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Physicist to Filmmaker: Introducing Quinn Spadola, NNCI‘s New Associate Director of Education and Outreach

NNCI is a network of open nanotechnology laboratory user facilities, supported by the National Science Foundation, with its Coordinating Office headquartered at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Each NNCI site offers user access to a particular set of nanotechnology resources. NNCI facilities operate as open shared laboratories enabling access to advanced nanotechnology equipment and expertise across the entire range of nanotechnology applications. In addition, The 16 sites of the NNCI are dedicated to addressing the explosive growth of nanotechnology and its need for a skilled workforce and informed public by offering education and training to individuals from young schoolchildren through adults. Dr. Quinn Spadola recently joined the team as the NNCI Associate Director of Education and Outreach.

Both your B.S. and Ph.D. degrees are in physics, and much of the research you performed, such as research on optical tweezers and DNA sequencing using Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) techniques, seems heavily weighted towards experimental rather than theoretical work. What led you down the path to hands-on research and how do these two sides of research support each other?

I participated in an REU and then did a senior thesis project. Both of those opportunities helped me learn that I really like being in a lab. I was a double major as an undergrad in physics and chemistry, so I went through all those chemistry lab classes, as well. I don’t come from a family with scientists or engineers, so when I got to graduate school, I really didn’t know what I was doing. But, when I started, I was accepted into an NSF-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in Biomolecular Nanotechnology. One of the physics professors associated with it was interested in having me in his lab because of my background. I spent a lot of time doing hands-on things like organic synthesis and working on an AFM. At the same time, all of those theory-oriented physics courses were useful for understanding the underlying reasons that things behave the way that they do. Having that perspective will always help one to make better research decisions.

You also pursued an MFA in Filmmaking. What led you to leave the lab for a role as a science communicator?

During my time at ASU, I became a Center for Nanotechnology in Society- Biodesign Fellow, and started a “Science Cafe” series in the Tempe/Phoenix area. I paired scientists and engineers with someone from the humanities (like a historian, legal scholar, or philosopher) in order to discuss research, risk, and public benefit. I always made sure there was lots of time for questions. The audience -- primarily adult non-scientists -- was always eager for the chance to have a real conversation about a topic that was important to them.  This is when I realized how much I enjoyed creating opportunities for people to engage with scientists and engineers.

While I was finishing up my PhD, I was looking for a way to continue to do outreach with non-specialist communities. My husband noticed a program at Montana State University, Science and Natural History Filmmaking, which would give me a chance to combine 3 of my favorite things; film, physics, and science communication. The program taught me how to tell a story, which is harder than studying physics!

You spent 3 years in Japan after your MFA. What took you to Japan?

This would be a classic case of a dual-career balancing act. My husband, who also got his PhD at ASU, agreed to move to Montana and take a post-doc at Montana State University (not his first choice), with the understanding that we would move to the best place for his career once I finished up my MFA. I should have set some geographic boundaries, but didn’t, so we ended up in Kobe, Japan, after he took a post-doc at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology.

Why did you become an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow? Has working in the realm of D.C policymaking changed how you view the science education conversation?

I learned about this fellowship while I was at ASU. It was always at the back of my mind as something I’d like to do. I was also able to participate in Science Outside the Lab as a grad student and science policy has interested me since that experience. As we were finishing up our time in Japan, I was looking for my next step and the fellowship made a lot of sense.

During my time at the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), I was able to work with people from many different federal government agencies, all working to support nanotechnology R&D. Everyone I met works hard to make the best decisions for US science. I don’t think working in DC changed my view on science education and outreach. I was specifically involved in that while I was there. I got to do what I saw as the fun stuff, and people know it is important and I always felt like my efforts were appreciated. Honestly, it makes me sad when I hear people complain about the government. If they had any idea how hard bureaucrats in science funding agencies work to be good stewards of federal dollars and to advance US research, they’d have so much more respect for the institution.

Can you discuss the importance of effectively communicating research findings to wider, non-technical audiences? Are institutions failing in this role of general community education?

I think failing is a strong word. Many people in the scientific community realize the importance of science communication. Maybe, sometimes, it is all about self-promotion. But, less cynically, there are plenty of scientists and engineers who know it is important that people have some kind of understanding of what they’re supporting. Personally, I see it as a real obligation for scientists and engineers who use federal money.

With the rise of information access, there has been a coalescence of conspiracy groups online who often flood comment sections with pseudo-science and misinformation. Do persistent conspiracy arguments frustrate you? How do science communicators best combat this kind of disinformation?

Of course misinformation frustrates me! But, there are some people who just aren’t going to be open to what scientists have to say. I think the best science communicators can do is reach as many different audiences as they can with accurate information. If you can reach someone in the life of a person who believes the conspiracies, people THEY trust, you can create an advocate that may be able to make an effective change.

Image Caption: Dr. Quinn Spadola (far right) with the 20108 participants of the NSF funded Research Experience for Undergraduates in Nanotechnology at the Marcus Nanotechnology Building.