Welcome back! We had the lovely opportunity to chat with science journalist, Eleanor Cummins, about her interdisciplinary work in science and culture. We also chatted about the movement to promote more science communicators who are women, as well as the need to highlight stories written for women and relevant to many women's issues, both of which Eleanor is contributing to by producing the Tie My Tubes podcast and curating the Curie Mag Instagram (@curie_mag) account.
ABOUT OUR GUEST:
“Eleanor Cummins is a science journalist focusing on urban environment, especially waste and energy. Though formally trained in qualitative research and the anthropology of medicine, she has spent much of her life in newsrooms. She is the producer of podcast miniseries Tie My Tubes and her work can be found in Popular Science, Slate, Atlas Obscura, and more recently, Inverse. She is currently enrolled in the graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University.”
Recent Journalistic Work:
"Slow and Low Across Cultures" | Edible Queens
"The Best Way to Barbecue, According to Science" | Inverse Magazine
"These Oysters Won't Be Edible in Our Lifetime" | Edible Queens
"NASA bets the farm on the long-term viability of space agriculture" | Popular Science
Rose Eveleth - incredible science communicator & journalist
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If you’re looking for old episodes, show notes, ways to contact us, and/or information about the show - synapsescience.com is our main hub where you can find all those things and more. Speaking of info about the show, our time away during the hiatus has helped us better clarify the direction this show is going towards, which is more towards highlighting and promoting the interdisciplinary and intersectional facets of STEM fields. We’re really fascinated with the ways that science and society overlap, and we hope you’re just as excited as we are to start exploring these topics further. That being said, if you know of someone who would be a great guest on the show to explore those concepts or if you have a request for a topic you’d like to see covered on the show, let us know! Email us at email@example.com or tweet at us @synapsepod. And don’t worry, if you missed all that, you can always find that information on our website.
Alright, so updates - check. Now let’s get to the good stuff. We wanted to come back with a focus on interdisciplinary integration into STEM fields, and what better way to do that than to talk with an incredible science communicator currently reporting across multiple fields, including but not limited to space farming, women’s healthcare, and most recently, the cultural and scientific characteristics of barbecue. Earlier in the month, we had the opportunity to chat with Eleanor Cummins, a science journalist focusing on urban environment, especially waste and energy. Though formally trained in qualitative research and the anthropology of medicine, which sounds really, really fascinating, she also spent much of her life in newsrooms. She is also the producer of podcast miniseries Tie My Tubes and her work can be found in various publications, including Popular Science, Slate, Atlas Obscura, and recently Inverse. She is currently enrolled in the graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University.
Without further ado, here’s our conversation from a couple of weeks ago. We hope you enjoy it.
ELEANOR CUMMINS: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited! It’s nice to talk to you.
SYNAPSE: So I mean, goodness gracious, your work covers an awesome range of things. I guess my first question is, what drew you towards the urban environment as a field of study? What drove your passion for health and its relationship to our environment?
ELEANOR: Definitely. So, I... I grew up in a very weird place (and I say that lovingly). I grew up next to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the uranium for the first atomic bomb that was tested and the bomb that was eventually dropped on Nagasaki, Japan was manufactured and refined. And so, I think that that gave me a very early lens on the way that humans interact with science and how it shapes them. Like, just with that one topic, there are like 12 different books I could write.
There’s, you know, the matter of nuclear politics. The nuclear generating station provides a lot of energy for Washington State, but Washingtonians are really divided about whether they think that it’s safe and something that we should use to power our state’s economy. There are also a lot of issues with what’s called the Down-Winders, who are a group of people who believe that the manufacture of the radioactive elements were kind of spread and affected their health. So as they got cancer later in life, they attributed that to the environment that they lived in. And so, just yeah, all of those kinds of things I think really contributed to this sense of wanting to tease apart the impact of our environment on our health - but also just on politics and kind of how we see the world and interact with each other.
SYNAPSE: That’s really interesting. So you grew up near the whole nuclear waste area?
ELEANOR: Yeah, yeah. It was the Hanford Reservation - I lived in Richland, which was right down below it, and I also then lived across the river from it. So it was just, it was kind of omnipresent. And it’s also a huge employer. I think that they still have like 4,000 employees at the area, as they call it, so like everyone else’s parents worked there and it was just such a huge presence in our life.
SYNAPSE: Wow. That’s an experience. So are you more focused on how nuclear waste and the creation of new types of alternative energy influence how people in the environment interact? Or also how interacts with our natural environment?
ELEANOR: I think it’s a combination. So as I’ve moved - now I’m living in New York City, and I’ve become really fascinated here with our relationship with nature - definitely. And kind of how that exists in such a large urban environment. And I know it’s nothing compared to like...Tokyo, but it’s still, you know, a pretty big place. And it’s really fascinating to see how people relate to nature and try to carve out a space for it.
There’s the Jamaica Bay Reservation, which is like a wildlife preserve and it’s not really...wild at all. It’s like 6 miles outside of the city. You can see the Manhattan skyline from it. But people are so kind of desperate to preserve it as best they can because they kind of feel themselves encroaching on what’s natural and kind of have an aversion to that. And I feel like there are a lot of parallels there between what I was seeing when I was back in the Tri-Cities, in a way. I mean, people are kind of the same everywhere, I guess is my point.
So I’ve definitely been really interested in reporting on energy for that reason, from the production perspective, as well as energy security. But I think that I just keep coming back to that cultural piece of how we even start to have these conversations and what they look like.
For example, this is kind of a tangent, but I was at the Jamaica Bay site the other day. And there was this expert in terrapins, which are like a special kind of turtle...which I did not know. Everybody kept saying terrapins and I was like, can we clarify? But anyway, he’s a turtle expert and he was talking about how most of his turtles are killed before they even hatch, by raccoons. And he’s like, let’s just get rid of the raccoon population. And the National Park Service that adminstrates the site is like, ‘You cannot murder all of these raccoons. The public will not like that. That’s not going to be good.’ And I think that’s such an interesting conversation about how we manage nature and the kind of emotions that play into that. The turtles we’re talking about are kind of endangered, they definitely need to be cared for. But also, we don’t want to be murdering racoons. So those kinds of balances I think are so fascinating and people get really heated about them. So those are the stories I just think I really gravitate towards, where there are a lot of emotions at play about things that people might want to see as rational [instead] because they’re matters of science.
SYNAPSE: So you mentioned reporting and obviously now you’re working as a science journalist. What was kind of the tipping point for you to be like, ‘You know I’m really passionate about the urban environment. I’m really passionate about looking at how we interact with different things as a species.’ How did you go from just thinking about it and being passionate about it to saying, ‘I want to communicate this to other people, and I want to share these thoughts with other people.’
ELEANOR: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I started working at my local paper when I was 15, so I knew that I really wanted to write. I think for me, that’s actually what came first is I knew I wanted to write about the real world. And my dad was like, ‘You know, that’s very not specific. chuckle What in that do you want to focus on?’ So he really encouraged me to pursue journalism, even though, you know, the field is kind of falling apart and restructuring itself. He’s like, ‘Go for it, but find something really specific that you can kind of focus on.’ And so that’s when I was at the University of Washington [in] Seattle, where I was like, ‘You know, I think that these are the issues that really are attractive to me and also something where I think that more people could really be useful. [These issues] they’re kind of like intractable problems, and people with expertise in that area can really carve out a niche for themselves, because people want these things explained. And I think they tend to be under-explained because they’re complicated and they’re also maybe not a priority. Politics kind of have a very direct impact on our life. Science is, you know, a little lower down on the list, but of course it comes up and takes precedence at times, especially when it interacts with politics.
So I think that it was really as an undergraduate that I was like, ‘Alright, let’s figure out how to get these two things going.’ And I’ll be honest, I got a lot of pushback. People were like, ‘This is silly! Why are you doing these two different things? Why is your degree not journalism? Or if you want to do research, why don’t you drop journalism?’ I got like a lot of pressure to like, pick one. And I refused, obviously.
SYNAPSE: [laughter] Good!
ELEANOR: Yeah! And I mean, as a fellow science communicator, it’s clear that there is a real space for people who study science and also write about it. But that was really difficult to communicate for a really long time there.
SYNAPSE: That’s really strange to get pushback for wanting to integrate multiple disciplines. That’s like, the next step of you know, trying to understand science and communicate it to people. That’s really weird.
So how has your experience in science communication and science journalism changed how you view science as a field? I know you mentioned that sometimes we see a lot of topics not being as represented as much or talked about as much. So do you see or perceive science as a field differently now, compared to when you first started out? And do you also have any different ways in how you perceive society and how they respond to science?
ELEANOR: So I think that I definitely had an underappreciation for the complexity of science, which I guess is kind of part of the struggle of journalism, in general, is to kind of take very complex realities and distill them into 500 words. But I think that’s an extra challenge with science. Especially just because you know that idea that 50% of what we know today will be proven wrong 10 years from now - being able to communicate that while also giving people a sense of what is accurate, what can be trusted...that’s a really hard balance. I think it kind of goes against a lot of how people naturally want to approach information. I think they want a sense of certainty - and I do also - but that can’t really be provided the way that I hoped it could. [laughter] So that has definitely been something that has changed for me.
I also think that there’s been a lot of really great work very recently around issues of diversity in science, and I think that that has been really amazing to see explored. Azeen Ghorayshi at Buzzfeed is someone in particular who I really admire. She has just been really dogged in pursuing cases of sexual misconduct in labs and research, including about the University of Washington and one of their researchers. [nervous laughter - note: Eleanor and I are both alums of UW] But I think that has been a really interesting element that I would not have considered when I first started down this path, and I think there’s still a lot more to be explored there with women in science and with just more diverse representation.
I think then that would lead to what I would say is the most fascinating thing that I’ve learned is just how important it is to have a lot of different people asking and answering questions in science. I think that because science feels like such a static process and something that leads to some ultimate truth, that people tend to forget that it is a really human endeavour and that you need a lot of different humans working on it. So I think that kind of - I don’t want to call it a ‘trend’ in reporting - but that heightened awareness of that in science journalism has really been exciting to see.
Yeah...there are so many more colors to it than I thought when I started writing.
SYNAPSE: Yeah, that’s a beautiful way to put it. I would totally agree with you that I think science can only benefit from diversity, and people seeing that and realizing that could open up so many new avenues for integration of multiple fields and cultures and perspectives...which actually, also leads me to a new account that you started called the Curie Mag (the Curie Magazine), which you started to promote science news that are written by women and for women. Could you talk a little about that? It sounds super fascinating. What prompted you to start that up and what’s your vision for it going into the future?
ELEANOR: Sure. So yeah, I’m really excited about it. Essentially, most science communication is done by women but most of it is for men, which seems kind of silly to me. Women obviously are really interested in science, innovation, and technology. They just, I don’t think have been included in those kinds of discussions. So I kind of wanted to start pushing more, kind of like activating a discussion around that and hopefully a space for that.
The way that I would kind of characterize it is that like, Wired is one example of a really great publication that is for men. You know, it just reads like it. They do, like, men’s watch reviews. It’s all about tech and tech culture, which is very like male-dominated. And I love Wired. And they also do a lot of really great stories about women’s issues. Like last month, for example, they ran a story about how Instagram is targeting “fertile” women for egg donation. [laughter]
Right? So they have those stories there, it’s just kind of a lucky occurrence in what’s otherwise a pretty consistently male-dominated publication. So I wanted to kind of bring attention to those stories, which I’ve noticed are promoted less on social media by those publications and also just kind of maybe encourage people to start producing more of them.
So yeah, so I’ve been highlighting them on Instagram, the stories that I come across that I really love, like that Instagram ad story - very meta. I also am hoping - my summer is very booked right now - but I’ve also been asking people to tell me about the things that they think are undercovered, and I’m hoping to do that myself in the future and start contributing more stories in that lens.
One person I would say, too, for people who are interested in futurism - Rose Eveleth is a really amazing science communicator, science journalist. She basically, years ago, realized the same problem that I’m realizing myself now, which is that a lot of these conversations about the future are dominated by men and specifically about the future where science is taking us. So she’s done a lot of amazing reporting around intersectional futurism, like how do we incorporate the voices of women and people of color into planning what the future will be like? Because it doesn’t seem like white men should be the only one with a voice in that. So her work has been particularly inspiring to me. And I just hope to further that conversation and I mean, if it was ever possible, I would quit everything I was doing and work on it full time, but we’ll have to see how that goes. [laughter]
SYNAPSE: [laughter] “It’s awesome. When I saw that start up, I was like, this is something we absolutely need. I mean, it’s one thing to retweet other people’s posts or share them on other types of social media, but it’s nice to have a space on the internet, explicitly for promoting people who need that kind of promotion, that kind of work that needs to be highlighted. So what’s the initial response been like?
ELEANOR: I think that the response has been really positive. I think that, you know I have a lot of friends now who are women in science communication who also feel like they are kind of just implicitly writing for men. I know there are some publications that do say that they are explicitly for men. But I think that the internet is just kind of like…men-leaning. So there have been a lot of really great conversations that have come out of that, of my peers kind of saying, ‘You know, I totally agree. I think this is something that we need and also in a way, just something that needs to be acknowledged.’ There is this kind of implicit assumption that dudes are going to be reading this, which is fine. Dudes deserve content, but women need content, too.
And so yeah, I think that one thing that has been kind of fun about this is that this summer at NYU, I’m doing what’s called our Entrepreneurial Journalism course, where we’re kind of actually tasked with creating a pitch for a startup for venture capitalists. By popular demand, one of the three projects we’re working on is the Curie Mag idea. So we will be developing it this summer, which will be really exciting as a group to see where it takes us. I will definitely keep you posted. I’m excited to see what happens and I think that we all are really passionate about the need for this.
Yeah, I think that you’re right, like the idea of it being a space, too, like a kind of community - not just one-sided content production, although I think that that’s really valuable, but also a place where women can talk about science and the future and all of these things that they might not always feel so included in.
SYNAPSE: Totally. There’s also another aspect of science communication with respect to women that’s starting to get a lot more discussion nowadays, and that has to do a lot with reproductive health and our rights over our own bodies in modern healthcare. And one thing you’re doing, as well in addition to all of this, to further this conversation is being the producer on the Tie My Tubes podcast. Could you talk a little bit about what that podcast is and what your role is in it?
ELEANOR: Definitely. So Tie My Tubes was something started by Brie Ripley, who also went to the University of Washington in Seattle at the time that we were there. She is a really amazing radio producer and like, a personal - I guess we’re kind of peers, but I kind of think of her as a hero. [laughter] She wanted to pursue sterilization as a form of permanent birth control. She didn’t really like the other options - she’d gone through all of them, and they caused her a variety of pretty extreme side effects. So she wanted to get her tubes tied. And she found along the way that she was not trusted to make decisions for herself by her healthcare providers. They were convinced that she was too young, that she would come to regret it, that it was a kind of irrational desire and they would just be aiding and abetting some teenager’s flight of fancy. She was denied something that she knew that she wanted.
And she being an audio geek decided to turn it into a podcast, and I was brought it in really early on to explore what turned out to be a historically complicated history of sterilization. So it has been a really exciting process to really deepen my knowledge of things that I implicitly cared about, like body autonomy, but to kind of take that to the next level and be able to share that with listeners who I think have very similar values to mine but are kind of craving that deep-dive into how these situations were created.
My favorite part of that, for example, is the idea that no doctor should sterilize a woman because she’ll come to regret it, that led to this incredible philosophical conversation with President Obama’s bioethics advisor about what regret really means. He ultimately said that in his personal belief, people have the right to regret, which I think is just the most beautiful idea. But yeah, so he talks a lot about this right to regret, which I just thought was really amazing, and the idea that you should get to make the decisions that you feel are best for you at the time that you’re making them. You should definitely discussions around them, but if you’re informed and you’re certain, that doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself or feel bad later if you decide that it wasn’t the right decision for you. ...Men definitely get the right to regret. Sterilization conversations definitely are lopsided. When men want to get vasectomies, it’s typically a much more streamlined process and comes with a lot less judgment.
So yeah, it’s been an amazing exploration, and our plan is to have more episodes out this summer. I hope that if people liked the first one that they’ll stay tuned.
SYNAPSE: Yeah, I highly recommend people should check it out. I listened to the first episode (which you will be able to find on the show notes for this episode if you’re listening to it), and that first episode was kind of like a whole new world that I had never really dived into personally. So it was not only interesting to hear about it but also from somebody who has personal experience with it and is actually trying to pursue this in their life.
One thing I really liked about that episode - I don’t wanna spoil it for anybody who wants to listen to it after this - but if I remember correctly, there was somebody on the episode that was talking about, you know, If you have the right to consent to certain activities that can get you pregnant, then you have the right to control whether or not you want to be in the long-term. And talking about it in that way, it seems like such an obvious statement, such an apparent concept, but for some reason, in modern healthcare, it’s not that obvious in implementation.
So have you been able to gauge what the response has been like from people, just from that first episode alone?
ELEANOR: You know, early in your career, I think it can be kind of hard to get a sense of how people are interacting with your work. Because you know, you’re freelancing and you maybe don’t hear everything about how that piece was received. But Tie My Tubes was one of those situations where it was just this outpouring of love and appreciation that I’ve never experienced before.
SYNAPSE: That’s awesome.
ELEANOR: Yeah, it just felt so cool to be able to give people something that was legitimately missing from the kind of zeitgeist...and yeah, it was amazing.
SYNAPSE: That’s wonderful, I’m so glad to hear that. Yeah, I highly recommend any listeners to check out that podcast, whether you are a woman or not - it’s a really great topic to educate yourself on and it’s really important to expose yourself to different kinds of experiences and perspectives. So to kind of transition back to your work as a science communicator and a science journalist, you’re currently interning over at Inverse, so I hear, and having a really good experience there. How has the environment been like for you so far?
ELEANOR: Inverse is actually explicitly targeted at men, so I’ve been writing for a different demographic than myself, which is not a problem but definitely really interesting, especially as I’m kind of thinking through more and more the way that science content can be gendered. But I’m enjoying it. It’s a startup, which is really different than Popular Science, of course, where I was working in the spring, which is like 150 years old. A legacy publication, [so] they’re really different... But yeah, it’s been fascinating to kind of see the conversations that go around in a startup between how you really make something a business - how you make writing about science viable and also those questions of how you produce really good content, really unbiased content….and give the people not just what they need but also what they should know. So yeah, it’s been really cool to see the inner workings of that process, which I’ve never really been privy to before.
And it’s also, I think, one of the more demanding things I’ve ever had to do, which is exciting as well in terms of trying to put together 2 or 3 stories every day.
ELEANOR: [laughter] Yeah. It’s definitely really different than what I’ve done before, but exciting! And I like the challenge. And I guess too, the chance right now as a graduate student to get to try out the different newsrooms, different approaches to science writing but also to business and kind of bop around and hang out with cool people and hopefully learn what it is that I want when I come out on the other side with this degree.
SYNAPSE: So your two most recent stories, one in Inverse and another in Edible Queens, have been involving something which I think is much needed for the summertime - which is the history and culture of barbecue and also an article on the scientific formula for how to make the best barbecue. I’ll link to both of these in the show notes. They were both awesome reads, I chuckled multiple times while reading them. How do you find the inspiration for a bunch of these stories that you come up with and write? Because you’ve written about everything from space and agriculture to scientifically accurate barbecues.
ELEANOR: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you so much. I have never barbecued myself, but I have enjoyed other people’s barbecues extensively, but they were both really fun pieces to write. I think both of those were stories that were kind of pitched to me by editors, and so there’s definitely that kind of community vibe in a newsroom, where people are coming up with ideas that they themselves can’t execute just because there’s so many cool story ideas. So that was that situation.
But a lot of my stories I definitely do pitch myself. And I think it comes from just talking to people and asking them questions that they maybe haven’t been asked before. I was just reading - I think it was Elle Magazine - did this profile of Maggie Haberman, who’s The New York Times White House Correspondent. They talk about how she’s just this crazy super-reporter. And she talks to 150 people a day, which is not the number of people I’m talking to because that would drive me insane. [laughter]
But I think you know, in the 15 people I talk to every day - really trying to maximize those conversations? Like if I’m working on one barbecue story for that week, it’s a matter of at the end of it being like, ‘What else are you working on? What else is interesting to you right now?’ And I don’t mean that in just the potentially exploitative way of ‘Help me get my next story!’ but just like staying really curious. Because you know, I’ve had conversations like 3 years ago that I realized like last week were something worth pursuing. So yeah, I think it’s just peppering people with all kinds of questions and getting them to share their experiences and expertise with you.
SYNAPSE: Yeah, I really appreciate how widespread your scientific reporting has been. I think that’s really awesome. Because you see a lot of - and it’s not a bad thing - to see a lot of journalists who stick to one topic, like specifically space or computational biology. And they do really good work in it and it’s really awesome, but it’s also nice to have experience with other fields because that kind of informs how you look at other things, as well.
ELEANOR: And it’s crazy, yeah, just with hindsight to see how weird and random things lead to each other. Like, I got really into the idea of composting. And I was like, ‘How does this work? What’s the most effective way to do it? How is New York City handling all this organic waste?’ And that led me into a conversation with the founder of Vertical Farms, and we were talking about where that technology came from and he was like, ‘You know, a lot of this early research was done by NASA.’ And then that led me to this whole thing of space farming and then I was just writing a bunch of articles about you know, ‘What would it be like if we were farming in space?’ And then even a step farther, how can space technology come back and help us farm on Earth? So you know, such a random back-and-forth that led to some of my favorite stories that I’ve written - definitely.
SYNAPSE: That space farming article was really neat - I’ll go ahead and link that one in the show notes, as well, for any interested listeners. So where can we look for you in the future for any cool future projects or any new stories that you might have coming your way?
ELEANOR: I try to keep my website (www.eleanorcummins.com) updated with all my favorite stuff, and I’ll definitely continue to do that. I also am obsessed with Twitter, so if anyone ever wants to tweet at me, I’ll definitely talk to you or follow you back. I’m @elliepses and yeah, I’m truly addicted. If someone could help me… [laughter]
But yeah, all of my stuff goes there. And yeah, so I’ll be at Inverse through August writing about new science news and innovation. And then after that, I don’t know - I have one more internship in my program that I need to set up, so I’m applying for those right now. But yeah, I will be sharing it with everybody. [laughter]
SYNAPSE: Awesome! Yeah, we will definitely retweet and share all of that stuff. So all the links for social media and everything can be found in the show notes. I highly recommend you guys check out the Tie My Tubes Podcast - I’m excited for new episodes coming this summer. And also check out the Instagram @curie_mag if you’re interested - and you should be - if you’re interested in more news by and for women.
So thank you so much, Eleanor, for joining me today! It was really fun talking to you.
ELEANOR: It was really nice to talk to you, as well. Alright, well I hope you have a great day!
SYNAPSE: You, too! I’ll talk to you later.
If you’d like to see more links, check out this episode’s notes on synapsescience.com, where you will also be able to find a transcript of this episode for reference and better ease of access. I realize we don’t have transcripts up for all of our episodes just yet, but we will be using transcripts from now on and also working on getting transcripts for old episodes up and on the website, as well.
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Until next time, have a wonderful rest of your week.
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