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Meet the Rough Scientists

Carriacou Interview: Ellen McCallie



Ellen McCallie

What do you do?
I am an educator and a tropical ecologist at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.

How and why did you end up working in science?
I ended up working in science because when I was a child I loved being outside, I loved exploring, and basically that's what science is. However, it wasn't until college that I really understood that science wasn't doing these recipe experiments, where you actually got to ask a question and then to figure something out, and I did that at university. And that made me realise, hey, not only can I do this fun exploration, but it can be a job.

Were there any figures that inspired you to work in science?
Historically, the figure that I admire most is Alfred Wallace. He travelled all over Indonesia and Brazil and looked at and studied what eventually came to be the theory of evolution.

Who in science do you admire today?
I really admire the children in the classroom and out playing because they'll ask a question and they really wanna know the answer. For example, there were some kids who wanted to know if plants would grow better if you fed them milk because they kept being told if they drink milk they'll be strong. So they watered their plants with milk. Well the plants got mouldy, they smelled horrid, and the kids then realised that plants don't eat food from the soil, and it dawned on them what their teacher had always been saying — plants get energy from the sun. And so then they started doing experiments in taking off leaves and controlling how much area that the sun could hit on the leaves, and that's the kind of experiment where you don't accept what you're being told but you ask what your gut feels. Kids are the best scientists, and we've got to encourage that.

If you weren't a scientist, what do you think you would have done instead?
I think I would have become an anthropologist, but I don't think I would have felt very comfortable with that in the end because I'm more interested in the ideas — what makes things work — and you have to like people and work with people if you're working with plants or the environment, because people have a great impact on our ecosystem. And so now being a scientist, I get to do both: work with people and plants.

How would you define the differences between the scientific theory and Rough Science practice — what problems are you encountering?
Rough Science has been an amazing experience because a lot of the times we're asked to do challenges that we haven't done before and we're asked to apply all this radical stuff. For example, with making the paper, okay, I knew about different fibres and where you find the different lengths of fibres and different strengths of fibres and plants. I had read casually that people boiled it and smashed it, but then when you really have to do it it's like "wow". In the end you've got to go with your gut feeling too because I had to go "alright, this doesn't seem like it's working, let's boil it a lot more and then pound the heck out of it", because that's what seems right. That's kind of why science is an art as well. You can take the theory but it doesn't always apply exactly.

What have you learnt?
Doing these Rough Science challenges I've learned a couple of things. One, I was at my most happiest when Kathy walked up with those leaves that she'd written on for the map challenge. She wasn't talking to me, she was talking to another group of people and she said, "Look at this, it worked'. Writing on the seed grape leaves worked and she was so happy. And I felt good because I came up with an appropriate solution to the problem and all I did was pick a bunch of leaves. I mean that's success.

Are you concerned about any recent scientific issues?
I'm concerned about several scientific issues. Closest to my heart are the environmental issues because from nature and the preservation of nature we become rejuvenated. When you're feeling bad what do you want to do? Go to the park with your family, go on a hike with your family, see beautiful flowers, have a garden. The whole sense of atmosphere and wellbeing really does come from the natural world, so I'm really concerned that the economic growth is going to win out unless people who aren't in a position of power step in and help educate those who are in a position of power.

Why is science important? Why should we bother trying to understand it?
I think science is important because science is the philosophy of life, it's a philosophy of thinking. It's basically to ask questions and find the answers. It means you have to believe in yourself, it means you have to have confidence. It means that you have to take responsibility for what you're doing. So, science is important because it trains people to think, it trains people to make decisions, and it put trains people to discover, and that's very beautiful, it's a wonderful way of life.

How is science fun?
When I'm working at home or in my yard a lot of times the neighbours' kids came over, or the adults peer over the fence just to see what I'm doing. And they say I'm always having fun. And I think it's because science is really fun, I'm always asking a question and I'm always figuring something out. And that's what I do for a living. And then I try to communicate it to others so they can try it too. The world's a playground, it's my playground.

What do you think is the largest impediment to scientific advances at present?
I am concerned about a couple of things. I think a lot of the impediments are laid down by people who don't understand the science, and I think part of the responsibility to communicate that science is on the scientist. But that puts us in a tough position because not only do we have to keep up with the language and the articles that are coming out but we have to make it understandable to the non-scientist. And the better educated our entire populous is, the better we can advance in terms of science and also advance in terms of its application in the world.

How does the Media affect scientific research?
You know, the Media has a very important role in the communication of science. Often times the Media picks up on something that happened and just runs with it. "Oh look at this" and wants reaction, reaction, when a lot of what goes on in science is very subtle, and it is and can be made very simple. The only thing is, we scientists often present it in very complex terms, you know, the thermo dynamics of this or that. Why not just say "the sun produces heat"? You've held your hand in the sun, it hits your hand and your hand becomes warm. You know, so if we talk in simple terms then the Media can perhaps move from this alarmist view often times to "hey isn't this cool", and that also would present the Media with an opportunity to communicate a lot of positive stories and not that the world is falling apart. You know it's more a "hey, try this" or "hey, have you thought of this?", because I think the Media is extremely important in getting the message out, and I appreciate that and respect it tremendously. I have a responsibility to the Media to do that well.

On a day-to-day basis, what scientific discovery do you find essential?
I must admit that the scientific discovery that I depend on most is electricity. I love playing with computers, I love communicating with pictures and doing it all digitally. Electricity is all around us, and so that's a discovery that keeps my life running.

What do you find hardest to cope with in your job as a scientist?
The toughest thing I do as a scientist is the politics. Sometimes it's egos but most of the time it's getting governments to work together and getting organisations to work together. Often scientists just wanna go at it and egos can get involved. And it's frustrating.

What would you really like to be good at?
I'd really like to be good at geology. I'd like to be able to read the rocks because everywhere you go there are rocks, and then I'd learn how to read the fossils. And you can tell a lot about the history of right where you are if you can read the rocks and the fossils.

What's the difference between art and science?
Art and science. Science is a process, it's the process of figuring things out and exploring, and art has to do with the techniques and the skill that you have to figure those things out. And if you look at art as painting or ceramics, you use both the science part and the artsy part, because you need to have that process of how you're gonna do it. And so in the end they're completely intertwined, and I think you lose a lot of the beauty of either or both if you try to separate them out completely.

If you were to make a scientific discovery and become very rich, what would you do with the cash?
If I were to make a scientific discovery and become incredibly rich, which is very unlikely in my field, I think I would spend the money in science education, but not just for kids. I've loved taking adults to the Amazon, and working with them on science because all of a sudden they wanna know, "why do leaves turn brown in the Fall?" We can do experiments to start figuring that out. So I would like to really work on science education programmes that are just for normal folks like me who like to play and ask questions.