Exploring a new scicomm
approach in Uruguay

Published May 01 2017

On Jan. 27, a study published in the journal Science showed that girls as young as 6 years old believe that they are not suited or smart enough for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Stereotypes and unconscious bias undermine women’s self-confidence and put them at the risk of imposter syndrome, which makes them feel they cannot or should not be good at STEM. So I, as part of a group of like-minded scientists and science communicators in Uruguay, have come up with a way to challenge the stereotypes and biases that women can’t excel at STEM. We believe our project, “Feminencias,” will help to change those regressive tendencies in our societies while popularizing the lives and work of inspiring women scientists.

Bardo Científico

It was a cold and rainy August in 2015 when a group of 50 scientists, science communicators, teachers and journalists gathered in the old town of Montevideo in Uruguay. We were there to attend the “Science Slam Festival 2015,” a four-day workshop on science-communication skills. And, to be honest, we were eager to see “BigVan,” the renowned Spanish science-outreach group. Besides their workshops and blog, they regularly perform scientific monologues and have published several science communication books. We were there to learn how to communicate science in an innovative way: performing scientific monologues.

Monologues are oral communications with almost no props, gadgets or audiovisuals (including PowerPoint). They combine solid scientific rigor with accessibility for audiences with no science backgrounds. The goal is to attract the audience’s attention with nonexpert language and to connect with them emotionally. In this way, the structure of a molecule may be described as a combination of colorful paper clips or the concept of nuclear fusion may end up being explained by drawing comparisons to oranges in the supermarket.

The workshop included training in improvisation, storytelling and scientific monologues and ended with a science slam where some of the participants presented monologues. This experience sealed the deal for a new way of science communication in Uruguay.

After the workshop, some of the attendees gathered to decide what to do with this newly found enthusiasm for science communication. Long story short, “Bardo Científico” was born. The monologues improved so much that we started to get invitations to perform in many science fairs, scientific gatherings and congresses in Montevideo.

Bardo Científico after one of their events Bardo Científico after one of their events PHOTO COURTESY OF SEBASTIÁN PARENTELLI

“Feminencias”

Over the past few years, there have been initiatives to popularize women’s contributions to society. In 2016, the United Nations declared Feb. 11 the International Day for Girls and Women in Science.

Addressing those gender issues, Bardo Científico started a new project dedicated specifically to women in science, which we called “Feminencias.”

The hourlong show, co-organized with UNESCO and initially financed by the University of the Republic of Uruguay, began with the aim to share the discoveries and life experiences of women in STEM, with the belief that the role of women in science has been long hidden. Our school and university textbooks mainly were written by men and about men, so we organized those monologues around the life stories of the forgotten women.

Each member of the group chose a scientist with remarkable achievements. Monologues were created to show the time in which those scientists worked and describe their contributions and their pioneering roles. Some of the scientists that we highlighted were neuroscientist Rita Levi–Montalcini, who discovered the neural growth factor; nuclear physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission and inspired the name of meitnerium; chemist and physicist Rosalind Franklin, who characterized the DNA molecule by X-ray diffraction and whose results led to the description of the double-helix structure; and the neurophysiologist Linda Buck, who discovered the hundreds of genes for odorant sensors located in the sensory neurons of our noses.

At the same time, our group is concerned with an egalitarian look at scientific knowledge, taking to heart what Mae Jamison, who was the first black woman in space, once said: “We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That’s just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation. Kids live up, or down, to expectations.” 

Knowing about the existence of more women scientists than just Marie Curie is a small intellectual addition, but it goes in the right direction. Children of all ages, regardless of their gender, will be guided by their own desires and drives if they grow up in a supportive environment that is inclusive and stimulating with positive role models. Moreover, adults also can take stock of their negative biases. The contribution of “Feminencias” is that it promotes change at both the individual and the community levels.

That the presence of women in science is no longer an exception and that both women and men can contribute equally to the production of knowledge are indisputable. However, discoveries made by women continue to be a big surprise to audiences, probably due to the fact that history, prizes and awards mostly acknowledge men.

Since its first presentation last March, “Feminencias” has steadily increased its audience. We started with small groups but now have grown into a sold-out theater. Some attendees have approached us after the presentations to ask questions and to learn where they could find reliable information about more women in science. Teachers, educators, museum curators and the general public have contacted us frequently on our Facebook fan page to request our presentations at high schools, small theaters or workshops. We strongly believe that, with every show we do, we fight gender inequalities by showing people who are the real pioneers of science.

Connecting with our audience

The popularity of our group has been growing after each show, and the experience of sharing those hidden stories with the public has been increasingly rewarding.

To continue with our work, we find plenty of inspiration in the Spanish outreach group that introduced the monologue method in Uruguay. We also find inspiration in the many outstanding scientists, philosophers and thinkers who have promoted scientific education and communication, such as Levi–Montalcini.

But there is also great strength drawn from our audiences. At the end of each presentation, there usually is a Q&A session. The Q&As are a display of our basic instinct to seek knowledge, an instinct we all share as humans and one that sets us apart from other species.

Despite the differences in scientific training between us — the scientists and science communicators on the one hand and the audience on the other — we all end up sharing knowledge and thinking. We share the views and push forward the ideas of Rosalind Franklin, who once said, “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”

Ana Inés Zambrana Ana Inés Zambrana is a science educator, outreach promoter and researcher focused on Type I diabetes.