Natural Selections interviews Jeanne Garbarino, Director of Science Outreach

by Christina Pyrgaki

I met with Jeanne Garbarino, the newly appointed Director of Science Outreach, the day after the very successful RU holiday party, in her newly renovated office on the fourth floor of Nurse’s Residence. The space radiates science, with flasks decorating the shelves of the bookcases and images of cells scattered on Jeanne’s desk—those images she told me will be used to decorate the walls of her office. Jeanne was her usual personable and enthusiastic self, albeit ready for the well-deserved upcoming holiday break. No wonder she needs a break; this past year has been a busy one for the always-on-the-move mom/scientist/science communicator.

Credit: Sourabh Banerjee

After she completed her five-year postdoc in Dr. Breslow’s lab last November, Jeanne succeeded Ted Scovell as the Director of Science Outreach. In addition to her new duties, she continues her science communication activities, published two papers resulting from her postdoc work, and is working to revive The Incubator, a Rockefeller community blog. She also continues her work as the biology editor for Double X Science, an exceptional blog that brings evidence-based science stories to the public, which is not only for women in science, but also for women into science. Jeanne talked to Natural Selections about her new position, the revival of The Incubator, and more.

Before discussing Jeanne’s new position as Director of Science Outreach, I asked her to talk to me about something that is not very often discussed when people leave a bench-science position for a position that does not involve any actual experimental research: how does it feel to move away from the bench? Though happy to answer the question, she pointed out that her situation was rather unique. Her postdoc in Dr. Breslow’s lab obviously involved a lot of bench work, but also allowed her to get heavily involved in campus life. She started writing for Natural Selections in her second year at RU, and, the same year, she co-founded The Incubator. She was also involved in the Biotech Forum for a little while, as well as the organization SpotOn, formerly known as Science Online NYC (SONYC)—the original name had to be changed because it was recently copyrighted by another group.“

As a postdoc I was already doing most of the things I am doing now, so my transition from the bench to my current position was seamless,” Jeanne told me. “The difference is that as a postdoc, I had to do all these when I could find the time and after my bench work was done; now I can do them full time.” In terms of her postdoctoral work, Jeanne says that she was in one of those rare situations that could be considered a good stopping point. “My project was nearly completed when I was informed that this position was available. I wrote two papers; one of them is already published and the other is in review now, and I felt I concluded my work and I could move on. It was the perfect stopping point,” she told me. “That never happens,” she added, laughing. But she has not yet come to grips with the fact that she doesn’t work at the bench anymore: “I have not cleaned up my bench and I still have cells in the freezer” she admits, and adds, “I have not officially said goodbye.” By her own admission, she loves the bench, but it so happens that she loves the outreach program a little more. The outreach program will give Jeanne the opportunity to be at the bench again, alongside the high school students who will come to Rockefeller University through the program for the summer. She will pipette samples, run gels, and image cells, and that way, in her own words, she will get her “fix.” When I asked her to tell me more about the Science Outreach program, a new wave of enthusiasm colored her voice. “I took over from a very, very, very skilled and committed person, Tedd Scovell, who had really cool initiatives in place and had revamped the outreach program,” she told me. “The primary function of the outreach program is to coordinate the recruitment of high school students to The Rockefeller University for a seven-week internship, during which they conduct biomedical research in state-of-the-art laboratories, get mentorship, follow coursework, both on science and science communication, and learn that scientific research is important and that it is fun! I want to encourage a full immersion into the culture of biomedical research.” Even though that is the primary function of the outreach program, Jeanne is planning to use her science communications background and the contacts she has made in the past, while working on a number of science communication initiatives, to put in place more outreach initiatives throughout the course of the year, and not only during the summer. She is working on organizing workshops for teachers to help improve science teaching in the classroom by making it more interactive and fun for the kids. She also plans to spend a significant portion of her time creating opportunities that will help students and postdocs on campus enhance their CVs by acquiring teaching experience or science communication experience. Working to revive The Incubator, which Jeanne started with Joe Luna and Jessica Wright, is an example of one such opportunity, and it is part of Jeanne’s effort to get the RU community involved in the process of communicating science not only among themselves, but with a broader audience. “The idea of the blog was born over a Natural Selections holiday lunch in 2009,” Jeanne remembers. “Joe and Jessica hopped on board right away and with a little help from Jeff Smith, a computer wiz working in the Darnell lab at the time, we had the blog up and running in no time.” For Jeanne that blog was the beginning of her own blog-writing adventures. “The Incubator was a very valuable experience. It gave me more exposure to the process of blogging,” she told me. “Shortly after The Incubator I started my own blog (The Mother Geek), I started writing elsewhere as a guest blogger, and I became the biology editor for Double X Science.” As each one of the co-founders of The Incubator ventured out to do different things, however, the blog went dormant. It’s only now that Jeanne decided to revive it. “Based on my own experience and remembering how useful and fun it was for me to write for The Incubator, I thought that it would be great if students, postdocs, technicians, PIs, whoever wants to talk about science in a way that is accessible to a broad audience, had an opportunity to do so,” she told me. “The Incubator would be a great place for members of the community to share their thoughts and practice their writing and communication skills. The more you write, the better you become at it; the more you communicate, the better you become at it.” The Incubator is also going to serve as a way for researchers to share exciting research with the world. But the blog is not going to be only about sharing scientific results. It is also going to be a place of intellectual interaction. Jeanne believes strongly that the more you share your ideas and interests, the more likely you are to cross paths with someone with similar ideas and interests, so The Incubator is expected to instigate collaborations and alliances within and outside of science. The blog will host information, thoughts, opinions on things as diverse as science and art, science and policy, science and parenting (a subject close to Jeanne’s heart), and the science of how something works or why the natural world looks the way it does. When I asked Jeanne where she sees The Incubator a year from now, she expressed the wish to have it up and running with something fresh and interesting three times a week. “The bar is not set too high. I am not expecting to become boing boing’s top ten blogs or something,” she said laughing. “It has the potential to be something very important for our community and I want it to serve our community as well as possible.” Given her track record, however, I personally would not be surprised if The Incubator doesbecome bigger than expected. Jeanne has the kind of passion for science communication that becomes contagious and I foresee that this passion will boost the blogmuch higher than the bar was set.

Jeanne, as she put it, has a significant amount of love for RU and she is immensely proud to be a part of its community. It is that passion and pride that fuels her tireless work to improve and serve the Rockefeller community, and hardly contain her enthusiasm while doing so! It remains to be seen what else our new Director for Science Outreach has in stock for us, but it takes just one look at Jeanne’s mischievous smile to see that what she has done thus far is just the beginning.

February 2013