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Posted - 09/22/2011
Grant Partner Spotlight: Nicole Heller and the Google Science Fellowship
spot_light_hi.png Nicole Heller

Stephen Antupit and I got a chance to talk with Nicole Heller, Ph.D., SPM3 Invoking the Pause Grant Partner, about her experience during and after the 2010 ITP Convening and her still-unfolding Google Fellowship invitation. These are just some of the excerpts of the discussion, which was inspiring and invigorating!

The Pause

“Since the ITP grant project began a couple of years ago, I have become increasingly more excited about the connection between the arts and the sciences. The Convening was powerful. I really cherished how the group of people were brought together, as well as the level of sincerity and emotion in their work.

“The ITP Convening was very special because it was vastly different than a science conference where you’re supposed to be objective and leave your heart at the door. It’s a real issue that scientists can face in the role they play in society– they need to be strictly objective and not bring passions and personal convictions into their work.

“Being at a conference with artists, activists and writers was really moving for me. It has opened the door for me to think about how change happens, and ultimately how I can use my interest as a scientist to better relate to people, to be more open minded.

Fruits of the Convening

“Afterward, I was inspired to put a workshop together at Stanford and include artists, visualization specialists, journalists, and scientists from the San Francisco Bay Area. We invited Nina Wise and publisher, Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Press, to participate in the session. The comraderie between Nina and Malcom in particular was great- they were so full of wisdom and passion.

“So ITP and the pause I took helped me to come to the conclusion that there is so much to explore in this connection between the arts & sciences and the link to environmental problem solving.

“It has also opened my mind to working with new people in a diverse set of collaborations. I feel like there’s a lot of power in this strategy of engaging in a more open-ended way.

“In working with the artists at the Convening, the approach was more open-ended – the concept of listening more is one thing that I’ve taken away from it. Instead of being so quick to say that I have the answer and pushing the results of my research, I’ve come to appreciate listening to other voices.

“In any kind of issue there are contrasting sensibilities, psychological dimensions and cultural dimensions. It is hard for natural scientists to grapple with–working on ideas can get messy.

“Being a part of ITP has brought me humility, and encouraged me to jump into the chaotic, messy process of collaboration. Which dovetails into the Google Fellowship, since I might not have been open to these types of opportunities if it hadn’t been for my work with ITP.

Google Science Communication Fellowship

“The Google Science Communication Fellowship is a brand new program from Google is creating all kinds of interesting tools on the Internet, ways to explore what people care about, and how they talk about it, through tools like Google Trends.

“This is now a whole new field of research, since you can track Google searches to see the way people are thinking about problems using the frequency and intensity around search activity. Real-time forecasting.

“For example, Google can spot virus and disease trends two weeks ahead of the Center for Disease Control due to Google searches for the Flu outbreak. They then can alert the public using Google Trends.

“Also, they are now able to correllate searches around cars with a spike in purchasing. (Editors note: This real time data is now translating into a consumer advantage.)

“Google has been developing with Google Earth & Google Fusion Tables ways to bring data together with maps. Investing in YouTube, Google +1, Google has sophisticated technology for tracking global trends and understanding how to translate the data so that the general public will not only grasp the information but potentially actualize it and allow it to change their behaviors.

“So the concept of the Google Science Communication Fellowship program was that Google chose a group of scientists who are interested in mass science communication. We were brought together to explore how can you use online technology, new media and computational thinking to forward science communication on the Internet.

“We were the guinea pigs to see what we can do with this opportunity.”

About the Program

Google blog

We’re kicking off this effort by naming 21 Google Science Communication Fellows. These fellows were elected from a pool of applicants of early to mid-career Ph.D. scientists nominated by leaders in climate change research and science-based institutions across the U.S. It was hard to choose just 21 fellows from such an impressive pool of scientists; ultimately, we chose scientists who had the strongest potential to become excellent communicators. That meant previous training in science communication; research in topics related to understanding or managing climate change; and experience experimenting with innovative approaches or technology tools for science communication.

The 21 scientists were brought together in June at the Google campus to participate in a day-long workshop on topics of technology, social media and science communication. The fellows are now encouraged to apply for grants to put the concepts into practice. Chosen projects will be given the chance to join a Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic trip to the Arctic, Galapagos or Antarctica as a science communicator.

The Google Workshop

Nicole: “The workshop itself was a massive information download. We had this incredible agenda – 8:00AM to 9:00PM for days with no break. They brought in scientists, historians, communication specialists, politicians, thought-leaders and various Googlers. Together we discussed education, processes of design and innovation, YouTube, social media and social gaming, among other things. Many of the Googlers were these inspiring, creative young individuals, like Chris Messina,who invented the #hashtag search feature on Twitter. (Editor’s note: the hashtag changed the Twitter end-user experience at a fundamental level.)

“Since all of the scientists were new to social media, this was all transformational information: how to use social media to move information, the concept of now you have the chance to go out there via different tools to find your community and allow re-tribalization to build coalitions. It was an interesting cultural exchange!

“They encouraged us to start using it immediately and let go of thinking about social media in old ways, to get involved and start using this technology sphere. They challenged us to think about mass communication in completely new ways than we were used to previously.

“By the end of the meeting, I became interested in exploring how can we share ecological thinking through the Internet. How can we use Google Earth to demonstrate processes that are happening at, say, microbial scales, the processes that are happening right under our feet, and connect them to global processes that dictate changes in our weather and our oceans?

“I got excited to use my work and these tools to help people think about Earth as a living system. There’s more work to do in the months to come to bring all of these ideas to fruition.”

Big-picture, Individual Lives

Nicole framed the discussion by stating candidly that the opportunity to be a part of the Google Science Communication Fellowship is ultimately challenging her to take 10 steps back, to come out of the field work as a mid-career scientist and think about how to communicate the challenges of climate change and describe Earth’s living systems to the masses in a way that inspires action.

Her gratitude for the Google program was palpable. Again and again she referenced humility, letting go of her fixed ideas and scientific data to explore bridging climate change communication to non-scientists. This is a new area for her, and one that she’s opening to more and more, she said. It is a challenge she is excited to take on.

Both Stephen and I were inspired by her description of the Google fellowship thus far and encouraged by the possibilities of the intersection of technology, science and climate change.

It is wonderful to see social media be used for the greater good.