How do you engage diverse audiences with science?

To wrap up February on this very fine leap day, I present to you an interview with a colleague of mine, Anthony Morgan, who’s up to some interesting things in science communication. We chatted about why science matters and how we can invite more diversity in science by just being ourselves.

Hover @ Daily Planet_Feb4_1

Anthony showcased his home-made hoverboard at Daily Planet.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Anthony Morgan. I am a host at the Ontario Science Centre, and I am the Creative Director and CEO of Science Ninja’s Inc.

The Ontario Science Centre is a cultural institution on Toronto that caters to families and anyone who’s interested in science. They strive to find the science in everyday life and present that to people. I’ve started a spin-off organization called Science Ninja’s Inc. We develop and deliver live science experiences for television, for cultural outlets in Toronto, the streets of Toronto and anywhere else we feel like.

As a host at the Ontario Science Center, I spend my days walking on the floors of the building and talking to people and engaging people in science. Exploring their thoughts, exploring my thoughts and exploring the concepts in the exhibit halls. With Science Ninjas, I spend a lot of time doing television appearances, hosting at cultural institutions like the Royal Ontario Museum and festivals and then we do a lot of street science. We take some of the things that we build for television and bring them on the street and let the public play with it. It’s been really fun.

What inspired you get involved in science and become engaged with science as a career?

I guess it was learning and seeing all the cool things you can do when you understand science. Getting to see what knowing about stuff does for you. So like if you drop your cellphone in water you can put it in rice, and that’s cool.

So, what’s your academic background?

It’s long and storied. In my undergrad I started in engineering for the first year, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t what I imagined science would be. We were doing a lot of numbers we were doing a lot of theory stuff. I understand the importance of that now, and I know why that matters but for me, science had not yet come alive. It was not exciting.

What was exciting was my psychology classes. Because my professor would sit in class and tell us, I know how you’re thinking better than you do. And that’s a bold statement to make, but then he would prove it to me.  That was intriguing. So my background is in psychology for that reason; psychology, neuroscience, and behavior.

Who were your science role models growing up?

I think Bill Nye was awesome. He was really cool. I liked this show, I don’t know if it was very well known, but it was Beakman’s World. And I think my favorite one was Popular Mechanics For Kids. Watching Jay and Alisha Cuthbert (who I would later fall in love with again) and the awesome things they got to do all the time, I couldn’t believe that was a job. I remember sitting in my kitchen thinking “I hope I get to do that one day.”

The opening credits for “Popular Mechanics for Kids.”

So you did your undergrad in psychology. Why did you switch to science communication as a field instead of continuing in academia?

It wasn’t immediately obvious to me that that’s what I wanted to do. I tried academia or, at least, research after I left university. I had a number of friends who went straight into a Masters program right after undergrad and regretted it because they made the decision hastily and I didn’t want to do that. So I thought a better way to handle it would be to try the academic life without necessarily investing all that money, so I did some research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in the BioBehaviour Alcohol Research Lab (BAR Lab). It was a really amazing opportunity because they were doing real, on the ground research. The PI was interested in my thoughts, he wanted me to do lit reviews, and if I wanted, I could propose studies that we could try.

And I hated it. I hated it more than anything. It was really hard for me. Because you spend all of you time, when you’re doing research, by yourself in a basement room somewhere. It felt like a dungeon to me, and I was not effective in that environment. I felt miserable, and I don’t know if you know this about me, but I am an extrovert.

Really? You don’t say.

No really. Ashley, I promise you.

But I knew I didn’t like research and I knew I wouldn’t do well in academia because of the kinds of circumstances that you frequently find yourself in. So I had to figure out where the combination of ‘exploring scientific concepts and ideas’ would meet ‘people’. And science communication lives at that intersection.

What do you think about the current diversity in science and science communication does that make the field attractive or repellent to other people of colour?

I have a complicated relationship with my culture because I think that I grew up very stereotypically Canadian. If I’m honest, I feel much more comfortable in what would be considered Canadian culture as opposed to Caribbean or African culture. Even though I am a black man, I feel unqualified (ironically) to comment on how diversity in the field affects black men in general.

But from my perspective, I feel that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is great. I don’t think that we see a lot of people that look anything like him or myself in prominent scientific positions. And that’s a problem because it’s really hard to imagine yourself in those roles if you don’t see people that look like you doing the stuff that they’re doing.

From being in places like the Ontario Science Centre, I know that typically I see a lot of black students who are generally hanging out in the cafeteria as opposed to exploring the exhibits. Or they’re just sitting in a corner. That happens with all demographics, but it seems to be more so with black students. I don’t know if that’s a saliency issue or if that’s born up by the data. But I get the sense that a lot of black kids don’t feel like science is an option for them.

How do you see your ethnic identity and your role as a science communicator interacting and how do you leverage those to invite a more diverse population to be involved/interested/engaged in science?

I think one of the biggest things I can do to help black kids and minorities to become engaged with science (if they so choose) is by being myself in front of them. Engaging with science as a black man unapologetically and see that it doesn’t make me different from them. I still go to bars and clubs. I still listen to Drake and Kendrick Lamar. I’m still a full person. This is a part of my identity and that being black and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive. I’m just a walking breathing example of that. And I really like the opportunity to do that at the OSC, and it’s one of my favourite things to do. To seek out those groups who are clearly disinterested in the science do something really amazing for them and help them to see the world the way that I see it but from the perspective of one of them. And Science Ninjas has afforded me to expand that audience.

The OSC allows me to reach the 1 million visitors that pass through our doors (or some proportion of that). Science Ninjas will hopefully let me reach a lot more than that. I have a television audience now. I have the global audience that has access to the internet. And then in the streets of Toronto, we do all kinds of engagements on the streets. We were just playing with a fire tornado today. We were firing dry ice bottle rockets on camera. ‘Cause that sh*t is awesome.

When you do that in front of those communities you don’t have to explain how awesome science is. It speaks for itself. And I think producing those kinds of creative, surprising, fun experiences for the most diverse and broad audiences as possible means that they now want to seek me out. They want to find that stuff for themselves. I think making them want to find it, as well as demonstrating that it can be theirs are the two biggest things that I can personally contribute to growing diversity in science communication and in science in general.

One of my favourite things to do at the Ontario Science Centre is to walk up to a group of disengaged students, do something freaking awesome and then basically mic-drop them. Just walk away.

Because if I make it seem like I really care, I want them to love this stuff…there’s no bigger turn-off for a teenager. It’s like dating. If you want something too much, it’s kind of desperate. You’ve got to take it easy.

It’s not something that you can even fake; you have to be genuinely ok if they’re not interested in it. That’s fine. But if they get the sense that you have a dog in this fight there’s pressure for them to engage with it. You have to come from a genuine place of, “Hey, I think this is really awesome. I don’t care if you do too. You can go do whatever you want, but this is objectively awesome.”

Do you have any upcoming projects or shows or events that are happening that you want to talk about?

You can catch us on March 1st on City Line, You can find us at the Royal Ontario Museum for March Break and you can find us on Daily Planet. We’re using thermite to cook ramen noodles. Thermite, when you ignite it burns at a temperature roughly the same as the surface of the sun. So I’m going to try to make noodles out of that…

Anything that we do on television we take it to the streets and let the public play with it for free. We just want people to play with this stuff because it’s awesome. We usually tweet the day before, where we’re gonna be and we show up and you can play with a hoverboard or a fire tornado or thermite. Well, probably not thermite.

It was great fun to chat with Anthony. Be sure to follow Science Ninjas Inc on Twitter at @beascienceninja to find out about upcoming TV appearances and live science on the streets of Toronto.

Happy Leap Year,
Dr Ash Signature

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