A Down-To-Earth Voice Behind NASA Aeronautics

A Down-To-Earth Voice Behind NASA Aeronautics

In an interview with Abby Tabor, science writer based at NASA’s Ames Research Center, she shares with us what it’s like to popularize the research of a prestigious government agency—and how popularized science brought her to this position in the first place! Read firsthand about her life in Silicon Valley and what it takes to bring NASA’s research to you.

 

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Can you tell us about yourself in a few words?

I’m a science writer with a company called Paragon TEC, and I'm based at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which is here in California’s Silicon Valley. My first job after college was in research, as a technician in a microbiology lab. I’m glad I got to learn firsthand how research gets done, but that’s when I discovered that science journalism and science communication are actual fields that you can go to school for, and I thought, “Hmm… Is that actually where I belong?”

First, though, I wanted to have the experience of living abroad and knew that it was a now-or-never situation. I went to Paris, taught English for several years and, when I was ready to return to my dream of communicating science, I joined the master’s program in science journalism at the University of Paris-Diderot. I took advantage of my internships to learn about making science documentaries, which led to my first jobs. That was so interesting. Eventually, though, I wanted to do more writing and, as luck would have it, MyScienceWork was looking for someone to write about science in English for its international community and clients. I learned so much and really had so many opportunities working on that team.

When the company was expanding, we moved to San Francisco, which is how I ended up back in the U.S., but on a new coast for me! After a couple of years, I saw a science writing job open at NASA Ames. I realized this was an opportunity to have a really different experience, working for a large and prestigious research institution and thought, well, you have to at least try and work at NASA! And the rest is history! I was hired by Paragon TEC, which provides different services to NASA, and started soon after in the Public Affairs Office at Ames. 

 

What is your definition of science popularization?

For me, it’s a kind of translation. (Maybe that’s part of the appeal for me, since I’ve always liked foreign languages and translating French to English.) In fact, one of my colleagues has said, “Science isn’t my first language, but I’ve spent enough time around it to understand.” And, just as people who spend a long time abroad can forget elements of their native language, I’ve known researchers who seem to forget how they used to speak in ordinary English!

I think of it as translation, because you’re taking a story originally told in the very precise, technical language that belongs to a certain field of research, and bringing it into the language we all share. A lot of people dislike the term “dumbing it down”, for various reasons. For me, that’s because communicating science isn’t about making something ridiculously oversimplified, assuming a lower level of intelligence in the reader. It’s just about using the vocabulary that’s common to all to deliver fascinating new information in a digestible way.

 

Do you think science popularization is universal or do you see differences between the US and Europe in the work you do?

Good question. That was a big reason I decided to stay and study science journalism in France: I also wondered if there would be differences and if I could arm myself professionally with the approaches of both cultures. In France, I felt like I encountered a lot of “science and society” angles on the subjects I read about it – as in, more analysis of the societal impact of some line of research, as opposed to the more explanatory, How does it work?-type story.

But, of course, that actually is an oversimplification, and neither culture neglects the other aspect of science popularization. Honestly, this may just reflect the type of science stories that I chose to pursue. Since French isn’t my first language, maybe I was drawn more to a certain kind of writing, and in English, I ate up the nuts-and-bolts explanations. In communicating science, I think there is more that’s universal than not. Learning styles aside, people are people, and we all love a great story, a spot-on metaphor, the beauty of understanding.

 

Can you tell us about your work at NASA?

This is pretty much my dream job! Ames is one of NASA’s research centers, so we have people working on so many different, fascinating things, doing a lot of early-stage, innovative work and fundamental research. I cover the Science and Aeronautics directorates here. (Did you know NASA is not just about space? We like to remind people that “Aeronautics is the first A in NASA!”*)

In our office, I focus on writing stories about the research we do here, and other colleagues handle media relations – coordinating interview requests, documentary shoots and things like that. But we all back each other up and take part in different tasks. In the last year I’ve had the chance to host episodes of the NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast, interviewing some of the super interesting people who work at NASA Ames, and have even hosted live video shows bringing our research to the world. I get to work on research topics from astrobiology and Mars geology to the effects of microgravity on human biology, drone traffic management and future aircraft design. As you can imagine, I am always, always learning new things. I love the variety of subjects I get to cover and the variety of ways we share that science with the public.

(* It’s the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, after all!)

 

What do you think is at stake in the popularization of science? How is it important for researchers versus for the general public?

Well, for starters, researchers have an interest in explaining why their research matters so that the people making decisions about funding see the value in continuing that support. But, also, I often think of something biologist Frank Perez said in an interview we did for MyScienceWork. It was something along the lines of, “It wouldn’t be ok for me not to know Mozart. Why is it ok for anyone to know nothing about science?” (That video, in French, is here.) His point was that science is and ought to be considered a part of ordinary culture. I really relate to that sentiment. For me, science is not some isolated world and, hopefully, science popularization that’s well done and really engaging will help spread that message.

Why does that even matter for the public? It means understanding your world and its many wonders! If that’s not enough, then how about being able to make informed decisions? It could be about your own medical concerns or choices in energy or policies affecting our communities and environments that you have the power to vote on. I think society can only improve with greater understanding. So, whether you think science is marvelous for its own sake or not, the more knowledge that spreads through a society, the better off we’ll all be.

 

Do you have any before-and-after examples of articles you popularized?

I get a kick out of the example of a mathematics research subject I wrote about once: inverse problems. When I started looking into it, I was googling the researchers I would be writing about, found a presentation online to use as a resource, and was confronted with slide after slide after slide of formulas that were utterly incomprehensible to me! (Check out the example below!) Luckily, when I kept digging, I found out inverse problems have all sorts of real-world applications, and that became the basis for the story.

Otherwise, you can check out MyScienceWork for lots of examples. On the Polaris research platforms, there are lots of subjects in the “triplet” format, where you can find the original research article, a popularized version and the profile of the researcher, side by side.

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Do you have any anecdotes you can share with us?

I don’t know if this is an anecdote, or just a cool thing, but we haven’t talked about the fascinating fieldwork some NASA researchers do! For instance, I just accompanied a team of biologists and engineers and planetary scientists to the Atacama Desert in Chile. This is one of the very driest places on Earth and one of the most like Mars you’ll ever find. So, it’s a great place to test potential Mars rover designs and study ways to search for signs of life on the Red Planet. I spent a week there with the team, working with media visitors, writing about the project and taking photos and video. It was pretty incredible.