nSCI Profile Series: Monica Feliú-Mójer, outreach scientist
Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer is the manager of outreach programs at the University of Washington’s Department of Biostatistics, and the vice-director and news editor-in-chief at CienciaPR, a community-driven website that produces and shares science news with Spanish-speaking audiences and engages Hispanic scientists with science communication and education. She was born in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico and attended the University of Puerto Rico – Bayamón, before moving to the States to pursue a career in neuroscience. Feliú-Mójer holds a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard and is now focusing on science outreach.
For her, the key to communicating science is making the science MATTER to the audience. To some audiences and communities, science is seldomly presented in a way that is relevant to them, to their culture or their reality. Feliú-Mójer thinks that scientists can and should play a crucial role in changing that.
Key point #1: Feliú-Mójer didn’t learn about the connection between basic research and medicine until college, but that late discovery didn’t stop her from pursuing research
What was it like growing up in Puerto Rico, being interested in science but living in an area where there weren’t as many opportunities to explore science?
MFM: I was born in rural Puerto Rico, in a town called Vega Alta, and I like to say that nature was my play laboratory. Because I was surrounded by nature, science was really all around me and I was very interested in science. I was always collecting rocks and digging up earthworms. My parents were always very encouraging of that sense of wonder and wanting to understand how things worked, but I didn’t know what science as a discipline was. Much less what research was.
I certainly didn’t know any scientists growing up. I knew medical doctors and nurses, but I didn’t know research was a career possibility. I didn’t know that there were thousands, or at least several hundreds, of scientists that were doing research in Puerto Rico, because that was not something that was highly publicized. [Science] was not something that you heard about in the news.
And when scientists were on the TV, the scientists I saw were foreign. They didn’t look like me.
So what happened in college that steered you toward basic research?
MFM: I went to college at the University of Puerto Rico – Bayamón, which is a small campus in the University of Puerto Rico system, where there weren’t a lot of opportunities to do basic research.
But that didn’t bother me, because I thought I was settled on what I wanted to do: I intended to be a physician and more specifically to be a psychiatrist. [Psychiatry] was my goal, but there was a professor who was constantly challenging me, constantly asking me questions, and telling me that it would be good for me to try research.
So I went to do research over the summer before my junior year, and after the first month, I was in love.
When I was growing up, I didn’t quite understand how research was connected to medicine. I didn’t get that many of the medical breakthroughs we have come from basic research.
I was fascinated by the idea of discovering things, studying problems that nobody or very few people were studying.
The laboratory I worked in as undergraduate studied a model of cocaine addiction called behavioral sensitization (the animal becomes more sensitive to a drug after multiple exposures) and the role of norepinephrine, which is a particular neurotransmitter, in the development of sensitization. We were basically trying to understand the mechanisms behind cocaine addiction.
What drew you to psychiatry and neuroscience in particular?
MFM: It was a couple of things. My dad was diagnosed with depression when I was 11, and the change in his behavior and his personality was pretty obvious. As a young kid, I knew that he had this disorder, that this disorder had something to do with his brain. At that point, I became fascinated with the brain and how what happens in the brain affects behavior.
I knew that a psychiatrist was the person who is supposed to help people with mental disorders get better, and so I wanted to pursue that. It was the only profession I knew at that time that dealt with the brain. I didn’t know that there were scientists who actually spend their life trying to figure out how the brain works and what happens when things go wrong.
Key point #2: One big challenge for scientists in developing countries is access to reagents and equipment
After college, you took a job as a research assistant at MIT. What was it like coming from a small university in Puerto Rico to Boston, which is a big city and a huge hub for biomedical research?
MFM: It was different in many ways, but at the same time, I felt that I was very prepared. I decided that I didn’t want to go straight to grad school, because I wanted to get experience in a different area of neuroscience than what I had been working on.
Obviously, there was culture shock, because I had to speak English all the time, which was not something I had to do in Puerto Rico. Probably the worst was the weather. In other ways, I felt very prepared with the research experience I had to undertake projects.
I would say that one of things that struck me was the availability of resources. I would hear people in Puerto Rico say, “Doing research here is very challenging”, and I wanted to change that. I said I wanted to go train in some of the best places in the world and come back to Puerto Rico and change the way things work.
In Puerto Rico, we had to plan our experiments months ahead of time and order all of the reagents we would need and hope that they came in on time. And when I was at MIT, I remember in my first week, I ordered a reagent and it was on my desk the next day. I was like, “I f***ed up. I must have ordered it express and I shouldn’t have.” I remember going to the lab manager and saying, “I f*** ed up. I’m sorry,” and she was like, “No, no. That’s the way it is. They come the next day.”
That was a stark contrast. If you need a reagent that is $3000, that’s not a luxury that I would have had in Puerto Rico. You could not order it next day like that. So that experience opened my eyes to what are some of the challenges in the progression of research in Puerto Rico and other developing countries. In my experience, in Puerto Rico [resources] aren’t as easily available sometimes. US-based research intensive institutions have more resources overall. Research is extremely competitive and when you think about the disparities in resource availability and the research support infrastructure between developing countries and developed countries with huge research activity, the challenges become more apparent.
The other thing about that experience at MIT was that it opened my eyes to the breadth of neuroscience. I was at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, but there were two other departments that are in the same building, and the diversity of research topics was absolutely stunning for me and was something I hadn’t seen in Puerto Rico. Although, I would say that the neuroscience community is one of the largest research communities in Puerto Rico.
Growing up barely aware of research, I knew what a Nobel Prize was, but at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with Nobel Prize winners and hear their ideas straight out of their mouths.
Key point #3: Scientific communities are a powerful way to create meaningful outreach efforts
How did you get involved with CienciaPR?
MFM: I met the co-founder, Daniel Colón-Ramos, by chance. I was interviewing for graduate school at Stanford University. Daniel was a post-doctoral fellow there at the time (he is now an associate professor at Yale). I was talking to him, and he said, “Hey, I just created this website. It’s a community to connect Puerto Rican scientists with each other.” I think it had only been created a month before I met him, and he said he was looking for volunteers to help him run the website and spread the word. And right then, I thought, “I have an opportunity to stay connected to Puerto Rico.”
So I got involved with the organization. Initially I became involved with helping update the website’s news section and with the science communication initiatives, particularly a collaboration with El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper. The goal of this collaboration (and others we have established over the years) was to give scientists the opportunity to write lay science articles for the newspapers, and from there, it kept growing and growing and growing.
Were you surprised by that growth?
MFM: Umm… Yes and no. I always saw that the community had a lot of potential, that there were projects that would never have occurred to me. I think that’s the beauty of the community—everything is crowdsourced. All of the initiatives that we have created have come from ideas from the community. The CienciaPR community is a great example of the value of diversity, of a diversity of ideas.
That’s how the ¡Ciencia Boricua! book was born. There were a number of stories that had been published in newspapers by that time, and one night we were talking and the idea of the book was born. The team that runs CienciaPR is a primarily volunteer-based group, so every two months, we all get together on the phone and talk for 2-3 hours, and one Sunday night, we were talking about how teachers use the articles we publish in the newspapers in their classrooms. And one of the volunteers said, “Why don’t we just put them together in a book?”
He offered to collect the essays and put out a call for new ones and we all said, “Let’s do it!”
What’s surprising to me is how much people have taken ownership of the projects and how much they want to give back. I knew there was a desire and a need for this type of space but it has exceeded my expectations.
Are there are any specific examples that stand out to you?
MFM: Oh, yeah! There are tons! In 2008, a member of the community said, “Well, you are writing articles that appear in newspapers. Why not do podcasts?” And we said, “Sure. Do you want to do that?” And he said, “Yes. I’ll do that!” So we started a podcast channel.
Now we have over 220 podcasts that have been produced. We have established collaborations with radio stations in Puerto Rico, where they broadcast them. You can download the podcasts from iTunes or from our website.
Recently, another member of the community said, “I want to do a podcast, but I want to do something different.” On the original podcast channel, we have 2-3 minute-long podcasts, and he wanted to do something where he could go deeper into the issues and interview the scientists, the researchers, the educators, the people who were experts. Now we’ve had about four of those podcasts.
I could go on. We’ve started blogs. We’ve provided the platform, and members can create something that they’re interested in and something that they’re passionate about. We’ve recently launched a blog about the intersection of science and design in collaboration with one of the architecture schools in Puerto Rico. We’ve created different blogs. One of them, Borinqueña, is about women in science, where women can share their experiences, resources and advice for other Hispanic women in the sciences. We have a blog called “Science is All Around You” that has beautiful pictures of Puerto Rico, and we use those to exemplify the science all around people, all around us.
Do you ever write for the blogs?
MFM: I do. I write for Borinqueña and for the media collaborations with the newspapers. I also write for our monthly profile series. Roughly each month we have a profile of a Hispanic scientist (in English and Spanish) and we highlight their career so that people know not only about their research but also the person behind it. How did that person get interested in science? And what challenges did they have to overcome to become a physician or an astrophysicist?
Last year we had a story of a woman who created a system that allowed her to listen to the stars. She is blind, and so she created a system that allowed her to hear the astrophysical data she was collecting. We not only talk about all the great research she’s doing but also the challenges she faced. Our monthly profiles are a great way to provide visibility to role models that don’t often get it.
How do you go about deciding what topics you want to write about?
MFM: It depends. Sometimes the inspiration just strikes. I do a lot of storytelling, so a lot of times it’s about something that happened to me or someone I know. Other times I see something, and I think, “I have to share this story with whoever will read it!”
Key point #4: Science outreach isn’t an “alternative” career path anymore
Speaking of challenges, have you ever encountered any challenges in your own science career or in communicating science to the public?
MFM: Oh, yeah… Let’s see. Which one would I rather talk about?
Well, everyone faces challenges. I’ve faced my own personal challenges. For example, when I was completing my degree, there were times when I felt that I wasn’t capable. I was attacked by the “Impostor Syndrome”.
This is not something that’s unique to me. [The Impostor Syndrome] is something that affects to a lot of people. It affects a lot of women and minorities in science fields.
I think at the transition of being a researcher and becoming an outreach scientist there are challenges as well.
For example, graduate school was made to train people to become academic scientists, but the reality is that most people don’t become academic scientists. Most people say “alternative careers”, when they’re talking about non-academic careers. That term really, really bothers me, because nowadays, being in academia is the alternative.
But there’s still a stigma of “Well, if you didn’t go into academic science, maybe you were not good enough. Or maybe you were not smart enough.”
I was traveling recently, and I was randomly talking to a woman in a hotel lobby. She asked me, “What do you do?” And I said, “Oh, I’m an outreach scientist. I trained as a research scientist but I now do outreach at the University of Washington.”
She looked at me and said, “Really? And you like that better than doing research?!” At that point, I was like, “Yeah. I like that better than doing research” and just left that there. But as the day went on, it kept eating at me because of her tone and the way she said it. All her tone said to me was, “Being an outreach scientist is not as good as being a research scientist. How come you would rather be doing outreach than research that could potentially save lives?”
And it continued to eat at me because I didn’t say anything to her. I was mad at myself because I didn’t say, “Well, look, there is a place for all of us in science, and you can do as much research as you want and generate all of this life-saving knowledge but if you’re not communicating it, then what’s the point?”
That’s where I come in. I have the understanding of how research is done. I am a scientist. But I also have the ability to communicate science and to make it accessible to people in a way that few research scientists can.
I get asked “Why do we need to do outreach? Or why does it have to be a specialty?” Sometimes I feel they are questioning my decision to not go into academia. I still struggle with because I recently made that transition.
How do you define an outreach scientist?
MFM: Well, “How do you define outreach?” is probably the first thing you should ask me.
nSCI: (laughs) Good point.
MFM: I don’t have a really good consensus definition; I have a definition that I use for myself. My role as an outreach scientist is to leverage my deep understanding of the scientific process and to make it accessible, relevant, and available to people who are not scientists. My role is to build bridges between those who are doing the research and those who will likely benefit from the research.
I see my role as an outreach scientist to communicate the context and the impacts of science. Science can help solve some of the most complex issues our society faces. I see myself at that intersection [between science and society] telling stories of the research and the scientists so that people can really react and appreciate how science affects their life.
Going back to the transition, what led you to make the leap from neuroscience PhD to biostatistics outreach?
MFM: I get that question all the time. Even from people in my own department (laughs). Part of it was chance. As I was coming closer to finishing my PhD, I knew that I didn’t want to be an academic researcher and I knew that I was passionate about communicating science so I wanted to do outreach and I wanted to become involved in education.
When I moved to Seattle I didn’t really know anybody, so I just started networking and talking to anyone who would talk to me about what kind of outreach efforts were happening in the city.
Being a scientist is definitely a plus. It’s incredibly helpful for understanding the rationale behind the research in an area outside of my training. But I didn’t really seek to do outreach for biostatistics.
I understood how important biostatistics is for life sciences and public health and how under-appreciated biostatistics is as a science. A lot of people think that stats and math are really dry and not relevant. I understand why it’s sometimes hard to see how math is relevant to our daily lives. These disciplines are rarely presented in an appealing way. People think it’s all about equations and not much more. They don’t realize math goes into designing cars or making sure medicines are safe for people.
I’m the first person doing outreach for the department, so I have the opportunity to define what outreach means for the department.
I’ve been getting to know what’s happening in the department, in the community and doing a lot of social media. What does the community look like online? What do biostatisticians talk about on Twitter? What do people want to know about biostatistics?
I’ve been writing for our website about what our department’s research and people. I’ve also been reaching out to people in the Seattle area to see how we can be a resource for them. One thing I really want to do is have professors and graduate students visit high school students and talk to them about careers in biostatistics.
One of the things I think about when I think about biostatistics is that it’s used by scientists in a lot of different disciplines but they may not necessarily be well versed in the specifics of it. Are there ever any communication issues that come up even within the sciences?
MFM: One of the things I really like about biostatistics is that it’s so widely applicable. Because of that we could be applying statistics to the analysis of the human genome or to save elephants from ivory poaching in Africa.
And I’d say, yeah, one of the challenges many scientists, including myself, face is that we don’t have a strong statistical training. Science is becoming more and more quantitative, so there’s a gap there.
Our department has been historically great on establishing interdisciplinary collaborations so that the scientists in our department can provide sound expertise and leadership in the teaching, development and application of statistical methods.
For example, we have three summer institutes that provide statistical training in areas like clinical research, genetics and infectious diseases. These summer institutes attract scientists from all over the world who come in to take short courses in biostatistics.
That’s something that I’m involved with this year for the first time, so I’m excited to see the interactions between scientists from different disciplines as they’re figuring out ‘What are the quantitative methods that will move our science forward?’
Key point #5: If you want to make someone care about science, you have to make it relevant to their daily lives. Especially if their daily lives are very different from yours.
How do you go about communicating science to someone who doesn’t have any science background and maybe thinks they’re not interested in science?
MFM: One of my favorite examples is “Puerto Rico nació en el Pacífico” (Puerto Rico was born in the Pacific.) If you say that to someone, probably their first reaction is going to be, “What?!”
People want to ask questions.
If you say that to a Puerto Rican, it creates an immediate connection with where you grew up and your culture. That is the strategy that I use.
If you want people care about something, it has to matter to them.
If a discovery was made in China, how is it relevant to a health problem that my mother has? Or if a software was developed in Seattle, how is that going to help the phone I use in Italy work better?
While I was growing up, being a researcher wasn’t something that I thought about because it wasn’t something that people around me did. It wasn’t relevant to me. But once research became relevant to me, it opened a world of possibilities.
A good friend of mine, Luis Quevedo, who is also a science communicator, once told me that his science communication philosophy boils down to this: “La culpa es de uno si no enamora.” (It’s your fault if you don’t make them fall in love). It’s from a poem by Mario Benedetti.
As soon as he said that, I told to myself “It is so true.” That’s what I think science communication is all about (although I was never able to put it so beautifully). As a communicator you must find a way to make your audience fall in love with (or at least care about) the science in the story.
It seems to me like even in the “pop science” writing, we tend to assume an audience of middle-class people, who are probably white and probably went to college, and a lot of times people of color or people who speak English as a second language get left out. Have you noticed that?
MFM: They do get left out. I think that people forget that the value of science is not the same across cultures and communities. There are communities that have been abused by science and that have a distrust of science.
There are communities where science is not part of the conversation. I think in the US we have a ways to go in terms of science literacy and appreciation of science among the general public, but in many ways, science is part of the fabric of the US.
In the 1960s, it was all about going to space, and that was a matter of national pride. It was a matter of economic progress. And I think that in the US, science is part of the conversation around progress, and that’s not necessarily the case in many underserved communities or developing countries. These communities are left out because the science is not put in the right context for them.
I am a strong advocate for including these communities when you’re talking about science. There are so many people being left out of the conversation because of the way science is communicated to them. When you’re communicating anything, you need to think about “Who is my audience? What do they care about? What do they want to hear?” In science, it’s no different.
In this country (the US), Spanish is the second most-spoken language, and there’s this assumption that if you’re living here, you prefer to read and to live your your life in English, but the reality is that there is a large segment of the Hispanic population in this country that would rather get their information about science and about health in Spanish (for the majority, their native language), and we’re not reaching that community. We (science communicators) are missing out on that community because we are not creating enough quality relevant Spanish-language content.
Hispanics are underserved in terms of education. They’re underserved in terms of health. They’re not getting the information that will allow them to make decisions about their money, the environment and about healthcare because they’re not getting it in their language or they’re not getting it in a way that’s relevant to them.
Relevance goes beyond language. You can translate a popular science piece in Spanish, but if it’s still really convoluted to the person who’s reading, if it is not relevant to their reality, their culture, then it doesn’t have the impact it should.
What do you think we, as the science communication community, can do about that?
MFM: I think we need to be more aware of how we present our stories. I think we also need to be more aware of which scientists we’re featuring in our stories.
We have to be aware that not every community values science in the same way and be willing to work a little bit harder to figure out, “Who is that audience that I want to reach? How does this science matter to them? How do I make them fall in love? Am I missing something that is important to them?”
I like to say that we’re all born scientists; we’re all born curious. People are inherently interested in discoveries and in stories. We have to harness that.
Why is communication integral to science?
MFM: I sincerely believe that in order to become a successful scientist, you need to be an effective communicator. Even as a scientist if you’re purely doing research, you have to write grants, you have to give talks, and you have to write papers.
I think scientists need to start seeing communicating science to lay audiences as a professional development tool. I know some scientists see it as a burden.
I think we need to shift the conversation and see communication as an essential professional skill that we need to have as scientists, not only for our own success in terms of funding and getting tenure but really as part of the fundamental purpose of science.
Science is humanistic; it’s a human quest for knowledge that transcends geography, politics, language. What’s the point of making all these discoveries if you can’t communicate them?
To learn more about CienciaPR, visit their website or check out this article on “Supporting Diversity in Science through Social Networking” in PLOS Biology. To learn more about Dr. Feliú-Mójer’s work as outreach manager at University of Washington-Seattle, check out their homepage or follow her on Twitter at @moefeliu. For more from the author of this article, visit her site atdianacrowscience.com or follow her at@CatalyticRxn on Twitter.