I used to think that I just ended up doing science communication by accident. I decided to learn HTML and CSS as a teenager because a teacher told me coding wasn’t for girls. I taught myself how to do it out of spite and then just kept at it, honing my skills, eventually adding graphic design and digital art programs to my self-taught repertoire. I’d always been an artist while growing up and when I got a drawing tablet for my birthday, I felt alive in a way I never had before.
While I was coding and making art all the time during college, I was also there to study Criminology, focusing on gender, race and justice and various aspects of policing, including racial profiling during traffic stops and other interactions with law enforcement.
My time had been spent analyzing data, creating data visualizations of crime statistics and collecting data while working as a research assistant for researchers at the Institute on Race & Justice and the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research. They learned I could design websites and so part of my job was also to design and build a website that listed out all the legislation and litigation around racial profiling by law enforcement in the United States. While I was mostly hired as a research assistant, the fact that I could code meant the work I was able to do to communicate the research was that much more essential and rewarding, too.
I’d been trained to think approach data like a scientist in college, but when it came to what I would do after college, I wasn’t sure. I’d applied to a bunch of different law schools and gotten in, but my heart wasn’t in it and I decided to defer and take the summer to figure out what t do.
I worked at a summer camp, as a climbing instructor, teaching rock climbing to campers and leading them on wilderness trips in the Adirondacks. I found my footing and my voice as a leader and problem solver, plus I remembered what it was to love to teach and bring others into knowledge of their own and it shifted something in me and reoriented me to how I wanted to approach the world in the future.
With a background of computers, crime and climbing, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I knew I was creative and I had experience teaching, though, so I got that job at the craft studio. Things were great until that swiftly fell out from under me when it went out of business.
I decided to start looking for web design jobs, since that’s where my skills always seem to end up being the most useful. I just happened to have the skills they needed and it was the first time I’d read a job description that just clicked and I knew I wanted the job more than anything. Well I got the job.
My role would be helping researchers build websites and managing some different things on the research intranet. Over the past twelve years, I’ve grown and developed through various positions and roles into something we’ve dubbed ‘Creative Designer’, that involves UX design, Usability, Web Design, Front-end Development, Graphic Design, Creative Direction, Product Design, App Design, Content Strategy, Copywriting, and a whole host of other things that fall under the areas of web, design and communications.
Like I said, I thought all of this was an accident. Until I read something this spring during quarantine that made me realize that it’s actually part of a legacy in my family.
I was preparing for a talk about science communication and using design to talk about medicine, when it occurred to me that an interesting thread to pull on might be pandemics throughout history. I was including a lot of comics about the 1918 flu pandemic and comics from today, then realized it made sense to also talk about my own history with regards to AIDS activism. Another virus. A familiar story
My uncle was an AIDS activist in the 1980s, not by choice, but because he contracted HIV and eventually died of AIDS and decided there was no way in hell he was going to be quiet about it.
In 1987, he spoke about the importance of centering people, not their diseases. This is something we talk about now as though it’s a novel idea. He spoke about how hypocritical it was to show gory violence on television and then say that a condom ad would be dangerous somehow. He spoke about the need for clarity around science and communicating to the public about it. He was a science communicator, not by choice, but because it was the only thing to do at a time when fear ruled facts.
I find myself in a similar position today during the pandemic, where the public understanding of the science has real implications for the spread of the virus.
I found myself building this website during every spare minute I could find this spring, I have more than 20 years of experience communicating research, building websites, designing for and working with scientists, how could I not share that experience as a resource?