A Scientist Defending Science

Published Jan 1, 2019

Molecular biologist, Dr. Maryam Zaringhalam, left the lab to explore the intersection of science and public policy.

In this episode
  • Maryam recounts her early love for science and childhood engineering experiments
  • Maryam shares how she was able to use art as a lens to communicate science
  • Colleen and Maryam talk about why it's necessary that bias in science is addressed
  • Maryam discusses ways she helps link the scientific community and the general public
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:52)
Intro (0:52-2:46)
Interview Part 1 (2:46-14:53)
Break (14:53-15:31)
Interview Part 2 (15:31-23:48)
Sidelining Science Throw (23:48-23:52)
Sidelining Science (23:52-27:26)
Outro (27:26-28:30)

Related content
Full transcript

If you’re a Got Science? regular, you know that our mission is to highlight the stories of scientists working to make the world a better place. Often, that’s because of cutting edge new technologies they are developing, or experiments they are conducting in the field, like the climate research taking place Antarctica that we’ll feature next month.

But there’s no one way to practice science. In our last episode, we spoke with Evelyn Valdez-Ward, a PhD student who is speaking out about her right to be a scientist studying and working in the US without documentation. And today, where we meet Dr. Maryam Zaringhalam, a very public scientist who is redefining who a scientist can be, and what kinds of things they do. Over the past couple of years, thousands of scientists have become more involved in public debates, and have started speaking up about laws that affect our health and safety, using their expertise and credibility to work for the public good.

Our guest today is at the forefront of this movement… and she might be the most well-rounded person I have ever met. She’s a molecular biologist. She’s a science writer. She founded ArtLab, a blog and event series uniting art and science. She’s a podcaster, having co-founded Science Soapbox. She’s a producer for Story Collider. She’s a triple AS fellow in Science and Technology Policy. And she’s on the leadership team for 500 Women Scientists.

All of these things and more are why UCS named her one of our 2018 Science Defenders, among four other individuals and groups who’ve taken a stand for science over the past year. I wanted to learn more about how Maryam is helping to broaden the scope of what scientists do, so I caught up with her recently in Washington, DC to talk about science and public policy, and the range of options open to people with scientific expertise.

Colleen: Maryam, welcome to the "Got Science? Podcast."

Maryam: Thanks for having me. I'm really excited.

Colleen: When did you very first become interested in science?

Maryam: So, my mom is a medical doctor and my dad is a physicist by training who is now in computer engineering. And so I grew up with science all around me. We were a very science-positive household. And from a really early age, I always had a lot of interest in how small parts come together to make a functional whole. So that meant when I was a kid that I was dissecting TV remotes and trying to reverse-engineer them to work again. I was not a very good engineer so that meant that we went through a lot of television remotes as a kid.

Colleen: I'm imagining you were popular with your family.

Maryam: As a troublemaker. And that translated into biology when in 9th grade we dissected a fetal pig. And I had this moment where I was looking inside of the pig and realizing, "Oh my gosh, like I have these intestines in my body too, and I have a stomach in my body, and I have a brain in my body. And if I wasn't dissecting this pig right now, all of these parts would be coming together to make an oinking, rolling around in the mud, pig." And that got me hooked on biology right then and there in the 9th grade. And as I continued to learn about biology, continued to learn about science, that translated into a love of genetics because ultimately, the most basic functional unit of complex biological beings like ourselves is DNA.

And so I wanted to know how from just for basic letters, A, C, T, and G you could have all of the complexity of life that we see around us. And so that was really from TV remotes to genes how I got interested in the biology that I do.

Colleen: So tell me a little bit about your journey from a molecular biologist in the lab to science advocacy and science policy. When did that shift happen?

Maryam: I eventually went on to get my Ph.D. and within maybe second year of Grad school, I started to notice that what I was doing in the lab felt very isolated from the conversations I was having just with my friends at parties and things like that. And there seemed to be this gap where I was trying to talk about my research to my friends and they were saying, "Oh no, no, I'm an arts kid. I was in the ‘dumb’ class." Dumb, with air quotes around it. And “science isn't for me. I can't understand it." But then they would ask these really interesting questions. I would have all of these engaging, interesting conversations with them once I kind of lured them into being a little bit less afraid of the work that I was doing and asking questions of the work that I was doing.

And so I got interested in communication right then in my second year of grad school and I started a project called Art Lab where I was trying to use the language of art, use art as a lens to think about science because fundamentally, science and art are both creativity-driven endeavors, we encounter a lot of failure as we're experimenting around whether it's paints or molecules. And there's also, well, we don't make much money either. So funding could be better for both.

And doing Art Lab, I got to meet people who were working at the intersection of art, science, and environmental justice and then broadly science justice as I continued down that track. And I found that there were all of these different ways that people were connecting their expertise in science with the public at large, trying to engage them in more public conversations around the place of science and society.

And I started to kind of wonder, "Well, you know, is there a place for me and the skills that I have in communication, my passion for justice with my expertise as a scientist?" And so I, with a couple of friends, started a podcast called "Science Soapbox" at the intersection of science policy and advocacy where we really just wanted to talk with scientists who were using their expertise in some sort of public-facing way because honestly, we had no idea what that would look like, we had no idea what a career in science policy or advocacy or communication might look like, but we did know that we could identify the right experts and talk to them, kind of like an experiment.

And so we got to have a lot of really amazing people on the podcast. Like John Holdren, who was the former science advisor to President Obama. We've had Katharine Hayhoe on the podcast talking about her expertise in climate science and how she's used her unique lens as an evangelical Christian to advocate for climate solutions within that community. We've talked to Francis Cologne who was the highest-ranking Hispanic woman scientist at the State Department about how she was able to connect her expertise in science with big global diplomacy questions around climate change and empowering young girls into STEM careers.

And so all of their paths looked really different, but they were fundamentally giving back to society through their expertise. And so I thought, "Man, maybe this is something I can do." And I decided to leave the bench and pursue a science policy fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, which is...

Colleen: Yeah, tell me a little bit about that.

Maryam: Yeah. So this is a program that places Ph.D. scientists who are either early career, mid-career or late career, it doesn't matter, in the government for a year to two years to see how they can use their expertise within a government setting. Trying to find where their expertise fits into policy-making. And also figure out, you know, how this big, bureaucratic, thing like government actually works.

And so I wanted to get a feel for how I could use my experiences in Grad School, my commitment to wanting to democratize access to the products of research to make sure that they're communicated to the public and they're also communicated to researchers so that we're really making sure that science has a place within the public discourse.

Colleen: So what do you see as the danger of science not being part of the public discussion?

Maryam: I see a lot of decisions that are being made based on emotions and emotions alone. Which I am a very emotional person, and I find that for me to take a step back to identify my emotions as fear or excitement or what have you, take a step back and think, "Well, what does the evidence say, and what are the consequences if I don't act in accordance with the evidence?" Because there are sometimes when, you know, I take strange vitamins because I see them advertise that they'll make my hair shinier and I want that. And I look at the evidence and it doesn't really back it up, but there's also no health risks, so I think, "Well, why not?"

Colleen: Just doing your own experiments?

Maryam: Yeah, just doing my own experiment and if it makes me feel better then that's fine. But then, of course, there are other cases like climate change, which, it's here, it's happening and we've caused it and if we don't act now, then we are really risking the health and livelihood of our planet, of our fellow people by neglecting the evidence. So I think that's really the risk of not communicating about where science falls in the public discourse because, you know, sometimes it's benign to ignore the evidence and other times it's completely catastrophic.

Colleen: So I wanna pivot to inequity and bias many people think, "Hey, the science is the science." You know, there can't be inequities or biases. Can you give some examples to our listeners so they know what we're talking about?

Maryam: Yeah. So I think a common refrain is that scientists are purely objective, which ignores the fact that scientists are people. And we can be trained to recognize our biases and the ways that they're creeping up into our research. But often that's not really something that's very much explored in scientific training is identifying the biases that come up as a product of how we're raised, how we're socialized, how we interact with one another.

And so I think that the way that this really crops up in the case of women, minorities, disabled people, LGBTQ people, is that people's assumptions of, you know, I'll take me as an example, I'm a woman, in case you can't tell by my voice, and I've had people tell me that some of my bold ideas are overambitious. Whereas, if that idea came out of the mouth of a male colleague of mine, that would be seen as visionary or bold or...

Colleen: Innovative.

Maryam: Yeah, Innovative, cutting-edge. And the way that, that creeps up when I'm, you know, writing a scientific paper or applying for grant money is that they'll look at that over-ambitiousness and say that it's unrealistic and not worth funding. And so that starts to hurt the careers of women, starts to hurt the careers of people who don't conform to the stereotypes that we've been socialized to accept as what a scientist looks like, which is typically, white, CISgendered male.

So unless we're having these kinds of conversations about the ways that bias affect who gets to do science, then we're really not going to be able to course correct despite however many you know, fun diversity initiatives we throw out there, despite however many kinds of like, Kumbaya moments that we try to have, unless we're really interrogating the biases that we hold. Even I as a woman hold certain biases that are implicit against women just because of how I've been socialized within this greater societal context.

And I think that also if we're keeping certain people away from the bench, if we're keeping certain people out of these conversations, not giving them a seat at the table, then we're really, especially when you start to get into research that is more fraught. Like when you're starting to look into say, gender difference, or sex difference research. If you only have men at the table making conclusions about the aptitude of women are what women are most qualified to do or the nurturing qualities of women. If there are no women who are at the table to say, "Hey, maybe you should check in with your biases and decide, is this what the science says? Or is this what you, a human scientist with your subjective flaws is bringing to the table?"


Colleen: So what would your dream job be?

Maryam: Oh man. Right now I have, sort of, three hats. Which is as a science communicator in the work that I do as a science writer, as a science storyteller. The second hat is as an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion with the work that I do with an organization called 500 Women Scientists. And the third hat is in my science policy fellowship. And to me, in my science policy fellowship where I'm trying to increase access to federally funded research by the public and the research community.

I struggled with having kind of an identity crisis for a while. But I think all of these really come back to the idea of making sure that everybody has access to the process and products of research and understand that science belongs to everybody. And there's all of these different ways in order to try to accomplish that. And so my really long copout answer is my dream job is just making sure that I'm getting to work at this interface between science and the scientific community and the greater public and making them feel like they have agency to participate in these kinds of conversations and ask questions of scientists because scientists, after all, are in the business of asking questions themselves.

Colleen: It is true. You're wearing many hats. You're doing a podcast, you're working on Story Collider, you're writing articles, you're doing a lot, but I do wanna talk a little bit about 500 Women Scientists. Tell me, how it came about and what you're doing with the organization.

Maryam: Yeah, so 500 Women Scientists was started as an open letter after the November 2016 election. And it began as a pledge to stand up not just for science and the place of science in the public, but also to stand up for the human rights and dignity and right to justice of the people who are doing science and the people who should be benefiting from science, particularly those who would be increasingly marginalized under the current administration, so immigrants, people of color, women, gender minorities, people from the LGBTQ community and so on.

And this pledge went viral within the first week or so and has since garnered around 20,000 signatures from all around the world. And women scientists around the world started self-organizing in response to the women's March, really, and marching together within their own satellite cities. And from there, a bunch of women decided, "Well, maybe we should actually try to develop this into an organization." So this is truly a movement that was born of the grassroots. And then, the organization came from trying to organize all of the energy that we saw all around the world. And so as of this summer, we've become a 501(c)(3) with the mission to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible.

I wasn't one of the original 500 women. I think I looked it up and I was something like 1000, something like that. But I heard of the pledge just online the way that other people were finding it. And in January, I found myself in Iran visiting family when the first travel ban happened. And I felt completely hopeless in that moment trying to figure out, I'm a U.S. citizen, but there was a lot of weird communication happening at that time and I wasn't sure that I would be able to come back without any issues.

And so when I was in the Abu Dhabi airport on my way back trying to figure out, "Well, like, how can I take back some power for myself? How can I be part of the solution?" Because I was seeing these lawyers protesting at airports trying to make sure that their expertise was available to the people who needed it. And I was wondering, "Well, how can I do that as a scientist?"

And so I emailed Kelly Ramirez and Jane Zelikova who were the two co-founders and asked them, "Hey, I have these communication skills, I think I could maybe try to write grants or op-eds or whatever. It doesn't matter. Can I join and help shape this?" And that was how I got involved and how it started for me, and I haven't looked back.

Colleen: What would you say to scientists that really feel that there's no place for scientists to be advocating for policy, etc.?

Maryam: I'd say that science is inherently political. There is no way that you can imagine science existing in a vacuum because the raw materials that we use for science are the world around us. And so how could we possibly either isolate ourselves from everything that we witness around us, whether it's inconvenient or works to our advantage?

And so I think that if we're not engaged in these kinds of conversations, if we're not trying to advocate for the position of evidence in the world around us, and if we're not trying to advocate for the responsible use of evidence in the world around us, making sure that it is benefiting and serving the greater public, then I really don't understand what the point of what we're doing is. Because whether you're doing science just for the sake of generating knowledge, well, you should be sharing that knowledge with as many people as possible.

Colleen: Well, I think this conversation we're having here I think is really inspiring for young, upcoming, early career scientists such as yourself. Is there anything that you would directly wanna say to a scientist in college that's just, you know, maybe thinking, "Ugh, the political situation working in, you know, as a federal scientist would be horrible"? Is there anything you would wanna say to them to encourage them to participate?

Maryam: So many things. The first is that something I've realized as I've started getting into more organizing is that optimism is sort of a muscle that you have to strengthen and exercise. And so it's really difficult to just like look at the world around you and immediately feel hope. You have to kind of search out the examples. And that's something that I'm constantly doing is looking at examples of where organizing paid off or where government scientists were able to make their voices heard and make a difference or Supreme Court cases in which first amendment rights were upheld.

And looking at the greater scope of history beyond just these one or two years that we're experiencing because something I've learned during my policy fellowship is that bureaucracies are big and unwieldy and multilayered. And that's exactly why things are really hard to change quickly, but it's also why there is a lot of stability in the work that is being done in the government, in the work that is being done within advocacy organizations like Union of Concerned Scientists.

And so I think that while, you know, these last years have been tough, don't lose hope because by the time that you have your degree and you're ready to enter the workforce there's loads of people that I have met at UCS, that I've met through 500 Women Scientists, that I've met through Story Collider who are really working to make sure that science is working for everybody.

And so it is a big and wide tent, and I hope that they'll join me there.

Colleen: Thanks, Maryam for coming by. It was really great to talk to you.

Maryam: Thank you. UCS has been such a great part of my journey, so I'm happy to get to chat with you.

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Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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