Margot Wohl How science and art reveals our humanness TEDxSanDiego 2018
I’m 10-years-old. It’s 2:00 AM on a winter’s night and I’m wrapped in a blanket with my mom and my dad, as we watch green tinted bursts of light stream across the night sky. My toes are freezing, but I don’t want to go back inside.
Around the same time, I’m gifted a microscope. Immediately, I walk down to a pond and scoop up some water and look at it. As I watched small, tiny hydrozoa and protozoa swimming around. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what they were called at the time, but I am captivated nonetheless. There were so many things to observe and learn about, big and small. Science had a hold on me.
Ten years later, I’m in Germany on a fellowship when I hear something I’ve never heard before; a podcast. I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s the power of the storytelling, the way that I feel so deeply connected to a human that I’ve never seen and that I’ve never met before.
The night sky, the pond water, the podcast, all of them gave me very similar feelings. They were all filled with awe. All of them felt like revelations, and all of them made me feel intensely human, intensely alive.
In middle school we learned about the so-called renaissance man, these larger than life figures that did it all, like da Vinci. I like to think that growing up my pursuit to try many different things was my attempt to be a renaissance woman. I tried a lot of different things; jewelry making, beer brewing, movie directing, actress, radio DJ. My DJ name was Silent T, because my name is Mar-go, not Mar-got.
To be honest, I was pretty mediocre at all of these things that I did, except for school. That was what I was good at. I wanted to stay in school as long as possible. As I went through school, from high school to college, and then from college to graduate school, I was continuously asked to specialize.
From science to biology, from biology to neuroscience, and from neuroscience, finally to the much more specific field that I’m in now.
Cut to graduate school. I decided to go to the University of California, San Diego, and so I have to make it all the way from the east coast, Philadelphia, to my new home in San Diego. I convinced my two best friends and my boyfriend to go on an epic road trip across the country.
One of these friends suggests that we make a radio show, a prerecorded radio show for each other that we can play sometime along the many long drives that we have ahead of us. I’m totally game, which makes the next week, the week before and leaving, really hectic because I’m packing up eight years of my life in Philadelphia while mixing together a radio show that starts out themed as a road trip radio show, but somehow we end up on a planet outside the solar system and we have to deal with the intelligent life that’s there.
A couple of days into the trip, we are driving, we finally make it to one of those flat states, and we start playing our radio shows for each other. I am grinning ear to ear. Each story, each radio show is so unique, so funny, such a perfect encapsulation of the person that made it, something I’ll be able to revisit forever. For me, it was the first time that I had ever mixed together sound and music and storytelling, and that was so much fun.
Sadly, this was the last creative endeavor before I started graduate school. As many can attest, graduate school is thrilling and it’s pretty intense. I start spending late nights and weekends in the lab just trying to get that last bit of data before a presentation or before a meeting. I study aggressive behaviors in fruit flies, so not only are they annoying to you guys, they’re also really annoying to each other.
I’m spending time in the lab collecting flies, watching their behaviors, computer coding, imaging their brains, and I start to listen to a lot of podcasts during these times, to the point where you’ll almost never see me without headphones wrapped around my neck or in my ears. I made an exception for it today.
I’m listening to podcasts that are inspiring and creative, ones about science, like Radiolab, that put the awe in science, first-person storytelling podcasts like Story Collider. While they’re a joy to listen to, they’re also this reminder of how I’m starting to feel this really big lack of creativity in my own life.
Sure, science is a very creative endeavor, but it doesn’t give you that day to day feeling of, “I’m putting all of myself into it.” Around the same time when I’m listening to science media, I’m starting to realize that a lot of the things that we hear about in science media are the breakthroughs, which is great, but that’s not the science stories that I was seeing around me. More often than not, I was seeing the missteps, the small steps, the hypothesis revisions, the human stories, the people that are doing the science and how they got there.
And so, an idea starts bubbling like a flask of green liquid in a stock photo image. What if I create a podcast? What if I create a podcast about the humans behind the science? At first, this is a really scary thought, because I had never made a podcast before and I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t know how to do it. To overcome this nagging feeling of self-doubt, I knew that I only had one choice, and that was make myself accountable by telling people.
First I told my close friends, then mere acquaintances, and finally I reached out to the communications people at the Salk Institute. They said, “We’ll let you borrow some equipment and come back to us with a product. If we like it, maybe we’ll promote it.” This was not a definite yes, because we both knew that I had never made a podcast before. They were taking a chance and now I was on the hook.
I wanted to profile a scientist, and I chose someone that I knew. In fact, someone that was right down the hall from me. An amazing post-doc named Elena Blanco. She was a great guinea pig. She let me go into her apartment and fumble with the equipment. There was a lot of things to consider, which wires go where, how are my levels, can I hear that dog barking in the background.
At the end of the interview I had 90 minutes of an amazing conversation with this woman who told me about her love affair with California, how she wants to be in an all-girl punk band, and also about her research about glial, or as she called them ‘the security guards of our brain.’
Now I have 90 minutes and I want to make it into this short, punchy, fun sounding audio feast for your ears that sounds like all my favorite podcasts, and I want to do it on the first try. I spend a lot of time editing, re-editing, listening, cringing, and re-editing for six whole months, for a whopping five minutes of audio that I am finally ready to let someone listen to.
I give it to the people at the Salk Institute and say, “What do you think?” And they said, “We’ll promote it. We’ll put it on a website.” That was it. It was that easy. I had a podcast and its name was Salk Talk. Pretty creative.
This podcast I made three episodes for before I heard about a contest. My golden ticket. It was a call for local audio or video content from my local NPR affiliate in San Diego, KPBS. As many people might know, public radio is the pantheon of audio storytelling, so a chance to have something that I made a distributed by public radio was really exciting. It kind of seemed like a far leap at the time, considering I’d made about 20 minutes of audio, but I applied nonetheless.
As I made it from the first round to the second round, I was pitching them. I had to go in front of them and say, “Here is what I’m pitching. It’s a show called Rad Scientist, and I am going to profile the scientists of San Diego. I’m going to let you know about their quirks, what they’re into, their passion, how they got where they are, and what they think about the future.”
It’s a late night in the lab and I’m imaging fly brains, as you do, when I feel my phone buzz. I think it must be my mom, she’s the only one that calls me at that hour, but I see that the numbers is unknown, so I step outside. It’s the station saying that I had won and that I was going to be able to make a podcast for them. So, I do a little dance and then I go back into the lab.
The excitement that I feel really quickly turns into fear, because I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to have time to do this and also have time for my specialization, for my science career. Did I have time to fit in this piece of science communication and at the time my creative expression? But, I said yes, because I wasn’t going to turn something like that down.
Those late nights and those weekends would have to be podcast time. It was on. I wanted to go about and find awesome scientists in San Diego. That was not hard, because San Diego is teaming with them. I went up to Mount Laguna, where I met a guy named Robert Quimby.
He is the director of the observatory up there. He told me about the time where he had to decide between staying in the band The Reel Big Fish or going on to pursue his astronomy career. He also told me about the one time that he found the brightest supernova known to man, which is kind of crazy.
Also, I got him to give me a weather report from the surface of a supernova.
The weather today is going to be hot. It’s going to be around 10,000 degrees with strong winds between 10,000 and 30,000 kilometers per second, and we’re just going to be a strong chance of neutrinos coming down us. You’re going to probably get a few hundred trillion every microsecond or so.
Back to you, Margot.
Thanks for that, Robert.
I also got to meet a woman named Cammie Collins, who works at General Atomics. She was very pregnant at the time and I’m happy to say that she has a beautiful little boy. She told me about how she knew she wanted to be a nuclear physicist since like 10-years-old. Also, about how she built a hovercraft when she was a kid. This is her talking about her love of physics.
I’m a physicist around the clock. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Maybe if I opened up a dog resort with puppies and stuff.
That’s a hard choice.
Also, I got to meet a woman right here at the Salk Institute who studies plants. Not only that, she talks to her plants, asking them questions and telling them about how special she thinks they are.
I just think you guys are the ultimate introverts. You keep all the secrets to yourselves and only the most curious human beings can probably uncover a small part of your secrets.
That one always gets me.
Meeting these scientists was incredible. It was amazing. Getting to tell their stories made me realize that I was part of this larger group of a community of people that were all just really curious about the world, that all just wanted to learn something new.
It actually kind of translated into more excitement for my own project. Sometimes you can get really stuck in the specifics, and it’s good to be able to take a step back and to look at things from the perspective of, how cool is it that we get to ask questions and answer them with the scientific method?
There was another thing that was really cool for me about the podcast, that was really fun, and that was the editing. Every cut, every music choice, every pun was a feeling of self-expression and joy so great that I would have describe it with the following sound clip.
There was another thing that I learned from the podcast. Maybe it’s okay to want to be a renaissance person. Maybe it’s okay to try different things until you find the right thing. Perhaps being mediocre at a lot of things can make you good at something that you’ve never even tried yet, that you never expected.
For me that was the movie classes I took in college that taught me how to edit things together, the acting that made talking in front of audiences slightly less frightening, and, most importantly, the science education that made me realize that being curious about the world and asking questions is just about the coolest thing about being a human.
That’s what science is. That’s what storytelling is. That’s what art is. It’s a way to be curious, a way to create new things, a way to revel in our humanness.