I sat down with Dr. Jayatri Das, the Chief Bioscientist at Philadelphia’s science museum, the Franklin Institute. I arrived at the Franklin on a cold Friday morning, just before the museum floor was set to open. As Dr. Das walked me towards a quiet place to chat I got a glimpse of the well-organized machine that is the Franklin - dozens of people preparing the exhibits for many visitors the museum will see that day. Dr. Das and I spoke about her role at the Franklin and how she inspires a love of science in the public.
What do you do at the Franklin?
What led you to the Franklin Institute?
All along the way I was preparing for this career without intentionally doing it. It wasn’t until I was finishing up grad school that I started to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. You have that moment where the letters are in sight and you’re like, “now what do I do?!” I really loved research, but what I saw was that as people advance in academia they do less and less bench work. I felt like continuing along that path, even though I really loved what I was doing and I loved the project that I worked on for my PhD, I didn’t see myself fitting into that model 10 – 20 years down the road.
Right around the time when I was finishing grad school was also when the Kitzmiller v. Dover evolution trial was happening. That was kind of a wake up call, it got a lot of press at the time, it was like the Scopes trial part II. It made me realize that there is a lot of misunderstanding in science out there.
That’s when I started thinking about science communication, and thinking about ‘this is actually something that I really enjoy doing… that maybe there is something there’. At that point, I had already had a postdoc lined up at Penn, but in between finishing my PhD and Penn, I did the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowship through the National Academy of Sciences. I ended up doing my fellowship in their science museum, the Koshland Science Museum, and that was an amazing experience! I had a great mentor there who had also been a PhD scientist.
That was great, I got some actual experience under my belt, but then I still didn’t have a job! So, I came back and did my postdoc. While I was doing my postdoc I started volunteering at the Academy and keeping my eyes open for what opportunities there were. I started going to some science writers’ association meetings, thinking that might be a direction. Then, I got lucky! Because that was when the Franklin Institute was looking for an exhibit developer, specifically for a biologist because they were just starting the brain exhibit.
In doing a lot of your volunteering in graduate school, you didn’t think of this as setting up a “Plan B” in case you didn’t like academia?
Do you feel having those experiences was crucial to getting jobs in the field?
Do you feel you have the ‘bench’ aspect of your work that’s more hands on? What do you do that fulfills that?
I also really like talking about science! And I get to talk about science, a lot, which I love.
That’s such an important aspect of science. And, one that’s not always done well.
How do you toe the line between simplifying complicated topics so that they can be understood and misrepresenting the science?
How much do you feel like you’re influenced by the public perception of science and what’s being talked about? Do you feel compelled to address those issues?
Do you bring in experts for panel discussions?
Sometimes, in wanting to explain scientific concepts to non-scientists, it seems like a lot of what gets lost is because there isn’t an appreciation for science as a methodology, rather than a collection of facts. Do you feel there is any worth in explaining that?
A different approach is ‘let’s change what it means to have that identity’. If you tell people 99% of parents vaccinate and 95% of them do it on time. You hear so much about not vaccinating or delaying vaccination, then part of the identity is not vaccinating. Well, guess what? Most people do vaccinate! We have to be a little smarter in talking to people and not thinking that there is one approach that will solve every problem.
Does the Franklin try to design exhibits for a wide range of ages?
That being said, when it comes to designing exhibits for our building, we say that our target audience is families with kids between the ages of 8 and 13. That helps us focus a little bit, but making our exhibits accessible to everyone is always at the top of our mind. Even if our content is tailored to that sweet spot, there is something for everybody to do.
Actually that middle school level of science is really good for everyone! People who aren’t scientists don’t keep up with it. That’s one thing we learned about the brain when doing our advance evaluation – was that the 11 – 14 year olds knew more than the adults!
Researchers put a lot of emphasis on the methods they use to answer scientific questions. In your exhibits, do you try to include not just what we know about x, y, and z, but how researchers discovered it?
We had a very high-level concept when we started [on the brain exhibit] that was very central to our exhibit. We have been trying to learn about the brain for thousands of years, but our understanding was always limited by what we were able to see about the brain. We had this whole part trying to demonstrate that what we know about the brain is still limited by the tools that we have to study it and this may all change. Anyway, that was a grand idea that failed miserably! Because ultimately what we discovered was that when people interact with an exhibit here they expect to learn something that is true. And so people interacting with that part of the exhibit were taking home the wrong thing!
That really changed our approach the to exhibit, so we changed to a more personal approach – let’s just talk about your brain and what it does at different levels of function. The methodology story ended up being much more subtly infused into that.
What is your goal for every exhibit?
One of the reasons I came to a science museum was that acute realization that people did not understand evolution, but the solution to that is not to go around preaching Charles Darwin to everybody. It has to start much earlier. If you don’t have an appreciation for science and understand why it is relevant to you, then you are never going to get to the point where you’re willing to give Charles Darwin a chance. Our goal is to open people's minds to how fascinating science is, and the way we do that is to help them understand why it’s relevant to them.