We asked The Story Collider’s Artistic Director, Erin Barker, to share her behind-the-scenes experience working with Springer Nature authors in preparation for our live storytelling events. Here Erin remarks on a single moment from Col. Robert Lim‘s story, explaining how personal stories have the power to humanize science in an unparalleled way. Stay tuned for Col. Lim’s story airing this Friday, February 17th!
Written by Erin Barker
At the Story Collider’s “Surgeons” show with Springer Storytellers in DC last October, military surgeon Col. Rob Lim described standing at the border of Iraq in darkness before the initial invasion began in 2003, counting down, waiting for shock and awe. “We saw the planes go over, heard the artillery fire, it’s happening,” Lim said in his story. “I turned to one of my buddies and said, ‘How do we do our laundry?’”
This, to me, is the perfect example of what makes the kind of true, personal stories The Story Collider and Springer Storytellers produce so special. We often hear about medicine and international conflict, but we don’t often hear about the everyday, human aspects of being a person embroiled in these things. We can learn countless facts and figures, but to really understand what it feels like to be a part of it, in the moment? You can’t find that anywhere other than a true, personal story from someone’s life. These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have. They allow us to connect with someone we’ve never met. And building this connection between scientists and the public is becoming ever more important.
These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have.
For example, Stanford psychologist Susan Fiske has found that the general public respects scientists, but doesn’t quite trust them. According to Fiske, there are two factors that influence our perceptions of strangers: competence — how knowledgeable and capable we seem; and warmth — whether we have our our audience’s best interests in mind. In order to be seen as trustworthy, and communicate effectively with the public, we need to be perceived as both competent and warm. And in fact, warmth matters a lot. In her 2006 paper “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence,” Dr. Fiske tells us, “warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.”
Unfortunately, when she conducted her study, asking her subjects to rate different professions and groups of people according to these qualities, scientists ranked high in competence but low in warmth.
I probably don’t need to tell you that scientists often focus on competence, and even deliberately tamp down perception of warmth to emphasize competence. It makes sense when you consider that, in many ways, scientists are trained to reduce their intrinsic warmth. It’s a natural instinct for a profession that, quite rightly, values objectivity. But when we focus on competence at the expense of warmth, we miss out on a valuable opportunity to connect with and inspire our audience.
So can scientists emphasize our warmth? According to Dr. Fiske, people trust people they think are like themselves — people who share their values and goals. And not only that, but they will go out of their way to support these folks. When we share stories that reveal our humanity, our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, our humor, we show our audience that we’re like them, and that we’re trustworthy.
When Col. Lim shared his story with our audience, he became something even more than a surgeon who has saved lives on and off the battlefield — he became a real, live human being. Someone we feel like we know, and want to root for. When I worked with Col. Lim on his story in the weeks leading up to the show, I encouraged him to include not only the kind of details that let the audience visualize the experience, but also those that let us in on his mindset. For example, the fact that he was unable to shower for eighteen days as they made the long, slow trip into Baghdad. Hearing his human reactions to these things makes us think, Scientists–they’re just like us.
Dr. Virginia Dale realizes that the value of a question lies equally in the asking as well as the answering, while on a trip to the rainforest to conduct ecological models on land-use change. Listen below or stream the official podcast!
Virginia H. Dale, PhDis a mathematical ecologist who uses a landscape perspective to understand patterns and processes. Her research interests include environmental decision making, forest succession, effects of climate change, land-use change, landscape ecology, ecological modeling, and sustainability of bioenergy systems. She is a Corporate Fellow in theEnvironmental Sciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and was selected as the 2006 Distinguished Scientist for the Laboratory, where she is currently Director of the Center for BioEnergy Sustainability. She was among the members of the science community that contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Scientific Assessment that in 2007 received the Nobel Peace Prize. Virginia completed her PhD at the University Washington just in time to be able to join the first group on ecologists entering the “Red Zone” after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. She continues to monitor vegetation reestablishment on permanent plots she established there more than three decades ago. She often refers to herself as a disturbance ecologist, for she studies natural and human changes on many landscapes. Virginia has enjoyed sharing her expertise by service on national scientific advisory boards for five federal agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency and US Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and Interior) and on several committees of the US National Research Council. For thirteen years, Virginia was Editor-in-Chief of the journal Environmental Management and still serves on the editorial board of several journals. Virginia has been active in her community as a scout leader, soccer coach, and protecting ecosystem services and was selected as a Top Citizen of Oak Ridge. Her son is an aerospace engineer, and her daughter works on environmental policy and is mother to a vivacious girl and has a second child due in July. Virginia enjoys traveling to visit family and to explore new areas and swims wherever the water is warm.
“Would you like to write a book together?” I asked her.
Seemed like a logical thing to ask her since she was planning to get English and writing degrees. Although initially she was hesitant, she finally agreed to do it and we started writing together. Mostly it was my stuff that she contributed to, until the day she agreed to write one of her own, on cake preferences. That didn’t go so well since we have very different writing styles. Over time, we figured out those differences and made Food Bites work out – it was great to see it published. I think we were both pretty happy that we had worked together to get something in print.
After finishing Food Bites, we took some time off from writing together, even though the idea for the next book began to take shape. I took a sabbatical at the college she was attending to work on two books, one of which was Candy Bites. One chapter in particular came together that year – the one on the Baby Ruth bar in the movie, Caddyshack.
For this chapter, we conducted an experiment to test whether a Baby Ruth bar actually floats. We put college pool water on our kitchen counter and tried to float a variety of different candy bars. The only one that floated was the 3 Musketeers bar. The Baby Ruth bar sank immediately, proving that the moviemakers were taking unscientific liberties to jazz up the scene. For us, it was a fun way to work together and we got an interesting chapter out of it.
It took several more years before we compiled enough new chapters to complete Candy Bites, but we’re pleased with how it turned out. So pleased, in fact, that we’ve started working on ideas for the next one, Chocolate Bites (forthcoming).
How did I get to this point, where I can write books on ice cream and candy? Actually, a lot of people ask me that question these days, but my research work is on candy, chocolate and ice cream, so it’s a natural step for me.
My career certainly wasn’t something I mapped out and planned as a little kid. No, my career has been a series of stumbles and uncertain steps, at least until I got hired at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is where I’ve really been able to blossom, in part because of the mentorship I received early in my career as a professor and in part because of the opportunities. The University of Wisconsin, particularly the Food Science department, already had an established reputation in ice cream and confections before I ever started. But my background was almost ideally suited to this environment.
In my first year, one professor put his arm around my shoulders and said “Rich, you know something about sugar, so I’m going to introduce you to the candy and chocolate industry.” The next year, another professor put his arm around my shoulder and said “Rich, you know something about crystallization, so I want you to work on this ice cream project with me.” Twenty some years later, I’m the expert.
Why do I write? I don’t know, probably for the same reason I like to teach. It forces me to learn new things and to focus my thoughts in such a way that others can understand them. Although sometimes it can be extremely frustrating, like when the words don’t come together very well or when my ideas are all jumbled, when the words do fall into place, there’s no better feeling of accomplishment. My wife says I should get a hobby, but really, my hobby is writing.
But I also write, in part, because it lets me work with my daughter in some meaningful way. Being able to say I wrote this book with her is a pretty cool feeling. Not everyone has that opportunity and I feel pretty fortunate.
“Think that might be something you’re interested in doing?” he asked.
I hesitated. “I don’t know, Dad. It sounds like a lot of work and what with classes and everything, I don’t know if I’ll have time to help,” I finally replied. I wasn’t lying, writing a book did sound like a huge undertaking, particularly right before my junior year of college. But it was something we’d always talked about doing, something we had planned for and dreamed about.
“We’ll use a lot of the articles we already have,” Dad said. “It won’t be any more work for you than writing those were.” It was like he’d already thought of all my arguments before we’d even started talking.
I sighed. There was no refuting that argument. “Okay, let’s do it.”
He smiled. “Good. But I don’t think we should include any of the candy articles. Save those for the second book,” he said. I shook my head. It was just like him, planning the second book before the first was even written.
“Sounds good. And maybe don’t include the boxed cake one,” I added.
The first time my dad asked me to help him write, I was in high school. He had been writing articles for the local newspaper, trying to explain food science to a general audience. A friend from the University of Wisconsin, where my Dad is a professor of Food Science, had been helping him but the librarian had other duties and I had always done well in my English classes.
I was ecstatic about it. Seeing my name in print, like a real writer! It was all I had ever wanted, since I was in the second grade. For a long time I didn’t think it would happen. When it came to reading and writing, I was a late bloomer. I went through several years of special reading lessons at elementary school. It was actually these lessons that solidified my desire to be a writer. I was fortunate to have them.
Our writing sessions were always relaxed and informal. Once a week or so, we’d sit around the kitchen table and read what he had written. I’d offer suggestions—a different word here, a change in verbs, or even a different avenue of thought. Sometimes, I’d ask questions. A lot of the science was too advanced for me and I’d need clarification. If I asked too many questions, he knew the article wasn’t ready and he’d have to work on it more. If it wasn’t clear to a high school student, it wasn’t at the level the newspaper expected.
During that first year together, we started to dream of the book. Any great idea either of us had was saved for the book. We visited candy factories and discussed the ramifications of automation. “That’s one for the book,” we’d say. I took a class in Latin American history and talked to him about the impact of sugar and cacao plantations. “That’s one for the book,” I’d say. We even went as far as taking pictures for the cover. It was just a big idea but it gave us something to aim for.
When I was a senior in high school, about a year into our partnership, Dad asked me to be the lead writer on an article. “I thought you could write the boxed cake versus home made cake article,” he said. “You could do a taste test in one of your classes.”
I accepted the challenge with relish. This was my opportunity, my chance to really show who I was as a writer. And, since this was less about science, I could make it all my own. I thought I was brilliant—what teenager doesn’t—and wanted to show off. The article I gave Dad was nothing like anything we’d ever submitted to the newspaper before.
That week, we gathered around the kitchen table as usual. “Here’s the article. I made a few changes,” Dad said, handing me a paper copy of what I had written. And it was completely changed! All of my brilliant turns of phrase, my irreverent style was gone! It was just like every other article we’d written together. I was crushed.
“But Dad, this is completely different. You said I could write this one and you’ve gone and changed it!” I said. I could feel tears coming. I’d worked so hard and now it was gone.
Calmly, he explained that we were a writing partnership and that meant that one article couldn’t stand out from the others. They had to be consistent. It was a science article, after all, and we needed to focus on that.
I didn’t take it well. I screamed and cried and vowed never to speak to him again. I made the family miserable for a week. The article came out and I saw my name first in the byline, ahead of Dad’s, but I still wasn’t happy. I neglected my English work and became obsessed with biology and geology. We still had our weekly article meetings, but I was less enthusiastic about them. The glow of seeing my name in print had gone.
When I went off to college, we stopped writing the articles. The newspaper we wrote them for was bought out and the new owners decided not to continue the articles. But the idea of the book never really died. We talked about it less frequently, but it was always there, in the back of our collective minds.
At college, I started taking many writing classes and tried out many writing styles. Reluctantly, I began to realize that Dad had been right. While my original essay may have been a better reflection of my particular style, it wasn’t in fitting with the tone we had cultivated by writing together. I was still disappointed, but no longer resentful.
And then, almost out of the blue, he called and asked if I wanted to write a book. It was almost like not talking about it was the secret to making it happen. The first book came together easily, just as Dad had promised. It wasn’t long before we were toasting to our success.
A few years later, he called again. “It’s time we did the second book,” he said.
I was out of college, working full time as a proofreader, and this time, I didn’t fight it. “Okay, let’s do it.” But I was more hesitant than ever. This time, there would be no articles to rely on and no excuses not to help write chapters. The sting of the boxed cake article was still fresh after all those years.
I had nothing to worry about. Even though there were still fits and bruised egos, we had learned from our mistakes. And while it was never as easy as the sessions around the kitchen table, it went smoothly. Our partnership matured and our books are better for it.
Dr. Chiara Mingarelli is an Italo-Canadian gravitational-wave astrophysicist, currently based at Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she holds a Marie Curie Fellowship. Mingarelli received her Ph.D from the University of Birmingham, UK, in 2014, where she worked with Prof. Alberto Vecchio. Her core research is focused on using Pulsar Timing Arrays to detect low-frequency gravitational waves, with forays into electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational-wave events, such as fast radio bursts. Mingarelli’s thesis was published in the Springer Thesis Series (2015), and is the recipient of numerous grants from the Royal Astronomical Society and the UK Institute of Physics for both research and outreach. She recently appeared on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, “Talk Nerdy” with Cara Santa Maria, and maintains a strong social media presence where she advocates for “Science, Coffee, and Girl Power”.
Yes. Unhesitatingly, yes was my response when invited to share a story at a storytelling evening among landscape ecologists.
It’s not that I’m a show-off. In fact I’m an introvert. But I was burned out at the time, worn down from overwork and life stresses. The result was that I felt I’d lost whatever creative spark used to infuse my work. Storytelling seemed like just the thing to get the juices flowing again. So I leapt at the chance.
Little did I know that only weeks later as the event drew near, I’d be wrestling with a draft of my story, a growing tangle of nervous discontent and self-judgement in my belly.
The good news is that it didn’t end that way.
As a social scientist with a background in the humanities and ecological sciences, I’ve always been drawn to stories in research and life. The core questions that underpin all of my work are: How do people experience their own love of nature? What moves them to care for and protect natural places? How does one person reach out and touch that motivation in another?
For years, I’ve worked in the field of environmental conservation, always focused on people, places, and stories – ethnography, oral history, local knowledge, Indigenous culture. I’m that woman who walks around in the backcountry with an audio recorder in hand, always ready for the next good tale. My professional writing is woven with narrative excerpts – the stories people have shared. Even tracking wildlife or measuring plants, I’m really just following storylines that are imprinted on the land.
My own memory is chock-full of personal stories from the field – wacky adventures, near misses, beautiful reflections, colourful characters – that never make it into formal written papers. But somewhere along the way, my own brief pieces of creative writing fell aside, and dried up all together – casualties on the factory floor of academic productivity.
So of course I was eager to tell a story. It sounded like good fun! The staff from Springer and Story Collider were supportive from the start. They warmly received my pitch for a story over the phone, and encouraged me to send a written draft so that we could polish it together. No problem. I write for a living.
Yet somehow, when I wrote it out, that spark fizzled out again.
I entered the familiar territory of revising, wordsmithing, struggling with decisions about what to edit out…and the story lost its energy. I had excellent feedback from the producer, from friends and colleagues with whom I practised…yet I couldn’t make my story feel right.
In anguished frustration, with five days to go until performance night, I complained to my partner: “I should be good at this! Stories are what I do. I want to be good at it. Why is this so hard?”
That was when he gently pointed out something that should have been obvious to me: “You deal with other people’s stories. Telling your own is different. How often do you do that? It’s going to take practice.”
Hm. Of course.
It turns out that telling a good story, a personal story that touches other people, is an art and a craft. Like music or singing, it is a unique combination of skill and technique, together with phrasing, tonal and emotional nuance, feelings. This is something that the people at Story Collider know very well, and thankfully they have experience guiding people like me through that epiphany. Their producer didn’t skip a beat when I told her four days before the event, “I’m throwing away my written draft.”
I went for a walk, cleared my head, and then got out a blank sheet of paper and a pen. I drew a meandering path across the page, and began filling in features along the way: events, quotes, sensory details. Then I looked at it for a while, put it away, and recounted my story from memory over the phone to Story Collider’s producer. Better. Getting there.
Practice, practice, practice: over the phone to friends; muttering to myself while walking on public footpaths; visualizing silently on the plane to the event.
At last we were there. I saw the other storytellers, and realized we were all nervous – even the senior professors who have taught and lectured to large audiences for years. This was different. There were no notes, no slides, no prompts, and it was personal.
I walked to the microphone and spoke my first sentence. Eager smiles and laughter! Second sentence – the audience was right with me. I thought, This is going to be OK. And it was. In fact it felt wonderful.
And that is the magic. People connect through stories. Stories are how we learn, relate, empathize, and remember. Standing up there and telling my own story, I felt the power, humility and vulnerability in sharing a personal story with a room full of people. I was reminded by the audience of the generosity inherent in the act of listening, really listening.
As a social scientist, working on the story gave me helpful first-hand insights to many of the methodological decisions I deal with in my academic and professional writing. What details to include or leave out? Where is the central theme? How much to guide the audience’s interpretation of someone else’s experience? Am I representing the characters fairly?
Crafting a good story yielded some valuable techniques that translate to improve the way I communicate about my work and how I teach. I truly believe personal stories do have a place in professional scientific discourse. Without them we are at best dull and forgettable, at worst lost.
For me, storytelling is not merely a form of science communication. It is a core aspect of human connection to the world around us. In my work, storytelling is a forum where the colourful personal emotions and experiences that often make conservation science work most meaningful are celebrated as the best part! It reinvigorated the dormant passion that underlies my work – the creativity I’d lost in recent years. I can’t wait to try it again.