From Yawn to Dawn of New Scientific Frontiers in Tech: Q&A with TED Lecturer Ainissa Ramirez

Ainissa Ramirez, Science Evangelist

As a tech writer, I investigate iPhone 5 rumors, but I couldn’t name any of the 64 elements from the periodic table of elements that the phone contains. So, what does it matter? Well, 2012 TED lecturer and self-proclaimed Science Evangelist, Ainissa Ramirez explains how the science all around us, and in the technological gadgets we cover on SiliconANGLE, are implicated in larger discussions of economics, sustainability, politics and humanity.

A former Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Yale, Ramirez explains these phenomena without confusing jargon because she believes science should be relevant, entertaining and accessible. In our interview with Ramirez, she discusses the importance of science to modern technologies, ways to make science more engaging through timely events like the Olympics, and how academia must evolve lest it become as irrelevant as WindowsMe. A well-rounded scholar, she also shares some fun and personal thoughts on science-fiction, life and Twitter.

Why should the consumers, and not just producers, of everyday technologies like iPhones, be concerned with the science of it? Why should we care about the rare earth elements that make up our tech products?

We should know more about technology on a granular level because it will show how fantastic a breakthrough your cellphone really is. Knowing science brings back wonder.

Your cellphone originated on the beach as sand, and with lots of scientists, engineering and chemistry folks it went from sand to cellphone.  That is kind of incredible if you think about it. But, if you are not aware of how amazing this technology is, you kind of miss out on the human story, which is the capacity to make and build awesome things from common materials.

See the entire Innovative Big Data Series with Kathryn Buford on Pinterest and Springpad!

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Also, by not knowing the elements that make up the cellphone, you miss out on major political conversations. There are a few elements in the cellphone called rare earth elements that make all technologies we enjoy possible and ones that will be important for getting off of oil in the future. They will make solar panels, batteries for electric cars, and wind turbines (for wind power) possible.

But, we are running out of these elements. More accurately, 97% of all rare earth elements come from China, which puts the US in a position of weakness from an economic and political point of view.

Not knowing what makes up a cellphone leaves you out of this major conversation that is keeping Congress and the White House up at night.

You’re a big advocate for making scientific information more accessible. Of the knowledge disconnect between the scientific community and the public concerning the Higgs boson you’ve said: “This Higgs boson announcement typifies a big problem with science. The men (and sadly, it is mostly men) in the Ivory Tower throw information to the masses expecting them to appreciate it and, even worse, be grateful for it.” What’s at stake if this dynamic between academia and society doesn’t change?

Denis Balibouse / AFP-Getty Images

Academia will become less and less relevant if it does not engage with society in ways that society is presenting itself. This will make it harder for academics and universities to make a case for the levels of scientific funding, tuition and their role in society they have grown accustom to having. Universities are no longer the silos of information and the sooner they change their thinking the better.

Additionally, the US is already in an anti-intellectual mode. In general, we are purveyors of reality TV; we pride ourselves on not knowing math and science when they come up in conversation; and our heroes are mostly in sports and entertainment. Academia can be a compass to get us back on track to value the mind as well as the other organs that are set on a pedestal these days. But, this is not going to happen by accident. There must be a concerted effort by universities or a few leaders that stand in the position that will force others to follow.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but the next 30 years will be very interesting in the history of universities.

What do you think are the best ways to make scientific knowledge more relevant to broad audiences?

Personally, I think we must lather audiences with science at every opportunity. Currently, the Olympics are underway. I think the media, sportscasters, and scientists are missing an opportunity to talk about science with this captive audience. We should mention the science of swimsuits that are designed after sharkskin to make swimmers faster and the math needed to organize the flow of millions of people to attend these games. Such stories would give the media a compelling angle to the common sports stories that seemed to be repeated over and over by several channels. Additionally, audiences would get to learn science in a fun way without the stigma that occurs in a science class.

My main mantra is to make science fun and that requires that science be relevant. That means we need to add a human element to the lesson and discuss why would I care to know this or how does this make my life better. Currently, science is taught like a bunch of unlinked facts; this is unacceptable in a society that can easily switch its attention to topics that are more entertaining. To make science fun, I would say, make it entertaining and fun to know.

When did you first fall in love with science?

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was four years old.  I got the idea from watching a television show on PBS called 3-2-1 Contact. My mom is a nurse and my dad was an engineer, so the notion of science and of learning was nurtured, although in retrospect it is still unclear how I got the idea of being a scientist.

I lived in a working class neighborhood, so no one was saying that this is what they wanted to be when they grow up. It was a bit isolating, but I was so clear. I was lucky, I had a supportive teacher in high school, who loved science, which gave me permission to love it too. My love for science has never waned.

You also lead by example as a black woman in a field in which, women and people of color are underrepresented. What do you think needs to change so that we are represented more in STEM disciplines?

We need more role models (that look like those in different groups) so those that are in STEM fields already don’t think they are alone and have someone to look up to. And, we need role models so that those who never considered STEM can see that someone else that looks like them is doing it.

It is a simple idea, but a great role model can make all the difference.

Any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?

My new role is a science evangelist, so I’ll continue to give talks and presentations on the importance of teaching STEM in fun and engaging ways.

In addition, I am currently writing a book on the physics of football with New York Times bestseller, Allen St. John, which will show the good, the bad, and the future of the game from the lens of science.

Separately, I am writing a trade book about materials science.  You can find some of this work I’ve collected in short science videos, which can be found at www.materialmarvels.com.

We always end this segment with: How would you like to see the field of data science evolve over the next few years?

I am particularly excited with data visualization and think it will become a standard tool in the sciences. I also think topics like complexity will become more understandable to larger audiences as tools become more user-friendly.

Ainissa Ramirez, Science Evangelist

OTHER THOUGHTS FROM THE SCIENCE EVANGELIST

You’re pretty active on Twitter. What’s one of your favorite tweets of all time?

Cory Booker once tweeted: “The right attitude can transform a barrier into a blessing, an obstacle into an opportunity or a stumbling block into a stepping stone.”

Do you have a favorite sci-fi movie?

I am not really a sci-fi fan, but I did enjoy Thor since the protagonist was a woman scientist. My favorite movie of all time (these days) is The Shawshank Redemption. Who doesn’t like a story about redemption and hope?

Favorite humanitarian quote?

I went to India in June to see the Taj Mahal and check it off my bucket list.  While there, I visited the Ghandi museum and saw this quote on the wall, which moved me.

Ghandi’s talisman –

Whenever you are in doubt…apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?

For the first time in my life as a science evangelist, I can answer this question with an unqualified “Yes!”

About Kathryn Buford

Kathryn Buford is a PhD student in sociology whose research explores digital communities across the African diaspora, social entrepreneurship and the arts. Kathryn's work has been featured in various online publications as well as the online magazine for Live Unchained (www.liveunchained.com), which features innovative arts, media and events across the world. Contact her at kathryn@siliconangle.com and follow her on Twitter (@yeskathryn) for takes on creativity, technology, entrepreneurship and society.