#MySciComm: Sarah Chevalier Prather on curating science-exhibit research and development for interactive science museums

This week, Sarah Chevalier Prather responds to the #MySciComm questions!

Sarah Prather bio photo
Photo courtesy of Sarah Chevalier Prather, PhD

Sarah Chevalier Prather is a Museum Consultant who earned her PhD in Neuroscience from Emory University and a BSE in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University.  After graduate school, Sarah forged a path into the world of exhibit research, development, and evaluation in interactive science and children’s museums.  She lives in Wyoming with mountains out her window and an active skype account used to stay connected to colleagues and museums across the country. Start a conversation with Sarah about museums, science, or collaborations over email or at her website.

The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!

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Okay, Sarah…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

It started in graduate school, when I realized I wanted to change the direction of my career.

I loved science in high school, especially biology and chemistry. I reasoned that studying biology and engineering in college would open biotechnology opportunities for me, so I decided to attend Duke University to earn my BSE in Biomedical Engineering. At Duke I devoted one of my precious elective courses to a neuroscience class taught by Dr. Gillian Einstein (yes, a relative of *that* Einstein) and fell in love with the topic, especially the way the visual system works.

I still remember learning about Sperry’s experiments where he cut the optic nerves of a frog, turned the eyes upside down and let the optic nerves grow back. Amazingly, the frogs regained vision, but their vision was upside down. That did it!  I was hooked. I couldn’t put the book down – and the book was my neuroscience textbook. After undergrad, I decided to attend graduate school to study neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta.

At Emory I joined a research lab and studied humans using mental imagery to help them analyze sensory stimuli. For my dissertation, I studied humans identifying objects they could only touch. They reported using visual imagery to do the task, and as they did, they were activating visual areas of the brain. I was doing cognitive neuroscience to help connect what humans reported thinking with activity in the brain, pushing forward a field that ultimately hopes to understand how humans think, feel, and reason. I settled into my classes and long hours in the lab, confident that graduate school would teach me how to become a neuroscientist.

Teach me it did, but graduate school taught me more than just science. It taught me how to communicate science.

I took a two-year seminar course on presenting scientific findings. I taught a neuroscience course, wrote research grant proposals, presented posters at scientific conferences, wrote scientific journal articles, and led a high-school Brain Awareness program. Three years after taking the presentation seminar course, I was teaching it.

As much as I loved the topic of my dissertation, the grind of research was leaving me drained and burned out.

Since my research duties would only increase over the course of my career, I began to suspect that bench science was not the best long-term path for me. But communicating science was energizing. I could find just the right level of detail and relevance to communicate to non-scientists what science was and why they should care. It was a challenge I wanted to tackle. But where could I do that?  Take my PhD and communicate science to people who weren’t necessarily experts?  I knew I didn’t want to teach in a formal classroom. Were there educational environments out there that weren’t in schools?

I reached back into my youth and considered some of my favorite out-of-school experiences. As the daughter of a librarian and a dancer, I’d grown up in libraries, museums, and performing arts venues. These public cultural centers encouraged self-driven exploration, creativity, and, I realized, learning. I’d been to Cincinnati’s Natural History Museum dozens of times as a child. Someone designed their exhibits. Someone taught their programs. I decided that person would be me.

I decided I would be the person teaching and designing science museum exhibits. But I had to figure out how to carve a path into that world.

After earning my PhD, I relocated to North Carolina and nurtured a social connection into an informational meeting with the director of a local interactive science museum, the Museum of Life and Science. I asked him about his own path from PhD into museums and about the backgrounds of his staff. If I were to pursue this path, would I need a degree in Museum Studies?  An internship?  A certification?  He told me that there was no singular track into museums. His staff had degrees in zoology, botany, even fine arts. They had varied backgrounds, but they all shared a vision of bringing to life an interactive learning environment.  I told him that I shared that vision too. Might there be an opportunity for me there? The director connected me with their head of education, who connected me with their head of exhibits, who finally agreed to meet with me after some gentle but persistent pestering.

Their head of exhibits put words to the key impediment I faced.

I had an interesting background and lots of enthusiasm. But, even if he had any openings (which he didn’t), he wouldn’t know how to evaluate me for a position. I’d done lots of science communication. But I’d never done exhibit development.

So I offered him a deal. He had just told me about a key departmental member who was only partially back from maternity leave. Work was piling up. My proposal: take one small project and give it to me, on a tiny contract basis. It would take something off their plate and give him a way to evaluate my ability to do the job. If it didn’t work out, he was out almost nothing. “Let me think about it,” he said. A few days later, I got a call. I needed to do paperwork to get set up as a temporary employee. I had my foot in the door!

My small project turned into a set of projects.

I researched and wrote copy for signs that explained the science of the exhibits. I evaluated visitor reaction to exhibit prototypes and recommended ways to tweak exhibit design to improve visitor interaction and understanding. I listened, watched, asked a lot of questions, and tried to have no ego when it came to feedback. I’d been tasked with small items on the museum’s exhibit to-do list, but I showed I could do the work well, adopt their institutional style, and integrate with their staff. After six months of part-time work, they hired me as their full-time Exhibits Research Manager. My first big project was to help develop an exhibition on the science behind children’s health recommendations. The non-profit pay was terrible. But I was doing exactly what I had set out to do, and  I loved it.

Science exhibit development was a perfect marriage of my background in science and my ability to communicate.

My background in cognitive neuroscience enabled me to approach exhibit development and assessment from a uniquely biological perspective. I already had an understanding of the neuroscience and psychology behind the ways that humans learn, pay attention, and process information. My study of neural development gave me insight into the ways that children acquire and expand executive function skills such as focus, planning, problem-solving, and risk-assessment. This training gave me an especially valuable perspective on the way that humans work, think, and interact with exhibits. In addition, my dissertation research required me to develop my own skills in human behavioral observation, analysis, and documentation. Such experience made me a keen and thoughtful observer of visitors, and those skills made me well-suited to evaluate visitor interactions with museum exhibits and programs. Additionally, my science background made me comfortable diving deep into physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and more.

My communication skills were equally valuable in my success as an interactive exhibit developer. I could write about everything from the chemical defenses of the American Toad to the history of our institution to cultural influences on immunization. My work was highly interdisciplinary. And as my skills and projects evolved, I realized that this work was translatable.

I learned that good science communication was just good communication.

No matter the discipline, the process was remarkably similar – research the issue to gain a deep understanding, pick the singular message to communicate, identify and engage the audience in the phenomenon/conversation, and tailor the message to be brief, clear, and compelling. I’d gone into the world of science museums to communicate science. But I was developing my skills as a communicator in general. Those lessons would be applicable in areas beyond the world of science exhibits.

After six years in North Carolina, I relocated to Wyoming with my family, and began to consult with museums across the country. I continue to research and develop exhibit content, write grants and label copy, evaluate visitor behavior, and manage projects for science museums. But my work has also expanded. I’ve challenged myself to find opportunities to apply what I know in other areas. I’ve done exhibit development for a children’s museum, created programming for an artistic, theater-themed makerspace, and worked with a program at the University of Wyoming to implement active learning techniques in the classroom. I join each project to share what I know, but every time, I find that I am learning.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. Be scrappy.

If you’re looking to transition into the world of science communication, you will almost certainly have to hustle for it. Practice explaining what you bring to the table. Take the time to hone your message about yourself, and then keep knocking on doors until you get your foot in one.

2. Implement ‘less is more’.*

When using words to communicate with the public, keep it brief. Even if it’s in an audio format, less really is more. Even I, a lover of words, will tune out or skip over an explanation that’s too long. It takes more time to write something short. But it’s worth it. Pare it down.

3. Collaborate.

Partnering with someone new requires initial effort, but it can breathe new life, ideas, and energy into a project or vision. Some of the most interesting and fruitful science lies at the interface between disparate fields. Explore those connections. They can be full of opportunity.

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*Editors’ note: Sarah practices what she preaches. She wrote a concise tale of her scicomm backstory, and we kept asking her for more and more details. While not our shortest piece in this series, we’re delighted to share with you what we think is a compelling account of a fascinating scicomm career. 

 

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