“It gave me the confidence to consider science communication as a career…”

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Kassie at NASA Ames in front of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)

My name is Kassie. I’m a storyteller, science facilitator, and science advocate. I work as a federal contractor for the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. A decade ago, I would have never expected my career to head in this direction. I’ve always enjoyed science – especially robotics and space science – but early on I was drawn to the humanities. Reading literature taught me about the human condition and prepared me to think critically and communicate clearly. Effective science communication follows a similar thread: communicate clearly and connect with your audiences through good storytelling. We’re not data processors, after all.

I discovered science communication after a bit of soul-searching. In my early 30s, I worked as a research communicator at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and I wanted to level up my practical experience with training courses. Well, I didn’t find research communication training, however, ‘science communication’ popped up. Huh, interesting. I was curious and signed up to the week-long Science Communication Masterclass taking place in Bristol and organised by the SCU. At the end of the week I was hooked. That was it for me. I didn’t know in what shape or form, but science communication needed to be in my future!

At NASA, I’m the go-between for our scientists (the science community) and members of the public. The best way I can explain it is finding that sweet spot connection between exploring the science and humanity in our work. I do a lot of interviewing. I ask scientists about their science journey and challenge them to explain their science like they were presenting at a science museum and to eager science enthusiasts. Explain the acronyms! 

I learned to practice upstream engagement at UWE Bristol. Now I understand how to better incorporate inclusive learning experiences and fostering two-way dialogues. Just as it sounds, it implies creating space for members of ‘publics’ early on in science conversations and working together – as opposed to disseminating and hoping for the best. It challenges perceptions in our current model of science discourse. At NASA this can be a tricky, however, things are getting better! Citizen science is where it can really take off.

Kassie in front of the new Hidden Figure Way, at NASA HQ in Washington DC.

It took a few years, but we’ve recently developed a citizen science proposal around this concept. We – a small group of astronomers and science communicators – are developing engaging science communication content via videos, inviting people along the science journey with astronomers as they look through data – augmenting a current citizen science project called ‘Planet Hunters’. We are not shying away from technical aspects and delving into the nitty-gritty astronomers experience during the process. Citizen scientists will lend their expertise, lead video content, and can influence the direction of the tutorials. Instead of pushing out content WE think people are interested in seeing, we will be working alongside citizen scientists and listening to their anxieties, concerns, and building our project together with them. Scientists, citizen scientists, and science communicators. Our little project is only just starting – wish us luck!

None of this would have been possible without my training at UWE, which I continued after the Masterclass by completing an MSc in Science Communication. The teaching staff nurtured my budding interest in robotics and electric vehicles. I decided to focus my MSc project dissertation on public perceptions of autonomous vehicles. I felt a personal sense of accomplishment with my deep dive dissertation. Shortly thereafter, I interviewed with NASA leadership and moved back to California for this job. Like any new role, it has evolved over time. I still get to write about cool science topics, but now I’m more involved in day-to-day management as a managing editor and my brand new citizen science project!

My advice: if you’re thinking about science communication, give it a go. Attend a taster, attend the Masterclass. It will be rigorous and challenging, but you’ll walk away with skills and confidence to go after anything. I know I did. Then come join me at NASA!

Kassie Perlongo

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