A few weeks into Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order, I saw a tweet from Sarah McAnulty, PhD, the founder and Executive Director of Skype a Scientist, proclaiming that the organization was making a big change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—they were allowing groups smaller than five people to sign up, meaning that families stuck at home during the pandemic could meet a scientist virtually in their living room.
Skype a Scientist provides an easy way to for people to meet a scientist and allows scientists to reach people from all over the world without having to leave the lab. Teachers (and now families) can choose the type of scientist that is a good fit, from computer scientists to marine biologists and everything in between. You can also request a scientist from a group that is underrepresented in STEM fields so that participants can see a scientist who looks like them or can relate to their experiences.
I learned about Skype a Scientist a few years ago after listening to an episode of the HelloPhD podcast. I remember wishing this program had existed when I was a high school science teacher, so I was ecstatic to learn it was now possible to participate and immediately filled out the online application for our family to be matched with a scientist. We received our match the next day and scheduled a call with our scientist the following week.
We were matched with a graduate student researching the evolution of human cognition. She works with bonobos at the Ape Initiative, teaching them how to make stone tools and testing their language comprehension. I was nervous that my daughter would quickly ask the dozen or so questions she’d prepared and we’d have to end the call after 10 minutes. It turned out that the scientist’s research draws from many different disciplines, including archaeology, neuroscience and psychology, so we had a lot to talk about.
The scientist thoughtfully answered all our questions, kept the conversation going by asking my daughter about her interests and sparked a lot of new follow-up questions. After about an hour, we’d had a lot of fun and learned about a lot of cool research—including how harder it is to teach bonobos than humans. The scientist also shared a funny story about one exceptionally clever bonobo named Kanzi. After seeing the researchers eating pizza, Kanzi used his lexigrams to let them know he wanted some by pointing to the symbols for bread, tomato and cheese!
About a month later, I received an email from Skype a Scientist that began, “We can handle an additional 8000 families, classrooms, and other groups. Our scientist roster has tripled this month.” Immediately, two thoughts popped in my head: (1) sign up for another session and (2) this sounds like an excellent blog topic. The writer in me wondered how else the pandemic had affected this program, aside from the obvious fact that there were a lot more scientists signed up than groups to get matched with a scientist.
So, I contacted Sarah to learn more about how Skype a Scientist was adapting to the changes caused by COVID-19. While their list of scientists participating is always growing, she says the program is experiencing a huge uptick right now. Sarah acknowledged that this increase is likely the result of research labs being shut down and scientists being at home and needing something to do. By the same token, more people signed up to be matched with a scientist by April this year than had signed up in an entire year before that.
One factor that is reducing the number of groups signing up to be matched with a scientist is the switch to virtual school. This has produced a shift from teachers to more non-school group leaders requesting sessions, such as families or girl scout troops. Although virtual classrooms are compatible with the program, many students don’t have reliable internet at home and teachers aren’t signing up for sessions if the entire class can’t participate.
Sarah is encouraging both scientists and families or virtual school groups to sign up. Although the latter is in shorter supply right now, the more scientists that sign up, the better. “Don’t take it personally if you don’t get matched right away…that’s just the algorithm,” Sarah cautions. Right now, Skype a Scientist is really focused on getting the message out to people who want to talk to scientists. You can help spread the word by telling friends, family members or teachers about the program!
In the past year, Skype a Scientist has expanded their programs to include more than just private sessions with scientists. Skype a Scientist LIVE showcases scientists via livestream to the public each week. They select scientists who are particularly good communicators or study appealing topics, with a focus on featuring a wide variety of subject matter and scientists from diverse backgrounds. Sarah has noticed a huge increase in the audience for these livestreams, which has ballooned from about 20 viewers to between 100-500 people per session during the pandemic. To learn about upcoming Skype a Scientist LIVE sessions, sign up for their weekly newsletter.
In addition to live streams, Skype a Scientist recently launched a new initiative called “No Time Like the Presentation.” This competition is intended to support the development of scientific communication skills. Graduate students and postdocs submitted a 90 second video abstract of their work that maintains the complexity required at a conference but remains understandable to anyone. The 10 winning abstracts (chosen from 62 total submissions) will be featured on May 12th during a livestream where each scientist will give a 10-minute talk and respond to three “rapid fire” questions from the audience.
To support the mission and outreach of the organization, Skype a Scientist held trivia night fundraisers in local bars before the pandemic. Now they have turned After Hours Trivia For Adults into a virtual event. You can check out @SkypeScientist on Twitter for more information and to purchase tickets (all proceeds support the foundation).
Although Skype a Scientist has done an incredible job of adapting to the circumstances, the increase in scale has been hard to sustain with their small staff. Sarah is the only full-time staff member and she’s supported by a couple other part-time support staff. The program is completely donor supported and funding is a bottleneck that limits how responsive Skype a Scientist can be to increases in demand. Sarah would like to hire additional support staff, but the non-profit organization needs to raise a lot more funds before that will be possible.
The feedback Sarah receives from participants in Skype a Scientist, scientists and non-scientists alike is very positive. She notes that scientists have a lot of fun being reminded that their job is cool and fun and fielding interesting questions from kids that provoke new research ideas. Her advice to those signing up is simple, “Don’t underestimate what you will get out of the program.”
After our second Skype a Scientist session, I couldn’t agree more. We were matched with another cognitive scientist who was studying in Hungary and I worried we might not be as engaged since the subject matter seemed pretty similar to our previous session. Instead, we were captivated by the scientist’s descriptions of Budapest and local culture, along with her research on social cognition in babies. The highlights were when she shared videos of baby studies she had designed and previewed an animation she created with colleagues to assess how children understand social behaviors like helping and cooperation. We can’t wait to sign up for another session!
If you’re interested in supporting Skype a Scientist financially so they can continue to grow, you can donate via PayPal or become a Patreon patron. You can also make ”Sarah Mack SciComm” your Amazon Smile charity or purchase t-shirts and totes and stickers to support and raise awareness for the program.
Want to find videos, articles and tools to learn about basic molecular and cell biology techniques? Check out our Student Resource Center.