Steven Jaret Q&A: Planetary Science, Impact Craters, and Policing Jargon

Nadya

STONY BROOK, NY -- Steven Jaret, a doctoral candidate in Stony Brook’s Department of Geosciences, has been a professional science communicator since high school, when he started leading planetarium shows at Atlanta’s Fernbank Science Center. Now, a founding member of Graduates for Education and Outreach (GEO), he leads science courses and demonstrations for fifth graders at Nathaniel Woodhull. He’s also an active member of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science where he co-hosts the weekly web broadcast Science Unplugged LIVE.

This week he will compete in the International FameLab national finals in Washington, DC. He sat down with the Stony Brook University Graduate School ahead the competition to discuss his work and FameLab preparations.

Tell us a bit about your research.

I am co-advised by Dr. Timothy Glotch and Dr. Troy Rasbury. Broadly the way I like to describe what I do is to say that I care about Earth and other planetary materials – like the rocks and minerals that make up planets.

Tim is a planetary geologist – which people tend to associate with planets like Mars and the moon and asteroids. Troy primarily studies the Earth. So I like to like to call myself a planetary geologist but often remind people that Earth is a planet, too.

I look at the Earth and try to understand the Earth because you can actually go and pick up those rocks and see them. And then I use that information to help us think about how we might understand other planets. The main question I care about is timing, so the work I do with both labs asks “how do you know when events in the past happened?” In other words, how old are rocks? How do you tell how old they are? What does that number mean? What are you actually measuring?

The planetary aspect of it is meteor impact craters, which matters a lot for the Earth in terms of the evolution of our planet. The dinosaurs dying out – that's related to a large impact, but we don't generally think of impacts as being a big player on the Earth. You look at the moon or you look at Mars, and they're just covered with craters – so that is the big process there.

What excites you about your work?

Planetary geologists are not a large group of people. Within that, there are relatively few people who study craters. I think there are less than 30 people in the world – so it's exciting to be doing something that's relatively unique. 

Do you travel to see the craters?

So far I've been 13 different craters on the Earth, out of 189. I did my master's working at Gardnos in Norway. That was really cool. 

How did you come to the focus on impacts?

I used to take classes and work at the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, which is part of the DeKalb County K-12 School System. I did a lot of programs there in middle school and high school and started working as a volunteer. It is an amazing place – they have electron microscopes, a 36-inch telescope, and a giant planetarium. One of their faculty members, Ed Albin, is a planetary geologist who studies meteorites and craters. I started working with him and did a lot of independent study with him, and that launched my interest. When someone hands you a rock and says “this is 4.5 billion years old and from outer space,” it's hard to do anything else.

Ed was my first mentor who really got me into science.

And it was fun being at the science center because I would help out; in the summer we'd do planetarium shows, programs for 5th and 6th graders, and a high school program as well. 

So you got involved in teaching early, too.

Yes. When I was in undergrad I'd go back to Atlanta in the summers and help teach the summer programs. 

I will say, from a science communication standpoint, starting out in a planetarium was great. It’s easier to manage your nerves in a dark planetarium where no one can see you. The transition to talking to people who can actually see you is a little startling. 

How did you first get involved with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science?

Purely by chance. And I'm really glad that I did.

Having worked in a planetarium, I had a background and interest in science communication. I also, totally on the side and unrelated to science, do theater tech -- because it's nice to have an outside thing. So I'd done some improve, and I saw advertised a course called improv for scientists. I thought “this sounds awesome. This is both of the things that I do.”

So I took the course, and it was great. Valeri Lantz-Gefroh taught it the class, and she's amazing. I learned so much from her. 

How has working with the Alda Center changed the way you approach your work and your teaching – what tools has it equipped you with?

It's made me a lot more confident speaking wise, which is important. The Center’s primary mission is communicating to non-scientists. But what really I got out of it – it actually makes you a better scientist and a better communicator to other scientists.

I think it's the nature of the courses. You're in the course with all PhD or master's-level science students. And you would think that, talking to someone else who has a master's or is working on a PhD in science, you would be able to talk to them, and what you learn very quickly is that the talk you would give to a 5th grader and, in my case since I’m a geoscientist, the talk you would give to a biochemist are pretty much the same thing. Once you get into a PhD you're so, so specialized that really, outside your group – and half the time even within your group – we don't understand what each other's saying. So the same skills apply and actually help you communicate to other scientists, too. 

What are some of those skills?

Avoiding jargon and specialized language. That's a huge one. There are so many things we don't realize don't make sense to people. For example, one of the students in a course I took was from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoNAS); all semester he’d spoken about human-induced climate change. On the last day the instructor said, “You keep saying human-induced climate change or what humans are doing. Why can’t you say we?”

When she said that, everyone in the room was like "oh." Lightbulb moment. We is a much better word than human.

For an event like FameLab, how do you decide what you want to talk about and then scale it so that you have the right amount of information for the time you’re given to present?

What I've started doing is writing my talks backward, determining what information I want people to come out remembering. I even took this approach for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March – I wrote my conclusion slide first. From there, I go back and write a first sentence and make sure the first sentence sets up the last and then fill it in between.

I think a lot of people get lost in the details. We get so excited about our data, and sometimes you have to be like, “that's cool to me, but people don't care.” You need to have a big picture goal at the end and then make sure you're setting it up so everything you say leads to the goal. Another place people get lost is that they want to share all of the background information.

This is an issue particularly for physical scientists. They get lost in the set up – “in order to understand this, you first have to understand this. And then you have to understand that.”

Yes and no. A three-minute talk is not a physics lecture. You're not teaching a course. There's no reasonable expectation that after three minutes someone is going to understand how to solve an equation. In a three-minute talk, you want people to leave with a “that was cool,” or “hey, I didn't know this thing existed.” If someone leaves my talk knowing that asteroids hit the earth and we can tell that it happened -- that's good for three minutes. 

For more information on FameLab and the upcoming national finals, see http://astrobiology.arc.nasa.gov/competition/season-3-national-final-in-washington-dc/

Stony Brook’s Colin West is also competing in the finals. You can read his profile here.