At The Story Collider, Reimagining What Science Can Be

How The Story Collider uses narratives to foster belonging in science

By Maryam Zaringhalam, Katherine J. Wu, Erin Barker, and Liz Neeley

When she took the Story Collider stage in July 2018, Dominican Republic native Rose DF shared her lifelong love for science. “I just knew that I was an explorer,” she told the audience at Caveat in New York. “I wanted to know the why and how of everything.”

Now a student of biophysics, Rose is a first-generation scientist, a survivor of an abusive marriage, and an advocate for underserved and underrepresented scientists, as well as victims of abuse. But though Rose’s childhood dreams may resonate in the academic world, her story isn’t the one we typically hear when people talk about scientists and their research.

Centuries of narratives, from books to films to newspapers, have championed the tale of the single protagonist engaged in a “Eureka!” moment: Archimedes and his bath, Newton and his apple, Darwin and his finches.

Physicist Rose DF telling her story at Story Collider’s “Transformations” show in New York City in 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Science has opened our minds to the wonders of our universe — from the gravitational waves that ripple through the cosmos to the microbes thriving deep within our Earth. But our collective imagination around who makes those discoveries, and how that process unfolds, remains limited.

Just as stories have the power to shape and constrict our ideas around what is “normal,” so too can they work to challenge those stereotypes and reshape our ideas of who can take part in science — and to whom science ultimately belongs.

The stories we tell, and the people we center in those stories, have great power. That power is foundational to The Story Collider, a storytelling organization that has been bringing true, personal stories about science to the public since 2010. While the word “story” is used in a range of contexts, at The Story Collider, we use the term to refer to narratives in which characters experience meaningful events and cope with the consequences. (Dahlstrom) We believe everyone has a place in the scientific community — and science, a phenomenon so fundamental to life itself, belongs to everyone. Our intent is not to “give people a voice”; they already have them. Rather, by highlighting the people and perspectives that have been historically ignored, erased, and even actively silenced, our producers, storytellers, and audiences are helping to reclaim and expand the definition of “science.”

Reaffirming Place in the Scientific Community

Our storytellers range from distinguished researchers to early career scientists, backyard explorers to people who haven’t touched a science book since high school. No matter their background, all who take the stage are united in their desire to share an experience about how science has touched their lives. They evoke the joy of discovery, the sorrow of failure, the wonder of inquiry. Each teller adds a unique take to the many narratives that make up science — and the myriad ways in which science can shape a personal journey.

The stories our tellers share are windows into their hearts, minds, and worlds. By developing and recounting their stories, they invite their audiences to identify with them, following their decisions through their consequences and experiencing things from the storyteller’s point of view. (Cohen) In this way, an audience can be transported into the storyteller’s world. (Green)

Story Collider’s St. Louis audience being transported through a story in 2019. Photo by David Kovaluk.

By inviting their listeners into their experiences, the people on our stage do more than pass on personal wisdom. Their stories make science — their science — tangible to the rest of the world.

By sharing their narratives, they reaffirm their place in the scientific community, and invite others to join them in reimagining what science is, and what it can be.

When neuroscientist Dr. Devon Collins took our stage in New York City, he recounted an early experience of discrimination when playing with his kindergarten classmates. When he returned home, distraught, his mother told him: “Sometimes what you imagine for yourself is not what the world imagines for you. And sometimes what the world imagines for you is a lot less than what you deserve. But you have to keep imagining because the world is wrong.”

Stories as Resistance

We often think of stories as products of our imagination, but stories are more than fantasy. They speak to what’s possible. Stories are how we understand and derive meaning from the world around us. We find stories across cultures throughout history — not just because they’re entertaining, but because they’re extremely useful. They send signals about what is “normal” — what we can reasonably expect for the world and what the world can expect of us. These expectations are heavily influenced by the prevalence and repetition of who is most prominently centered in the narrative of science and the structural form that narrative takes. So manifests the “hidden curriculum,” a set of lessons learned outside the classroom as we passively absorb norms, values, and societal expectations from the cultural cues that surround us. (Alsubaie, Cornbleth)

The hidden curriculum has shaped the narrow view of science as inherently masculine, impersonal, and competitive. This forces those who don’t conform to that stereotype to reshape or erase parts of themselves in order to “pass” in the eyes of their peers, their mentors, and even themselves. (Brickhouse) But that doesn’t have to be the case.

While stories can reinforce this curriculum, they can also subvert and challenge prevailing narratives around who gets to do science and who science is for.

To understand the transformative potential of science stories in the classroom, like the ones we feature on the Story Collider stage, educators have adopted “Scientist Spotlights,” or interventions that supplement traditional coursework with personal stories from scientists working in the field. ( Schinske) The stories are curated to highlight other dimensions of scientists’ identities — from their sense of humor to their vulnerabilities, to the ways in which their cultures and values intersect with their work. In a preliminary study, undergraduate students who listened to these stories became more interested in pursuing a STEM major and earned higher grades after being exposed to Scientist Spotlights. More importantly, these stories shifted students’ stereotypes around their place in science. One of the stories shared was that of microbiologist and cancer researcher Agnes Day, a Black woman who distinguished herself in a field dominated by white men. “Dr. Day defies what I believed about people who do science,” reflected Gina, a Black and Native American student. “I wonder if the questions of science require diversity, collaboration, and personal passions in order to be answered.”

Honoring Intersectionality Makes Science Better

Gina hits on an unmistakable truth: a storyteller is never just a scientist, just an immigrant, just a woman, just one thing.

All identities intersect, and the many ways a scientist interacts with their world inevitably inform, enhance, and enrich their relationship to science.

The converse is true as well: A personal connection to science provides a new lens through which to view the world. Dr. Joe Normandin told our Atlanta audience that he found his way to neuroscience when he began to question his sexuality in high school. At SACNAS’ 2018 conference, Minerva Contreras explained how her father’s schizophrenia drove her to study the brain, hoping to better understand him. And Brianna Shaughnessy, reeling from the death of her first love, told a crowd of 200 in Boston how she honored his passion for the sea with her career in marine biology.

Neuroscientist Minerva Contreras telling her story at Story Collider’s SACNAS 2018 show in San Antonio, TX. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Drawing those connections between what’s typically considered “personal” and “professional” can reshape and expand our collective understanding of what science actually is. Science is not studied in a vacuum. The pursuit of knowledge is a human endeavor, one tied to culture, community, passion, personal stakes, and the inherent narrative of existence. That makes science as messy as the people who conduct it — and at The Story Collider, this idea is celebrated, not swept under the rug. Scientists’ personal connections to their work are assets, and sharing them with audience empowers both the listeners and the tellers themselves.

On our Washington, D.C., stage, sociologist Dr. Rashawn Ray shared how reckoning with the murder of Philando Castile altered the trajectory of his research, forcing him to connect his expertise to public policy and racial justice. As Rashawn processed the news of the murder, he recalls: “I thought about my own life and how Philando could have been one of my friends, could have been one of my relatives, could have been me.”

In crafting his story, Rashawn crystallizes the importance of his personal experience to his work, offering a narrative that no one else could tell in his place. Stories are a two-way mirror: They invite audiences to see themselves reflected in the teller’s world, while offering their tellers an intimate outlet to process their own experiences and, in turn, make sense of themselves.(Weick) Through storytelling, anecdotes are grounded into context, with each event linked to its consequences.

Stories Heal

As we produce stories, we encourage our storytellers to interrogate what they were thinking or feeling in any given moment. We ask them to establish their personal stakes, explore their motives, and transport us into their world. These are not simple requests: Our tellers report being, at times, frustrated and flummoxed. But ultimately, many feel challenged for the better. “Through this process, I learned so much about myself,” one of our tellers wrote, “and [that] what I wanted to share with the world that was grounded in my life experience, and was able to do it in a way where I could impart a value onto my audience. To me, that is priceless.”

Another teller put it more simply: “Sharing [my story] has helped me become whole again.”

Sociologist Dr. Rashawn Ray telling his story at Story Collider’s “Risk” show in Washington, D.C. in 2017. Photo by Michael Bonfigli.

Our work is not done. Many more stories have yet to be shared, and many more voices have yet to be heard. Inclusivity in science is still lacking, but every new story shared on the Story Collider stage broadens our collective vision of what science can and, perhaps, should be.

For Rose DF, her love for science remained a touchstone through her most difficult years. It buoyed her when life got heavy; it offered light in her darkest moments. “That’s part of what kept me alive,” she told her New York audience. “It’s not because of the prestige. It is not because of the names. None of that stuff matters to me…. I just wanted to be a part of it.”

About the Authors

Maryam Zaringhalam, PhD is a molecular biologist who traded in her pipettes for science policy and communication. She is a senior producer for The Story Collider in Washington, D.C. @webmz_

Katherine J. Wu, PhDis a microbiologist and science journalist who has written for Smithsonian, NOVA Next, Scientific American, and more. She is a senior producer for The Story Collider in Boston. @KatherineJWu

Erin Barker is the artistic director of The Story Collider and a ten-plus-year veteran of the New York storytelling scene. @erinhbarker

Liz Neeley is the executive director of The Story Collider, a co-organizer of the National Academies 2019 Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication, and a member of the AAAS Committee on Science and Technology Engagement with the Public (CoSTEP) @LizNeeley


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