In anticipation of our Freaks and Greeks National Geographic takeover this Friday night, BYT interviewed National Geographic explorer Clare Fieseler, one of the super cool scientists speaking at the event. In addition to completing fieldwork in far off lands, Fieseler works on projects such as OUTNUMBERED and Scientists with Stories to broaden ideas about what science, and scientists themselves, can be. Prime yourself with this interview and get hyped to see her on Friday night!
When did you first become interested in studying ecology, specifically the oceans? Do you recall what drew you to it? Did you always want to specialize in this field?
This is the most frequent question that people ask me. I truly wonder why that is. Do you know why? I guess people want to know if whether being drawn to the sciences is instinctual or happenstance. And for a long time I didn’t really have an answer to that. I grew up around the ocean. Almost my whole family lives along the Jersey Shore. But my sister had a similar exposure to the ocean. And she now works in finance!
There are, however, a few memories from childhood that give me insight into why I’m here at this place in my life. First, I have a distinct memory from first grade with one of my favorite teachers of all time, Ms. Crupi. I remember having Ms. Crupi teach me how to spell “environment,” which is might tough one for a six year old to do. At the time, answering, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” with “work with the environment” just made sense. But it’s funny because I only had the most vague sense of what that statement meant. I also told people I want to be a librarian. Which I think was true, too, in some regards. But “librarian” was a career people understood. Working in the environment, what was that?
I poked around in science-y things as kid. I won the science fair sophomore year in high school. And then was president of the Science and Environment Club. I remember running meetings about ocean clean up and then heading off to lacrosse practice. I was just doing anything and everything that interested me.
Later down the road, probably around the age of 19, I felt like it was time to see first hand what a career in biology or ecology would look like. I won this award to at my college that gave me the opportunity to work in an animal behavior lab run by Dr. Janet Mann at Georgetown University for college credit. National Geographic actually did a whole show about her back in the 90s, I think. She was the first person to discover that dolphins use tools. She was scary as hell. Oh, man! But I had such a major women’s crush on Dr. Mann for just kicking ass and treating me like I had something to contribute. She probably barely remembers me now. But working in that lab first opened my eyes that, “Hey, I could do this for a living.”
There’s one more moment I remember vividly that truly pushed me over the edge into a professional career in ecology and conservation. The memory is so fresh for me. But I’m actually going to be talking about that at the BYT event. So, can I just save it for your readers as lure to attend? Yes? Great.
Generally, science and creativity are viewed as opposing and separate forces, yet your work fuses them together. Do you think this intersection is the key to making science more accessible to wider audiences? What value do you see aside from accessibility?
It’s a shame that this is the popular thinking, isn’t it? I think any artist or creative would say their process is part science and scientists have to get creative to formulate and test a hypothesis. There is just no way around that one. I think what’s new is using this powerful thing called storytelling, in all of its new and old mediums, to make people more interested in science. Besides from the stigma that science is not creative, there’s the more popular stigma that science is not interesting. Look, people can grasp the materials. It’s attainable as hell if you just have enough interest. And I think institutions like National Geographic, NPR, and others are making a big push. And it’s been a thrill to be part of these institutions.
As for me, I think my fusion of ecology and storytelling just makes my brain operate better. I take heart in da Vinci. No one ever said, “I wish Leonardo would focus on his inventions and cut making all that frilly art.” I think da Vinci’s genius came from the freedom of doing both.
Where do you see the interaction of media and science heading next? Similarly, how do you think all these new forms of media change the way we interact with science, both for children and for adults?
My emotions about this topic are on a roller coaster. In some ways, I’m disheartened by the decline of science in its traditional forms of media. In the countries largest newsrooms, like The New York Times, science editorial staff are being cut left and right. But then there are all these bright spots of science storytelling springing up in the “new media landscape.” (FYI we need a better phrase than that, right? I’ll use it here for lack of a less lame alternative.)
Some of my favorite new science media sources are Undark Magazine, Hakai Magazine, and Nautil.us. These groups are winning science media awards left and right but none even existed six years ago. And then there is the rise of our science celebrities (there’s even a book about this). The A-list has you familiars like Neil de Grasse Tyson and Bill Nye. But also you have the B-list science celebrities, both established and emerging, who really embrace social media and podcasting. Check out Charles Post on Instagram or Katie Mack on Twitter. So these things give me hope. I was at a science conference this past August and there was a whole day devoted to teaching scientists how they can be better storytellers and engage people online. And that brings me hope: scientists taking storytelling and engagement into their own hands in a thoughtful way. Readers should know: I’m not alone in this brave, new world of science and media. It’s a real movement.
Much of your work targets the increasing rate of science illiteracy in the general public, what risks do you see as a result of this illiteracy? What other successful ways to you see people combating it?
I see myself as targeting apathy – not illiteracy. I think there is a big difference. People don’t learn from short videos, articles, and essays. They usually learn from first hand experiences, teaching others, or devoting time outside. Literacy is life long journey. But apathy can be turned around in an instant of wonder, surprise or awe. That’s the business I see myself in. And there are so many new innovative ways to do that. I got a drone last Christmas and I have a big project being published soon that I used a drone to tell the story of this one island. And people who’ve seen the footage are in awe. So I’m encouraged by the creative mash up of new technologies and mediums that is affording, what seems to be, unending ways of inciting wonder and awe.
Your work is based in two male dominated areas- science and film production, and much of your work, particularly OUTNUMBERED, highlights women in science, and the people they are outside of their work. So often we fail to see people as multifaceted, why do you think it’s important to show these women both in their work environment and outside of it?
In promoting women as equals we must not make the mistake of describing them as identical to their male counterparts. As young scientist myself, I know that the experiences and stories of today’s female field scientists are quite different from that of my male colleagues. By highlighting the unique struggles and stories women face, like multifaceted individuals like you said, we hope to open up a broader dialogue about the challenges facing women in field science and exploration. That is what the initial OUTNUMBERED project was all about.
In the same vein, what do you think is the most common misconception about scientists?
There is a common misconception that women aren’t in the science field because they are drawn to other careers. But that’s just not true. Articles and first-hand accounts by female scientists reference the lack of mentorship amongst women in exploration and the challenges of balancing motherhood and fieldwork. And then there is the harassment. Many recent articles also document hazing and sexual harassment during field research. A 2014 study published in the journal Nature found that women are 3.5 times more likely than men to experience sexual harassment in the field. For women, the perpetrators were often senior to them in their research team. Little press coverage has been devoted to the experience of women scientists in developing countries attempting fieldwork despite cultural and political gender barriers. We want to focus considerable attention on this informational gap by seeking representative narratives that illuminate the barriers that women face in countries around the world. That’s what the next expanded iteration of OUTNUMBERED will tackle.
What benefits do you see in humanizing scientists?
I see a large discrepancy between the number of women doing great work and the number of women highlighted for their field-based expertise. The Global Media Monitoring Project did a recent study showing that women are the central focus in only 14 percent of science and health stories, and only 19 percent of experts quoted are women. Stories that challenge gender stereotypes—by overturning common assumptions or representing women in counter stereotypical roles or situations—made up just 5 percent of science stories in 2015. This phenomena is called “the paper ceiling.”
All that is to say: if we humanize scientists, we will expect them to be all shades, shapes, and genders. And then the media, and society, will be more accepting of an expert who doesn’t just look like another Bill Nye (not a personal knock to the Science Guy. Nothing but love, Bill).
On women in science: Have you noticed an uptick in the number of women in your field over the course of your career so far?
It’s hard to say. But I see more women leaving the research field than men as I advance to higher stages of my career. But my experience is just one data point.
How do you unwind?
There’s no pattern to my unwinding, but here’s how it went yesterday (I should preface by saying that I’m writing to you from a tiny island field station off the coast of Belize): I spent all morning lugging around scientific material underwater and then almost 6 hours looking at that equipment under a microscope trying to identify coral babies. It was past 10pm when I finally looked up from the microscope. Instead of going to bed, I cracked open a cold beer and looked south.
Other than working on your PhD do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I can’t divulge too much. But it has something to do with searching for a lost species. And I’m very, very excited about it.