Interview 32. – Dr Sai Pathmanathan

saiP

Trained as a neuroscientist, she now works in science communication and education. She has worked in science education at The Physiological Society, Nesta, Planet Science, Science in School, Ignite! and Queen Mary University of London. Her MA research looking into how young people learn accurate science from the entertainment media, saw her take up an International Fellowship at the National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C. and a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship. She currently works with teachers, artists, pathologists, conservationists and preschoolers…but not at the same time (well, not always).

Twitter: @sai_path

www.saipathmanathan.com


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Ooo what hasn’t amazed me recently? Ha. I find a lot of things pretty amazing, everything from nursery children screaming with delight when they see what happens to basil seeds dropped into water (I’m not going to tell you 🙂 you have to go try it!) or listening to parents tell me everything their children learnt from one of my cartoon workshops they attended, to discovering a ‘new’ detail in a painting I’ve known for years (i.e. there’s a horse in Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace At Night! Who knew?!).

It’s not always ‘happy amazement’ though. For example having attended an ASTC conference in Hawai’i a while ago, I’d seen a huge feathered cape, a kind of royal robe, in the local museum…with intricate designs made of teeny tiny feathers. I was in awe at how the colours, especially the bright yellow, hadn’t faded over the years. But didn’t for a minute think about the source of all the feathers. Obviously some bird, but maybe they were collected/found feathers?! Earlier this month, I watched a programme which mentioned the Kaua’i ‘O’o bird (now extinct), whose yellow leg feathers were plucked only for this purpose. The way in which the birds were caught was pretty nasty (particularly as the hunters didn’t always eat the bird afterwards if it died in the process), and so I felt a bit conflicted having seen the beautiful garments ‘in the flesh’ earlier but now knowing those poor birds don’t exist anymore. Makes you wonder about the modern processes in our world today that are similarly causing wildlife to become endangered…and much worse…

 

How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

I think of wonder and awe as very similar…to be completely jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly amazed and mesmerised by something. It could be as ‘simple’ as watching a spider create its web, to the mind-blowing enormity of the universe and realising how piddly we human beings are. Curiosity on the other hand feels like more of a process toward awe and wonder, i.e. pondering something and wanting to test it out and learn more. I do this a lot in my outreach workshops, trying to work out how to demonstrate something ‘awesome’…with all the testing phase driven by my curiosity.

 

What inspires you to be creative? What environment aids your creativity?

Creativity, for me, is about ‘being a little different’. So if I had an idea, say for an educational activity/resource, I would try to think up as many ways as possible to make it different to what’s already out there. And because I dabble in a variety of fields, I get inspired by all sorts. I don’t have any particular environment that helps my creativity…some of my best ideas have popped into my head whilst travelling on trains, usually when it’s too uncomfortable to sleep!

On a side note, I’m finding the use of the word ‘inspiration’ quite odd these days. It’s almost being used as ‘who/what do you want to copy/be like?’ rather than ‘who/what is it that sparked your unique idea?’.

 

What do you love about magic?

I’m going to be a little controversial here (especially as one of my close friends is a magician!) and say that I’m not a huge fan of magic. I think it goes way back to my childhood, having been spooked by a magic trick I’d seen on television and then not being able to sleep. My mum was really wary of magic shows after that, probably because it might’ve meant more sleepless nights for her!

However, (now as a grown up…sort of…) I do find the whole performance side fascinating, listening to a magician’s narrative and watching their hands. I’ve even used optical illusions and the odd trick in schools, but mainly linking it to science or transferable skills.

Also it depends on what you mean by ‘magic’. Children watch so much in the media (cartoon characters changing form, superheroes, wizards and witches, mythical creatures), which is also termed ‘magic/magical’. Having used storytelling and entertainment in much of my work as engagement tools, I’ve run some outreach sessions showing how some of this magic could be created using science.

 

What do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?

To be honest I find some of the big personalities/celebrities in magic a little creepy. It also strikes me as not being a very diverse profession…but then I might just be ignorant, as I don’t know much about The Magic Circle etc.

 

Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I think being able to see that there is so much more to the world than the little bubbles that we live in, is enough to give people (especially young people) a sense of wonder. Children in early years find everything wondrous because they’re continually learning, and everything is new to them. For some reason, as we grow older we become complacent with what we’ve learnt, and get caught up in our daily lives, so we don’t find things (or have time to find things) as wondrous. The minute we step out of the mundane and take time to look closely at the things we overlook, e.g. just laying on the grass in the garden and looking up at the sky, or travelling somewhere new…our sense of wonder *magically* reappears…

 

You have a Masters degree in ‘edutainment’, studying how children learn science from cartoons. Can you tell me more about what you learnt and how it has shaped your current practice?

Yep, although ‘edutainment’ was a little misleading as a title, as I soon realised that media professionals were terming their educational-entertainment as ‘edutainment’, whereas what I was looking at was pure entertainment.

I’ve been working with children since I was 16, tutoring and mentoring etc. and they’d always come up with examples from cartoons, as the sources of where they’d learnt something. These were programmes they were watching in their spare time (such as The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants), and learning *accurate* information. It only seemed to work (i.e. the facts were retained) when the information was integral to the storyline or the visual imagery. The creators of such media are so skilled in intertwining these elements so seamlessly. Entertainment isn’t an add-on to the education, and education isn’t an add-on to the entertainment.

Initially during my PhD, and as I’m sure many other young academics and science communicators do, I tended to focus on the misconceptions in entertainment media and how could we make the science more accurate. But as a result of my MA and working with media professionals and those academics who totally know their stuff (e.g. at The Science and Entertainment Lab), I’ve realised that with both sides (entertainment media professionals and scientific professionals) being true experts in their field, they have to work closely to come to the best compromise. Sometimes undue focus on the accuracy can result in a dull piece of media. And thanks to what I’ve learnt from my MA and beyond, I’m quicker at noticing great links to science in animated feature films, and use these clips in my science club/workshop sessions, either to encourage participants to discuss a topic in more detail or as part of a larger practical activity….regardless of whether the rest of the film/clip is accurate or not.

 

I adore the “infographic” (probably a much better name for it??) on your website that shows what you do and how you got there. Seems like at school you were torn into having to make a subject/career choice. Could you tell me about this? Do you think our education system is too compartmentalised and if so, what could we do to improve it?

Aw thank you. It was such a quick scribble, but I love that so many people have had positive things to say about it. Yes, I was definitely torn between choosing subjects at school. I did (and still do) love learning new things, and it’s what I love sharing with young people in schools now. They find it difficult to see the connections between everything they learn, because yes, I do think our education system is too compartmentalised. I still remember when I was at school writing a whole essay on ‘Water’ in a Geography exam, but using a lot of what I had learnt in Biology and Chemistry about water. I was marked down because I had written too much that was ‘unnecessary’. But not wrong. So odd.

Teaching young people to only learn what they need in order to jump through that particular exam hoop…how’s that going to help them in life, to become more resilient, resourceful or to even have a lifelong love for learning? It’s also one of the reasons young people feel the need to be spoon-fed once they go to college, university, or even as postgraduate students! One of the ideas I’m currently working on is how to improve this ‘non-connected-ness’ between subjects. It’s much easier to join the dots at primary school, as children still haven’t got to the whole ‘separate timetabled subjects’ stage. I wonder whether rallying up parents and communities to help their young people understand the whole point about education: that it’s ultimately about character-building and learning what you’re passionate about…then maybe the messages about learning would get through? However something big needs to change at an educational policy level to help young people really understand how enjoyable education and learning can be.

 

You work a lot with scientists, teachers and artists. What are the challenges and opportunities of working with all three (and sometimes at the same time)?

The opportunities of working with all of them (and at the same time) is hearing the fascinating insights each professional brings to the table, based on their experiences and knowledge. I love meeting new people, listening to their stories and learning from them. However it can be *really* difficult at times. I do sometimes wonder if I’m the only science communicator who has ever had to work on a project with over 30 different professions sat around one table: from behavioural psychologists to children’s book illustrators and from Government phonics experts to NHS paediatricians… while having to make sure everyone’s opinions are heard and valued, without anyone feeling patronised by another. It helps being a people person, and making sure everyone’s egos are left outside of the room…or project. When everyone is made to see the bigger picture, they usually just get on with it.


What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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