How to Draw a Scientist with Allison Crimmins
It’s no secret that 2017 was a trash year, and 2018 hasn’t been…easy. But somehow, we’re still here, making it work—and even finding inspiration, joy, and success. We want to talk about how we’re coping during even the most trying political and cultural times.
To help us, we sit down with none other than a climate scientist working in government to find out how she’s keeping her head up in rough times.
I try as much as I can to talk with college kids or high school kids and most of the time my message is just, “Hi, I’m a scientist and I also happen to be a woman.” It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that.
—Allison Crimmins, climate scientist
Here’s what’s in store in Episode 6 (and as always, there’s a full transcript):
First up, we look back on last year and how we made it through. We talk about how even though we had some big successes, it was hard to feel accomplished while the world seemed to burn in turmoil. We discuss:
- How we stayed (and stay) focused amidst a never-ending news cycle
- Why asking for help is important
- Why being accountable to something or someone can serve as a bright north star
We also discover how to recognize when it’s OK to just turn off and tune out. Hint: it’s always OK when that’s the most healthy choice.
Interview: Allison Crimmins
Our guest this week is Allison Crimmins, a badass friend who works on climate change in Washington, DC, during the day and cancer research at night—no big. She takes us through her typical Tuesday and tells us how the hell she’s doing these days. We cover:
- Doing good work during crap times.
- How limitations and constraints can feel frustrating but also provide opportunities to be more creative and strategic about accomplishing goals.
- Why good communication matters—and if you truly understand and believe in your work, you should know how to talk about it.
- Being seen and heard as a woman in a male-heavy field, and normalizing it so we can talk more about the actual work we’re doing.
- Cutting through the mysticism around science and STEM, and how you don’t have to be a super nerdy genius to be a scientist—you just have to be curious.
- When kids draw what they think a scientists looks like, the results will astound you! (No, they won’t, but we need to change that.)
- How bobsledding and curling might just reignite our faith in the human spirit.
Fuck Yeah of the Week
Finally, we swoon over the unveiling of the absolutely brilliant Obama portraits. If you haven’t checked the work of Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama, and Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama—do it now.
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
WordPress—the place to build your personal blog, business site, or anything else you want on the web. WordPress helps others find you, remember you, and connect with you.
CodePen—a social development environment for front-end designers and developers. Build and deploy a website, show off your work, build test cases, and find inspiration.
Katel LeDû [Ad spot] This episode of No, You Go is brought to you by our friends at Shopify, the leading global commerce platform for entrepreneurs. In fact, my company, A Book Apart, runs on Shopify … and great news: they’re hiring more awesome people to join their team. And they don’t just want you to apply to them, they want to apply to you. Join a diverse, intelligent, and motivated team, and work on the leading global commerce platform for entrepreneurs. Visit shopify.com/careers to see what they’re all about [music fades in].
Jenn Lukas [Music fades out] Hey and welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher.
SWB You know we all know that 2017 was a trash year, and 2018 looks like it’s going to be stressful too. So today we are going to talk about what we do during these tough times, how do we stay motivated, and how do we keep it together. To help us do that, we’ll talk with Allison Crimmins, who is an environmental scientist working in government — yes, government — on issues related to climate change. Talk about tough times. But before we steal all of her coping methods, let’s talk about the state of our union.
KL I don’t know, I had a weirdly good professional year last year, and I don’t know, it was in a lot of different ways. I really wanted to grow in a couple of different areas that I previously didn’t know if I was going to be able to. We had sort of locked down a lot of things that go into the day to day running of A Book Apart, and one area was just marketing. I really was like, “I don’t feel confident in this. I really want to get a better grasp of it,” and [exhales deeply] I feel like I got better at it by asking for help and just realizing that I wasn’t going to get there alone and that I really — I wanted to get stronger in that area and, you know, some others to actually sustain the business. It was really cool to be able to find that and also, I don’t know, just feel like I had really made some progress and felt like I achieved something. And while I felt kind of successful and that I had made an accomplishment, there were mornings, like a lot of mornings, that I would wake up and just feel like, “What the fuck? Like maybe this doesn’t even matter.” It was a weird feeling to have that juxtaposition. It was tough.
SWB Yeah, I mean I definitely felt like that too, right? I was working on a book for a lot of last year: finishing writing it, going through the editorial process on it, waiting for it to come out, doing all of the legwork in advance of it coming out. You know, you need to be excited about it, right? Like you have to be excited about your own book if you want anybody else to be. And meanwhile I would be reading Twitter, because I’ve got to keep up with what’s going on in the thing that my book is about, and what do you see on Twitter? Well, you see a bunch of garbage the president said, and all of this stuff that was just really depressing, and it was really difficult to keep focused on anything else, and I felt like that was hard. It’s hard to think about things that are going well and to think about like, you know, if you get praise for something, or sales at A Book Apart go up, or whatever, and to be excited about it when you’re also kind of like, at a macro level what the fuck even?
KL Yeah and I mean I think for me too just feeling like, if you’re excited about it, and you’re feeling like, “Ok, we made progress, we had successes.” That obviously rubs off on other people and you want them to feel like things are moving in the right direction. So it’s hard to, obviously not just feel that for yourself but then, make sure [laughing] that you’re not falling apart and that that’s spreading.
JL So Katel, what did you do on those days when you were wondering, does it matter? Does this matter? How did you cope with that?
KL I mean really and truly it was the fact that I’d done the work of putting a network together and really surrounding myself with people who knew the right steps to take and in the right direction, and having folks that I could rely on. So I think — I mean also being accountable to having a vision and making sure that you are moving in the right direction was huge.
JL It’s weird to say this but it’s almost refreshing for me to hear this just because, you know, I think a lot of times we have feelings like that: is everything going to be OK? Am I going to make it through this time of my life? Whether it’s because of external situations going on or internal ones, or just things you can control, things you can’t control. So it’s almost refreshing to hear that other people go through that as well and that just because you have those feelings doesn’t mean that you won’t get through them or learn how to cope with them at the same time. So I think it’s really nice. So thank you for sharing that.
SWB Yeah, Jenn, did you ever feel dissonance last year because you had a baby: big exciting thing, awesome thing, not without its own challenges, right? [Laughter]
JL Different challenges.
SWB But where it’s like, “Oh my god the largest source of joy I’ve ever had in my entire life also what the hell is happening in this country?”
JL Yeah, I’ll tell you that I struggled, I think, with feelings of guilt a lot last year because I turned off. I turned off a lot of social media, I turned off a lot of news. The current events and just keeping up with sort of like the social network around me I felt all to be a little too overwhelming while trying to make sure that I stayed healthy to be able to give birth to a child.
SWB Like what can we do to make you feel less guilty about that? Because like I think you should feel no guilty about that.
JL Thank you for saying that but, you know, it’s hard because I’ve read — there were so many great articles and I tried to read about like what can we do, what could you do last year, and how could you get involved. And I have great friends that were doing a lot of things locally that were really awesome. At the time, you know, I was eight months pregnant. Besides just wanting to sleep all the time, like physically you have this physical being inside of you [laughter]. That is like draining.
KL Draining you.
JL It’s like having this alien sort of inside — he’s going to listen to this when he’s older and he’s going to be like, “You called me an alien.” But I mean like that’s what it is.
SWB You know what? Here’s the thing: your kid is never going to be interested in your podcast [laughter].
KL That’s true. But we’re still — by the way, we’re still going to be doing it then. So just — [laughter] get ready.
SWB We’ll be extremely famous.
JL Um but I mean you have this, like, life force inside of you, sucking your energy and making you tired, and then I would like try to turn on the news for a second and I would be like, “I can’t.” For me it was really important to recognize that I couldn’t. Katel, you mentioned accountability and um, you know, there’s being accountable to employees or a team. For me, I felt accountable to, at the time, my unborn son and being like, “I need to make sure that I’m doing this for you.” So sometimes having a thing that’s not you or a person or — can help you figure out how to make it through this next step. Sometimes I can’t see what the next five steps are, so if I can see through someone else’s eyes it helps me figure out where I need to go.
SWB Well, I mean I think it’s very important that now that you have this child, right? What is one of the biggest things that you can do for the world? Raise a son who’s a good person and who’s not a terrible misogynist. I would greatly appreciate that and that’s also — that’s a big task, right? You’re raising a kid in a culture that is going to present some problems and you’re going to be aware and there to work through it. So you didn’t watch the news for awhile. I do think it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on in the world. I’m not trying to say that like, “Oh and none of it matters. Hashtag selfcare, turn it off all the time!” I just mean that you have to recognize what’s going to be useful for you at any given moment in your life and at the moment in your life when you’re like, “I cannot actually do anything about this because I don’t have anything to give.” Turning it off is probably the most productive. So it’s not sucking more energy from you, right? So I actually I applaud that. I applaud that you were able to do that and I hope that you have forgiven yourself for doing that by now because it doesn’t fucking matter that you missed some news. I can fill you in: it was bad [laughter].
KL I think that’s the thing too, like you realize that it’s this cycle of panicking and just being like, “Fuck does it matter?” And then being like, “Well, wait, there are things in my life that I know it matter for or to,” and then realizing like that you need to prioritize and maybe prioritize for other beings or people in your life and then being like, “OK, it’s going to be fine.” And then maybe it starts all over again when things get rough.
JL And I think that’s a great point and in terms of forgiving myself now it’s like, “OK, well, let’s podcast. Let’s talk to people. Let’s get out there.” What else can I — what can I do next on things? So it’s not always, “Well, just because I didn’t do anything in 2017 doesn’t mean I can’t do anything in 2018.” So I think it’s that whole like terrible cliche about tomorrow’s another day in here.
SWB What I also think a lot about is that gluing yourself to a news stream and going through cycles of freaking out is also not doing anything. That is not actually doing anything. And it’s not to say that there’s something wrong with being informed, but I do know what it’s like to sort of reflexively refresh to figure out like what new fresh hell has unleashed. And what I realized of course is the biggest things that I did last year was, like, I raised a bunch of money for abortion access. I donated a tremendous number of hours to Fair Districts PA, which is working on stopping gerrymandering in this state, and there’s significant progress on that, like we’ve just recently, in Pennsylvania, won this lawsuit against the districts that were drawn last time, which are super gerrymandered. And I was a direct part of the team that worked on digital strategy, and made sure they actually had a brand, I mean I did all of this hands-on work. And then, those don’t do anything to stop Donald Trump. Right? Like in this sort of like — in some of these macro ways that you know things are screwed up, I didn’t necessarily affect those things, but those are really tangible things that I did that are important, and that are important to human people who live in the communities that I care about. And like I was able to that because I had some and energy and expertise to give. And maybe this year you’ll have a little bit of time, or expertise, or energy to give to something you care about, but you gave a lot of time, energy, and expertise to birthing a child last year.
10:45 KL I mean: props [music fades in].
SWB [Music fades out][ad spot] Hey Jenn, do you know what always works during difficult times?
JL What, Sara?
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KL [Music fades out] Allison Crimmins is an environmental scientist working in Washington, DC. Along with her day job in climate science, she works on ambitious side projects like an early stage thriving biotech startup — no big deal! And volunteers to help encourage young folks to engage in STEM. She also happens to be one of my very close friends and every time I talk to her I feel either inspired, or assured, or pumped about something, and sometimes all of the above. Allison, I am so happy to have you on the show today. Welcome to No, You Go.
Allison Crimmins Thank you! I’m very happy to be here.
KL First can you tell us a little bit about your work or your area of expertise?
AC I am a climate scientist with a background in oceanography but I also have a degree in public policy. So I’m in this kind of interesting place where my job involves some kind of wonky, nerdy climate science but also thinking about how that applies to policies, and thinking about ways to communicate that science to all sorts of different audiences, from policy-makers, state and local decision-makers, or just general members of the public. Yeah I really enjoy the sort of some science, some policy, some communications. I like that I get to do a piece of that everyday in my job.
SWB Can you tell me a little more like what does that look like on a day-to-day level?
AC Yeah, like my average Tuesday? [Laughter]
AC So I have ongoing research projects that look at the impacts of climate change, specifically how they affect human health, and, in some cases, how they affect our economy. And so I help manage different research projects that publish peer-reviewed papers that go into wonky scientific journals and that’s kind of the science side of my job. The other side of my job would be making sure that that science actually gets applied and also communicated. The taxpayers pay for that science, and so they have a right to see it and know about and learn from it.
KL So we know this is kind of a difficult time for people who do what you do, sort of generally, how are you? In this job? In this environment? Right now?
AC Yeah I get asked that a lot nowadays. Or if I meet someone new and I tell them that I’m a climate scientist, I usually get a, “Ooh, thank you for your service.” Which is — it’s actually been kind of nice that people have been coming out of the woodwork to actually let us know how much they appreciate the work we do. It’s hard to do good science and then not see it get used or be appreciated as much as it once was. But it doesn’t stop us from doing the good science. In fact, in a lot of ways it inspires us to work even harder. It’s kind of proof that what we’re doing is really important.
KL How do you stay motivated or focused or even sane through all of this?
AC Well, I guess it’s probably important to admit first off the bat that I don’t handle it every day with the utmost grace and aplomb. I’m an average person in a lot of ways, and so I have good days and bad days. But there’s always that driving factor that I’m doing good science and I’m helping to make the world a better place, and I’m surrounded by lots of people who feel that same way and have that same goal. And so in a lot of ways it’s the people I work with that have really helped me keep going every day and keep pushing through.
KL Have you and the people you work with had to redefine things like progress or success in the initiatives that you’re trying to get through or the projects you’re trying to push out the door?
AC I think by necessity you have to. I mean, I’m a civil servant. I work with a lot of other civil servants. You know you think about administrations shifting and you think that might cause a huge upheaval of the people that work there, but really the government is made up of mostly civil servants like myself who through whatever administration comes through will keep doing the good work and the good science and making sure that our country’s moving forward. So, you know, for people who have been there for decades, a lot of those people see this as just an inevitable shift in the political winds but not really altering their mission, or their long term goals. I think it’s harder for people who are newer in government to have such a severe shift, I guess, from the last administration to this one, especially in terms of climate change because in the last administration it wasn’t just that we had an administration that was pro-science, it was actually that we had a hunger and an actual request for more information to better understand the impacts of climate change. So we’ve had to, you know, we’re still doing the good work, we’re still doing good science. That’s still happening. We just have to be more strategic or creative in some places about how we accomplish those goals.
SWB Yeah, what does that mean? So when you say getting strategic or creative, like, what kinds of techniques are you using day-to-day to feel like you can still make some incremental progress or get things communicated in a way that gets adoption, or in some way feel like you’re still moving toward those goals?
AC Yeah, I think I’ll start by telling you a story that my father-in-law told me. He was in advertising for many years and he told us that oftentimes you’re able to be more creative when you’re forced into a situation with lots of limitations or restraints. So in his case, you know, he would be working on a commercial for a product and suddenly the company would say, “Well, we don’t want any people in this commercial, and it has to be this long, and you can’t say these words.” And they’d set up a bunch of limitations which can feel very confining and frustrating but it’s in those situations where I think anyone can be even more creative. It forces you to be creative. And I think about that story often in my day-to-day job when I am faced with maybe the normal way we would do something is now off the table. You can look at that with frustration or you can look at it as an opportunity to be even more creative. So in this time I’ve, you know, I guess to get more specific I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about other people or other groups that I can collaborate and maybe I can do the science but they can do the communicating. Or maybe I can connect to researchers who haven’t worked together in the past and one has the data and one has the model and, you know, maybe there’s a way I can put those two together and I don’t need to have my name on it but that science still moves forward. It forces you to really, I don’t know, get sneaky and strategic about how to keep this science progressing.
SWB In some ways it clarified what’s really important here. You’ve been able to say, “OK, it’s really important that the science keeps happening even if your name is not on the paper,” which I think is kind of hard though, right? Like if you’re somebody who has a lot of career ambition and is doing this work, is it ever difficult to feel like you can’t be as recognized for the work that you’re doing? Or as valued for that work?
AC I mean that’s always hard if you’re not appreciated for the work that you’re doing. But in this case I think I don’t mind it so much. I’m happy to actually see information get out to people even if my name is not attached to it. And even kind of bigger picture: if I’m successful in my life-long career of addressing climate change, no one will have heard of my name because climate change won’t be an issue anymore that we’ll be dealing with. It’s kind of that counterfactual element of my job is, you know, we don’t talk about the ozone hole as much as we did, or when was the last time you heard about acid rain? If I’m truly successful at my job, you won’t ever know it.
KL Has doing this kind of work, even in the last five years, the way that you’ve had to shift or change approaches, has that made you learn anything about yourself that you weren’t expecting?
AC Something I’ve learned about myself is that, you know, when I first started this job I was moving kind of out of what we call bench science. So I wasn’t working in a laboratory anymore, working at a lab bench doing sort of the wet lab-type science, I was doing more work to apply that science. And when I first started my job and maybe I would work with a contractor or another researcher and I would look at the work they were doing and I would almost be jealous of it and think, “Well, that’s where I should be. I should be the person in the lab doing that experiment.” But over time I came to really appreciate sort of the project management aspect of my job, that I can guide the research and be sort of the big thinker behind coming up with new research questions and connect researchers together and in some ways it feels a little bit like I’m able to conduct more of the orchestra rather than play one instrument.
KL Mm hmm.
AC And that’s something I never thought growing up. I was the kid with the “Save the Whales” poster on their wall, you know? [KL laughs] From an early age, I thought I was going to be the, you know, that girl out on the boat saving the whales. But I actually feel a lot more powerful in the position I’m in now that I can help the larger movement of science progress.
KL Right, you’ve sort of felt out all of the places you’re strong and you’re using those skills to do it like more holistically. You’re also the director of strategy for Remedy Plan, the biotech startup that I mentioned in our intro. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
AC Sure. This is a startup company that my husband has started that does cancer research and it also kind of started out of two researchers coming together to discuss their … seemingly separate fields and finding a very interesting overlap and coming up with a really, really great idea of a new way to find cancer therapeutics. And so when my husband was first dreaming this up, you know, he’s on this very rigid academic traintracks. You know? You go and you get your PhD and you get your post doc and you follow this exact pathway and suddenly he had an idea that was like too good to pass up. It really was. And when he explained it to me, I instantly recognized it as too good of an idea to pass up. And so he quit his job and started this company, and we’ve been going for two years now and the science is going great [chuckles]. It’s interesting to be working on climate change during the day and cancer research on the weekends —
KL It’s not, you know, it sounds totally laid back.
SWB Does it ever feel just like a lot? Because it sounds like a lot when you describe it.
AC It is a lot, yeah. I mean I don’t work full-time, of course, for Remedy Plan, but I try to help out where I can and it’s a pretty small startup, so, you know, the few people working there end up wearing a lot of different hats. But also both my husband and I are scientists and so all our training comes from science and we’re being forced to learn a lot of new skills. Like how to write a business plan, or thinking strategically about our branding and our website, or how does one even go about pitching potential investors for a Series A round? So it’s also kind of exciting and in much of the same way I love science because it’s an act of discovery, this side project has also been a really fun act of discovery for me, kind of exploring this whole other world.
KL That’s so cool, and also, I mean, I just want to say that you are incredibly good at communicating complex scientific concepts, you know, sort of real talk here: a lot of scientists aren’t always good at this, and it’s like, why is that, do you think?
AC Yes. I don’t think a lot of people go through school or go through their PhD with any pressure or any element to explain what they’re doing to anyone else besides their immediate colleagues who understand the same language. And I hope that that is something that is changing. I think the other element is that scientists are wary to talk about their science in what they might view as a more simplistic or a way that could be misinterpreted which is unfortunate because I think if you really understand your work and your science, then you should be able to explain it to anyone. And I think, especially for my field of science, I think you have a responsibility to explain it to other people.
KL Absolutely! I mean how did you get good at it?
AC I think probably just because I’m really geeky about it and I like to talk about it a lot. And I want other people to be as excited as I am at these discoveries and so it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing.
SWB I’ve met lots of scientists over the years. Actually both my mother and my brother are chemistry professors. They’re all geeky about their science, right? It’s not like any of them are not geeky about it, they all love talking about it. But what they don’t all love to do is come to you with it, they want you to come to them, right? So it’s like they want to talk about it on their terms because that’s what they’re comfortable with. And it sounds like something you’re really comfortable with is being able to bring things to other people and have a little bit more of that collaborative spirit, which to me seems kind of crucial to being able to communicate it in a way that’s going to work for different audiences.
AC Absolutely, and I think even going back to, you know, the story of Remedy Plan. It came out of two people in slightly different fields who were able to communicate how exciting the thing was that they were working on and then see where those things overlap and provide an opportunity for something greater than the sum of its parts.
KL So I gotta ask this: women make up half of the total college-educated workforce but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. How have you navigated that?
AC Yeah it’s a really tough field to be a woman. I mean a lot of fields are. This one’s definitely tough and at every step of the way, from undergraduate and grad school and post docs and jobs, we struggle and it’s hard, especially because we don’t have a lot of role models to look at, or we haven’t so far. Hopefully that’s changing. And often the role models we do have are those super amazing, you know, titanium women who can do it all. And it’s like, well, do you have to be made of titanium? I mean, can you just be someone who’s really into science and curious about life to enjoy being a scientist? So I got some advice early on in my career from a very wonderful female scientist who said to be wary of the people who are maybe hierarchically a little higher than you, and to be extremely giving and helpful to the people who are coming up behind you. And so I try as much as I can to talk with college kids or high school kids and most of the time my message is just, “Hi, I’m a scientist and I also happen to be a woman.” It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that. That I think when I first started going into classrooms, the teachers would have the kids draw a picture. Before I got there they’d have the kids draw a picture of a scientist and the kids would, of course, draw a man in a white lab coat with crazy hair and glasses. Like to a kid that’s our image of what a scientist is: this like wacky guy pouring chemicals from one jar to another. You know and then they introduce me and here I’m just kind of a normal lady coming into the room to talk about the fact that being a scientist let me travel to the Great Barrier Reef and explore these new lands, and make exciting discoveries, and I think just actually being seen is important. So I try to make that a part of my life as well to help when things get tough.
SWB Yeah I love that. It reminds me of this interview we did for an earlier episode with Elizabeth Fiedler, who’s running for the Pennsylvania Legislature. And she talks about how she has gone to campaign events with her baby strapped to her and on the one hand she — you know her children are extremely central to her life, and they’re also central to her campaign, to the issues that she cares about, and they’re present. And she wants people to see them there, right? But on the other hand she doesn’t want to hang out and be the baby candidate. She is there to talk about specific issues and it’s kind of this idea of like normalizing it, right? “Yeah, yes, I’m a mom. That’s great. That’s important to me. It’s very obvious. And then also let’s talk about the issues that we’re here to talk about, and let’s talk about what we’re going to do in this community.” And it’s kind of that same idea, right? It’s like, “Yeah, yup, I’m a woman. I’m here. And that’s extremely normal. And let’s talk about the science.”
AC Absolutely. I mean there’s also times where I’ve had to be, or I try to be, more direct. I’ve been asked to speak on panels and blatantly told, you know, they’re so thankful I said yes because I’m the only woman on the panel. So when I am in those situations, or even when I’m sitting, watching a panel, I try to actually note out loud, “Hey, [chuckles] there’s no women on that panel.” A couple of weeks ago some colleagues and I were coming up with a list of people we wanted to reach out to review something we were working on and we came up with a list of ten names and not one name was a woman, and so I was like, “Hey guys, can we think of a few women?” And it was like — it’s not that the people I was working with were purposely not choosing women, they didn’t even recognize it until it’s said out loud. So, I think, sometimes just kind of shining a light on it in hopefully not too pushy of a way but just, you know, noting that this is the state of affairs helps, again, draw attention to the fact.
SWB Yeah, like you don’t realize your own biases around what you think of as a default human and are until you can kind of take a step back. In tech, all the time, we have these conversations about representation and I remember this one time when I was being invited to speak at a conference and I was not available to speak during those days and so I declined. And he replied to me kind of exasperated and upset and what he told me was that I was the ninth woman that he’d asked to turn him down.
KL You’re like, “Uh huh?”
SWB And I was like — and then he was basically complaining that he couldn’t find any women who would speak at his conference. And I’m like, OK, first up: do not tell people that you’re the ninth person that you went to. Thanks for that. But second: it’s like, OK well you’re asking me really late, the conference was far away and it was only a few weeks out or maybe a month out or something and it was going to require, like, an eight-hour plane flight. And, you maybe haven’t done enough work to have women in your network who know you are, who trust you, who can talk to other women about whether your event is a good place for them, who you know et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Like, why are you upset that women are turning you down instead of wondering, ‘Huh, what is about my event that is making it not a desirable opportunity for them?’ Look internally, bud.” Um but I’m not sure he actually did that.
KL Well I am really glad that you are being seen and that you are on those panels and the author of these papers and I’m just really glad that you are. You’re such a great role model and you’re a really amazing motivator. Is there anything that you tell people, especially younger folks who are entering this field or trying to find their path?
AC You don’t need to be some super nerdy genius to be a scientist. And, you know, of course, we have this persona in our society that that’s what a scientist looks like, that they’re some socially inept, weirdo, kooky nerd. Or that they are just an absolute genius at math. And I try to let them know that you don’t have to be any of those things. You know, I got a D in my seventh grade science class. But what you do need is curiosity, and if you’re curious and you like to explore and you like to discover, if you have those traits, that’s what makes a good scientist. I mean, I was a huge Indiana Jones fan as a little kid and, I know from the outside it probably looks like I’m sitting in a cubicle, working on an Excel spreadsheet, but I am like parting cobwebs from ancient stone ruins and finding hidden caves and using this decoder ring to find the treasure. That’s how I view science: as this very exciting opportunity to discover new things. So I feel like a lot of people, or especially kids, I think they don’t see themselves as a scientist if they’re not, you know, getting straight As in math. Or if they’re not a whiz at science class in school. But it only takes curiosity to be good at science.
SWB I totally want to dig into this a little bit more because I think we hear that kind of thing a lot about certain fields, anything related to science and technology too. We hear that about programming, right? That like in order to be a programmer you have to be this socially awkward person, usually a dude, and you work by yourself until the middle of the night, hacking away at something, and you had to start coding when you were 11, and all of these things that are really unachievable for a lot of people, or just not realistic, or that are just very alienating, and I think particularly alienating to girls who, no matter what they do, never fit that particular mold. Right? Like they’re never going to look like the kooky guy in the lab coat. And so I think that it creates all of these weird boundaries and this sort of like mysticism around science and technology as if it’s something that normal people can’t do or don’t do. And I think that’s the kind of thing that I want to push back on all the time because most of science is just normal people doing work. And that work is interesting and that work is powerful, but you don’t have to be special to do that.
AC Absolutely, and it’s that sort of image that kids are forming in their mind when they’re young, that “scientists are not me.” They’re someone other. That they’re this, you know, other kind of human being with these other skills, and none of those skills happen to be social skills, that does science. And when those kids grow up to be adults that’s a really pernicious feeling to have. That scientists are other people and that also makes science feel like something that’s not approachable, that’s not being done with good interest at heart. It makes it into that sort of creepy, mad scientist. And that hurts us and we see that, of course, with climate change. We see that there’s this distrust of science, and distrust of scientists, and even just a distrust of people who are experts. And so that sort of stereotyping even when you’re young I think leads to pretty big problems for the advancement of science when those kids grow up.
SWB Yeah, yeah, absolutely and I think back too to like the conversation about, you know, having kids draw scientists when they’re little. It’s like, man, not only are they all drawing a guy, but I bet you none of them drew a black scientist. Right? Like it sort of perpetuates this cycle where it’s like we just see the same stuff over and over again and you think about something like environmental science and something I think really immediately about is the way that climate change definitely affects, you know, people in poverty than people who have means. And it’s likely to affect communities of color and the idea of having like lack of representation in science from those communities that are likely to be really affected. Seems like such a massive problem.
AC Absolutely, and I think it’s exciting to see the environmental justice gaining more legs and I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. You kind of can’t separate environmental damages from the justice movement. So it’s a super important topic and I hope that — you know, maybe science isn’t your thing. Maybe you are a genius graphic designer or, you know, you want to work on, you know, social justice issues. There’s still all sorts of opportunities in the scientific field for people like that to make the world a better place.
SWB Would you be able to talk a little bit about the environmental justice movement, for those listeners who aren’t familiar with that term?
AC Environmental justice is basically just the idea that we need to treat people in a fair way in whether that’s their race or their color or how much money they make or the type of place they live. Those people should all be involved in environmental laws or environmental policies and it’s really important to have all those different groups sitting at the table, thinking about how to improve our environment moving forward, and it’s an unfortunate fact that, of course, when there are thing that harm our environment, they harm the most vulnerable people in our society. So when someone’s building a power plant that’s going to have emissions that give kids asthma they’re often building it in a, you know, not in the backyards of people who are wealthy but in the backyards of people who are already facing a lot of environmental struggles, or a lot of existing health struggles. And so when we’re thinking about how to improve our environment going forward, you can’t think of that in a vacuum. You can’t think about it without considering social justice issues and getting those people who are affected by the inequalities in our society, they have to be at the table for those sorts of decisions.
SWB Yes! Like this totally dovetails with so many of the other conversations we’ve been having around different subjects but it all comes down to the same thing, right? Like you can’t have a really narrow slice of the population making decisions that affect everybody else —
AC Yup, absolutely.
SWB And that’s kind of what we’ve had for a long time.
AC I mean in my work I spend a lot of time thinking about the impacts of climate change on human health. And you can talk about the impacts on extreme summer temperatures or Lyme Disease or air quality issues or water quality issues, but time and time again it’s those vulnerable populations who are most affected by these impacts. So it’s the elderly population, it’s the children, it’s people with low socioeconomic status, or tribal groups, it’s people with preexisting health conditions or disabilities. And so it’s important that any action that we’re taking to improve our environment involves those people.
KL So I mean between your day job and Remedy Plan and all these things that you’re doing, you work on a lot and you give yourself to a lot of this work that is really passionate. What are you doing that helps refill your energy jar?
AC This week the Winter Olympics are starting, and I’m a big Olympics nerd. And I also find that the Olympics completely like reignite my faith in humanity like, “Wow, all these countries can still come together over sportsmanship!” You know it gives you a little bit of faith that —
AC The human spirit can solve these problems.
KL Like we just have to try. We just have to show up and try.
AC If we can all come together over bobsledding and curling, we can come together over climate change [music fades in].
JL One of the things I really loved about Allison’s interview is when she said what you need is curiosity. I think that’s so important, especially when we talk about getting more people interested in STEM and the work that I’ve done with Girl Develop It and this idea, lots of times, we don’t necessarily think of ourselves, “Oh well, you have to be a math nerd to do something.” It’s so important to think like, “No, what you need is curiosity to see if this something that appeals to you once you start doing it.” So I love these things that’s like let’s find out more about it to see if does appeal to me, not just assume it doesn’t apply to me.
SWB Yeah, you know I think about this a lot because having my mom be a scientist, I think I grew up with this understanding that like that’s what a scientist looked like, right? And it was my mom and she wasn’t always wearing a lab coat and she wasn’t even particularly nerdy looking. She’s pretty cool. And I thought of that as being pretty normal and it took me actually a long time to realize other people did not see that as normal, that like people were like, “Oh you’re from that weird smart family.” And granted not everybody’s going to be a scientist, by any means, I mean it’s not for everybody. But to really normalize that as something that, like, people can do, women can do, people from different backgrounds can do, like that whole conversation about going in and having people draw a scientist and I think like, “Yeah, nobody would’ve drawn my mom.” Like, I would have drawn my mom. Representation matters a lot and having people understand at an early age, like be able to see themselves in something. I think that’s huge. I’m so glad that Allison talked about that and talked about sort of also the social justice and racial justice parts of environmental science, because I think that we don’t talk about that nearly enough or talk about it in those really human terms.
KL If more people like her can do this work and be as articulate about what she does and how she does it and why it’s so important and why it’s so important for other young girls to get into it, I mean it’s like a no brainer.
SWB OK this totally brings me to what I want to talk about for the Fuck Yeah of the Week.
SWB Can we have a Fuck Yeah now? Is it time?
JL I could use a little Fuck Yeah!
SWB So our Fuck Yeah this week is the new Obama portraits, which we have been ogling over. So one of the things that I love that about them, and we’re going to get into some of the other stuff we love about them, but one of the things I love about them is that they’re such a powerful reminder, even during this time when things are difficult, even during this time when it feels like we are going backwards on a lot of issues, that we are still seeing amazing movement on representation of diverse people and specifically black people in all kinds of culture, including art. I mean obviously black people have been making amazing art forever. That’s not new. But what I think we’re starting to see more of is black art showing up in more prominent places and getting more attention. I’m paying attention to things like huge book deals that black writers are getting or, you know, Get Out last year and then this year we’ve got Black Panther coming out. And I think it’s so important to note that that is huge and that is big and that matters. And that that kind of representation, like we talked about with Allison, right? Representation of who a scientist can be, representation of like who is depicted in art and what are they doing. Like, it’s so important and I want to say a big Fuck Yeah to that.
JL Yeah, there was a great quote from Michelle Obama and she said, “I’m thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall.” And so, you know, just like we talked about with Allison, the scientist, I just think the more that people see other people in these roles, the more that it becomes feasible to be them.
SWB One of the other things that I loved about Michelle’s portrait, in specific, is that Amy Sherald, the artist, painted her in a sleeveless dress. I dunno if you all remember but in 2009 Michelle was criticized, I guess is the kindest way I could put it, but I would say that she was shat upon by conservatives for having her first White House official portrait be in a sleeveless dress. She was wearing this very classic black sheath with pearls, she looked great, but she was treated like she had done something wildly inappropriate. That, you know, of course it’s like somehow too revealing, too slutty, I don’t know, it makes no sense because arms — arms are fine. We all have arms. I’ve seen lots of arms. It’s OK, everybody. But it was just one of these ways that we could see the Obamas being treated differently than other candidates or presidents would’ve been treated and being treated in a way that was designed to make them seem like they weren’t credible or they didn’t belong there or whatever. But here we have Michelle in this sleeveless gown, looking amazing, but also just kind of giving her own fuck you to everybody who called her out for that because now that gets to be in the National Portrait Gallery forever.
KL I love that. Also I was so struck by the portrait of Barack Obama. And I just I saw this tweet that Brittany Packnett had written and I thought the exactly same thing. I mean, she says, “Can we talk about how stunningly powerful it is to see a black man in a garden the way Kehinde Wiley painted Barack Obama? It dismantles so much and creates new visions of masculinity that black men rarely have the public permission to explore.” That is amazing. It’s so — I just feel like if that doesn’t resonate with you …
SWB Yeah, I mean you know one of the things I noticed right away was like, “Oh yeah, have I seen ever a painting of black man in a garden in that way?”
SWB It’s like, no, you know, I’ve seen a thousand pictures of white people in, like, you know, impressionist paintings, or romantic paintings, like strolling in gardens with the little umbrellas or whatever. But I have definitely never seen a black person depicted that way. When you start paying attention to who are you seeing and then also like what roles are you seeing them in, I think that it helps you be much more aware of just how many gaps there are in how people are represented, and I’m so excited to see this kind of representation, and, you know, it’s not to say like that we’re saying like, “Oh we need to go back in time.” Or we’re trying to live in the past. It’s not about that. It’s about like what does that mean for our future to be able to have this on the wall and have kids go to a museum and see it?
KL So I think we can say that is a for sure Fuck Yeah for amazing paintings, for black artists, and for just representation that moves us forward in even the tryingest of times.
SWB Fuck yeah!
KL Fuck yeah. That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia, and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Allison Crimmins for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please make sure to subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts. Your support helps us spread the word. We’ll be back next week with another great guest [music fades in and ramps up to end].