip to a biological preserve to do some water experiments (as part of the build up to the "Clouds Make it Rain" song)

Tom has a background in Human Biology and graduated with a BA from Stanford in 2008. His undergrad studies included a specific focus on neuroscience and behaviour, and he spent two years in Prof. Russell Fernald’s lab completing a thesis on how social status influences GnRH neuron morphology and ion channel expression of African chichlid fish.

Upon the completion of his undergraduate studies, Tom spent 2 years as a full time ‘course associate’ (equivalent to a combination of our tutor/demonstrator and Teaching Fellow roles) for the same degree; doing such things as actual teaching, holding office hours & review sessions, helping to write exams and problem sets, and designing interactive curriculum for the course associates teaching duties. Tom started making the music videos to supplement the classroom teaching — when the students had finished a topic, they would get a video as a review/study-aid. He has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for his studies in 2011 at Otago University.

I selfishly commandeered some of Tom’s ‘holiday’ time post NZ-visit to answer a couple of questions, his answers to which offer a unique insight into what has amounted to unexpected internet virulence, and unique science communication. I find myself continually more impressed with him, and surprised at discovering such a kindred spirit (or so I would like to claim) – I definitely lack any rap-skilz whatsoever, so don’t even ask.

Favourite Science?

Biology. Hard to choose between evolution, genetics, development, endocrinology, and neuroscience. I love the integration of them all.

PC or Mac?

Mac

To be honest I was tempted to finish here — such an answer, but I will restrain myself.

Why did you start rapping about science — ie why rap? why about science?

I had made parody songs throughout my childhood and watched a lot of Bill Nye, the great grand-daddy of science rap parodies. When I was hired as a full-time course associate, it was my task to do whatever I could to help students learn. I believe that a big part of learning is one’s personal motivation and engagement with the material. I thought music videos might provide a boost of motivation to those students who needed a break from the fairly intense and sometimes overwhelming pace of the class. Why rap? Because growing up that’s what all of my friends listened to. And because I can’t sing but I do have rhythm, so I’m fairly restricted in my choice of musical genre. I am a big fan of great lyricists like Andre 3000, Black Thought, Talib Kweli, Brother Ali, etc. And I had a ton of fun riffing on some of my favourite beats from the popular hip hop music of my high school years.

Did you think your endeavours would ever meet with such local success?

I was a little surprised that people other than my students enjoyed the songs, given that they were specifically made for an audience enrolled in a high level biology class. But I’m not surprised that people get excited about combining education and music. School House Rock and Bill Nye did it decades ago, and I know countless teachers who make their own music in the classroom. So I guess the biggest surprise to me is that people have been so surprised by the blending of science and rap.

Are you actually ‘famous’ for your videos at home?

Hmm. I don’t get stopped on the street much. But if I meet people who study a given topic that I have rapped about, especially people who study Drosophila development, they often have seen a few of the videos.

How many people & hours does it take to get to the final video piece?

It’s varied quite a bit, and the number of people and hours has increased with each production. Early songs with no videos I could knock out by myself in a few hours from writing through recording. But more recent ones are much more involved processes that require more of my time on the lyrics and the bulk of the time planning and executing video shoots. Luckily I’ve been able to work with great video people to do the shooting and the editing and there’s no way I could do it without them.

How hard is it to make science rhyme and fit in with a beat?

I’m a huge fan of good lyrics and I’ve listened to enough good creative rap that it comes pretty naturally. Writing the song is one of my favourite parts of the process. Like anything else I think it’s about practice, and I’ve put in enough hours listening and writing that it’s just fun.

What is your opinion of science communication? ie. a worthwhile endeavour — to be talking about our science to the public?

Science communication is absolutely critical but I haven’t yet made a big distinction between communication (to the general public) and education (in a formal school setting). I think the two are both necessary for the ultimate goal of having a society that can have a reasonable discussion about the role of science and technology in our society. Communication is clearly imperative when scientific findings inform legislation and public health – things like genetic testing, vaccinations, global warming, and risks from environmental toxins. However, I think it is equally important to convey the broad principles of scientific thinking and basic science so that the general public is equipped with doubt, curiosity, and an appreciation for open discussion about the world they live in.

What about to the newest generations? Science from a young age?

Maintaining excitement among young students is key. Most are naturally inquisitive and excited by the messy, hands-on, beautiful activity of science that allows them to engage with their questions about the world. Most also become frustrated and disillusioned by science when it becomes too memorization-oriented, too overwhelming, and perceived as being too hard. So you wind up with people who learn to impulsively dismiss science, a trait they hold onto as adults which prevents them from engaging in topics they are actually well-equipped to think critically about.

This final sentence is so insightful I want to have it framed. I have not come across the point so blatantly written, but it is so true, I have to take a few moments to just think about it…

Is Science important?

Ha!

Do you want to stay in academic science?

I would like to spend a few more years in academic science. I think that communicating the activity of science is as important as communicating the results. Getting a PhD would provide the opportunity to be thoroughly trained in research, statistics, and gain a deeper understanding of how science is conducted, all of which will me a much stronger communicator and educator.

Where do you envisage yourself in 20 years?

At a small liberal arts college in the states, teaching a wild adventure of an introductory biology class and a neuroendocrinology seminar. When I’m not doing research or teaching, I’ll be presenting in secondary schools and translating findings into plain English for the general public. I’ll also probably be quite embarrassed by a series of rap videos I’ve made 20 years before, and trying to encourage my students to one-up me with whatever they think is the proper way to make a science music video in the year 2030.

If you could change one thing about tertiary institutions & how we teach our undergrads, to make them better, what would it be?

Coming from an interdisciplinary program, I would try to institutionalize creative cross-faculty interactions in order to create a more integrated learning experience for students. It’s often just a matter of making time in people’s insanely busy schedules and motivating faculty to put in that extra bit of work to make a compelling integration. Secondly, increasing the role of hands-on lab experience and demonstrations. Luckily I think improving interactive technologies will make “virtual” labs much easier to incorporate into classes. Lastly, I think it makes sense to put a larger emphasis on training and rewarding professors who are great at teaching and not just research.

I cannot even express how happy it makes me to hear someone else extolling the virtues of this course of action — academics rewarded for better teaching, not just paper outputs. Especially when so much depends upon their influence of undergrads — well-taught graduates for starters, plus the next generation of researchers and science communicators inspired.

And finally- an opinion on Dunedin/Otago Uni/New Zealand/your visit in general?

Dunedin was great. I loved the proximity of things, and how close you are to tremendous outdoor adventures. I am most excited by the strength of the research coming out of the university, since one of my goals while I’m there will be to stay on top of the cutting edge of neuroscience and genetics and innovative ways to bring that to the public and students. Can’t wait to get started.

I have spent a bit of time contemplating why Tom’s particular talents and brand of Science Communication is so fascinating and delightful to us — indeed everyone I have observed watching him perform these two weeks has been quite enraptured, and I get the distinct feeling his notoriety in NZ came as a wee bit of a surprise.

I have decided it comes down to cultural differences. Very few New Zealand youths — let alone Science-studying youths would have the confidence or motivation to perform in such a manner. Which is just ridiculous — why is the association between a confident personality type — and science as a study choice; distinct categories of students in my mind? I am perhaps biased due to my love for Science, and the teaching of the science subjects (Yeah, I claimed it — geek, and proud of it: without the stereotypes; I’ll have you know I have perfect vision and have never needed glasses) — but I think everyone should have a decent science background. I also think all adults should have some semblance of a political awareness and psychology background — so my critique of the education system and society in general is perhaps unfair, if not highly unrealistic.

I have seen a glimpse of the NZ Science-Youth possibilities at the Otago Hands-On Science summer-camp style program. I have helped run the Genetics workshops for a couple of years now, and attended the camp in my 6th form — a million years ago. I did the Microbiology project due to Genetics not having one established then — it was brilliant. I was inspired by the new clarity of what studying science at Uni was like, and was ahead in my Bursary (NCEA Level 3) studies — I had actually done some of the techniques we later learned about in class. And I am definitely the kind of person to revel in knowing things before others — or indeed, just before I ought to…

Some of the kids taking part in the program have this spark of brilliance — that intangible link between good communication/social skills and intense science passion. Every year we get comments about how normal we are — that real scientists wear normal/cool/pretty clothes, are easy to talk to, have fun in the lab and so on. So the potential in NZ students is there, for sure; we need to isolate and encourage that spark in all our scientists, young and old.

Tom proved to be a delightful, enthusiastic and intelligent young man and I look forward to seeing him back at Otago next year (it is after all the best University), and I hope his attitude and insight will inspire Otago Scientists to greater efforts with regards to the communication of their science.

Sarah Morgan is a PhD student in the Lab for Evolution & Development at the University of Otago