A conversation with Dr. Jennifer Frazier, a Senior Scientist and Curator at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Jen talks about what it means to be a scientist-curator, how to design inclusive experiences that spark curiosity, and how to curate with your community. Her passion for science is infectious and she knows alllll the "ologies."
“What really makes an incredible curator in science is what makes an incredible curator of anything. A lot of that is thinking deeply about the experience.” — Jennifer Frazier
The Exploratorium is a beloved, hands-on museum in San Francisco, where science isn’t just something to learn about; it’s something to be uncovered and discovered as a kind of personal journey.
No one knows this better than Jennifer Frazier. As a senior scientist and curator at the Exploratorium, Jen is at the helm of creating immersive experiences that help people see science as a verb. “You’re not just curating important scientific ideas or discoveries,” she says. “You’re actually trying to curate so that people can experience the process of science.”
We talked to Jen about how to create science experiences for the public, what it means to practice inclusive exhibition design, how to reach communities who aren’t visiting, and more.
Highlights, inspiration and key learnings:
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Welcome to “The Art of Curation,” Flipboard’s show about the art and science of selection. I’m your host Mia Quagliarello. I’m a digital curator, community builder, and Flipboard’s Head of Creators.
Each episode, I interview tastemakers from different fields who excel at the art of curation. How did they get started? How do they organize themselves? How do they curate for impact? And more.
Because if you think about it, curation is everywhere. Whether it’s a museum exhibit, a dinner party guest list or your social media feed, curation is the DNA that makes or breaks experiences. In fact, it’s hard to fathom life in this information age without the art of curation.
Today, I am talking to Dr. Jennifer Frazier, a Senior Scientist and Curator at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Cell Biology from UCSF and co-leads the museum’s program in biological sciences. Before joining the Exploratorium in 2004, Jennifer worked at the National Academy of Sciences and PBS.
In this interview, Jen talks about what it means to curate with your community. She touches on how much of your own personality is okay to reveal when you’re curating for an institution, and she shares a unique challenge of a life sciences curator. She also completely blows my mind when referring to the scales of biology and the universe.
I loved this conversation because Jen’s passion for science is infectious, and her perspective is applicable to curators in many fields. Let’s get to it!
Jen! It's so exciting to get to talk to you. You are one of my favorite people. You're so smart. You're funny. And you're a terrific dancer. I think that people need to know that first and foremost about you. But seriously, you are a Ph.D. scientist and that is no small feat. So what does it mean for a scientist to also be a curator?
Well, first thank you for the warm introduction. And I guess since people are only hearing my voice they can't see what an amazing dancer I am, but maybe someday we can combine talking about science with dancing. I think it's been done before, but I'm really excited to be here. And your first question is an important one because I don't think most people think of scientists as curators, right? They think, oh, a scientist. It's someone in a white lab coat who has a beaker and is interrogating how the natural world works. And of course that is part of science and what a lot of scientists do. Although scientists do many other things as well, so my role is I'm a scientist and I bring that to creating exhibitions at a science museum. And what that means is I apply what I've learned as a scientist to create interesting science experiences.
So most of the time you think of curation as especially like an art curator: “Oh, they go and they look for paintings and they hang certain types of paintings on the wall.” Or you might think of a curator as someone who curates a journal, like they pick interesting articles. What it means for a scientist to be a curator is that you're really applying what you know as a scientist. And that is not just scientific content. Like, well, what is DNA really? Or what are important, new scientific discoveries? You're definitely thinking about important scientific information or ideas or discoveries. But I think even more than that, a scientist as a curator is thinking about: how do I curate people experiencing science? Because I think a really fundamental thing people don't realize is that science isn't a noun, right? Often we think, “Oh, science that's DNA. It's an atom. It's a beaker.” Yes, those are parts of science. They're either things we've discovered through science that are part of the natural world or they're tools of science. So often people think of science as the tools of science or the discoveries of science. But science is a process. It's asking a question, making an observation, testing an idea. So a scientist as a curator is that you're not just curating important scientific ideas or discoveries. You're actually trying to curate that people can experience the process of science. Maybe they actually get to do science. They get to make an observation. They get to make a discovery. So I think when you're applying the idea “what does it mean to be a scientist as a curator?” It's not just curating ideas, it's curating experience.
That's so cool. And you really feel that when you come to the Exploratorium. What do you love about doing this job?
Well, there's a lot that I love about being at the Exploratorium and actually the Exploratorium was founded by a physicist named Frank Oppenheimer. His brother was Robert Oppenheimer and they had worked on the Manhattan Project and then subsequently, you know, became communists and were sort of blackballed from the scientific community. And so Frank Oppenheimer went from being at these tier research institutions to being sort of relegated to a teaching university. But what came out of that is that when he was teaching, he realized that he was showing things about how light worked by using prisms and mirrors and lenses. And he realized that wow, the way that these students had been being taught about physics was just reading. But that's not really science. Science isn't just reading about facts. Science is actually making discoveries for yourself and making observations. He got really inspired to create a place where the public could come explore science and not be told what science was, not see science behind glass in a diorama but come actually experience science for themselves in this public Explore-atorium.
The reason that I really wanted to work there -I'd worked at other science venues- and what I realized was what made me love science and love being a scientist was actually that process of discovery. It wasn't being told how something worked. It was actually getting to have that aha moment. And so the Exploratorium is one of the few places where anybody -a 55 year old, a 27 year old, people on a date at After Dark- you can come in and no one is telling you how a prism works or what a barnacle does when it's exposed to light. It is you actually get to make that discovery for yourself. So it's really about you getting to experience the process of discovery and observation. And there are other museums that do that now, and that try to foster that. But I think that is really the hallmark and the goal of the Exploratorium. So it was a place I always really wanted to work because it resonated with what made me love science the most.
I would imagine that in the Venn diagram of science, Ph.D.s and professional curators at the overlapping area is pretty small. Do you think that's the case?
I would say yes. I mean, I don't have the exact numbers off the top of my head, but there are a lot of science Ph.D.s. I mean, I think it's interesting because it always sounds like, you know, “Oh, science fuels our economy. We need more scientists, we need more computer scientists.” And I think it's definitely true that we need more representation of different types of scientists, but there probably are tens of thousands of science Ph.D.s minted every year, right? Especially if you include computer science, plant science, molecular biology. And then if you think of the number of museums there are, it’s actually not that many. So I don't know the exact numbers, but I would say there actually aren't that many Ph.D. science curators. They would tend to be more in a natural history museum. So a natural history museum actually often does research. Here in the
Bay Area we have the California Academy of Sciences. And so there are a lot of entomologists who study bugs or ichthyologists who study fish. They may also curate scientific exhibitions, but in general, I'd say there are many, many more science Ph.D.s than there are opportunities to curate scientific exhibitions. But if you really love it, there's always going to be a way to do it. So if there is anybody out there who's interested in curating science, there are opportunities. You just have to be persistent.
Ichthyologist. I have never heard that one.
There's a lot of “ologies,” you know, like ichthyology, dendrochronology and limnology. It's funny, there's actually a great podcast called “Ologies” with Allie Ward. I always thought that was kind of a brilliant title for it, “Ologies”, because a lot of the sciences actually -especially if they involve biology- do end with “-ology” and I'm sure there's a good reason for that.
So, we've established that there's not that many of you. So you have a very specialist expertise. What do you think are the primary qualities and skills you need to do an ace job as a curator in science?
That's a great question. I think fundamentally the job of a curator is: what is the experience that I want my audience to have? And there are two elements to that, right? The first is experience. Curation is selection, but in the end, whatever it is that you're selecting, your ultimate goal is really creating an experience within your reader, viewer, visitor. And that can be what mood do I want them to have? Do I want to inspire them? Do I want to make them feel wonder? It can be, what kind of information do I want to share? Do I want them to come away knowing, you know, that climate change is accelerating or that their microbiome is fundamental to their health? Do I want them to walk away with a new skill, like being a better observer? So I think really if you're thinking that being a good curator is curating experience for your audience, the first piece is unpacking: what is the experience that you want your audience to have?
But that second piece of the sentence is “audience”. I think that's something that can be overlooked but is really key to being a good curator. That is thinking about: who is your audience? I think in the past that really was about, “Oh, the Exploratorium. Here's who's coming.” And we thought a lot about who was already coming and we actually do a lot of testing. But I think something that was often overlooked that is getting a lot more needed attention now -especially for a public-serving institution like a museum, or anybody who’s curating thinking- “Okay, who is my audience? And what experience do I want for them?” But perhaps more importantly being a good curator should have always been but really now is: who's the audience that's not there? Am I really reaching the public? Or am I only reaching a certain part of the public? Am I reaching people who need to know this information or have these experiences, or am I already, to use a phrase, “preaching to the converted”? So I think being a good science curator is the same as being a good curator of anything in that fundamental: “what's the experience I'm creating for my audience?” and really unpacking what is “experience” and what is “audience”?
I'd love to unpack what you just talked about, which is: who is not there? So you've identified groups that you're not reaching, but how do you bring them in if you're not reaching them?
That's a really important question that I have been grappling with a lot as a curator. And many in the field of museums, not just science museums, but all museums, many have done pioneering work for a long time. But I think especially in the last year or two for almost everyone, top of mind in museums is “who is not being served?” And I think, as an example, there have been several large studies of science museums, and one of the biggest studies was something called COVES. We know that at a science museum we can think, “Oh, I work at a science museum. I'm reaching the public.” What does that mean? Well, if you actually study the demographics of who comes to science museums, it tends to be 60% White, 70% with postgraduate degrees or higher. I mean, you'll kind of see the same thing at museum after museum. And also probably for more elite shows and publications. I'm not looking at the exact statistics, but in general, if you were thinking about shows like Nova or things like National Geographic or the New York Times or most science museums, it's not reaching all Americans or all citizens. It is reaching usually very well-educated, typically disproportionately White audiences. And of course, we want to serve and want people who are well-educated and White to come to museums and learn science. It's not that you don't want to continue to serve those audiences, but really reflecting carefully on who is not coming to museums, who is not watching your show and what do we lose from that? I mean, who should be being inspired, who should have information?
So that kind of lays out the problem that if we want to have a public that appreciates and understands the natural world, or has access to all the tools and ideas of science, we need to address this issue that a lot of the things we're creating are not really reaching the general public or different populations. So how do you do that? That's something a lot of people work very actively on, but I think I can speak to some of the things that we're doing at the Exploratorium. It’s really been coined by Sunshine Menezez, who's at the Metcalf Institute, and a few other leading researchers. They call it “inclusive science communication”. And we've really been trying to do a lot more inclusive exhibition design. There are a lot of elements to that but I'd say probably the key things to having more inclusive experiences is to examine who is the curator and who's getting to choose what is in the show, right?
So there are all sorts of different aspects to making things more inclusive. But I think one piece is even this idea of curation or the “curator”. Who is the curator, well, what's their background? Where do they come from? And how do we even open up the process of curation?
So, as an example, right now, I'm curating a show on plants and in the past, you know, I'm a scientist so I have an incredible team that I work with. We work really collaboratively. But I'm a scientist. I would look to plant scientists from really elite institutions and we would decide what the science content was. We would work with really blue chip designers and artists. And then we would test. We'd come up with a lot of ideas and test them with the people already at the museum. Well, how do we shift that to be more inclusive? Well, how we're more inclusive is we think: “Okay, yes there's science with a capital S being done in labs, but there are other ways of knowing plants that are also science.” So one really good example is that indigenous communities have been observing and studying plants for centuries. And so, we've formed lots of partnerships and done a lot of research and reading with the Chochenyo Ohlone and other local tribes. Cafe Ohlone is one of our partners on our project. Well, what have the Ohlone learned from observing plants in the Bay Area for thousands of years? No, it's not in the science journal but it's watching plants, making observations, often making modifications and observing what the changes are. So we are including things like that in the show, we're looking to sources beyond labs, beyond scientific journals.
We're also, instead of just working with museum designers, we're doing community design workshops. So the Plants show, the Exploratorium has a Latinx Audience Engagement initiative. So we've been working especially with the Latinx community. We're doing a Latinx community design workshop. Instead of just hiring a design firm or having a design brainstorm, we will be working -what do we mean by Latinx community?- deciding who from the community is coming and doing a design workshop with the community. What do they want to feel in the museum experience? What are their ideas for what would be interesting? So I think there's thinking about who's the audience and who's not coming? And then how do you get people to come? I think a lot of it is thinking about who is your curator and how do you make pipelines for curators to be from a lot of different backgrounds and thinking about that more HR element.
A lot of it is broadening your definition of science and what is being included and what's not being included. And a lot of it is opening up the curatorial process to the community and finding structured and also reciprocal ways, not just using your community, but genuinely finding authentic, interesting ways for your community to work with you. And then the hope is (and many, many museums have done this - we're learning a lot from other museums and experts in this) you're producing something that isn't just, “Oh, Jen the scientist who works with people she already knew with backgrounds similar to hers.” You really have opened up the process to start to include other voices, other points of view. And hopefully then when people come, they see themselves reflected and resonating more with your show.
Yeah, you're the first person from whom I heard the term “community curation”. And I love that you just described how it worked. When you are bringing in outside groups and involving the community in curation, how do you curate those groups?
That is a really good question. And actually, it's really hard because I think it goes against a lot of our instincts. I think in the past when I was just creating a show and thought, “Oh, we're going to make this show for the public and here's some interesting things about plankton or here's some interesting things about cells.” I think when you're thinking about bringing in the community, you have to acknowledge that there are so many identities, so many intersectional identities, and it's almost infinite, right? I mean, I live in the Bay Area. Imagine the number of different communities that there are in the Bay Area, on every aspect of every spectrum. What’s hard is you don't want to feel like you're choosing a particular community. I think what you try to do is think of: what are the communities that are a priority for your institution, for whatever reasons? So what we've tried to do is align what we're doing with the Plants show with what has been a priority for our institution. So our institution decided, given that the Bay Area is 30% Latinx or Latino or Hispanic (different people prefer different terms) and that they were only 17% of our visitors that year for our institution, a priority was reaching the Latinx audience. Well yet again, even within Latinx audiences, that's like an infinite, right? There's the Mam Maya community in Oakland, or there's so many different Latinx communities. So we decided that for the Exploratorium, families are a priority group. A lot of families visit.
And there's also an ongoing effort at the Exploratorium to attract young adults. We know that young adults, there's still a lot of room for people in their early twenties, if they're exposed to a lot of science, they can develop a lot more science agency around their decision-making. So I think when you ask, “how do you choose which communities to work with?”, you have to acknowledge that there's almost an infinite number of communities and it almost feels awkward to make choices. But what you want to do is try to pick communities that are aligning with some of your institutional goals, right? Whether it's your journal or your museum or your whatever organization, and then try to make it so that it's not so niche that it's going to feel exclusionary to other audiences. So even if you are consulting -like right now, we are forming all these design groups with Latinx young adults, or Latinx families- we're still being mindful that we're making sure the experiences would still be appealing and of interest to anyone who's coming to the Exploratorium. So it is a little bit of a balance and it's definitely challenging and we're on a learning curve, but I think it's the right direction to be going.
So I'm curious then as a curator, how much of your own tastes and personality should you be able to let through?
That's another really good question. I mean, I think it really depends on the institution. I think for me at the Exploratorium, I'm part of a team. Of course I'm a curator and I will be making high-level decisions about the overall direction of a show, right? Like even the topic “plants,” I worked with a colleague, Christina Yu, at the Exploratorium who also helps lead the life sciences. We might make high-level decisions about what I would call the “creative constraints.” We know plants are important. They're related to climate, they’re related to feeding the world, right? So I might pick the boundaries. Then there's a whole team that works within that.
And for a large institution like the Exploratorium, it's actually more important that the personality of the museum comes across and less my personality. So maybe an individual artist curating a show, they would want much more of their personality and there would be a curatorial statement from the artist. Or if it's a DJ, maybe they're narrating the whole playlist and coming in between songs and their personality is very much a part of it. My role as a curator is more in the background where I'm helping bring the right people together, make sure the right voices are included in the conversation, make sure that we're covering really critical, important ideas, making people feel empowered. So my role is more creating “creative constraints” and helping make sure that we're getting toward a vision. And it's much less about my personality. But I think it is really dependent on the place where you're working. And for me, the place I'm working is I really need the Exploratorium personality to come across, not my personality.
Right, right. That makes a ton of sense. I'm curious about what systems you've set up for yourself to feed your curatorial goals, for example, how do you learn, how do you get inspired? Who do you follow and how do you feed your ideas?
That's one of the favorite parts of my job, is that inspirational phase of where do ideas come from? How do we really shape what direction we're going to be heading with an exhibition or any other kind of project? I actually don't know if I'd call them systems as much as “Go-To’s”. So I've been doing this for more than 20 years now and I've noticed that there are certain things that really helped me get inspired. And I would say some of that has to do with the fact that what I'm creating is a three-dimensional real physical experience. So first, if I set the context of I'm creating a museum exhibition, right, that means that people are in an actual physical space. So I need to get inspired by being in physical spaces.
I'll talk about some inspiration around that, but the physical spaces. It's science so of course I need to be finding inspiration around science and it's a museum. It's a place where people are coming to socialize, to have fun, to get inspired. So I also really need to look for sources of inspiration that are about mood and feel. If we take those elements, like I'm thinking about space, I'm thinking about science, I'm thinking about experience and feeling. Some of the things I've found reproducibly that I look to all the time is one: nature. I think even the people kind of conflate science and nature. Nature is our actual natural world that we are a part of, right? We didn't create nature. We are part of nature. Science is a process to study nature, but nature can be an incredible kind of gateway to inspiring people about science, how the world works and the process of science for studying nature.
A huge inspiration for me is spending time in nature, especially since I'm a biologist and a lot of what I'm curating are living things. When we were doing a show on oceans, I would go to the beach, I would go on research cruises with scientists. I would -we'll talk a little bit more about the science piece of it- but I would actually spend time in places that had to do with the ocean to kind of get me thinking about it. What was the smell? What was the feel? What was the mood? Similarly with the show on plants. When I go into a forest, it's like, well, what's the smell? What's the feeling? Or if I'm in a garden, what is resonating with me? So I think a source of inspiration for me as a biologist who is curating is spending time in these natural environments because that can then really feed into things.
But of course in a science museum, a huge source of inspiration are scientists and being with scientists and learning new science. And I have a lot of different ways that I try to do that. So one is actually hanging out with scientists. I make sure whatever show we're doing, me and members of my team, we go to labs. We pick scientists that we think are doing really interesting work. And I can talk about how we find them, often it's through Twitter or through my own relationships or me doing research in journals. I look for people that are doing really interesting work and we do lab visits. We go to their labs and we see: what are the tools they're using? What are they seeing on the microscope? What does their data look like? Why are they doing this? What do they find exciting?
So I find a lot of inspiration from talking to and working with scientists and shadowing them and going on their research cruises and seeing how they're taking up samples from the ocean or going to their labs and seeing what they're seeing on a microscope. So that's actually how we've come up with a lot of different exhibit ideas at the Exploratorium. We go and see how scientists are using their tools and we adapt those tools or those datasets into exhibits.
So nature’s and inspiration, going and visiting and working with scientists is an inspiration. I follow a lot of scientists on Twitter. I know sometimes people can be like, “Oh, Twitter!” You know, it's actually incredibly useful as a curator because I choose who I want to follow. And a lot of scientists and people in technology, not surprisingly, are on Twitter. They put up their images, they put up cool new movies, they put up their papers.
And then I think another place where I get a lot of great ideas for exhibitions and exhibits -and it's not just me but members of my team- are art museums and art installations. Artists really are about often creating mood, creating experience. And there are so many incredible forward-thinking artists who are creating really interesting, immersive digital experiences or different kinds of environments they're using. There's a lot of land art, environmental art. I find that going to art museums, art galleries, following lots of different artists on different forms of social media. We actually do have a huge arts program at the Exploratorium and we include artists, but often even looking at how artists approach things or think about things influences our science exhibits. So I would say, you know: nature, science and art are sort of the three main areas of inspiration for me. And I look to lots of different ways to get access to those materials or experiences.
Now what about the sort of science part of this, like how do you use data and by science, I mean specifically data. How do you use data to inform your work?
So I think most museums actually do a lot of evaluation. And by evaluation, some may use the term “user testing” or “feedback”. Especially at the Exploratorium, we actually have a whole department called Visitor Research and Evaluation that actually evaluates almost all of our exhibits. So if you come to our museum and you use an exhibit at the Exploratorium, or you visit a whole show, which is called an Exhibition -you would know, we're not studying you without you knowing it- but there might be someone there with a clipboard asking you questions, or there might be an area where it says you're being videotaped right now. We actually collect data about our visitors, with your permission with you knowing it. But we use that so that we understand. Let's say it's an exhibit and I want people to know there are plankton in every part of the ocean and I want them to make their own observations -those are my goals. When we make a prototype, we don't make the whole exhibit, we haven't invested in the whole thing. We make the prototype and then we have people on our staff who will study, “Oh, what people are doing when they walk up to the exhibit? Are they confused? Did they walk away knowing that?” These are people who are trained in the learning sciences, it's a whole specialized field. And we use that data to make sure that people are doing what we want them to do. I mean, we're not trying to control them, but when we talked about being a curator and wanting people to have experiences, we actually do the analysis and find out, “Well, are people having that experience? Do they feel empowered? Do they know what they're looking at? Did they make an observation?” So there's a whole lot of work in museums around evaluation and we collect and use data to improve all of the things that we're creating to make sure that we're reaching our objectives.
So that's kind of the most general way that museums or museum curators use data. I, in particular, actually have had a huge focus on data visualization in my work in the museum. And that is more rare. Most museums don't have people who specialize in adapting data visualizations. But data visualization to me -it’s not just important in science, data visualization is critical for understanding almost all emerging and critical issues in our world right now. And I think I'm going to talk specifically about science examples, but data is being collected about everything, everywhere all the time now. And I think for a while that it seemed like this crazy insight, but it's much more clear now to everyone, how much data is being collected all the time and how important it is.
But let's just take some recent examples, right? I mean COVID 19 and the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change. Those are two things that are so fundamentally impacting our everyday experience, right? And I think most of us last year were constantly looking at test result graphs or the number of cases or how many cases in our zip code, right? So those are data representations. That's not something you can walk out your door and see. Someone has collected that data. Someone has chosen a way to represent that data. Similarly, with climate change, there are buoys, satellites, thermometers all over the world collecting all this data. You don't experience that data. Someone takes all of those numbers and visualizes that data for you.
So for me, in particular, working with data in a museum, what it's meant is: “Okay, these visualizations. We're collecting all this data about our world, from our genomes to viruses to climate impacts. It needs to be visualized. And there are people, right? There are designers making choices. How do we adapt these visualizations so the public can use them? Because a lot of times scientists just churn out the visualizations, which is great right there. They're doing science, but most of the time the public doesn't actually understand these visualizations. It's not because they're not smart or incredibly intelligent, but what does that purple color mean? What is that axis? I think for me, a real passion has been: there is and will continue to be a critical need for the public to understand how to interpret data representations on maps of temperatures, of viral loads, of their genomic data from “23andme”. How is it that we help people really understand this data, get curious about this data, ask their own good questions about this data?
So that's something that's very specialized to me. I don't think that there are many museums that are working with data visualizations because, let's be honest, we have no choice. This is actually how we see our world now. And that's one analogy I really like when I think about data visualization. A lot of times people think of microscopes or telescopes as these incredible scientific tools like, “Oh, how does the world work? Well, we discovered all these new things through our telescopes or we know all these new things through our microscopes.” That is absolutely true. And telescopes and microscopes continue to be important. I think of data visualizations as a kind of microscope, right? It's taking all of these numbers that really we could not process and it's crystallizing them into an image which we can then make sense of. And we can see things about our world that we could never see before.
So a real passion for me is how do I take some of these new, really important insights into our natural world that we're seeing through data and make them so that a seven year-old, or a caregiver and a three-year-old can actually have some kind of experience around. So you can see I'm really excited about data because I think it's really important. I think it's something that's really overlooked. And if you said “data visualization” or “data”, a lot of people's eyes gloss over. But I think if we don't empower people to understand where data comes from, how to look at it and how to understand it, we're not really enabling people to make good decisions or even to see some really cool and important patterns about the natural world.
What kinds of challenges come up for you as a life sciences curator?
Oh, well, probably the biggest challenge for anyone curating a life sciences show is keeping living things alive. And right there, that is not me. I have to give a shout out to the incredible Living Systems lab at the Exploratorium. We have more than 50 creatures that we keep alive. So most labs have like three or four different things that they might keep alive to do their research. And of course the zoo has a lot of things. But we really value having living things. If you want to help people understand how life works, there's nothing more inspiring and important than looking at a living thing. But as anyone who's ever tried to keep an aquarium or a gerbil or a whatever alive, it's actually not easy. Yeah, exactly. Oh my gosh. That's the funny thing. We're working on this Plants show and I think we come up with all these amazing ideas. Like we've been talking a lot with different indigenous communities and Latinx communities about Three Sisters or “milpas” gardens, which are corn, beans and squash. And so the team's been like, “Yeah, let's have a milpas garden of Three Sisters’ garden: corn, beans and squash!” And then we're like, “Hmm, we're on a pier in a place where there's no sun for three months.” So anyway, that sounds a little boring but honestly the biggest challenge for curating life sciences is keeping living things alive.
But there is actually probably another important challenge and that is a lot of the interesting things about biology are too small or too large to see, right? So of course, they're interesting things when you're looking at a tree or a human being or, you know, anything, a snail, right? You can find something interesting about living things, but a lot of the really cool insights and a lot of the really interesting current research is beyond what we can see. So I think a real challenge for me as a curator is helping bring people to those other scales. How do I bring them to the too small, how do I bring them to the too large, right? Like the global scale, the planetary scale. And our team thinks about that a lot and works on that. A lot of like, “how do we help people traverse the scales of biology?” Because biology is not just what you're seeing out your window. Biology's happening - happening at the molecular scale, the atomic scale, the planetary scale, and how do we help people traverse these scales of experience to understand that life is not just what you see around you, but all these other unseeable realms.
I feel like you just blew my mind going from small to big. It's unfathomable.
That’s the coolest part. I have so many great examples where anything you're experiencing right now is happening at the atomic scale and very likely influenced by the planetary scale. And that always blows my mind. It's so cool.
Wow. What advice would you give to anyone who's looking to follow in your footsteps?
Well, I guess if I think of my footsteps more broadly as sharing, you could say I'm a science curator. And what would you do to follow in the steps to become a scientific curator? I might broaden that because there may not be that many roles specifically to curate in a science museum. So I'd broaden it to be, how do you share your love of science or things about science that you find really interesting? And that can then broaden to anyone who understands science or has some science background: how do you share your love of science? I guess my advice would be to think about what inspires you and share it with others. And you can start small, right? I mean, it might be that you're curating your own social media feed and picking images or movies or stories that you think are really interesting.
If you're trying to share your love or curiosity or knowledge of science, you can also be doing it at Thanksgiving dinner or on the sideline of a soccer field with the other parents sitting next to you. I think we have really formalized curation. You know, we think, “Oh, being a curator, it means taking 15 years apprenticing and ending up at a big museum in a big city.” I actually like to think of science communication and science curation as something that anyone with some science background could do. And I actually think it's really important for us to shift our mindset toward that. I think what we've seen in the last few years is that science has actually become very polarized. For a long time I think it seemed like everyone thought of science as being for them and there wasn't a lot of political or polarization. And I think what’s started to happen -and I think we've especially seen this with COVID around masks and even vaccines- there's almost this thinking that science is only for certain kinds of people and that, you know, science isn't for me, or I don't want to listen to science.
I think what's really important is that anyone who understands science or loves science, shares with their community and that doesn't mean foisting science on someone. But you know, if you're at your Thanksgiving dinner, you can talk about what you were doing in lab or the article you just read and what's interesting about it to you. Or if you have a friend that is nervous about the vaccine, you don't have to foist your opinion on them or judge them, but you know, maybe say, “Hey, what are you worried about?” Or “how can I help you with that?” Or “what questions do you have?”
I think we need to shift thinking of people who are science communicators or science curators from being, you know, the anointed few to being almost like this giant web of science enthusiasts, because I think that's what our country and our world really needs right now. We need people who are sharing their love of the natural world, showing people how to be curious, showing people how to be skeptical about information, showing that science is here every day, all the time. And it is not just for a liberal Democrat or someone who has a PhD. It really is something that benefits all of us and can help us appreciate, understand and interrogate our world more. And it's a process for any human. So to me, I guess it's less about a career path and more about opening everyone up who loves science or knows about science to share it and make it seem like it's more a part of our everyday lives.
I think that's a great note to start to wrap-up on. But before we go, I want to end each of these interviews with a little speed round, since we're all curators.
I'd love to know what you're reading, watching, or listening to that's made your career or your personal richer or more fun. You mentioned the “Ology” podcast earlier. What else like that is on your “Must” list? And I definitely want you to touch on places in nature that you recommend people go to get inspired.
Well, these are great questions. I would highly recommend to anyone who's interested in science, nature and inclusion to read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmer. We read it for our Plants group and Dr. Wall Kimmer is a plant scientist but she is also indigenous. And so to me, it's a really incredible book where she talks a lot about plant science. I mean, how plants work and chloroplasts and all the science-y words you might remember from eighth grade. And she talks about science, you know, science with a capital S, in a lab as a way of knowing. But she also really beautifully weaves in what are indigenous ways of knowing about the natural world. How can we make space for other ways of knowing? How she as a woman and indigenous person was treated initially upon coming into science and it's beautifully written. So that book really helped open my mind to how I thought about science and also how people are treated in science. And so I highly recommend that to anyone who is interested in the natural world, or thinking more about inclusive design and including ways of knowing.
It's been a little bit hard during COVID but art installations are definitely something that I still really try to participate in or look at. And so some artists that I follow -these tend to be people who work on really large scales because I'm often trying to think of environments — but Olafur Eliasson is an incredible large-scale artist. I'm guessing most people have heard of, but he does a lot and he has a show right now called “Life”. He does a lot of things about climate change. He often uses a lot of natural elements. So I study, I follow him on Instagram or virtually right now because of COVID. I try to visit a lot of the shows he and his team have created because I find that the ideas they share, what they look to and they also have really interesting large experiences. So that's someone I've been following lately, especially because there have been some things he's done about plants.
I think places in nature, that's hard because I don't know where the listeners might be living. I actually get -this is something I didn't mention as a source of inspiration- but I'll be honest, I actually love National Park Visitor Centers. Or really, honestly, any kind of Visitor Center. I know that sounds like, “what are you talking about?” But I love that sometimes they can just be plopped down in the middle of nowhere. Like you're driving around in the desert in the middle of nowhere and there's all these boulders and palm trees or whatever. Let's say, you're at Joshua Tree and there's this little outpost at almost every National Park Visitor Center. It's like they remind you, you're just a speck of dust and that 50 million years ago, this used to be an ocean. And now you're in a desert. There's something about those visitor centers? I mean, often they have like one ranger, they probably had like $20,000 to pull this whole thing together. But I sort of love that they're reminding you of these almost meta qualities of life. Like the only thing constant is change. Like all of life is going to change so just go with the flow. There are people here who lived here before you, I mean, they kind of combine these elements. I don't know what I love about them, but I feel like they do a really good job of just putting it all in perspective. Like, “Hey, you're just here at this little blip in time and here's what you're seeing now.” And they combine geology, biology - they have all kinds of different sciences. So I don't know why, maybe it's just me.
I know people have different feelings about National Parks right now and whether the land maybe should be given back to indigenous communities and lots of other aspects, but I love National Parks and I love National Park Visitors Centers. So that means that any listener who's out there in the United States, there probably is a National Park somewhere near you. And I love that no matter where it is and what the topic is, they can kind of find a way to get you grounded on your scale in the universe and all the different little biological facets of that piece of land.
That's so great. You've definitely given me a new appreciation for Visitor Centers. Well Jen, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time and let's go dancing soon!
Yeah, I'm sure we can do like a science playlist. Like, “She Blinded Me With Science” or I'm not sure that's my favorite dancing song, but maybe we can find some kind of science playlist. We could ask D-Nice to make a science playlist. He's actually someone who always, really inspires me with his energy and enthusiasm. So maybe we can have like a big, giant science dance event. I think that’s probably a far reach, but it would be a lot of fun.
If you want to connect with Jennifer Frazier, you can connect with her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/frazierarchive - that’s f-r-a-z-i-e-r-a-r-c-h-i-v-e.
Thank you to Rosana Caban for editing.
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