Science and Arts in San Francisco

Science and Arts in San Francisco

Driven by her passion for cannabis-related research and her interest for scientific outreach, Serafina Calarco (PhD student in the Gertsch group, Sara for friends) was selected for a Swissnex internship in San Francisco. In this interview she reports about her full immersion in the science communication scene of California, and how her project “WhatWEED'ont know” will help the public better understand the endocannabinoid system.

Interview: Valentina Rossetti (NCCR TransCure Scientific Officer)

You have been selected for a Swissnex San Francisco internship: what did you think when you got the good news?

I was so happy! I didn't expect to be selected. Although I thought that the project was really interesting and relevant to the current socio-politic environment of California, I feared that having no experience in the area of science communication could be a limiting factor.

How did you know about this Fellowship and what is Swissnex?

The first time I heard about Swissnex was through the internal emails of the NCCR Transcure, where the Pier 17 Science Studio Fellowship was mentioned. That email intrigued me and I searched for more information. I did not fully understand their work until I set foot in Swissnex offices for the first time.  “Connecting the dots”, this is the phrase that best represents the core values of Swissnex. True to this mission, the Swissnex network fosters international collaboration; its purpose is to connect people and ideas from Switzerland and the world and specifically the San Francisco Bay Area to encourage exchange in research, education, innovation, and arts. They support the outreach and active engagement of knowledge, ideas and talents, to strengthen Switzerland’s profile as a world-leading innovation hotspot. The project to which I applied, the Pier 17 Science Studio, is part of this framework and supports individuals in science communication and public engagement areas to develop new ideas, practices and models. 

What is your project about?

The project I proposed – called WhatWEED'ont know” - is deeply related to my research field. Since I started working on the function of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), the main biological target of active ingredients of cannabis, I realized that my body of work creates a lot of curiosity given the dual medical and recreational nature of cannabinoid related products. Moreover, the recent legalization of CBD (cannabidiol) in Switzerland as well as the legalization of cannabis for recreational purpose in many states in the USA, have made this area of research more socially and politically relevant. By interacting with people, I was always asked questions about the mode of action and safety of these ECS modulatory substances. I feel many of the myths and curiosity surrounding this topic would be cleared if there was an effective way to communicate it. Therefore, I decided to do something!

As I always have been fascinated by the world of graphics design, I decided to use the illustrations as communicative tool for this project. Working in collaboration with a graphic designer, we developed a set of illustrations that are visually attractive, immediate and maybe even provocative. The idea is that the audience, attracted by the graphic component, can focus visually on the content that becomes closer and comprehensible. The illustrations, distributed in post card size, will contain on the back some curiosity and useful information about the endocannabinoid system. The next step is to distribute these postcards in non-conventional/ unusual places for science, (like bars, meeting places...) where they should represent the starting point for an exchange of ideas, discussions and cannabis-oriented conversations.

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Why did you apply? 

The idea came from a deep desire to feel more engaged as a scientist with the society.  Playing a privileged role, I felt the need to give my little contribution. I strongly believe that scientists can play a critical role in advancing science-based solutions by helping policy makers, the media, and the public understand scientific findings that have implications for our health, environment, and security. As well as effectively communicate our research to other scientists, we should hone our skills in making our science accessible to all. Especially in a time in which misinformation about science is widespread, scientists should face the challenge and get familiar with tools that improve the communication in and outside the scientific community. However, to achieve this, we also need to question ourselves and know the hook for our research, what makes it important, why it should matter to the public.

The internship is meant to support interdisciplinary projects that bridge science with arts. In your project, what is science and what is art?

The science is represented by the accessible/basic knowledge you can learn about the role that the Endocannabinoid System plays in our body. Obviously, complex concepts cannot be inserted in a format like the one I chose, because the risk would be to over burden the audience with information which could be overwhelming and non-relevant, making the whole endeavor counterproductive. My purpose is mainly to attract the audience, to plant the seeds of curiosity, to intrigue the public and capture their attention. And that's where the graphic / artistic part comes into play. It was complex and challenging to find an artist able to shape the idea that I had in mind but this is also part of the learning process knowing how to communicate, and I am really satisfied with the final result.

How did Swissnex support you on place?

The Swissnex team was immediately very welcoming. During my stay, I had free access to the offices and the possibility to take part in all the interesting social events organized there on a regular basis. Moreover, since the first week, they helped me in organizing meetings with people who are scientific communication experts, “cannabis enthusiasts” investors, cannabis advocacy groups, dispensary shops founders etc. From these meetings I tried to acquire as much information as possible in order to better understand how the legalization of cannabis was perceived and what impact it had on politics and society. At the same time, I was always free to manage the project, free to modify, to make mistakes, to reinvent, without ever losing their support.

Which experiences have been most important in San Francisco?

One of the most significant experiences was certainly the Storytelling Lab, a two-week interactive program, consisting of workshops and lectures from experts based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The aim of the program was to bring together people from a very different background who shared the desire to learn about and explore the new frontiers of storytelling and at the same time acquire useful techniques for their respective ongoing projects. This creative laboratory had a strong impact on me and on the perception of my work.

I fully understood that the way we do science needs to be different than the way we communicate science.  I learned that storytelling is about distilling complexity and that a well-structured story can be much more powerful and impactful than a mere collection of data sets.  But, above all, I understood that storytelling is an introspective process that can help scientists to articulate our professional motivations, about why we become scientists, why we choose a particular field and why it is important.

How will your project continue after this experience abroad?

I hope these post cards will be just the beginning! I have many ideas in mind for the future and directions that I would like to explore, especially at the end of my doctoral studies. I would like to translate them into the different national Swiss languages in order to make them even more accessible, also for a less-younger subset of the population who are not necessarily familiar with English. Then it would be interesting, to develop a website linked with the projects.  This could be a sort of online platform that is constantly updated with recent discoveries on cannabis related topics, with the vision of demystifying information about cannabis medicine and therapeutics by bringing clarity via contents that are easy to understand and utilize.

Which advice could you give to researchers that are thinking of a science-art project?

I would strongly recommend doing so. For me it was an incredible experience, which profoundly enriched me. We can learn so much by looking at our projects in a different light or angle. Quoting a sentence attributed to Albert Einstein “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”.