One giant leap: For opening up the sciences
Cynthia Hall is the community coordinator for NASA’s Transform to Open Science program, where she works with organizations and communities to build diverse scientific collaborations with NASA. She works to make scientific research and processes more inclusive and accessible to everyone. Cynthia talks with us about open science, her influential NASA Academy internship, and backpacking on the job from Zion National Park to the Ganges River.
This episode was produced by Zoe Swiss and Shane M Hanlon, and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young. Interview conducted by Jason Rodriguez.
Shane Hanlon: 00:00 Hi, Vicky.
Vicky Thompson: 00:00 Hi, Shane.
Shane Hanlon: 00:02 What’s the most public thing you’ve ever done or I guess put out into the world besides this podcast, of course?
Vicky Thompson: 00:11 Oh, okay. So, I mean, aside from, we’ve already talked about the times of me gallivanting on high school musical stages, but I think-
Shane Hanlon: 00:21 I mean how public was that? What was the audience?
Vicky Thompson: 00:26 I feel like that was a quiet diss, but…
Shane Hanlon: 00:28 No, oh goodness. Okay. Well, continue, until I ruin this more.
Vicky Thompson: 00:35 So, there was a time, this feels pretty public, but maybe it’s still a closed universe, but there was a time when I first moved to DC where I ran a Meetup group.
Shane Hanlon: 00:44 What kind of a meetup group?
Vicky Thompson: 00:48 Called DC Drink and Draw. So, I would just schedule happy hours at bars and invite the universe to come to these drawing events.
Shane Hanlon: 00:59 Just strangers?
Vicky Thompson: 01:01 Yeah, just strangers that also didn’t have any friends, mostly. No, that’s rude. But it was a kind of a transient group. People would come in because they just needed an anchor for a little while, and then they would leave the group. And then I would often kick it off with a drawing prompt icebreaker thing, and then we would just sit around and draw and drink beer.
Shane Hanlon: 01:25 Wow.
Vicky Thompson: 01:26 Yeah, I feel like that’s kind of public.
Shane Hanlon: 01:28 I mean, sure. That’s putting yourself out there in a way that I am frankly very uncomfortable with. I describe myself as an introverted extrovert or one of those weird things. I really enjoy being in public spaces and being around a lot of people, but not necessarily interacting with strangers. But besides this, the podcast, people can see my hand motions, I’m part of a storytelling organization called The Story Collider that you’re familiar with.
02:05 Also a podcast, not kind of crossing things here, but I don’t do that part of it. But we do live shows where myself and my co-host, we get on stage and we are MCs for the evening while other people tell really funny and heartfelt and really deliberate and really passionate stories about science. And then the two of us get up on stage and just be idiots essentially.
Vicky Thompson: 02:34 Just goof off.
Shane Hanlon: 02:34 Our whole thing is just to prime the audience to make the storytellers feel better, and in some ways to show the audience what bad stage presence is in preparation for good stage presence. And I do that a lot, and I’ve never necessarily been a performer or a showman or anything like that. I guess I’ve kind of had this thing in me, but if you would’ve told me before I started doing this, I mean it’s been a while now, but I mean, “Shane, every few months or every couple months, you’re going to get up on stage in front of-
Vicky Thompson: 03:07 A lot of people.
Shane Hanlon: 03:09 … I don’t know, 50 to 100 strangers and just tell really silly, sometimes really personal stories about yourself and people are going to not hate it,” would not have believed you.
Vicky Thompson: 03:25 Oh my gosh. I mean it’s kind of like the podcast except it’s real time. People are actually looking at you while you’re doing that.
Shane Hanlon: 03:25 It’s more terrifying than what we do here.
Vicky Thompson: 03:35 It is. I would never do that.
Shane Hanlon: 03:35 Because you have people judging you with their judgy eyes in your face. Here we just have my dogs cut out in the background, so we’re good to go. Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientist for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.
Vicky Thompson: 03:58 And I’m Vicky Thompson.
Shane Hanlon: 03:59 And is his Third Pod from the Sun. Well, Vicky, we are talking publicness. I think that’s a word, or actually openness today, because today’s interview is about Open Science. And if folks are thinking, “We’ve heard about this before,” there’s going to be a lot of that in the coming year, because this year is the year of Open Science via NASA. So, this episode will be a really good primer for that.
Vicky Thompson: 04:30 Okay. So, Open Science. Every time I think about Open Science I think, “What is Open Science?”
Shane Hanlon: 04:37 Yeah. And I was realizing we actually ran through this on a previous episode, but our interviewee actually, who works at NASA in a really fascinating role, had a much better explanation for it than I could honestly ever provide. So, I’ll actually let her explain. Our interviewer was Jason Rodriguez.
Cynthia Hall: 04:58 So, my name is Cynthia Hall and I am with NASA’s Transform to Open Science Program. And my role there is I serve as the community coordinator, which is kind of like a community engagement manager. Open Science is the principal and practice of making research products and processes available to all, while respecting diverse cultures, maintaining security and privacy, and fostering collaboration, reproducibility and equity.
05:33 The White House, 11 federal agencies, including NASA and 88 academic institutions just recently came together and said 2023 was going to be a year of Open Science. So, as the community coordinator, it’s my responsibility to engage with communities both internal and external to NASA. Open science, we feel, is the future of science. And so many organizations are interested in collaborating with NASA on initiatives, whether that be developing resources, co-hosting events, or really just advocating for Open Science. I meet with these organizations describing TOPS and NASA’s Open Science mission across the Science Mission Directorate. I listen to the community probably more importantly about their efforts and challenges and needs, and then we discuss how we can potentially collaborate.
06:29 I am also responsible for all of the outreach for TOPS, which includes working with professional societies to determine how best we can promote Open Science at their large scientific conferences. I think science, it’s not as diverse as it should be, I’ll just say that. And it’s not very inclusive sometimes. And so when I started learning about Open Science and then NASA had this new initiative, it’s very exciting to think about how we can have more voices at the table and how we can listen to different perspectives and make science more collaborative and more equitable for all. Working in this field now, it’s very exciting and rewarding, and I’m very excited about what the potential is for the future with Open Science.
Jason Rodriguez: 07:22 That’s lovely. So, if you think back on it, what initially drew you to the sciences? What gave you that pull or push into it?
Cynthia Hall: 07:30 I love this question, because I have always been interested in science since I was young. And the cool thing for me is that I grew up in a small rural town in South Carolina and there were no universities and no science institutions around. We had to travel to go to museums and things of that nature, but I always wanted to be outdoors in nature, playing in the trees, playing in the dirt, that kind of thing. I was curious as to how the world worked. And as I became older, I became more interested in conservation and the environment. I actually tried to start a recycling program when I was in fifth grade in my town. I was trying to think of things like that even when I was young, to be progressive and start thinking about the saving the environment, of conserving our resources and things like that.
08:23 I had an amazing family network and especially my grandfather, we called him Papa, but he was always outside. I lived next door to him and my grandmother, and I was always over there with my cousins and my sister, and we were always outside, so we were working in his garden. He would drive us around on his golf cart and we would talk about different trees and we’d pick blackberries and we’d learn about different types of insects and birds. And so I think that probably was a big thing for me, just being out in nature and having him try to describe and foster my curiosity. Being that curious child, and then knowing that I wanted to do something with conservation is how I started.
09:18 I wanted to save the whales and work with dolphins and that kind of thing. And I ended up taking a geology course and fell in love with geology and being outdoors and working outdoors. And then where I went to undergraduate school, which was the College of Charleston, there was a huge focus on environmental issues and sustainability. I had some amazing mentors. I started in marine biology and shifted to geology while I was there. And in geology I had, again, some amazing mentors that really pushed me to be the person that I was supposed to be and encouraged me in my studies, and I am where I am today because of them.
Shane Hanlon: 10:14 Have you ever had any great mentors that come to mind?
Vicky Thompson: 10:19 I have, but I think it’s never been a for real mentor-mentee relationship, like defined as that. But if I think back about my career so far and my academic life, I had a really great mentor. Am I allowed to name check?
Shane Hanlon: 10:38 I don’t know. Can you name check? That’s up to you.
Vicky Thompson: 10:40 Okay. I’m going to name check.
Shane Hanlon: 10:42 Perfect.
Vicky Thompson: 10:42 Scott Brophy, he was my advisor in college, but then became way more than that and just set me up on the path for my career. And I could think back to so many times that he just gave me good advice and helped me work through problems or questions, and he just, I don’t know, he just became this really important part of my life.
Shane Hanlon: 11:08 Yeah. I think I’m in the same boat, honestly, because when I think about formal mentors… Wow, we were doing the-
Vicky Thompson: 11:15 Tongue twister.
Shane Hanlon: 11:16 … linguist exercises earlier. I should’ve paid more attention. Bosses, my PI in grad school, those types of folks. I mean they were formal, but I honestly got more, I think, from what you were saying, informal folks. Some of my lab mates in grad school, a family member who really helped me out on my current trajectory. So, I don’t have a one person, but there were definitely a lot of folks who helped me along the way. And pulling it back to Cynthia, she was interested in talking about how mentors helped her in her career path.
Cynthia Hall: 11:57 In any case, I was at the end of my undergraduate career and my mentors wanted me to apply for a NASA internship, and it was called NASA Academy and it was a leadership academy at NASA where you would do a research project for the summer, but you would also get to engage and interact with the leaders within NASA, so the center directors, people working in different fields like expert scientists and researchers. And I was the first South Carolinian to get this internship. I mean being the first South Carolinian was a huge… You’re proud of yourself and I’m very proud of that accomplishment.
12:44 Within NASA Academy, there were many different research projects and you could apply to which ones you wanted to work on. And I was working with an older mission called the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer or TOMS, and we were looking at ozone, but the researchers were doing the research. My part of that was to actually work with educators and to have them start incorporating actual data into the classroom. So, it was a really neat experience and exposed me to education. And so I have a Master’s in my field, so in geography, remote sensing and GIS or geographic information systems. But I also, later in life, got a Master’s in education and science and math.
13:33 And I think a lot of that had to do with this internship and realizing I loved working with educators and I loved spanning discipline. So, not only spanning the sciences, but also education or the general public. And that communication piece between, I found my niche there, that really set me up for my future. It provided me an amazing opportunity to get involved with NASA. And now here I am still at NASA, and there have been deviations from that path throughout, but it really did set me up for a career here at NASA and in earth science, and I just am so thankful for that opportunity that I had.
Shane Hanlon: 14:27 Vicky, how long have you been with AGU?
Vicky Thompson: 14:33 Over 11 years.
Shane Hanlon: 14:34 Wow.
Vicky Thompson: 14:36 Yeah.
Shane Hanlon: 14:38 For me it’s seven plus. We might be coming up on eight. It’s been a while. And that’s far longer than I thought I would be, not just here, but frankly anywhere. When I moved to DC, people say you do something for a few years and move on to something else, but honestly, I mean I like it here and I like the people and we get to do a podcast. And so I get that feeling that Cynthia has for her about NASA, and it sounded like being at NASA has given her some opportunities to do some things she’s especially proud of.
Cynthia Hall: 15:12 I moved back to South Carolina because family is also very important to me, and I started teaching at the College of Charleston, and some other amazing opportunities that I’ve had and very rewarding experiences have been taking students on study abroad. So, I’ve taken students to Costa Rica, India, South Africa, and then we always do a course out west, Western US. Many people don’t think about going into geology, so then when we do take them in these field experiences, it’s really rewarding to see the look on their faces when they experience something new and different.
Jason Rodriguez: 15:52 And in those experiences, do you have any maybe funny moments or memorable stories, taking them on trips or in the field?
Cynthia Hall: 16:03 Taking a bunch of students in the field is exciting and there are always funny moments. I think that probably the most memorable is just about five years ago before I started this position at NASA, we took students, myself and another faculty member, on a hydrologic study in India. So, we hiked to the headwaters of the Ganges River, the Gaumukh Glacier, and it was a challenging hike at high elevation, high altitude. And having the students, so not necessarily funny, but the conversations that we had because we were together camping along our route and just the relationships that were developed. And it was almost like building a family. So, that’s one that really sticks out with me, because challenge makes us stronger and brings us together.
Jason Rodriguez: 17:13 That’s beautiful. And is there a favorite place of yours to do science?
Cynthia Hall: 17:21 So, my place is Zion National Park in Utah. Every geologist typically has to do some kind of field experience. And so my field experience was out west here in the United States, and I went to Zion National Park and we did a backpacking trip over a course of a few days. And it was really transformative for me. It was life changing. I love sedimentary geology, and if you’ve never been to Zion, there are huge dune systems. And so I loved that place for that. But then also it was transformative for me personally, being in this small town where I grew up and to experience something larger and just amazing was truly transformative.
18:23 And so now that is my place that I go to, not only when I want to think geology and hike and do that thing, but even mentally, it’s my place where I go kind of woosah, where I have this meditative experience where I can just reset, if you will, in nature. So, that is my absolute favorite place. And there is a lot of history there too, which I also love, and not all good. The Native Americans held that space for so long, and now we’ve put American names on everything. And I think my own personal opinion is we need to respect a lot of that Native American history that was already there. And so that can be troublesome anywhere we go, because that’s what we’ve done. But I like exploring the actual pre-colonialization history of a space too, and Zion’s a neat place to do that.
Vicky Thompson: 19:31 Have you been to Zion?
Cynthia Hall: 19:32 I have, yes. Zion, I guess, a couple years ago now, was a trip that I proposed to my wife at.
Vicky Thompson: 19:32 Oh.
Shane Hanlon: 19:42 Yeah. I mean actually it was at The Wave, if anyone’s familiar with that. But our base camp was Zion. So, Zion holds a pretty special place in my heart, but as Cynthia isn’t in the field anymore, we asked her about what she’s looking forward to at NASA.
Cynthia Hall: 19:59 So, obviously I’m working with Open Science, and I just started this position about a year ago. We’re a five-year initiative at NASA and definitely want to see where that goes, because I do think it’s the future of science and it’s really going to change the way we do science. And there’s a lot of mistrust in science, especially during the pandemic and a lack of trust in science and scientists. And I think Open Science has the potential to change that. And so, again, I’m really excited to be a part of this movement. And I just recently was at the AAAS conference in DC, and yesterday there was a plenary session. The closing plenary was about, it was scary, we talked a lot about mistrust in science and a lot of legislation that’s being passed and the impact that it could have to different communities, and the importance of us as scientists when we know something’s not correct to stand up and to be an advocate for what is true and right.
21:09 And I don’t feel like I’ve been doing that enough, and so I want that to be on my horizon where I can really advocate for science and what we’re doing with regards to climate change, or increasing diversity and making science equitable for all, making sure that I’m an advocate for that and really standing up for those issues. And we also need to be thinking about equity in science, because I do still believe one of the biggest issues is trust and the misinformation that’s out there and how people are taking science and almost twisting it to meet their needs or disregarding it. And I think that that needs to change. And I think by exposing the scientific process and making things more transparent and stopping the whole putting things behind paywalls is going to help with a lot of that. And again, why I’m in this Open Science arena is because I think Open Science is the way that that’s going to happen.
22:20 But I think we need to show that science can be messy and there are failures, and those failures help us grow. That doesn’t make us wrong, it makes us think of new approaches and new ideas. And again, I think a lot of this came out in the pandemic where the general public was immersed in the scientific process and things were messy, and things were being said in this way and then changed later. That’s science. And making people understand that that is actually science, and that is how we grow, and that’s how we make discoveries. And look at what happened, we came up with a vaccine in an unprecedented amount of time by sharing and exposing that messiness of science.
23:09 But again, I think that people, we all need to understand that and communicate that so that we know that that is the way things work. And maybe that’ll get rid of some of that mistrust and misinformation that’s put out there.
Shane Hanlon: 23:35 Vicky, do you think that we are helping to fight misinformation with the podcast? I see the smirk on your face that no one else can see.
Vicky Thompson: 23:44 I think we are, but I worry that if anyone were to take out the interview parts and just string our bits together, it probably couldn’t be classified as that.
Shane Hanlon: 23:58 Which is funny, because that’s exactly what I do sometimes when promoting the podcast, is just do our silly little stories at the beginning and end. So, maybe I’ll be a little bit more deliberate about that in the future to make sure that nothing is misconstrued. But I do want to thank Cynthia for the good work that she does. And with that, that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.
Vicky Thompson: 24:25 Special thanks to Jason Rodriguez for conducting the interview and to NASA for sponsoring the series.
Shane Hanlon: 24:31 This episode was produced by Zoe Swiss and me, with audio and engineering from Collin Warren and artwork by Karen Romano Young.
Vicky Thompson: 24:39 We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please rate and review us, and you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.
Shane Hanlon: 24:48 Thanks all, and we’ll see you next week.
Vicky Thompson: 24:57 I feel like should we do red leather, yellow leather? Red leather, yellow leather. Is that what it is?
Shane Hanlon: 25:00 Red leather, yellow leather. Red leather. Yeah.
Vicky Thompson: 25:04 Oh, you can’t do it.
Shane Hanlon: 25:05 Red leather, yellow leather. Red leather, yellow… I can’t do it.
Vicky Thompson: 25:08 Oh, wow. Okay. Good.
Shane Hanlon: 25:10 Can you do it?
Vicky Thompson: 25:11 Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather. I mean I have to think.
Shane Hanlon: 25:15 Sure. Red leather, yellow leather.
Vicky Thompson: 25:16 It’s so hard.
Shane Hanlon: 25:18 Yeah, it’s like the-
Vicky Thompson: 25:19 See, you’re not even doing it. You can’t do it.
Shane Hanlon: 25:22 Red leather, red… Yeah, I can’t do it. Red leather, yellow leather. I can do it once. Muddled. Red leather, yellow leather. Leather. Leather. It’s the second leather.
Vicky Thompson: 25:32 So, I used to run, I’ve told you this before, I used to run Phone-a-thons at a university, and I was a real nerd about it. And I would make/suggest/run at the beginning of some of the sessions like tongue twisters.
Shane Hanlon: 25:32 Okay.
Vicky Thompson: 25:50 And I joke about my age, but I was so much older than these kids that were generations apart it felt like. So, some of them hadn’t heard some of the really easy, silly tongue twisters. Like she sells seashells, which is much longer than-
Shane Hanlon: 26:06 She sells seashells by the seashore. See, that one I can do.
Vicky Thompson: 26:11 So, I would just look up tongue twisters and blow their minds. And we would laugh before we started the shifts. But I never thought of red leather, yellow leather. That’s just an exercise.
Shane Hanlon: 26:21 You’re such a leader, Vicky.
Vicky Thompson: 26:24 I’m such a leader.
Shane Hanlon: 26:24 Yeah.
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