Friday, June 13, 2014

What is color?...the "Physics Girl" knows

"Meet ‘The Physics Girl’, Winner of Alan Alda’s “What is Color?” Video Contest"


Joanne Manaster

June 9th, 2014

Scientific American

Imagine you are a 5th grader while watching this video. Would you love it?

If it caught your interest, as it did mine, you are in good company. This is the winning entry for the 2014 Flame Challenge put on by Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science. The challenge this year was for someone to explain “What is color?” so that a 5th grader would understand.

The competition is judged by 27,000 5th graders from around the world and Dianna Cowern AKA +Physics Girl captured their attention with her snappy, fun video full of comedic energy. I reached out to Dianna and asked her a few questions about her deserving-to-win video AND a few other things about her road to physics outreach.

Looking at your youtube page, I notice that you began airing videos about two years ago, trying to answer “What can you do with a Physics degree?” What made you decide to do videos in the first place?

The “Science Dating Show” started it all! My senior project in high school was a video podcast where three contestants would compete for a date with the host by proving to be the most scientifically literate. I think the idea still has promise! (joking) But it did spark my interest in video editing. And the motivation for the show applies to what I do now – take a popular topic and sneak in some science. Though now, I am not so subtle with the science.

Fast forward four years through college, I had just graduated with a degree in physics. I was not sure what I wanted to do. I decided to have some fun with the career uncertainty many recent graduates face and made a “101 things to do with a physics degree” video. It was pretty silly, and was meant for my friends and family. But the videos I made subsequently got more attention than I had imagined (we’re talking 10s of views!), especially on topics related to physics. It was at that point I thought I could possibly make something, albeit small, of my channel in the realm of science communication and education.

Your winning video format is quite a departure from your initial video format. I love the creative way you demonstrated the concept of color. It is clear you were thinking of your target audience of 5th graders as you designed this. Did you script the entire video yourself? Did you have a team assisting you? Tell us a bit about how you went about creating this video and your transition to this new video presentation style.

The creation process was more stressful than I had hoped. I was in Ireland when I got an email about the competition. I made the decision to enter on the plane ride back, which meant I had four days until the deadline. It was a rushed process of writing, filming and editing, and my editing file became corrupted the day of the deadline. It kept crashing and deleting portions of the video which I had to redo multiple times. I thought I was not going to make it!

Also, thank you for the compliment! It was definitely a different style from my other videos. In past videos, I made do with what resources I had—namely a black sheet, a camera, and my room. But for the Flame Challenge, I wanted to try something much more colorful. The only thing I needed was a cameraman. A friend of mine was nice enough to stand and press record as I pranced around the neighborhood in ridiculous outfits, ran repeatedly into my car, and frantically shouted filming directions. Thinking back on it, this video was so much fun to make.

Since your physics degree is what brought you to video creation, please tell us about your path to physics and then to physics outreach.

I loved physics in high school. I had two fantastic teachers who lit the flame with lessons on neutron stars, launching cars – all the cool stuff. So when I got to MIT I decided to take the hardest physics class, or as it was affectionally nicknamed, “physics for masochists.” I passed my first physics exam by only a few points, with a score of 35%. Because that class challenged me so much and taught me to think about the world in a whole new way, I was hooked. And I was doing much better than a 35 by the end of the class.

As for physics outreach, it started as way to give back to kids. I participated in Physics Nights where the undergraduate physics students would do live physics demos at local elementary. It was not until Physics Girl that I became more involved in outreach. I was hired as an outreach coordinator by my former professor, Adam Burgasser (the same professor from the masochistic physics class!) who is now at UCSD. And since then have also started working at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center as a science educator. I hope to spark curiosity in young minds so that one day, that curiosity may turn into a science career.

My readers may know that my daughter is studying physics in the College of Engineering at UIUC. This means she’s a rare breed. What do you think are the unique challenges for women in physics?

The most obvious challenge is simply that physics is hard (but extremely rewarding)! So, congratulations to your daughter for choosing it. There are more subtle challenges, though. Showing our feminine side is something I think a lot of women in physics struggle with. I felt very self-conscious walking through the physics halls to meet with my advisor wearing a girly dress. I tried to stand confidently, but I could not help feeling like I was being judged for looking so girly. I toned down makeup, jewelry, and style when I was in the physics department at MIT which seems so silly now. I should have just been myself. Then there are the tougher challenges. I would say the male-dominated physics culture is uncomfortable for many women. There is pressure to compete with, work with, and work for male physicists of very different demeanors and advising styles.

Sometimes the internet is unkind to women (Emily Graslie addressed this in her video “Where My Ladies At?”).  How do you deal with comments, etc?

I have received my fair share of comments that are, let’s say, unrelated to physics. The most common is about the size of my eyes, like my favorite, “baby your eyes are big.. like a bugs life or cartoon.” There have been comments about looking pregnant, marriage proposals, and some “creative”, explicit language. I think you have to have a sense of humor about the harsh comments. For me, laughing at explicit comments is much more productive than getting mad every time. If the comments are negative, yet have nothing constructive to offer, they are easy to ignore. Otherwise, I do take into consideration what I consider useful criticism.

Thank you, Physics Girl, for your enthusiastic videos and for being a voice of women in science! We’ll be looking forward to many more of your informative creations ahead!

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