Allison Augustyn on Writing for Science Museums

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and I’m really excited about today’s interview. I got the chance to talk with Allison Augustyn. She’s a freelance writer working on novels and journalism, but what I really wanted to talk with her about today was her work as an exhibit’s writer for both the Field Museum in Chicago and the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. In our conversation we talk about how she created exhibits materials to engage the public about science, how she makes sure that her science writing is never boring, and how she understands the difficult concepts that’s are required to convey science to the public. I hope you enjoy the interview. I also put her website in the description for the show if you want to check out more about her.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Allison. Thanks so much for talking with us about the work you do doing writing particularly for museums. I know you do a lot of writing both for our tech comm audience [and] I’m interested in focusing on the work you do for museums. So, can we start by just kind of briefly hearing about some of the things that you’ve written for museums? I know that you work for the Field Museum and the Pacific Science Center.

[Allison Augustyn] Yes, so I was hired by the Field Museum initially as a Media Writer, so they were doing a permanent exhibit there, called The Ancient Americas, where they were trying to expand North and South America and they needed someone to come in and basically in about a year, they needed to produce eight to ten different animations, videos, and then an additional array of interactives: things that you touch, things that light up, anything that you see that kids like to push or pull-on, that’s an interactive. I was part of a team that was pulled together to basically take the ideas that they had had for those interactives and bring them to fruition under a very, very tight deadline. So that was my very first job with them.

[Weber] Very cool and now with the Pacific Science Center, what kind of work did you do? [Augustyn] With them we did a strategic re-envisioning of their exhibits. So, they have a portion of the Center that focuses on a variety of things in the Pacific North West: water, timber, tides, animals, all kinds of things. And they wanted to pull it together. So, they hired me to come in a say, “Here are common themes throughout all of science and here’s what people are interested in and here’s how we can relate it to people’s lives today.”

[Weber] I saw on your website that one of your motto’s for science writing and science communication in general is, “Never be boring.” Can you tell us a little bit more? (chuckle) A little bit-it’s a good rule in life in general but can you tell us a little bit more about why you have that rule and kind of how you achieve that rule?

[Augustyn] Sure. Well I think when I was growing up as a kid nobody liked going to school and people really did not like science and math, pretty much all the STEM areas, which is crazy because it’s where some of the coolest stuff in the world is happening. And I just always think, “Boy I wish I had had some of the teachers that I had later in life or some of the people that I work with at the museums teaching me when I was younger.” How can you make science boring? It’s just-it’s so interesting but yet people do. Sometimes you walk into a museum and it hasn’t been updated in a while or what tends to happen, sometimes with some certain scientists is that they get very focused on their particular area of study, rightfully so, but then when they try to translate to the public, it doesn’t necessarily call us to a larger picture. And people like to see holistically. They like to know how it relates to them. So, I tried to come in and go, “Okay what’s the most interesting thing about the science?” And then, What’s the most interesting thing about how that impacts people on a day to day basics?” So that’s what I’m trying to thwart the you know the potential boring part of what sometimes happens I think when people try to translate science.

[Weber] That’s an interesting perspective you have because a lot of us assume like, “Well science is boring, and you have to jazz it up and jump through hoops to make it interesting,” but it sounds like your perspective is that it’s inherently interesting and you really have to work to make it boring.

[Augustyn] That’s absolutely right and I think that’s true across the board for variety. I mean pretty much anything, depending on how you write it, you can make any topic in the world boring. Which is crazy because conversely you can make anything interesting, right? You know why are people drawn to certain things in the first place? When I look at any sort of you know scientific artifact or document or research that’s happening, I’m like, “What is the purpose of this? What is it serving?” And I think without fail, there’s always something in there that you go, “Yes I can see why someone would be interested in devoting their life to studying this or adding to the conversations through this,” and normally when you tell people you bring the personal into it, people start to understand it. They go, “Oh well actually that is, I can see how that might be interesting,” but you have to show them the human side of it sometimes.

[Weber] When you’re working for a museum, you know, you’ve got this very big and very broad audience. I mean you’ve got kids, adults, you know a huge range of education levels, interest levels. How do you sort of understand the needs of all those people and kind of make sure that you reach them?

[Augustyn] Right, well I think this is a good rule of thumb for anytime you write for anyone is, “You know your audience and your ask your audience what they’re looking for.” Obviously, there are some cases where you don’t want that, but the first thing that we always did at the museum was we ran visitor surveys. I would get down on the floor, I would go walk around the exhibits, I’d listen to people, I’d study their interactions with different things. We’d measure how much time they would spend in any given area. We could talk about one-on-one, we’d say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” Or-and I particularly liked spending times with kids so I would say, “Hey you know would you come play with this with me and tell me what you think of this?” And they are so brutally honest that I would get more you know interesting (chuckle) ideas from them and you know I’d be like, “Yeah you know this part is boring. Or this part does stick and that sucks,” and from there you can bring that back to your team because you have a scientific team that’s working with the exhibits team in order to bring the best content forward. And so you can say, “Okay, here’s the scientific objective. What’s really important to the science?” And here’s some perspectives from the public that might help the scientific team understand, “Oh here’s what people are really hinging on. You know here’s what they’re interested in. Can we go more in that direction?” And most of the time the answer is yes.

[Weber] So you almost do like some user experience stuff? You know kind of seeing how people engage the exhibits, where they go, where they spend their time. I love the idea of asking kids because you’re right they’re going to be really unfiltered about what they say and what they appreciate. Now you have a writing background, right? That’s where your background comes from as opposed to a science background, is that correct?

[Augustyn] That’s correct. Although I actually entered university as a biology major and also a piano performance major, believe it or not, and so I have an avid interest in science to begin with but was slowly and continuously drawn back to writing as I had been doing since I was pretty young actually.

[Weber] So how do you make sure that you understand the science well enough to convey it to the public? Because I think that’s a big challenge for people who are interested in science writing is to make sure that they understand these tough concepts so that they can then convey them very clearly and correctly.

[Augustyn] Yes. That’s a great question because that is one of the most challenging parts of writing about anything, is you can have a broad interest but then how deep can you go with it? It’s always a question of how much time do you have before the deadline hits. I-I love research. I’m actually a research junkie. If you give me a topic I will go try to find everything I can about it, but my first primary source is the scientist. I really want to know the experts who are on the team, what their particular interests are, and they’re the people that tell me first, “Here’s what we’re doing.” Then from there I can go and do my own research either by reading their materials, a lot of people have published their own works, their own papers and books, but then I can do my own expansive research and then come back to them again and say you know, “Here. This is what I found. What about this? What about this?” And actually, it’s a pretty iterative process, so I try to be as collaborative as possible. If you don’t have an on-hand expert, someone there, then I just go to, “What are the most common topics that come up in the research? What are the themes that emerge from various papers, and books, and interviews?” And then from there I try to say, “This seems to be the crux of why people are drawn to this topic. How can we simplify that for a broader audience and make it relevant to them?”

[Weber] Fantastic, and then can you think of, in your experience, sort of the thing that you’re most proud of writing? Or the thing that you think is your biggest success?

[Augustyn] You know it’s-that’s a funny question because I have to say I’m pretty proud of all of my writing. It’s hard to be a writer. It is hard to get your material out there and here feedback on it, but I did do a very fun project with a colleague at the Field Museum, named Lance Grandy, who was the Vice President of the museum at the time, and we redesigned the Granger Hall of Gems. Gemology is not anything I know anything about. I’m not a geologist. I don’t actually have interest in it. I don’t wear jewelry to be honest. Lance got me so excited about the science and I met so many interesting people in that world I said, “This would be really interesting material for a book.” Lance said, “In fact I’m writing a book about gemology. Would you be interested in joining me?” So, we co-authored a book together called Gems and Gemstones, and again not an area I was familiar with, but that is a fascinating world and I think to go from zero to a hundred in that realm in a short amount of time, that was an accomplishment. We published with the University of Chicago as well, I was very pleased and proud to work with that team; an excellent group of editors there. So, that would probably be the one that jumps out first.

[Weber] That’s awesome and it speaks to what you’re talking about where you know anything can be interesting if you dive in and you have guides who are willing to show you what’s fascinating and engaging about it.

[Augustyn] That’s right and just a natural curiosity I think. I think if you go into it open-minded, because to be honest initially when I was put on the gem project, I was like, “Oh boy, gems. Like I don’t even you know.” I’m married, I didn’t even want a diamond ring you know. I’m like, “I have issues with blood diamonds, I didn’t-you know I’m not interested in that.” Well that actually became a topic in the book, was we talked about ethics. We talked about it in the exhibit. You start to go, “Oh how does it impact me. It does have impact a little bit here and there,” and then all of a sudden you realize, “Yeah it actually has a larger impact,” and certainly knowing Angola or the mines. You know to people living in different areas. You just-if you go into with a sense of curiosity and empathy for others, I think you start to see how all of these things exist for a reason and you know people focus on these things for a reason.

[Weber] Fascinating, well thanks so much for telling us about your work. It sounds really interesting.

[Augustyn] Oh thanks very much for having me. This was very fun.

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Episode 42