Friday, March 20, 2009

Q&A with Dr. Kirsten Sanford of This Week In Science

Dr. Sanford is the founder and co-host of the This Week In Science radio program, among other things. To find out more about the scope of her work, . . . you are just going to have to read to the end of the blog entry.

Here, we'll treat this question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself to the group and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

I hold a B.S. in Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology and a Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology from U.C. Davis, and am a specialist in learning and memory. I originally thought that I wanted to work for Greenpeace and save the whales, but I realized that was more interested in birds. I got a job as an undergraduate working in a lab that dealt with avian learning and memory, and I was hooked. From there I decided to go to grad school and follow my dreams of looking at bird brains, but along the way I realized that I enjoy teaching science more than being in the lab. So, I finished my PhD on bird spatial memory abilities, not with the intention of continuing in academia, but instead of finding new and different ways of talking to the public about science.

Talk about This Week In Science and how you came to be involved in the show.

I am the founder of This Week in Science, a weekly radio show broadcast from U.C. Davis and avidly followed by thousands of fans worldwide via rss feed. TWIS evolved naturally from late night beer-fueled conversations between myself and my friend (and co-founder) Ted Dunning. We used to stay up late at night discussing recent scientific discoveries, and one night I said, "Hey! I know the program director at the campus radio station. Maybe we can do this on the radio." And, the show was born.

What do you hope the impact of TWIS is?

I hope TWIS reaches people who at some point in their lives decided that they "hate science," or that science is "too hard" for them, and gets them to reconsider. I want TWIS to get people excited about science, and tear down the perception that science is only for "scientists." I once received an email from a listener who had quit school for whatever reason. He said that TWIS convinced him to go back to school and get a science degree. That is the best impact I could ever hope for.

This Week In Science actually goes out over the radio waves. Any thoughts about how science and technology are treated in the, "traditional media?"

Technology gets much better treatment than science by the traditional media. Science news if it is found in the traditional media consists of health and medical coverage and news relating to the strange or spectacular. Then, the average coverage consists of a regurgitated press release. Traditional media's lack of support for science is resulting in poorer and poorer coverage. There was a time when all major newspapers had a science section with fantastic writers covering interesting topics, but those days are over.

In addition to podcasting and providing a streaming version of TWIS, you are a blogger, vlogger even. What role do you see, "New Media," playing in facilitating scientific literacy in society in general?

Science is lacking in the traditional media. To get science reporting you have to go to specialized science publications. Newspapers are closing their science sections. CNN dissolved its science department. The future of science media is in new media. I've almost given up on the traditional distributors.
Unfortunately, new media doesn't allow a "mainstreaming" of science information. The information is fragmented, which will make it harder for people to access. Those who want science will find it, but it won't be generally available unless something is done to change the path we are on.

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the functioning of a democracy?

I think that an informed populous is better able to make the decisions necessary for a democracy to function. Along with scientific literacy come critical thinking skills, which are essential for individuals to evaluate the information that surrounds them. If people continue to vote without thinking critically about the issues before them, we will not truly live in a democracy.
Who do you vote for? Why? Do you vote yes or no on a stem cell funding issue? What about water and agricultural regulations? How do you assess the possible options without some amount of knowledge and insight?
I vote for the people I think best represent the interests of the people. Predominantly, that means I vote Democrat, but I am somewhere between a Libertarian and a Progressive. I think the people are best served by a government that functions to protect them from harm. I voted yes on the stem cell funding issue. Water and agriculture regulations depend on the regulation. Fresh water is a scarce commodity, especially in California, and needs to be preserved for both people and agriculture. It is an issue of need, not desire.
I assess the possible options by doing some research. I try to find out who is for and against an option, and why. I talk to people. I read literature. I educate myself as fully as possible, and knowing that I can never fully understand an issue I am not immersed in, I use my best judgment.

Do you think that advancements in science and technology can impair, in any way, the functioning of a democracy?

I think that advancements in science and tech so far have benefited the functioning of our democracy. Never before have the youth been so involved in government as now in this age of the internet. Basic science led to the development of technology that now allows ever greater sharing of information. With that sharing of information, people are more able to understand the issues facing the government, and to be involved in helping to make decisions in an informed way. That is a real democracy.
The only way that advancing science and technology will impair the democracy is if the people allow the government to use that technology in such a way as to block the will of the people or stifle the people. But, then it will no longer be a democracy.

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place." If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

I would talk to him about the importance of educating not only the children about science, but also interesting adults in science. If adults find science interesting and seek out science-based events or activities, this interest will be passed on to the children. Children learn from the adult role models around them. When a mother helping her daughter with her math homework (or, insert science for math) says to her daughter, "Oh, I never liked math... math's hard," it instills similar feelings in the child. We need to create a positive environment for science, math, and knowledge in general. When excitement builds around learning, it will only help our nation excel.

On your blog, you declare yourself a Tae Kwon Do black belt. Do you find yourself facing the, "so, you think you can kick my butt," question a lot?

Every once in a while I find myself facing that question. I never have to prove anything because I have bodyguards. Although, I did once kick someone on top of the head just for fun.

Finally, anything important I missed? Any shameless self promos you need to get out there?

In 2005, I was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science & Engineering. Following the fellowship, I worked as a television news producer at WNBC in New York City with noted health and science reporter Dr. Max Gomez. In late 2007 and early 2008, I expanded my communications work into online video, starring in both On Networks successful series Food Science and Revision3's variety show PopSiren. I also appear regularly on Revision3's Systm, and hosted MacBreak during the PixelCorp's coverage of the 2008 and 2009 MacWorld conference. I am launching my newest online video venture, Science Word, in March, 2009. Additionally, I host Potential Energy, a podcast about alternative energy concerns and solutions, and am a regular guest on both This Week in Media and This Week in Tech. I contribute weekly to and to my own blog,, and am looking to launch a new scientific media venture with noted technology pundit, Leo Laporte. These new media efforts initiated my entry into television in 2008. Pending purchase of the pilot, I am slated to co-host a new, skeptical reality TV show called The Skeptologists. I am also reporter-at-large for the Science Channel and a contributor to their recently launched show, Brink, and have appeared on CBS's The Doctors.

I'd like to thank Dr. Sanford for taking the time to chime in with her insights. For those of you out there who are disappointed at the lack of clickable links in the blog entry so far:

This Week In Science

Potential Energy

This Week In Media

This Week In Tech


The Skeptologists

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