A conversation with “The Brain Snatcher”
When Pere Estupinyà talks science, his face lights up. Estupinyà is a trained biochemist who has become a science communicator and a well-known lecturer on the popularization of science and technology. He has written popular books devoted to bringing scientific knowledge out of the spheres of laboratories and universities, and defines himself as an “omnivorous consumer” of science, since he believes in the importance of increasing public understanding of scientific issues, which he considers a vital tool to construct critical thinking.
For many, he is best known as “the Brain Snatcher”: a kind of alter ego he came up with, when he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and discovered he could not resist the temptation to tell others what he learned from the world’s brightest minds. His true vocation was then revealed before his eyes: to write about science “as an excuse to be able to learn it”.
Despite his impressive career (he worked in the communications department of the National Institute of Health in Washington, DC, he was the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT for five years, he’s been a consultant to the IDB and the OAS, among others), Estupinyà seems to not have lost that capacity of astonishment and curiosity for the world, an ability so pervasive in us during childhood, but lost as we become adults. It turns out that that same capacity, so critical for a scientist, is also a requirement for a good communicator.
We sat down for a talk with Estupinyà on his first visit to Panama; he recently visited the country for the XVI Congress of the Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean (RedPOP), which was held this year at the City of Knowledge, thanks to a joint effort of SENACYT and the City of Knowledge Foundation. We had, for a space of time, albeit brief, our own opportunity to rummage through the mind of this “Brain Snatcher”.
As a trained biochemist, how did the change from scientist to science communicator happen? Did you always have journalistic curiosity?
While I was getting my Ph.D. in Genetics, I realized that I was finding the daily work in the lab monotonous, maybe if I had been in a different laboratory, my scientific vocation could have continued, I don’t know. Do you know the phrase: “Patience is the mother of science?” well, I don’t have that quality. I mean, science can be slow, it requires sacrifice, and in the day to day it can be very hard.
I understood that, in my case, while science still interested me a lot, it did so very broadly, not only by way of the genetic polymorphisms that I was working on, but in many other ways.
So, I asked myself: how can I remain connected to the science that I am passionate about, without it being only lab research? Then I thought about scientific journalism, remembering the time when I started my studies in bio-chemistry, and I tried to explain to my friends and acquaintances what I was studying/doing.
Was this the birth of the “brain snatcher”?
It all started when I was at MIT, where I interacted and spoke on a daily basis with many top scientists: my job was to process all that information and explain it to people. The term came to me very organically: I felt like a Robin Hood of science, of sorts: a person in contact with those who know the most and then communicates it. The name didn’t convince me, until I realized I was the person who, in a way, “steals” knowledge to explain it to others. It’s my passion: to communicate science.
But, isn’t it too broad to speak of “science” in general?
I don’t see science as a single discipline, we have to broaden our spectrum: science is, at the end of the day, a method, a way to understand the world that one can apply to different aspects of one’s life and, therefore, it’s vital for understanding and solving specific problems in society.
This is especially relevant at the moment, when we’re surrounded by fake news and information taken out of context. Todaym more than ever, we need science to be widely disseminated, but above all, we need this task to be well executed. Those of us who devote ourselves to the communication of science need to be more aggressive in combating “anti-science”.
We have a responsibility to provide scientific answers to people’s questions and, in a way, help solve society’s true challenges; let us bring science to those matters of vital importance (for instance, we will not find the cure to Alzheimer’s with more hospitals, but with more science), and not only communicate what scientists consider important. Only then, will we succeed at being relevant.
Does this mean all scientists must be communicators?
No, I don’t see it that way. I believe scientists have the responsibility to do research and do their job well, period. Whatever institution employs them, it’s the organization who must communicate the results of their research; in turn, the researchers, indirectly, must have a predisposition to communicate. If some of them, on top of that, want to actively communicate science, that is perfectly fine, but it’s not a requirement for their jobs.
But we must avoid at all costs, is bad science communication, which can have a very negative impact. That is, if someone is not interested in science and you tell them: “Hey, this is important, this is interesting, hear me out” and they decide to give you a chance, but then you respond with bad communication, they will not come back for more. Therefore, poor communication is counterproductive. In this case, no communication would be better. I’m in favor of the professionalization of science communication.
What advice would you give to a scientist who does want to communicate science or to a science communicator who is feeling discouraged?
The key is to talk about interesting topics that hit close to home, stories that convey emotion and novelty, but with a scientific background. It’s not about trying to discuss chemistry for the sake of it: but about taking about cars, food or whatever, and in there you try to “dilute” a little chemistry. The starting point does not even have to be science necessarily. Your source, in that sense, is science itself, not scientists.
Look at it this way: scientific communication is like steak and fries [laughs]: people are drawn to a nice steak, but if there are good side dishes around, then all the better, you make it more digestible with these “garnishes”. Besides, everyone eats the fries first!
What lessons have you learned over the years as a science communicator?
First things first: you have to start with quality content, always making sure to work with professionals. Then, there are several things that must be taken into account: you must absolutely to connect with the receiver of your message: whether it’s through a TV program, or a written article, you have to connect. Then, simplicity: do not try to stifle your reader or viewer with tons of information or get lost in the scientific detail that are not relevant. Finally, you have to keep him/her interested, tell a story.
And last but not least, you have to go to their comfort zones and not stay in yours. What I mean is that we cannot expect people will come to us, we have to go to their interest areas.
It is about empowering people: the reality is that people have only a little time to devote to many things. They may be interested in science, but they are probably more interested in a Netflix show, that’s perfectly fine. But for us it means we have to go and look for them and not wait for them to come to us.
What’s your take on the state of science communication in the region? What are we missing and what’s in our favor?
There are some very powerful things going on in the region, but what is most striking to me is that in Latin America there is a lot of science being applied to solve social problems, with local connotations and those are stories that deserve to be told!
To do so, we must understand, that a plain “interest” in science communication is not enough, we need investment. If you do not put in the budget to do it well, to do it professionally, and if we truly want to have good scientific journalists who make good content, we must support it all with the investment it deserves.
Lastly, after all your years of experience, what still makes your heart race? What can we expect for the “Brain Snatcher” now?
For some time now, I’ve been very concerned about the idea of long-term impact. I must confess that so far, I feel I have been a bit selfish: I’ve done it, because I love doing it! [laughs] This Sunday, for example, taking advantage of the fact that I am in Panama, I am going to visit the Barro Colorado project, and I’m dying to go; it’s just something that I’m passionate about.
But now I am realizing more and more that, because I’ve had a long career, I’ve been fortunate enough to write books and have a TV show, people see me as somewhat of an expert and therefore, pay more attention to what I say. Although it makes me a bit uncomfortable, it also makes me think I have the opportunity to convey messages with greater impact.
So, now let’s say, I don’t mind sacrificing some of my curiosity, my personal thirst for knowledge, to try to focus on making scientific communication that can really have a positive impact in the world.
In the short term, my idea is to continue making my TV show, to increase its reach and audience, but above all, I hope it serving for something, not just to entertaining.