In Search of Truth Through Art and Science: Maggie Ryan Sandford Joins Real Scientists

Thank you to Matthew Partridge (@MCeeP) for the past week of lasers, cartoons and cool, 3D-printed prizes (Ed: hey where’s my prize? Other Ed: you are (unpaid) staff, you are ineligible for prizes or validation of any kind.). This week we welcome Maggie Ryan Sandford (@Mandford), a research associate at the Science Museum of Minnesota to Real Scientists.

Ask Me Anything Goofin'

Maggie has kindly agreed to fill out our curator introduction survey, so Maggie – please tell us a little something about yourself…

Why/How did you end up in science?

The short version is that I’ve always been plagued by the desire to understand as much of the universe as possible. I’ve studied a variety of subjects, but I always come back to the idea that the natural world is itself the closest thing to an unbiased reality that we humans can experience. Science itself isn’t “Truth,” but rigorous science is the best tool we have to uncovering the infinite truths of the universe.

More practically, I come from a family in which all but one of my grandparents were working class–that is, they didn’t go to college. One grandmother, though, studied at Reed College and eventually became a psychiatric social worker. That was lucky for me. I saw myself in her, which helped me begin creating my science identity. My dad was a zoologist for a time in the ’70s, too. Even so, my family is largely comprised of more artistically inclined people, myself included. So I spent much of my life assuming art would be my path to understanding the universe. But it didn’t feel like enough. Prioritizing science was sometimes a struggle, in that my family and many friends didn’t understand why I pursued it, but it felt necessary.

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

My road to science has had many twists and turns: As I said, I’ve always pursued both science and art simultaneously, and the disparity between the two intrigued me. In college, I studied both English and biology, and met a lot of resistance to the idea that I could pursue both, which…just fueled me to try. As time went on, I realized that there was something to be learned about why the average person feels like she can engage with art or humanities but not with science, and started studying and writing about the subject. My work as a science journalist led me back to researching the way that people learn about and engage with science, and here I am today, mentee to some of the best minds in the field, studying the way that people learn about and engage with science. I’ll stay in this field until we crack the code of scientific literacy.

Tell us about your work?

There are basically two types of work that I do here at the museum. One is straight-up research about the way that people learn science, funded by all sorts of sources including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Health (NIH), and so on. I work on studies examining the way that people behave/speak/engage/interact around everything from engineering language to understanding how nano affects their daily lives. I also do evaluation work, which is the same stuff, only relates directly to programs, exhibits, and other ways the museum and other informal educational institutions teach people. We at the museum use science to say: here’s what’s working and not working, which in turn contributes to the overall understanding of how people learn science! It’s great.

In the other facet of my life, I write about science and science culture–especially the relationship between science and art (if you couldn’t tell already). I’ve written for Smithsonian, Slate, mental_floss, and have a column at the Walker Art Center’s blog, for instance. Currently, though, most of my time is devoted to writing a creative non-fiction book about dolphin behavior, and specifically the sordid history of dolphin science as it relates to human culture. As of this week, my agent’s just started shopping the proposal to publishers. We’ll see if enough people are obsessed with dolphin sex to sell the thing. (I hypothesize yes.)

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?

For life on Earth to continue and (dare we say, even) thrive(?), humans need to be more scientifically literate. And not just an educated few: everyone. Increased scientific literacy means that humans are more likely to live longer, healthier lives, better equipped to both appreciate and care for the planet and everything on it (including each other). Understanding the mechanisms by which people gain

scientific literacy is the first step towards increasing it. Evaluation, likewise, is the discipline behind the measurable successes of any institution that aims to help people: everything from your local non-profit initiative to the Department of Education or the Center for Disease Control. If attempts to improve the world is done scientifically, they’re more likely to succeed.

As for the dolphin book: It’s a bizarre a case study of the way that humans come to understand the natural world. Which, if I do my job right and people enjoy it, will itself become a success in scientific literacy!

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I also write short fiction, which is usually pretty absurd and (hopefully) funny. It’s an escape from the daily world of facts in which I live. I read/perform that stuff with live storytelling groups, salons, comedy nights, even after-hours nights at art museums. We’ve got a lot of cool shit like that in the Twin Cities. Like, a lot. I host a pun slam, which is what it sounds like. I’ve also written a darkly comical TV pilot about life on the 19th century American prairie, and I once made a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-type short stop-motion film about the nature of nature, both of which deserve more of my attention, I think.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

The stereotypical science-person outdoorsy stuff, plus I recently got into taxidermy (not a coincidence). I sing and play some instruments badly. I also like drawing, especially made-up animals, field-notebook style. I also have this really slow tumblr:

How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

On my ideal day off (presuming I can’t jump some space/time rift to spend decades traveling the whole world in a day), I’d wake up in my native Seattle, where I’d stuff my face with dim sum while somehow also watching Bertolucci’s The Conformist on the big screen before heading out to the Washington peninsula to swim in the Pacific hike around the Ho Rainforest with some of my most beloved ones. At night, I’d write a kickass piece of fiction and draw in my field notebook, then we’d all talk and sing and clown around the campfire, then fall asleep next to my boxer mutt Repo.

Welcome to Real Scientists Maggie, we can’t wait to hear what you have to say this week, dolphin sex, taxidermy and museums just happen to be all of our favourite things!

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