Sci Foo for All?

Last month, I attended Science Foo Camp. Foo stands for “Friends of O’Reilly,” which means the event is sponsored by O’Reilly Media, Google, Digital Science, and Nature. Each year, some 350 scientists from around the world convene in California for a jam-packed invitation-only self-organized unconference with more free food and drink than entirely reasonable.

Based on the few things I’d heard about Sci Foo, I expected it to be Very Good. But I didn’t have any concrete goals or expectations. I was mostly honored to be invited and excited to take my first solo trip post-breastfeeding. So, how was it?

On the first evening, after dinner and a couple of orientation activities, everyone was invited to pitch a session, unconference style. Here is a small sampling of what we came up with: Are you an advocate or a scientist? How is peer review broken? Help science work better. Design your life. Equity in science. Looking for aliens in the universe. Astronomy for a better world. Fixing labor and training in science and tech. Your doctor learns from YouTube. Managing climate futures. Is the next step driven by big data or big ideas? The sixth mass extinction. You, some astronomers, and a planetarium. Collective cognition. I’m an introvert, help! Decolonizing science: how do we know what we know? Reaching the front page of the internet. What do we do about vaccine skepticism? Social media for social good. Light pollution ruins everything. What is the scientific journal of the future? Fully automated luxury feminism. The neural basis of consciousness.

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An early iteration of Saturday’s schedule.

Wow. I wish I could say I made it to even half of these. In reality, up to sixteen sessions happened in parallel, and many morphed and combined over the course of the weekend. I attended maybe five of the ones I listed, plus several others. After dinner, folks hung around the open bar, chatting and playing games well into the night.

Everyone’s name tag included three “ask me about…” topics, which made it easy to strike up a conversation. I talked with a policy scientist who used to work on mouse hearts, an app developer who works to make video content skim-able, a material scientist who uses image processing to identify different plastics, a theoretical physicist who has developed a metric for prestige, and so many more. I stumbled into a conversation about neutron stars and gravitational waves. I joined an impromptu planetarium show and explained how the Kepler spacecraft found exoplanets. I learned how measuring things in the ocean can be even harder than measuring things in space. I told a 5 minute story about failure that I put together in 20 minutes during an evening “story slam” hosted by folks from The Story Collider. I learned that cancer researchers have at least as hard of a time getting funding as astronomers do. I ate an impossible burger just down the table from where its inventor was sitting. (It was fine.) I objected when a fellow attendee suggested astronomy was somehow removed from ethical or political issues—because it’s not—and listened as someone else argued that private space ventures are not exploitative (spoiler: he co-manages one). And I haven’t even begun to recap any of the 20-someodd 5-minute lightning talks.

There was never a dull moment. I was a little blown away that many, if not most, of my nominal peer attendees were professors. More than once, somebody was congratulated for recently getting tenure. When children came up in conversation, fellow parents took a moment to appreciate the luxury of a weekend to ourselves. People enjoyed hearing that I develop software for processing huge volumes of telescope images. They marveled at how much open source software astronomers have made and how its applications extend far beyond astronomy.

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There was lots of free food, and I brought my kid’s friend “Shortcake” to send some fun photos home. Here, Shortcake is helping me with a liquid nitrogen ice cream snack.

At the end of Sci Foo, the organizers issued an open invitation to take the mic and reflect on a highlight of their weekend. After a few folks offered amusing or moving anecdotes, one particularly brave soul stepped up. “When you nominate someone to be invited for next year, consider choosing somebody that doesn’t look like you.” He said Sci Foo was one of the whitest spaces he had been in. I was momentarily surprised, because I had been glad to see at least some people of color in attendance. Then I remembered how skewed my perspective is. Any people of color at all greatly outnumber what I experience in my daily professional life. And he was right—an event that relies heavily on past attendee suggestions to invite new faces is probably not as diverse or inclusive as it should be.

One thing that stood out to me was a lightning talk about making a hologram out of sound. In essence, a team of researchers has figured out how to manipulate sound waves to be concentrated in a small area. The speaker showed a cool video demonstrating how these sound holograms can manipulate small objects without having to touch them. He talked about how this could have a huge impact in surgery and other medical applications, but said they couldn’t get any funding to work in that area, so his team works on interactive displays instead. I don’t have an issue with sound holograms being used to improve interactive displays, but I can’t help but wonder how many brilliant researchers have to forfeit potentially life-changing applications in favor of whatever some tech company will pay for.

The transition home after an energetic, collaborative, and invigorating event is always rough. This time, I could not stop thinking about who was not at Sci Foo, and how astronomy is not inherently a force that pushes everyone toward a better world. Who is not invited? Who is not in the room? Whose voice is not welcome or heard? Western science has historically done a poor job of addressing these questions, and while there have been some nudges toward inclusivity here and there, overall very little has changed. Sci Foo attendees have all achieved some degree of career success in STEM to even be invited, and it’s pretty clear we are failing people well before this stage.

I would like to find a way to bring the Sci Foo experience to scientists before they’ve “made it” enough to be invited to the main Sci Foo. I don’t have a plan for this yet, but I suspect it looks something like the ComSciCon franchise model. Connecting with like-minded people from all around the world has had a huge impact on my own confidence and success, and that was facilitated by social networks like twitter together with real-life events like ComSciCon well before I had any idea what my post-grad-school career could be. It is incredibly inspiring and motivating to see the real problems people are working on in a variety of disciplines, discuss how they are tackling them, and have heart-to-heart conversations about their challenges. Let’s find ways to facilitate this for more people.

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