Episode 17 – Interview with physicist and science comedian Dr. Jessamyn Fairfield
Welcome back to Season Three of Let’s Talk SciComm – we couldn’t be more excited to be back talking about science communication with you.
To launch our new season, we’re joined by the fabulous (and funny) Dr Jessamyn A. Fairfield, a lecturer in the School of Physics at the National University of Ireland Galway. She leads research in neuromorphic nanomaterials, physics education, and public engagement with science. She is also an award-winning science communicator, and the director of Bright Club Ireland, a comedy night bringing academic research to the public.
You can follow Jessamyn and learn more about her work here:
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello and warmest welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk Scicomm.
I’m Jen and as always I’m joined by Michael. Hello Michael.
Hey Jen, I’m very excited for today’s episode.
Well I am very excited too because I get to introduce you to a very good friend of mine today.
We are joined by Dr Jessamyn Fairfield. Hello Jessamyn.
Hi, it’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me.
So Jessamyn, I had the pleasure of meeting you in Antarctica, which is I reckon a pretty cool thing to be able to say on a podcast.
We had of course met online before then, but Jessamyn and I are both part of the women’s leadership program Homeward Bound which meant that we worked together online for quite a long time and then had the pleasure of meeting in person and spending three weeks in Antarctica together back at the end of 2019.
So Jessamyn, you’re a physicist. You grew up in Alamos, in the US, which I know is the home of the atomic bomb. I read that somewhere, what a claim to fame. And you studied your undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley. And then you did your Masters and PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. But these days you are based in Ireland. So I know you started as a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin and now you’re at NUI Galway.
Michael, I need to let you know that Jessamyn is a multi award-winning science communicator as well as being a physicist. So she writes for popular magazines, she shares science on the radio, she gives lots and lots of talks, she’s involved in lots of different events. And what I really can’t wait to talk about today is the fact that Jessamyn is also a performer and a stand-up comedian. So she brought Soapbox Science to Galway. She’s the director of Bright Club Ireland. And if you’re not sure what Bright Club is, stay tuned.
So we have lots of interesting things to talk about today. But I do want to go back to the beginning, Jessamyn. Can you remember a particular moment where you decided that science was your thing, that you were going to be a scientist?
Hmm I mean, I think I always had a very strong interest in science. I think, especially from having grown up in a national lab town where there were lots of scientists and you know, my friends’ parents and my parents were scientists.
But one of the really standout moments for me, I think, was actually when I was a teenager, I was involved in Girl Scouts. And all of our Girl Scout troop leaders were also scientists or engineers, because that’s who lives in Los Alamos and one of them was actually working on an instrument for the Cassini probe that was launched I think in the late 90s. And then you know, went to Saturn and was looking at Saturn and its moons for quite a while actually until pretty recently.
And so we went in to see this piece of the probe that my Girl Scout troop leader was working on and she was explaining how we were looking at something that was going to be launched into space. And I had been really interested in space and planets and black holes and stuff like that. But I think just seeing something that was going to go into space and then you know how on, goes on the Voyager probes they put on like golden discs of human culture.
So they were going to do that with Cassini as well. But since it wasn’t an LP, it was a CD, there was room for a lot more data. And they’re like, hey, you know we’re going to put on everyone from the Girl Scout troop signatures on this disc, on this thing that’s going to go into space.
And so it was really this like mind-blowing thing than watching the news and being like Oh my gosh, like my signature’s going into space, my signature is reaching Saturn soon. It was the moment of seeing it, but then this kind of like ongoing journey of Oh my gosh, it’s happening. I’m very peripherally involved in this.
And then when they finally decided to deorbit Cassini into Saturn because they were losing power and they were kind of like, you know, this doesn’t have a lot of lifespan left, we don’t want to accidentally crash it somewhere we don’t want it to go, I felt very sad that my signature was just crashing into Saturn.
Yeah, that’s fascinating. So Jessamyn, would you say it was a curiosity with space that got you interested in physics?
Well, I think I’d say that was a lot of what got me into it to begin with.
I was interested in astronomy, but I did a couple of astronomy summer jobs and was like oh, I’m actually just programming a weather station, looking out at a telescope all the time. And I think I gravitated hard towards physics in a way too, because it was very mathy.
Can we just pause there to appreciate the pun?
Yeah, let’s just sit in that for a second.
But yeah, like I think I enjoyed maths eventually, and physics was I don’t know, like what I like about physics is that it illuminates the world in such interesting ways right? Like you can understand more about what you’re looking at in your day-to-day life by learning physics. And I mean that’s true for lots of other things as well, right? But I really, really enjoyed it.
And so I kind of drifted around for a little while in terms of my focus within physics. But then I got really into nano science because not only is it a really interesting sort of size scale for the world, looking at things that are very small, but it’s this surreal space where you start to see like quantum effects. You start to see things that we wouldn’t see ourselves just walking around the world looking at it. And I find it really interesting that I as a researcher can see some of these crazy things, like I can see light and electricity and how they interact. And, you know, can see quantum confinement.
I was working on nanocrystals as a graduate student and one of the cool things about them if you find sort of light-active nanocrystals, is that their size directly corresponds to the wavelength of light that they emit. So it’s not just a function of the material itself. Like Cadmium Selenide (CdSe) was a material I worked on a lot. It’s the exact size that it’s at, and so you’re sort of directly seeing that its energy levels are confined in these quantum ways, and to me that’s just mind-blowing. Like me, just you know, some person off the street can see quantum mechanics, is so cool. It’s also kind of a mindblowing field in a sense that it’s confusing and weird, but I, I kind of like that.
So Jessamyn, I’m interested… Looking back, I mean just hearing you explain your field of research then, the passion is obvious and you did a great job of explaining physics to someone like me who’s never been into physics. But what do you think your first experience of being a science communicator was?
Yeah, well, I think I probably started the way that a lot of people start, which is just talking to your friends, right? Talking to your friends and family who don’t know anything about your field and being like, “Oh man, you know, I was just in class. I learned something really interesting. Let me try to explain it to you”.
But I think that my first proper step into science communication was when I moved over to Ireland in 2011. I started a science blog at the same time I started my postdoctoral research position. And it was actually… I don’t, I don’t know why I did this, except that I was like, I want to explain stuff that’s cool, but I also want to explain it from first principles. And in a way I was like a little bit detraining myself of the style of academic writing that I had learned as a PhD student. You know, very formal, full of lots of little asides, like not necessarily very clear. I think it’s hard to do academic writing in a really clear way because of all the requirements around it. But you know, I’d say I’m better at it now hopefully than I was then.
But I just, like sitting down to write a blog post and being like what’s an atom? How do I explain what an atom is and not rely on other explanations? And how do I sort of build this up? How do I talk about atoms or collections of atoms, or chemical bonds? Or how do I get into like what’s the difference between a metal and a semiconductor? But only use concepts that I’ve already explained.
And I, I feel like I learned a lot not only about science, but also about writing and explanation by trying to do that. But I think what’s also funny is at the time I very much wanted to do a blog because I wanted to talk about science more, but I was really afraid of public speaking. And so I was like well, if I write a blog then people can read the blog instead of talking to me. And I won’t have to get up in front of anybody and talk about science, which is now deeply ironic that that was my main concern.
I was gonna say the irony [of] you not enjoying public speaking. Oh my goodness.
So Jessamyn I just have to launch straight into it. How did you get into comedy and improv?
Because science and comedy, they’re not necessarily two things that go together. How did it all start?
Yeah, I mean really how it all started is that I signed up for an improv. class just in the evenings because a friend of mine told me that it was fun, the class was cheap and she’s like it’s like group therapy, but much cheaper. Like okay, like see… And I had always really enjoyed improv. and comedy.
But I just never thought of myself as someone who could do that. And partly because I would get very nervous public speaking. You know how you have to give talks for research or like your PhD viva. Like I never even… I remember when I was in college. I was in a theatre company for a bit and I was the stage manager. And I was like, this is as close as I’m going to get, this is fine, this is great. I just tell people that they forgot a prop.
But then the improv. class was really fun. And so there was one improv. class. This was with Neil Curran in Dublin and it was six weeks long. There was no show at the end, which is great, ’cause I was like, I’m not doing this show, I’d never do a show. But it was really fun. And then there was a second six week class and I’m like well, I’ll do that, but I’m not doing the show, I’d never do a show. And then at the end he was just like “Well, does anyone want to do a show?” And no one was willing to say no in front of the others. So we ended up doing a show. And it was really nerve wracking. But also afterwards I immediately wanted to do more shows.
I actually think, especially as someone in academic research, there’s something about the improv. mindset that’s really amazing of just sort of saying ‘yes and’ to people. So not like criticising or looking for something that someone else has done wrong in a scene but kind of saying okay, I agree with what you’ve put out there and I’m going to try to help you build on it. And there’s a real like community ethos to it as well of we’re all in this together, this improv. show succeeds or dies with us all together. No one gets to say “Oh my part was good”. It’s like no, we’re all in this. And I found that really refreshing coming from academia where sometimes people can be very critical and trying to just like poke holes in everything.
But I think too, I kind of got into stand up comedy from improv. Again, not in a way that I would have ever predicted. But I think in some ways science and, and improv. have a lot in common because they’re both sort of about thinking creatively and thinking outside the box and kind of saying, “Ok, well like, let’s take this as a first principle, then what else has to be true if that thing is true?” Just experimenting and kind of looking for something and, and also accepting that you’re maybe gonna fail some of the time, right? Like as you said, Jen, you know, if we knew how it was going to turn out then why would we bother to do it? And that’s one of the real joys of improv. performances is you kind of get up in front of an audience and you don’t know what the show is going to be and you don’t know what’s going to happen.
And Jessamyn, can you tell us a little bit about the Bright Club?
Yeah, so Bright Club is a… basically a research comedy variety night that I’ve been organising in Ireland since 2015 now.
So we’ve actually, I realised the other day that we’ve had 95 shows and I’m sort of horrified by that? ‘Cause it’s so many.
Like am I old? Am I an old…
No, you’re definitely not.
But no, the premise of Bright Club is basically that it’s a variety night and half the acts on… in any given night are comedians but half are academic researchers who are using stand up comedy to talk about their work.
So the format was pioneered by Steve Cross in London at UCL. But I heard about it and realised that no one was doing it in Ireland so I basically just wrote to Steven, was like “Hi, I’m a researcher/ comedian. Can I please do Bright Club in Ireland?” And he was like, “Sure, here’s some information and good luck”.
And it’s been great. I mean, basically the way that the nights work is we’ll get a lineup of academics beforehand and we try to go across all disciplines. So there would be scientists, but also people from social science, humanities. And we do a series of sort of training sessions with them beforehand. Like we try to give them material to help, then write a comedy set about their research.
And that doesn’t necessarily mean like laughing at your research right? Because nobody really wants to do that. If you’re doing research, you probably take it pretty seriously, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it. But it’s kind of looking for the surprises in it or the things that people wouldn’t necessarily know about your day to day life as a researcher. But it’s also been really rewarding over the years working with different academics. And just like people are doing such interesting things across so many disciplines and then also looking at well, how do you talk about that to someone outside your field, outside your even broad field, right? Like how do I get a choreographer to talk to a chemist?
And I think one of the most satisfying things for me with Bright Club has been researchers that took part and came away and said actually thought about my research really differently after doing that event, and that’s really nice to hear.
So Jessamyn it sounds completely amazing and I can’t wait to come to a show one day. We’ll have to talk about Bright Club Australia at some point.
But I just love to hear more about why you think comedy is an effective way to get across scientific ideas.
Yeah well one of the things that’s really interesting to me is that… I mean, and we’ve seen this with hot button topics like Climate Change or you know, the COVID-19 pandemic with science communication as a technique, right?
If we just sort of say facts at people, we know that that doesn’t necessarily work all the time, right? Like people agree with the fact that they already agreed with and the facts that they disagree with they’re just like “No, that’s wrong…”
“… And I saw a website or something”.
And you’re like oh my gosh, okay, but…
Dr Google told me…
Yeah, and you know, like citing peer reviewed literature, it’s like well, people can find a paper that says just about anything and you get into all of these pre-existing biases. And I think it’s very interesting actually. It kind of shows you how much science needs social science and the arts to actually get its point across.
But what I find really cool about comedy specifically as an approach is that if you kind of think about what you’re doing when you listen to a joke, right? You’re listening to someone tell a story. Most of it probably makes sense. But you’re kind of waiting… if you know that it’s supposed to be a joke, you’re waiting for the punchline, right? You’re waiting for something to happen, that kind of upends your understanding of what came before it or challenges your preconceived notions like Oh, the doctor was a woman, you know? Like you’re listening and you’re waiting to have your perspective changed.
So in terms of talking about research and in terms of talking about things that people maybe don’t know about, or they think they know about, or they’ve heard things from one side but not the other, comedy is actually a really valuable structure. Because when people are listening to comedy, they’re already open to having their mind changed.
And not in a, not in a like direct barrage of facts sort of way. But in a more subtle like, Oh, you know you were looking at this from this perspective, but have you thought about this other perspective, right?
And I think that’s one of the things that’s so valuable about using humour for challenging technical topics where it can feel a little weedy from the beginning right? Like talking about quantum mechanics. I mean it’s not something where more facts necessarily help. But kind of admitting oh, this is a hard thing to talk about and we can look at it from different angles is really valuable. And then, especially stuff where people might feel very entrenched in their opinions or where it feels like there’s partisan divides, or… I think those kind of issues especially, comedy is a really valuable approach to communicating science.
Hmm.. Yeah, it’s fascinating hearing you speak about that.
I’m really curious about the workshopping that you do with the researchers. So when they come in, they know all about their research, they’re keen to talk about it.\
How do you then help them prepare to stand up and deliver a comedy set about their research? What kind of things do you focus on? What do you get them to think about?
Yeah well, we kind of have a mixed approach, ’cause this is one thing we’re actually like, we’ve been researching it ourselves as the project has matured. And we had sort of one approach to the training at the beginning, and that’s very much evolved. A lot of it is very improv. based and is based around the idea that people don’t actually need to sit down and write a script about what they’re specifically going to say. If it’s your research area, you already know about it, right? You already have a lot of stuff stored up. It’s just thinking about how to talk about it off the cuff to an audience at Bright Club, of people who might not be in your field at all. Without jargon, because they’re not in your field at all. But also in a fun and engaging way.
So we do kind of a combination too of looking at specific material and kind of saying, “Ok like within your research area, what are a few points that you want to get across? Or either about your specific research or maybe about your journey to being the researcher that you are today?” Like some of the questions you guys have asked me: How did you get into this field? What is really exciting to you about it?
I think a lot of the training to be honest is just listening to someone and being like, “that was really good”. Because people would be like, “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s funny enough”. And it’s like “That was really good. Just, just go, just get on stage and, and do it. And it’ll be great.”
So can you tell us a little bit about how someone in your experience feels after doing their first show? I mean, I can imagine overcoming their inhibitions is pretty exhilarating. But do they also tend to feel like they have been successful in sharing their research? Something they’re really passionate about with a new audience?
Yeah, definitely. That’s the feedback that we generally get is kind of, I never thought that I could do this, but I’m delighted now. They can kind of have those conversations about their research in a way that might not have been possible before.
Because they’re coming in with this intentional approach of both being sort of clear and communicating something interesting, but also being funny and being good and they have the supports to do that. We’re not just saying “Okay, the goal is be funny about your research, go!” Most people wouldn’t enjoy that as an instruction, myself included.
No, no thanks.
And like there’s nothing worse than when you’re a comedian and people are like, “Oh, you’re comedian? Tell us a joke”.
And it’s like, oh, that’s not how that, that’s not how that works.
But what do you mean? That’s our next question, Jessamyn.
Oh my God, uh, interview over.
I stand corrected.
We better change that next question there, Jen.
The whole idea of comedy, it does sound exhilarating, but also terrifying at the same time. I have to admit, even just imagining being on stage and trying to be funny. And if it’s not landing and the audience doesn’t laugh… And I’m sure the audience is maybe thinking the same thing, you know?
I’m interested in communicating about my research, but I don’t know if I’m ready to stand up and do a comedy show about it. So I’m kind of curious whether for those people, me included, you know, are there any specific tips that you’ve learned from doing comedy that you think could be applied to say, other types of science communication?
Yeah well, I think there’s a few tips and lots of them are just general storytelling tips, right? Like having an arc in sort of a story that you’re telling. There’s things like the rule of three, where if you list three things, apples, oranges, and baby diapers, third one’s always funny because there were three things.
But I think actually one tip that… because we just had a bright club event last week and one tip that one of the speakers was using really well, so kind of leaps to mind is around callbacks. And so this idea of basically if you just referenced something that came earlier in your set or in a discussion or in a talk, people will laugh or kind of like have a ‘huh’, ‘yeah’ moment. And you don’t even have to be referencing anything that’s funny. It’s just this kind of like yeah, of recognition.
And it can also like you know, if you’re giving a talk and say it’s 10 minutes long and you end with something that ties back to the beginning, it gives us like nice complete feeling, where you’re like ah, that’s wrapped up and that’s like a type of call back as well. It’s kind of the same reason why pop culture references tend to work well in talks because people are just like ah, I know that. Yes, I’ve watched Buffy as well. It’s just like satisfying.
And it makes people feel connected, doesn’t it? It makes people feel connected to know that there are shared references.
Yeah, exactly. You’re kind of building a language with the audience, if you call back to something that was in your said. If you’re calling back to something that’s in broader pop culture, you’re kind of just saying like look, we’re part of the same thing, like you and me. And then that can just help people feel engaged.
A really great callback will then also say something important about your topic, right? But they don’t all. Some of them are just like hey, remember that thing that happened before? It happened and people [are] like, “Yeah, it did”.
I’m so glad you said that because this is something that I often talk to the students about, establishing a shared connection at the beginning of a talk and then returning to it at the end, gives it extra impact. And so great to hear you talk about that as well, as a callback and something that really works in comedy. So that’s absolutely fascinating.
I’m just noticing the time here and I think we might have to move on to the next segment of the podcast Jessamyn, which is the rapid fire questions. Are you ready?
Oh my God, yes! I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.
Lighthearted questions, just quick fire answers.
So first question. If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
OK, and why is that?
Because I like playing piano and I wish I did more of it.
Hmm… Maybe you could combine, add piano into some of your comedy. Maybe that’s a direction you could go.
I actually have done some ukulele songs in comedy things, which is great because it’s much easier to carry a ukulele to a gig than a piano.
One of our colleagues does amazing science songs. She’s also known as the singing scientist, and we’ve had a lot of ukulele in class and in various videos.
And so, yeah, I think science and ukulele, it’s a match made in heaven, really.
It definitely is. Both a little uncomfortably nerdy, but great.
OK, next question. What is your proudest professional moment?
Whoa, these are not lighthearted questions. This is like straight to the core of who I am.
We disarm you with the first question and then bam!
Geez. I, I mean, I guess defending my PhD in that it was like, you know this moment that I and… Like this sounds so nerdy, but I was like fantasising about it as I was trying to finish my thesis. I was just like God, you’re gonna, you’re gonna stand in the room in front of the scientists. They’re going to tell you that you did a good job, and then they’re going to shake your hand and call you Dr. Fairfield. And they did, and it was great.
Ah, that’s fantastic.
Thank goodness for that. I was really worried there was going to be an unexpected end point there…
… When you tell us this gutting story that they didn’t say that at all.
You know what was really nice actually was that I had a T-shirt that people had made for my dad when he finished his PhD that said the amazing Dr. Fairfield. And I have gotten it from him and brought it to work on the day of my defence. And then after I like put it on and like wore it around everywhere. It was very bright yellow with black lettering on it and it was yeah, it was awesome.
That’s so good.
Next question. Twitter or Instagram?
Ah, that depends. Do you want to feel like angry or inadequate?
I think I, in terms of vibe, I think I prefer Instagram. Instagram makes me feel like things are just pretty pictures.
But I definitely spend more time on Twitter. I’m definitely all over Twitter, so yeah.
It’s going to be my new quote when I’m suggesting that students could use social media professionally.
You just gotta decide whether you want to be more angry or feel more inadequate. That’s your clear choice to make.
Yep, it’s good for us, right?
Yeah, sometimes it’s good for us.
OK, next question. Your favourite science related movie and/or book?
Whoa, interesting. I think… I want to say, I want to say Arrival but I like the short story it was based on better than the movie, I think.
Oh the movie had more character development. Arrival is my tentative answer. But there’s lots. There’s so many to choose from. That was just the first one that leapt to mind.
Yeah, we’ve had Arrival before, so you’re in good company there. It is a good movie.
I haven’t read the book though, so I have to put that on the, the to read list.
It’s worth it.
Jessamyn, you’ve given us some great tips.
But if you had to elevate one to be your very top tip for effective science communication, what would it be?
My top tip is… But it’s just be clear, just be clear. And it encompasses a lot of like: What language you’re using? What point you’re trying to make? Who you’re talking to? Who would find this clear?
I think that that’s often been my drawback as a science communicator is being very oblique about things and being like “Oh see?” And people [are] like “I don’t, that doesn’t… I don’t know what this is”. So I think just being clear is very important in science communication and also in life.
Yeah, and being clear is hard. I mean, if it were easy to be clear then our jobs would be so much easier to do. But being clear for different audiences can actually be very difficult.
Yeah, it’s a balancing act for sure.
OK Jessamyn, we have one more question and I know that you’re going to hate me for asking you but I just can’t resist. What’s your favourite science joke?
Oh, what is my favourite science joke?
I know that’s so mean, but I can’t threaten it and then not actually ask it.
We, we would lack our beautiful arc if we didn’t end with a science joke.
So actually I have a favourite science joke but it’s very long. Is that OK?
Go for it.
‘Cause my favourite science joke is actually about how scientists illuminate all of the wonder in the world, right? The way that you look at the stars and there are these beautiful pinpricks of light, actually incredibly enormous balls of gas, burning, super hot, super far away. Wow, thanks science!
Or you know, the way that the cells in our body are actually very complicated, Rube Goldberg machines almost just held together with duct tape. One botched replication from falling apart. Ah, thanks science!
The way that our planet, which feels like this really solid, safe thing that’s always going to be there for us is actually just a ball of rock hurtling through the empty void, only to eventually be consumed by the last gasp of our dying sun.
Didn’t even know that science. Was happier not knowing.
That’s my favourite science joke, ‘cause it’s about despair.
Going from yeah, elation and wonder to despair.
It’s the whole range of human experience.
I think that encompasses exactly why we all love science. I think that’s the perfect science joke.
Well, thanks for saying so.
Jessamyn, that was fantastic. I think we could keep talking forever and ever, but we must finish at some point.
So thank you so much for coming on the podcast. That was brilliant.
Thanks and all for having me. This has been really fun.
Thanks for listening. If you’re enjoying these episodes, you can help spread the word by telling a friend about Let’s Talk SciComm, or even sharing one of our episodes on social media.
That’s all for this week, but we’ll be back in your feed next Thursday. But until then, you can reach out to us @LetsTalkSciComm on Twitter and Instagram, and Let’s Talk SciComm Podcast on Facebook and we would love to hear from you.