Public Thinker: Ainissa Ramirez on Putting the Story Back in Science

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“We teach science as separate from the rest of the world. I want people who live in the world to see how they’re actually doing science.”

I first met Ainissa Ramirez at an astonishing venue: the Qatar National Convention Center, in Doha. The date was in October 2013. We were both speakers at the World Innovation Summit for Education, a biennial meeting organized by the Qatari royal family to showcase new ideas on educational reform. Dr. Ramirez, then a 44-year-old materials scientist and a former member of the Yale faculty, described herself as a “science evangelist,” and she had strong ideas to promote. The professor said she hoped to encourage a whole generation of young women, especially young women of color, to lend their talents to the scientific endeavor.

“You can do it,” she told some of the young women she met at the conference. “You can change the world through science.”

Not long after returning to the US, Ainissa Ramirez contacted me, inquiring if she might audit my Columbia Master’s in Sustainability Management class, “Writing about Global Science for the International Media.” She’d been thinking about switching her focus from academe to science journalism; she wanted to write more and do her teaching through the mass media. Dr. Ramirez already had one published book to her credit: a popular work she’d coauthored, Newton’s Football: The Science behind America’s Game. I really wanted to include her. But I was constrained by class-size limits, so I reluctantly said no.

Well, Ainissa Ramirez didn’t need my class, not for a nanosecond. She’s a brilliant storyteller, and she possesses an unusual talent for taking science stories and shaping them into a compelling narrative. That’s really the secret of great science writing: finding the story within the technical information, unspooling it, and then retelling it in a form that readers will find exciting. This shouldn’t be an impossible task. After all, science is a human endeavor, and most anything that human beings do is likely to be interesting. And yet, much of what is called science journalism fails to do it.

I have my own theories about why this is. One is that many science writers are themselves frustrated scientists, so they sometimes write with the same dryness they read in academic papers. Dr. Ramirez, however, has already labored as an academic scientist—Bell Laboratories, MIT, Yale—and is secure in her credentials. She knows what the other side of science journalism looks like, and she’s not worried that when she writes simply she might be “talking down.” Moreover, she doesn’t fret about the emotionality of an anecdote. In fact, she uses emotion (and irony) to drive her stories.

And that’s why Ainissa Ramirez is such a jewel. Her first solo book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, published by the MIT Press smack in the middle of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, tells the backstory of scientific inventions that influence our daily lives. Who knew that Christmas rituals were shaped by the growth of American railroads? That the size of modern humans was affected by the invention of the electric light? Ainissa Ramirez knows this and pulls readers into the technical story. The Alchemy of Us is one of those books that almost anyone in any field of endeavor will find interesting. That’s why more than a year after publication the work is still in print and has won much praise and a few prizes. Smithsonian magazine listed it as one of the best science books of 2020. Moreover, The Alchemy of Us won the 2021 AAAS/Subaru Book Prize and was a 2021 finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology.

Ainissa Ramirez and I spoke in the dark winter of 2021 in a Zoom interview, edited and condensed here for continuity and clarity.

Claudia Dreifus (CD): I reread your book last night, and I thought that one of the great things you do is tell us the science in a way that doesn’t look like science; it’s science that looks like a story. It’s medicine that doesn’t taste like medicine.

So when you first started thinking about The Alchemy of Us, what was the idea behind it?


Ainissa Ramirez (AR): I wanted to invite more people into the world of science; that’s ultimately what I want to do.

There are lots of books about science out there, but they’re preaching to the choir in many ways. I own a lot of those types of books. I love science, so I’m going to pick them up. But I found that when I was doing speaking engagements, people would come up to me, and they would actually confess to me as if I were a priest. They would say, “I wanted to do science but I couldn’t get past”—fill in the blank—“class.” The class they stated would usually be something like calculus or organic chemistry.

I wanted to give those people a second chance. Even though the first one didn’t work out, you still can be engaged in this world we call science. You can still use science as a lens to see the world.

So I was looking for a way to pull more people in. And I’m a materials scientist, so I said to myself, Well, I’m going to use materials science as the way to do that—to build this invitation.

Another reason I took this approach is that I also knew that stories work. There are a range of different materials-science books out there that profile different materials: Let me tell you everything about steel. Let me tell you all about salt. Let me tell you all about phosphorus. And I could have written a book like that, and I, as a materials scientist, might have enjoyed it. But those books were out, and that approach was done already.

So I thought: I’m going to have to do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s going to be extremely hard to write, and it’s going to be materials-science based. I’m going to try this approach of using stories and put science in this larger context, because that’s what’s missing from the discussion.

So that’s the reason. When we teach science, we teach it separately from the rest of the world. And I wanted people who live in the world to see how they’re actually doing science or experiencing science. And I knew stories were the way to do that. So I had to learn how to become a better storyteller.


CD: Do you think most scientists really want to tell these stories better? There’s a lot of talk in the scientific world about becoming effective science communicators—and certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the scientific community how important it is to reach out to the public—but I sometimes wonder if scientists want to do the real work that becoming good writers involves. What do you think?


AR: Some want to be good at it and just don’t know how, because the culture gives them a sense of shame about doing it: as in, if you are a good communicator you are not a serious scientist. That’s the language they hear. So if you want to be considered a serious scientist and you want to project that image, then you cannot be a good science communicator.

I think that some people may not want to be good communicators for this reason, but a lot more of them just don’t know how. And it’s the culture that forces them not to be good at it.


CD: Yes. It’s a culture and it’s pretty rigid. And it works for some people, but if you genuinely want to show the general public what you’re doing and why it’s important, you need to learn a more popular language.


AR: This is the issue: science thinks it’s up high. Scientists think they’re up high and they think that lay audiences are down low. And scientists believe that people should come to them.


“Soulful, Perhaps Even Magical” Science

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann

CD: Agreed. In your book, you tell about how watching PBS kids’ shows when you were a child influenced your career choice. Can you retell that here?


AR: I grew up in Jersey City in the ’70s and ’80s and was always a curious child. My father repaired computers, so there were tools in the house. My mom was a nurse, or she was studying to be a nurse at that time, so there were technical books around. And I had a proclivity for science.

Back then, my younger brothers and I weren’t really allowed to go outside of the house, because Jersey City wasn’t particularly safe. So television was my portal to the world. And I loved shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and especially a little-known show called 3-2-1 Contact. It had a repeating segment of kids who solved problems called the Bloodhound Gang. One of those kids was an African American girl. She was a little older than myself, but when I saw her, I saw my reflection.

It was in the ’80s when that show came out. There weren’t a lot of positive images of African American women on television shows then. So when I just saw her being nerdy and solving things with her friends and it being no big deal, I just said: Oh, okay, this seems like something I can pursue. And when I learned later that what she was doing was science, that really sealed the deal.

Honestly, I thought I was going to do science anyway, because I would take things apart in the house and I loved to do science projects. But when I saw my reflection, that really put me on the path where I thought, I can do this too.


CD: Where did you go to school?


AR: In Jersey City back then, public schools were not so hot. In fact, there was a public school right around the corner from me. It would have been a wonderful commute, but it wasn’t particularly good, so my folks saved up and sent me to a private Catholic school.

We were a working-class family. My mom worked as a nurse and my dad worked as an IBM computer repairman, so they didn’t have a whole lot of money. But they saved up so my two younger brothers and I could go to this Catholic school. I had to get on the city bus and travel at least two miles to another section of town, which had this Catholic school called Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. It was an Italian neighborhood. There were six Black kids in the entire school, and I was related to two of them. [Laughter]

So there we were, strangers in a strange land. But I loved it, because by fifth grade I was pretty committed to becoming a scientist. I had a fantastic teacher, Miss Kathleen Donohue, who was a nerd about science. She was such a nerd that she might have made some students feel uncomfortable about science, but I loved it. I thought, Yes, she’s my people.

And she’s the one who encouraged me to go to a pretty good high school in Jersey City called St. Dominic Academy. It was an all-girls school. It was great to have something to strive for, and when I eventually attended it, I loved being in that environment. This space removed the social layer of having both boys and girls in a classroom and all those confining expectations of who can be smart or not. You could just focus on developing yourself, essentially.

But even in that comparatively good educational situation, I still had high school teachers who didn’t encourage students to strive and wanted us to just apply to local colleges. Miss Howard, my high school physics teacher, was different from the rest. She told me to go as big as I could. So I applied to Ivy League schools and got into Cornell and Brown, and then went to Brown. And that was great.

Brown really changed my life. When I got to Brown, however, I realized that my Jersey City education had not been all that strong. And so it was a bit of a struggle. I was fortunate that I bumped into some great teachers at Brown and learned better study skills. I also spent a lot of time in the library and got myself into really good academic shape so I could succeed in that environment.

After Brown I went to get my doctorate in materials science at Stanford.

CD: Why materials science?


AR: I actually thought I was going to go to Brown to become an electrical engineer. My father repaired computers for IBM and I just thought, Oh, okay, that makes sense since I take stuff apart too. I actually wanted to take computers apart. Computers were still newish.

But when I took the introductory class to electrical engineering, I hated it. And I was brokenhearted, because this was the thing I had said I was going to be for most of my life. And I just knew this was not going to work.

So I was sitting in a bunch of prerequisite courses before choosing my specific engineering major, and I was heartbroken. One day, I was sitting in a class called “Introduction to Materials Science,” where everyone said, “Oh, this class is really, really boring.” I had the same bad attitude about it that everyone else did. But the first day, Professor L. B. Freund blew me away. He said, “The reason we don’t fall through the floor, the reason my sweater is blue, and the reason the lights work all has to do with the interaction of atoms. And if you can understand how they do that, you can make them do new things.”

So here I was, 18 years old, maybe 19 years old, and my mind was completely blown. Because he was absolutely right. In that moment, I started looking at everything and I’m thinking, Yes, that’s because of atoms; yes, that’s because of atoms; yes, that’s because of atoms. … I found the puzzle that was very interesting to me, and I found a way to frame the world.


CD: So what you’re saying is that one great teacher opens the curtains.


AR: Pretty much. Exactly. Because it was that teacher. Materials science has been taught many different ways. But when he said that, it resonated with me.

Before it was the image of an African American girl that put me on the path to becoming a scientist, and then here it was a sentence that resonated with me because he essentially gave me a framework to understand everything around me. And that’s what put me on the path to becoming a materials scientist.


CD: What was your graduate education at Stanford like? You were still somewhat of an outsider in Palo Alto.


AR: Oh yes, absolutely. I saw my reflection when I was very, very young, but I didn’t have a Black engineering professor until I was a graduate student at Stanford. That’s a long time to not see your reflection; and people leave school much earlier than graduate school.

When I was at Brown, there weren’t too many African American students who were studying engineering. I knew of nine of us who came in as a cluster, and I know that four of us graduated. And those were small numbers to begin with!

And when I went to Stanford, there was one other African American woman. But I was the only one to graduate with a doctorate. That was way back in 1998.


CD: How did your colleagues, the other Stanford students, behave toward you?


AR: It was different than at Brown. When I was at Stanford, I was on the global stage now; and it was engineering, so most of the students did not come from the US. Now I was with students who were from Japan, China, and South Korea, and there were just a few of us who were American.

I definitely felt alone. People formed study groups based on their demographic. That’s how you survive graduate school—the people you study with. So all the Korean students studied together, all the Chinese students studied together, and all the Japanese students studied together. Then you had all the white guys from MIT, they all studied together too. And I was the only African American girl. So the question was: Who do I study with?

I ended up studying with two girls from Denmark, and my dearest friend, Hoo-Jeong Lee, who is from South Korea. We all studied together.

Hoo-Jeong and I were the best of buds. Our exchange was that his English wasn’t very good, but he’d taken a lot of these engineering classes before and was familiar with the material, so he could help me. On the other hand, my English was okay, so I could help him. We helped each other, as they say: iron sharpens iron. And we were the best of friends—we were inseparable. It was the strangest connection, this Black woman and a very skinny Korean guy. But we just loved each other.

And we graduated around the same time. I got a job at Bell Laboratories, and then I found a position for him at Bell Laboratories. Later, Bell Laboratories fell apart and I went to Yale. Then I found a position for him at Yale. That’s the connection that we had. He was my war buddy.

CD: How was job hunting after you finished your degree?


AR: After I graduated from Stanford I actually thought I was going to stay in California. Because once you go to California you don’t want to go back to the East Coast.

But Bell Laboratories was hiring, and it was the first time in a long, long time. So I applied, and I got the job. And I thought: You have to go, because that’s the home of the transistor and the laser, so


CD: May I ask an indelicate question? What kinds of issues did you face when you looked for a job?


AR: Well, hiring committees, particularly in engineering, are looking for people from Stanford, MIT, and Berkeley. So you have to be in one of those schools in order to be seen. So you can be an African American woman who is at the top of her class from Louisiana State University, but they won’t find you because they’re not looking there.


CD: You were from Stanford.


AR: Yes, so, I was from Stanford, and actually I already had a position at Hewlett-Packard, which was in California. But then they had a hiring freeze, so that job went away. That’s why I started applying to different places. I gave a very good job presentation at Bell Labs, and people got excited about me because of that.

So after Stanford I was at Bell Labs for a couple of years. And then I jumped to Yale. I was part of the junior faculty at Yale and then was an associate professor there for a while, too.


CD: You’ve said elsewhere that some of your experiences at Yale weren’t altogether happy.


AR: No. I’ve been thinking about it. When you’re part of the junior faculty, typically at an institution like Yale, you don’t get any respect from the students, because they’re used to everything coming to them on a silver platter. And you certainly don’t get any respect from the older faculty.

Also, you’re in a constant fight for resources and for a modicum of respect. At other institutions maybe they would have given junior faculty a shot at graduate students for their laboratory. That didn’t happen at Yale. It was a very belligerent and toxic environment. And also I was coming from Bell Laboratories. I was absolutely spoiled, because I had been working with people who were the top in their field and were just really interested in good science and good ideas.

And when I got to Yale, I didn’t get that impression. The culture there was really more about reminding people about “how smart I am” and “how many labels I have.” And I couldn’t really make that switch. I came from Bell Labs, and I just thought that place had a better way to operate.

Additionally, Yale had very few women and very few people of color. The day that I started at Yale, there was a faculty meeting and I wasn’t even introduced. These are things that now I think were giving me a lot of hints about what this world was going to be like.


CD: You told me stories also about people coming into your classroom and acting like you were “the help.”


AR: There was one time where … I was at a faculty Christmas party. It was full of faculty and spouses. I was new, and I was being introduced by one person. I met someone’s spouse and they asked, “Oh, what department are you in?” I said, “I’m in mechanical engineering.” And she said, “I really love the air conditioner that you put into the building,” and so on and so on. She thought I was doing HVAC, not that I was a faculty member of the department of mechanical engineering at Yale. People couldn’t make the jump, the leap that this person might have a PhD and might be a professor.

Once a student was giving a tour and going into various classrooms with a bunch of prospective students. I was at the blackboard giving a lecture on materials science. And the student asked me, “Where’s the professor?” And I said, “Oh, that’s funny, because usually the professor is standing in front of the classroom with chalk in their hand. Oh, look, I have chalk in my hand and I’m standing in front of the classroom. Perhaps I’m the professor.” And the students in my class just snickered, because this student just made the assumption that I wasn’t the professor.


The Dark Matter of Digital Health

By Danya Glabau

CD: You’ve told me stories about how some of the students behaved toward you. Were they respectful?


AR: My students for the most part were respectful. But sometimes they’d try to take advantage of my approachable style. I would get more than my share of subpar excuses or pleas to increase their grades. That was draining.

But where my undergraduate students didn’t make the leap was in joining my research lab. I would teach a fun materials-science class and get them all excited about the field, and then they would join a white male professor’s materials-science laboratory. That was heartbreaking. I was training students and never benefiting from my own work. They just could not make the leap that I was a great researcher as well as a great teacher. The reasons are varied and intersectional. This was another aspect of my job that compelled me to leave it.


CD: Do you think some of this attitude is the result of the social class that many of the Yale students come from?


AR: I think it comes from the stereotype of what a scientist looks like. A Black woman scientist is the opposite of what children learn a scientist looks like. Sure, these students were much older, but that stereotype was ingrained in them. It was hard for them to make the leap that the Black woman in front of them who is making science fun is also a scientist who does research in a lab. Some of that came from their social class, but it was also the universal stereotype of a scientist that I was combating.


CD: So what came next?


AR: About 2012, I left academia and decided to embark on this chapter that I called “science evangelism.” In this capacity, I would write, give speeches (including a TED Talk), do media appearances, and speak at conferences. Today I’m a professional speaker and science communicator.


CD: Was there a specific reason you made this transition?


AR: When I was at Yale, a lot of junior faculty weren’t getting tenure. There was this new crop of new faculty that came in around the same time that I did, and we were all coming up for tenure around the same time. No one I knew was getting it. Therefore, a lot of my colleagues went to other universities.

But while I was at Yale I had been going through a bit of a transition. I had branched out into science communication and created a highly successful science program for kids called Science Saturdays. I was really enjoying that program, and I was also really enjoying the teaching part of being a professor. But the thought of doing another cycle of becoming a junior faculty member at another institution left me feeling exhausted.

So I had a choice: do this thing called science evangelism, which was a big question mark, or give it another shot at being a professor somewhere else. So I said to myself, Let’s just try something new, and if it doesn’t work out we’ll get a salaried job.


CD: I came from the political world and fell into science journalism by a series of fortunate accidents. Once there, I began seeing how really poor the state of science communication was. The scientists were doing earth-shaking work, but they didn’t know how to explain it to the wider world and thus gain political and financial support for what they were doing.

Beyond their own isolation, the formalities of telling their story got in the way. Science is very detailed. You tell what you do one step at a time; it’s like writing a recipe. In journalism or in storytelling you get to the point; you don’t stop at each moment, generally, and describe everything. If you do, you risk losing your audience.

And I encountered the very same things that the actor Alan Alda discovered when he did his interviews for Scientific American Frontiers on PBS: people who were absolutely wonderful when you met them in person, the minute you put a camera on them they might become the world’s biggest bores. And he decided he would train them in how to do media well. And he’s made improving science communication his late-life crusade.

I began doing this in my small way at Columbia. As you know, I teach graduate students in the sciences how to write for the public. I tell them, “I want you to do things in the academic way in your academic life, and I want you to learn the second language for communicating with the lay public.”


AR: Right, right, right. You have to code switch.

CD: Let’s talk practical matters. Did you give any thought to how you might make a living as a science writer? It’s not a particularly good way to make a living.


AR: Oh, I did not know. I did not know. I did not know. I was willing to take the leap because I said to myself, Well, we can do a stupid thing, we haven’t done a stupid thing yet, so this could be our stupid thing.

I was fortunate because of my program called Science Saturdays, which was a lectureship for kids. There I met Neil deGrasse Tyson’s speaking agent, Jodi Solomon. She asked for some footage of me speaking and said, “You are pretty good at it.” So I signed on with her, and that was the leap. I did speeches for a while. That brought in the bacon, and that allowed me the space to write and to work on books and projects. I wasn’t certain how it was going to work out beforehand. But when the speaking thing happened, I said, Okay, I now have a route to become a full-time writer.


CD: You’ve had this great success with The Alchemy of Us. A year after publication, it’s still in print and doing quite well. So where does your work go from here?


AR: Well, right now I’m writing children’s picture books. Which is also a very hard thing to do.

I asked myself the other day: Why do you always choose things that are hard? I chose picture books because I want more kids to see their reflection in science. There are a lot of “hidden figures” out there; some of them I actually know and can interview. For example, there are a number of Black inventors who made technological innovations that are around us. I think that more people should see the innovators behind these inventions. This will help to change the conversation about what a scientist looks like.

I am also working on a few picture books to explain chemistry and materials-science concepts to kids. It is really fun work, but it is also very challenging.

The other day, I finished writing one of those picture books and I told my brother, “You really need a PhD to do these picture books, because how else are you going to explain this in a way that’s simple enough for a middle grader to understand?”

I have a couple of other projects, science-book projects for adult readers, that I’m working on. But with the pandemic, I’m waiting for it to be safe to go to the library again so I can work on these projects in earnest.


CD: So let’s talk about the moment that we are living in. We are speaking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of how this epidemic spread to the pandemic level can be blamed on the public not trusting the word of scientists, especially when their advice was unpleasant and inconvenient.


AR: It’s true.


CD: Do you feel that if scientists had made a better case for what they found, if the scientific community was more trusted than it is, the false narratives that were promulgated would have been dismissed? I’m talking about vaccine resistance and opposition to mask wearing.


AR: Where we are right now has to do with a lot of failures in our educational system.

In my generation, and maybe the generation before mine, we learned science as if we were preparing ourselves for a really great game of Trivial Pursuit. Meaning that we were memorizing facts and didn’t really know where they came from and what they meant. And what we really need now, and what we need in the future, are people who are critical thinkers, so that they can decide for themselves if the information in front of them makes sense and can ask questions and probe it and interrogate it.

That educational failure has given rise to the ability for people to be swayed by information that is false. They don’t feel empowered to ask questions for themselves.

I’m going to be speaking to some junior science writers soon. And I’m going to say, “Look, your work is extremely important, particularly if you write science differently and put it in a societal context, because this is the skill that we need to train the next generation to be able to do.” People need to look at science in a context and see how it’s connected to other things and also be able to probe things and make decisions for themselves. We need science stories that do that, because people don’t really get a chance to exercise that muscle in school.

CD: Have all these awards and prizes your book has won changed you at all?


AR: No, not at all. I’m from New Jersey, so I’m very grounded. I am humbled and honored by how my book has been received. But I tend to focus on how this book came to be. This book did not benefit from a university’s resources. I had to use my New Jersey scrappiness to make this all happen. The making of the book is what I tend to think of instead of the accolades after its making.

For me, writing this book was a gift. While the theme is how humans and matter transformed one another, honestly, the writing of this book transformed me too. As a result, I know more. I love writing more. I feel more connected to the world around me. I feel more committed to making science understandable to others. I love what I do more. So, yes, I love the awards and I am grateful for them. But I am also grateful for the life-altering experience of writing this book.


CD: What lessons are there in your personal story for other scientists who are thinking of seeking out a literary career?


AR: I would say do it even if it scares you. I would also say that your unique experience is what sets your writing apart. Think of your difference as the gold that it really is.

Lastly, I would say treat your reader like a smart 12-year-old. Everyone has a smart 12-year-old inside of them who wants to know a great science story. Write a great story for them!


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

Featured-image photograph by James Duncan Davidson / TED