Written by Cameron Walker
Wilson College of Textiles doctoral candidate Mira Abed spent the summer in the hectic newsroom of the Los Angeles Times. She penned nine articles for the paper as part of a 10 week fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a multidisciplinary non-profit whose mission is to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.”
“The first week was like trying to drink water from a fire hose,” said Abed. “Sheer intimidation. I’m there in the Metro section of the LA Times, with Pulitzer Prize winners all around me. One guy over here is conducting an interview with a gunshot victim, this person here is talking about earthquakes in Japan. There were so many things going on all around me and I was surrounded by excellent reporters — and it was all so intimidating.”
But she quickly found her footing as a journalist, tackling topics such as American attitudes on gene editing, discussing climate change with skeptics, the future of biodiesel, and the discovery of the “friendliness gene” in dogs. Abed has a rare gift: the ability to compress complex ideas into headlines, to distill scientific research to its essence and communicate it to the public in an engaging way.
Her favorite article, which quickly became popular online, covered recent research comparing the DNA of ancient Canaanite people to that of modern Lebanese from three different religious groups. She wanted to write the piece because of her own Lebanese heritage — and because she knew the cultural implications of the research.
“There are a lot of sectarian divides in Lebanon,” she said. “Whenever I go back, my family members will say that we are Phoenician, because we’re Christian, and many Muslims will say they are Arab. The (different) narratives are almost used as an excuse for the sectarian divides — like, ‘We’re already divided so let’s come up with different histories.’ But it turns out, the different religious groups all had the same genetic overlap.” She is hopeful that research like this will form a bridge between peoples by highlighting their shared history.
Abed was just eight years old when she visited her father’s home country of Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country bordered by Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, for the first time. She was captivated by sites like the ancient city of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
“When I go to historical places, my imagination runs wild,” she said. “I imagine what it would have been like to live in those days — what people would have been wearing, what life would have been like, what things would have been done differently. There’s a sense of quiet in my soul when I’m in places like that, a deep-seated awe that I can’t quite put into words.”
Abed, who speaks some Arabic and can read and write in Korean, has circled the globe, touring Europe, studying abroad in Egypt (on the precipice of the Arab Spring), teaching math and science for a year in Incheon, South Korea, and traveling solo in Thailand and Taiwan. She believes her travels and teaching experience have strengthened her ability to communicate difficult and challenging topics.
“Growing up in a cross-cultural family made me very aware of the differences in how people communicate and what people value and focus on,” she said. “That was especially enhanced while I was tutoring…I learned to be sensitive to if someone was having a lightbulb moment or if they were still confused, and found new ways to explain things. With teaching, I learned to do that on a larger scale — when you have 24 little faces staring at you, you learn to explain things in multiple ways.”
She found that figuring out different ways to communicate material to her students helped her better comprehend a concept as well.
“You do have to understand a topic from multiple angles, rather than just the way it clicked into your brain the first time. It does give you more ownership of that material,” she said. Writing about science for her fellowship at the newspaper challenged her in the same way.
Abed applied for the AAAS fellowship after hearing about it at ComSciCon-Triangle, a science communication workshop for STEM graduate students — even though she thought it was a long shot. She was accepted and her fellowship was sponsored by the Heising-Simons Foundation, a California-based foundation working toward solutions in climate and clean energy, science, education and human rights, and she was then assigned to the LA Times.
She stayed with her sister through the summer, and it was in her apartment that Abed conducted her first interview.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “He was in the Netherlands and I ended up Skyping him before I even went into the office that morning — mostly because of the time difference, but I think a part of me was very happy to do it from the comfort of my own home without judging ears around me. Of course, now I know that no one would have been judging me.”
Abed believes that her summer spent interviewing scientists about their research has in turn made her a better scholar.
“Learning good reporting and good journalism has made me not afraid of asking questions,” she said. “In academia sometimes, you can be a little afraid of showing your ignorance by asking a question, but as a reporter you can’t be shy. You just have to ask.”
She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science, researching dye-sensitized solar cells under the direction of Dr. Ahmed El-Shafei, professor in the Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science department. These solar cells make up only a small share of the market, but can pick up more diffuse light than the traditional silicon solar cells; they can also be incorporated into more places, such as windows. The thrust of her research is to develop an alternative to dyes based on rare and expensive ruthenium frequently used in these dye-sensitized solar cells.
“I always was fascinated by science,” she said. “Chemistry was one of my favorite classes — I was always captivated by it. I loved sitting in science classes and soaking in all of this new knowledge. I really missed that and I thought, ‘If I can do that and am good at it and love it so much, maybe I should be doing that.’ And I was in the perfect place to study color and the chemistry of color.”
She is currently an intern with the College of Sciences’ Office of Public Science, a position she has held for the past 18 months.
“Our goal is to connect people with science and scientists,” she said. “We do this in a number of ways; (we hold) events like the State of the Sciences (held this year at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library) and the brickyard Eclipse Celebration, we design exhibits, like the Research Image Contest displays for the Hunt Library Commons Wall (see examples from 2016 and 2017), we host workshops for scientists to help them better communicate their research with the public, and help coordinate citizen science projects like the Wolfpack Citizen Science Challenge.
“I’m definitely interested in the interface between science and society,” she said. “I don’t think we need just blind advocates for science — I think we need critical consumers of science. We need people to understand the value of science. We are surrounded by technology that science has given us; a lot of people appreciate that, but I don’t think that a lot of people understand the scientific process.”
Abed wants to help increase critical consumption of science, which means starting with the way science is taught in schools.
“When you’re in school, the science you learn is so different from the science that actually goes on every day,” she said. “You learn things when there is a right and a wrong answer, the teacher knows that answer and you either remember it or you don’t. But science in the real world is all about what you don’t know. It’s developing the skills to ask interesting questions and designing an experiment that will actually give you conclusive evidence for the question you’re trying to answer.”
As she approaches graduation, Abed’s plans are not set in stone. She is considering roles in science communication and public engagement, at think tanks and nonprofits — even politics.
“My passion right now is answering the question: how do we bring science and society into a better working relationship where we understand each other more and we can work together for the common good?”