Leah Elson is a clinical development scientist in the biotechnology industry – she specializes in peripheral nerve repair and regeneration. She has studied at Harvard University, The Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Southern California. Leah’s 15-year career in medical research includes oncology, orthopedics, and novel intraoperative technology, which has yielded over 90 indexed publications. She is also accomplished science writer and communicator, and one of her many hobbies is also geology. She wrote a book There Are (No) Stupid Questions..in Science. And Leah now gave an interview to Science speaks website.

So, first the ice-breaker: you have a beautiful tattoo that actually consists of a series of details from science. Can you tell us more about those parts of the tattoo and what they mean and what they mean to you?

Leah Elson: While my scientific career has been in medical research, I’ve always had a deep appreciation for all science. The tattoo is meant to reflect that admiration by paying homage to major scientific focuses, including biology, chemistry, physics, human medicine, and astronomy. The tattoo imagery is a continuous piece showing neurons, a bacteriophage, an astronaut, chemistry glassware, a Victorian era microscope, bubble chamber patterns, and the warpage of spacetime.

Leah Elson

And now I hit straight to the head. You are a scientist and you have a rich CV behind you. But at the same time, you are an accomplished science writer and a science communicator. What made you start dealing with science communication? 

Leah Elson: Science communication arose organically — it wasn’t something I had directly aspired to do, nor was it something I knew existed as a labeled career! For me, it began by filming experiments, on Facebook Live, for the amusement of my family and friends. After a couple of months, my friends began to encourage me to take my science education to a public platform where it could be shared more widely. So, I created an Instagram page (@gnarlybygnature) and began short, unscripted science lectures. I never imagined that anything would come from those humble posts, but my audience steadily grew. Soon, I began to see the unmet need for easy-to-understand, engaging science. From that point forward, I became a liaison between science and the public, trying to extend my reach through countless videos, podcasts, and a book.

How important is public understanding of science and communication of science for the world, for democracy, for the stability of our civilization? 

Leah Elson: We currently live in the era of Science and Technology. Unfortunately, public scientific literacy has become a thing of privilege. But math and science are for everyone – it is the universal language which describes the world in which we all live and the bodies that we inhabit. I have always believed that the objectivity and wonder of science serve as a grand social equalizer, bringing us closer together, as a species, by uncovering how similar, (and how fragile) we all are.

What are we doing wrong and what can be done better when it comes to communicating science and scientific research? How do disinformation tactics fill the internet sooner and more? 

Leah: Today, scientists and researchers are typically hyper-specialized in their focuses – we study the methylation of obscure genes, or discrete radiofrequencies from far corners of the observable universe. But, it’s important to realize that the vast majority of the public has a very cursory (if any) understanding of basic scientific principles. To make science relatable, we — as experts — have to guide the public through our stories, humbly and openly, helping to inspire awe in the basics. It is the civic duty of scientists to be liaisons to our respective fields, not gatekeepers. Unfortunately, we are fighting against the tides of pseudoscience and misinformation, which are spread rapidly through social media conduits. There are far more misinformed voices in the ether than experts — I also encourage my colleagues to be vocal online to combat this asymmetry.

What do you consider to be good science communication strategies? And how important “packaging” is – communication format, design and even the very appearance of the communicator? 

Leah: This will be my 7th year as a science communicator and the strategies that have worked best for me are predicated on rapid information delivery. Most of my videos are 60-90 seconds in length, and cover topics which are selected by the public directly – I maintain engagement by teaching them exactly what they want to learn. Obviously, production quality helps – good lighting, etc.

What prompted you to go into a STEM career? Can you remember when you became interested in science? When someone is so passionately in love with science, it usually turns out that this love and interest was born in childhood? 

Leah: Oh, yes – I’ve ALWAYS loved science. The interesting part about my background is that there were no other scientists in my family. So, I suppose you could say that I was an anomaly. Since childhood, I was fascinated by the world: rocks, dinosaurs, space, insects, plants, the human body — I wanted to know about it all! When I was in college, my father was diagnosed with cancer and that steered me aggressively into the human medicine side of science, and that is where I have spent my scientific career. But! The beauty of being a science communicator is that it forces me to be a generalist and stay informed in most major focuses. So, I get the best of both worlds – I get to specialize in my day job, and branch out as a science communicator.

We still have a problem with the position of women in the scientific community. There are not enough of them in high positions and some branches of science are still considered “masculine”. There are women in science and there are certainly girls who want to be in STEM, but the higher the level, the fewer women there are. How to help girls to become interested in natural sciences and how to help them not to give up at higher levels, after the doctorate?

Leah: In my opinion, the best thing that women in science can do for the next generation is to be visible. When I was a child, if you had asked me to draw a scientist, I would have drawn an older white man in a coat — I simply wasn’t exposed to women in STEM. I think the adage “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” is absolutely true. And it stands for all underrepresented minorities in this field. I’m encouraged by the use of social media because I’ve seen an influx of increasingly more diverse scientists over the last few years.

Scientific consensus… it seems to me that the public doesn’t really understand what it is. When we say that 97% and more scientists believe that climate change is real and caused by anthropogenic factors or that vaccines are the most effective and safest means of fighting against several vicious diseases, people don’t see that 97%, they see the 1-3% or less that say the opposite. How would you communicate that – what is academic consensus? 

Leah: I always begin by explaining that science is not dogma — it is the grand repository of human knowledge that is meant to build upon itself, challenge itself, and refute its own claims, all in the pursuit of objective truth. Because scientific research is conducted with different methodologies, different primary outcomes, different metrics, and different null hypotheses, it is also going to have different biases, different limitations, and may have slightly different conclusions as a result. So, when consistent findings continue to be found — in face of the many nuances implicit in conducting research – it means something powerful. These consensus statements are vitally important and help us to shape everything from how we understand the beginnings of our universe, to which treatment modalities are best to address aggressive cancers.

Leah Elson

Unfortunately, there are also experts who spread misinformation. And then we come to the long-standing question. If, according to the pyramid of evidence, the expert’s opinion is the lowest level of new evidence, and placebo randomized studies and meta studies are the highest, and at the same time, a large percentage of people do not know how to understand and read these highest levels of evidence, but the expert’s opinion remains the most important for them – how to trust experts? You understand what I’m saying – at the same time we are sending a message that you should trust the experts, and that you shouldn’t trust them because the argument of authority and plus there are experts like some Nobel laureates (I’m thinking of Pauling and Montagnier above all) who the public perceives as authorities, and who spread misinformation. How to help people to know who to trust and who not to? 

Leah Elson: In the age of social media and an ease of access to the opinions of individuals, it makes the spread of misinformation prolific. I think that the best solution to this new phenomenon is to arm the public with the power of scientific discernment. It can be easy to be swayed in subject matter that you don’t have a good grasp in. And while it would be impossible to teach the public about science in totality, what we — as experts — can do is to teach the public how to cross-check information, or how to identify claims that may be false or unproven, versus those that are. I always urge the public to not rely on headlines or news stories — these organizations stand to gain advertising money by driving traffic to their articles with inflammatory titles and embellished data. Instead, if you see a claim and would like to understand its validity, you can check government websites, academic articles, or search on PubMed to see if you can locate the results of studies related to the claim in-question.

What do you think are the most dangerous misinformation?

Leah Elson: The first piece of misinformation that comes to mind is that vaccines cause autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This claim is typically predicated on a single publication that actually no longer exists. In 1998, a researcher named “Andrew Wakefield” published a study which seemed to demonstrate that the MMR vaccine caused ASD. Multiple independent studies from epidemiologists were able to refute the claim fairly quickly (which was predicated on very very limited data), the scientific paper was completely retracted, and Andrew Wakefield had his license revoked for intentional fraud for suspected financial gain. But, interestingly, people still cite his work, despite his academic shame and fraudulent data creation.

While not imminently dangerous to human health, the recent resurgence of Flat Earth Theory is dangerous for its further reaching implications. The popularity of de-intellectualism – exemplified by the rejection of longstanding, accepted scientific principles — is dangerous in a voting population in the modern era. Much of the important, global issues which plague the planet today require an astute voter — problems related to clean water initiatives, renewable energy, preventative health measures, and the list goes on. With a population that rejects empirical evidence, it makes it difficult to move forward productively and safely as a species.

 How can we strengthen the public’s trust in science? 

Leah Elson: Today, it’s the civic duty of scientists to make science relatable; we need to bring the public into our world and show them the beauty, the wonder, and the exciting discoveries in the universe around them. There is fear in the unknown, but scientists can – and should be – liaisons to their research interests, peeling back those unknown layers.

And one question for the end: we all love your make up and your skin is looking OMG. What is your beauty routine?

Leah Elson: Hahaha! You flatter me. I think many people are ultimately surprised by the simplicity. I wash my face twice per day with a cheap Neutrogena clear bar. In the morning, I moisturize with drugstore CeraVe moisturizing cream and Cetaphil spf15, along with the Belif Aqua Bomb Eye Cream. I’m 38 years old, so at night I use the highly clinically efficacious/tried-and-true retinol (0.05% tretinoin) and a hydroquinone as a base before I slather on more CeraVe moisturizing cream and Belif Aqua Bomb.