Jordan Gaines Lewis: Gaines, on Brains Visit the Blog | View in ACI
In today’s post, you’ll read ACI’s interview with Jordan Gaines Lewis, a PhD candidate and research assistant studying Neuroscience at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine. Now entering the final year of her doctoral studies, Jordan’s dissertation is focused on biomarkers for obesity and cardiometabolic morbidities in adolescents and the correlation of those biomarkers to sleep quality, whether certain sleep changes might serve as indicators for future health issues, and sleep stability. You can read more details about her research and explore her related publications on her website.
But as she notes in the interview below, her love for neuroscience – and the overarching range of that particular field – means that we get to enjoy posts on a wide range of topics, from football, coffee obsession (and other beverages), innovations in & approaches to healthcare, mad LEGO people, Game of Thrones characters (and why they might matter so much to some of you), and why time seems to fly faster as you age (which you can also watch).
So we wanted to ask her a few questions about her research topics and what instigated her interest in that field, and maybe request a few tips on topics & scenarios that other scholars – and, in some instances, other PhD candidates in particular – might readily relate to. She was gracious enough to accept our invitation, and to offer other academics on a similar path a few tips from her own experiences as a PhD student actively engaged in social media and science communication. The path for any doctoral candidate can feel like a long and winding road, and we thought a few reflective tidbits from a day in the life of someone who’s not only navigating those waters but doing so gracefully – and on so many platforms – might be especially interesting for our blog readers.
Besides, do you really think we’d pass up a chance to brain-pick the scholar who authored “Love, Love Medulla: The Neuroscience of Beatlemania”?
ACI Interview with Jordan Gaines Lewis
As a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine, your dissertation focuses on obesity and sleep quality in adolescents. What personal interests made you decide on neuroscience as your primary field, and on those specific topics for your dissertation research?
In middle school, my friends would tell me all of their deep, dark secrets over AOL Instant Messenger. Naturally, I thought this meant I’d be a great psychiatrist. Throughout high school, this transitioned into a general fascination with all aspects of the brain, and I’d spend all my bookstore gift card money on neuroscience and anatomy books.
I didn’t know anything about sleep until my now-mentor gave us a lecture toward the end of our first semester neuroscience course in grad school, and I knew that’s where I wanted to focus my dissertation research. I love studying sleep because it combines so many different fields of study: biology, psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, epidemiology…even a little bit of engineering, when the EEG equipment decides to misbehave. I love thinking about big issues while also focusing on the nitty-gritty.
“In the lab, it’s not always easy,” she says. “But once in a blue moon, I’ll plug the right variables into my statistical software and find exactly the result I’m looking for—or, even better, a totally unexpected answer to my question.”
Pacific Standard Magazine interview with Jordan, April 2014
Like mathematics, neuroscience is one of those disciplines that has an aura of intimidation for some people – something that you touch on in your blog‘s subtitle (blogging about the brain, without the jargon). What impact(s) do you feel that the increased use of blogging and social media today has on fields and concepts that might have been seen as unapproachable or intellectually-intimidating?
“Why am I so sleepy all the time?”
“Why is my dad addicted to cigarettes?”
“Why do I crave sweets when I’m stressed?”
When they turn to books or the Internet to find answers for these questions, they don’t realize that they’re actually learning about neuroscience. I want my blog and social media followers to understand these concepts without feeling intimidated, nor like I’ve tried to “dumb down” anything.
I think social media allows the public to realize that scientists are real people, too. If the number of cat photos that I tweet is any indication of my intelligence level, then we’re in trouble.
Your post “3 Ways Being a Science Communicator has Made Me a Better Scientist” tells a very funny story (the gimmicky, blue ribbon pie). But in addition to being a great anecdote, that experience also touches on a perspective that a lot of scholars still struggle with – which is the hesitancy of some of their highly-respected peers to embrace science communication that is less-niched and more inclusive. Do you have any advice for those itching to broaden their reach beyond peer-reviewed journals, but don’t see a potential wealth of support in their departments or institutions?
Writing about your research for lay audiences is NOT a waste of time.
Learning how to communicate effectively does WAY more than close the gap between the general public and the so-called exclusive “ivory tower.” It helps you become invigorated and look outside the box with your own work. It teaches you how to reach out to laymembers on grant review panels, institutional review boards, and biosafety committees. And it means more people outside of academia will read your work; a study published last year found that communicating with the public, such as speaking with journalists or being involved on Twitter, contributes significantly to a scholar’s impact in their field.
The best part is that starting a blog or joining Twitter are free and very easy to do.
You gave a TED talk in 2014. Very cool! How was that?
It was surreal. The night before, we had a chance to practice our speeches at TED Headquarters in New York, and I had no idea that Chris Anderson would be there to coach us. Stepping out onto that red circle on stage was the craziest feeling ever. I went on autopilot, and somehow all my words came out in the right order that they were supposed to.
How does someone get listed on Business Insider’s 22 Brilliant Thinkers Everyone Should Follow on Twitter? Can you offer a few Twitter-tips for those ensconced in academia?
Not only does Twitter let you get your word out to others from all walks of life, but you can absorb an impressive amount of information there yourself if you’re following the right people.
Twitter has a bit of a learning curve, but it’s one of the most useful tools I use daily; I probably get 90% of my daily news from Twitter. It’s a platform to share your own work and learn from others, participate in group chats, get real-time news, and find your niche. Plus, I’ve made “Internet friends” that are fun to catch up at conferences, when I get the chance.
In addition to your PhD studies, you’re a research assistant, the Editor-in-Chief of ScienceSeeker, contribute to numerous publications – Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Conversation, The Washington Post, and Slate, among others – and are active in blogging and social media. Are you superhuman? How do you find the time to blog in the midst of all that scholarly activity?
Yes, I’m superhuman. Sorry to disappoint, but I was implanted with a microchip in the ’90s, and I no longer require sleep or food to function.
During my orientation week in grad school, a professor told us this: you sleep for 8 hours, you work for 8 hours, and you put aside some time for eating, bathing, and other life necessities. What are you going to do with the rest of the hours in your day? For me, it’s important to pursue my hobbies, which include running, crafting, baking, cat-snuggling, and watching terrible TV. And for a few of those precious hours each week, I also choose to communicate science to the general public. My life’s mantra is, “If it’s important to you, you’ll find time to do it.”
“… [I]f you want the chance to expand your horizons, improve your writing, enjoy unique opportunities, and engage more people—scientists and non-scientists alike—you might want to give science communication a shot. In addition to making your work accessible to the general public, you might be surprised by how much your benchwork benefits, too.”
Jordan Gaines Lewis, blog post, January 2015