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The Scicurious Brain


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What’s bigger than a duck penis? Our #scio12 panel!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Kate Clancy of Context and Variation and I are super excited for our upcoming Science Online 2012 panel: Sex, gender and controversy: writing to educate, writing to titillate. We’re excited to explore how people can use risky or tense issues like sex, drugs, rock and roll to capture the audience, educate, and promote a broader interest in science. To give you a flavor of what we’re going to be talking about, Kate will be covering the outline of what we’re interested in, how we’re interested in using the tension in our lives and in our work to influence our writing and connect with our audience. As a way to moving into that, I am here to tell my origin story, where my blog gets the tension I feel between my life as a scientist and my desire to communicate about science.

A few weeks before I started the blog, I knew I wanted to do more outreach. I knew I wanted to work on my writing. But I didn’t really have a feeling for who I was writing for, and what I would write about. I had knowledge, and the ability to read science and understand, but I didn’t yet know how, or why, I would want to convey it to others.

But that day I went on an outreach trip for Brain Awareness Week. My graduate program was very involved in Brain Awareness, and went out to schools several time a year, giving presentations, showing off brains, and getting kids excited about neuroscience. This school was a middle school, in a low income area of the county (the difference in schools in low income vs high income areas is often shocking. The construction, resources, heck even the ability to heat and cool the schools vary widely, and it’s always more than a little heartbreaking to go from a super posh middle school with brand new cafeteria and full size football field, to one only a few miles away, where the school is small and overcrowded, and the place is falling apart).

For this outreach visit, the classes came to us in the library and rotated through our stations (human brains, animal brains, sensory, vision, etc). My station was focused on drugs. We had a powerpoint with various types of drugs and how they worked. They goal was not to be like the DARE dog (just say no, kids!) but to educate the kids on how drugs work in your brain and what the different classes were. I gave my usual presentation, and the kids asked questions (mostly about marijuana).

As the class headed back to their regular classroom, a girl stayed behind. She took me aside, and began to talk to me in a low, worried voice. Her boyfriend and her uncle, she said, had made her take a drug the other night. She didn’t know what it was, she thought it might have been meth but she didn’t know, and they made her do it…and was she going to die?

Right then, I really felt like someone had just punched me in the chest. I knew the numbers and the demographics and the epidemiology of what I studied, but the realities of my own privileged position in the world of drugs had never been so clear. The girl had to have been only 13 at most. She still had puppy fat, ffs! But her boyfriend and a relative (I got the impression they both were a good bit older) had forced her to take a drug, when she didn’t even know what it was (I don’t know what else they may have had her do, and she didn’t tell me). She was clearly scared out of her mind. I quickly assured her that she wouldn’t die, and she wasn’t an addict, and it would be ok. But something kind of snapped. I told her ‘this is YOUR body. Yours and no one else’s. You have the RIGHT to know what is being put in your body, whether it’s food or drinks or drugs, or something from your doctor. You have the RIGHT to know what it is, and what it’s going to do to you. I know you can’t always refuse, but you CAN know what’s happening and what it is that you’re taking, so that you know the consequences.”

And I learned then just how much I was coming from a place of privilege. I saw that my upbringing and my education had given me a sense of agency, an ownership of my own life and my own body, that other people do not receive. I could tell from the look on her face that it was entirely foreign to her to think about what she was putting into her body. That no one had ever told her that it was important to KNOW what she was eating or taking. When I asked other students that afternoon whether they knew what their food was made of, what various drugs were, etc, they clearly did not know. No one had ever told them it was IMPORTANT to know. I couldn’t tell the girl not to let people treat her like that, not to let people force her into taking drugs. It’s never that simple, and I’m sure she didn’t have much choice. But I COULD tell her what the drugs (probably) were.

And it is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT TO KNOW what you’re putting in your body. Now, when we are so worried about nutrition and obesity, you can’t just trust that lower fat things are better, or carb free is better. It’s important to KNOW what these things mean to cut through the hype and marketing surrounding your food choices. When so many people begin trying various drugs (usually marijuana) at young ages, it’s important to know WHAT you’re smoking, how it works, how long it will last. When so many drugs are sold on the street in forms that are adulterated and blends of things, it important to know what they can do, what they might be, not just for you, but for the people around you. It’s important to know WHAT the drugs are that your doctor gives you for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder. What they DO and why they have the side effects they have. Why they may or may not work. Knowing how your body works and how various drugs work isn’t just a perk of being in biomedicine or the medical fields, it’s an important part of navigating your life and the choices that you make on a daily basis.

As it turns out, my mind was going to get blown twice that day. Two classes later, I was teaching my drugs section. I usually make most of it question and answer, rather than a lecture. And some wiseass raised his hand, grinned, and asked how viagra worked. Ok, I thought. It’s drugs, Viagra’s a drug. I said I’d answer questions. Let’s do this thing. I sat down at the table with them and start drawing the anatomy of the penis.

I instantly had their full attention. It was obvious they never thought I would ANSWER the question. And soon, their interest was equally obvious. They may have had some sort of abstinence only sex education (ah, the south), but no one had ever told them how a penis WORKED, how an erection WORKED. They had no idea that the penis is full of spongy material or that erections are a result of blood. They were fascinated by how Viagra worked. Soon they were asking me if it caused vasodilation in other parts of the body.

These two interactions made me think for days. The first one still haunts me. And a few weeks later, I started the blog. It was not related directly to meeting these students, but when I thought about what I wanted to write about, I thought of them immediately. There is a tension that I feel in my writing, the need to educate people, to teach them about their brains and their bodies, the kind of education people plainly do not receive in most high schools. But I also want to entertain, to make people amused, to make people care, and to using that new interest and caring to extend their interest in to other parts of science. I try in my blogging every day to walk the balance between science education and entertainment, to use the science of sex, the science of drugs to make people understand the amazing ways in which their own bodies work.

And so in our #scio12 session, Kate and I will be talking, and working with people, on how to walk the line between your passions and your communication. How to use the tensions in your own life to galvanize your writing. How to take blogging risks and how to use your blog to convey what is most important to you. And of course, we’ll talk about sex. And ladybusiness. Because there’s a fine line between writing to educate, and writing to provoke or titillate. We’ll talk about the line, falling on either side of it, and how to balance gracefully.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Anne Jefferson 10:12 am 01/16/2012

    Sci, this is a fantastic post. Thank you for telling us your story. I wish I was going to be at your session, but alas, in the tension between career and blogging, scio lost out this year.

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  2. 2. KDCosta 12:46 pm 01/16/2012

    Thanks for sharing your story with us, Sci. And you don’t know the impact you might have had on her because NO ONE had told her previously that she can say No. Just the idea is powerful and important. I’m sorry I’ll miss this panel. Like Anne, I’m caught in some tension myself.

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  3. 3. infomebaby 1:53 pm 01/16/2012

    Soo excited.

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  4. 4. sciliz 3:57 pm 01/16/2012

    Wow, that first story is mind-blowing.
    I’d never thought of that as privilege, but it obviously is.
    And it’s an interesting one that also may be really important as a protective factor. I think it’s what I had that other people I knew that tried a lot more drugs didn’t (I used to joke I really wanted to try MDMA… but had zero interest in a bathtub rat poison concoction, so I’ve never had a worthwhile opportunity to try it).
    I got a sense early on, from honest conversations with my father, that it was important to know what you were putting into your body.
    At the same time, I think that the COMPULSION to know MORE about what you put into your body is probably a common defining feature of certain types of biomedical scientists. Frankly, not everybody cares as much as I would expect. But I think you have a very true and useful insight into that that I had not previously considered… if one doesn’t have this sense of capacity to understand, and this sense of relative empowerment… why care? It takes privilege to have that particular personality quirk manifest that way.

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