Annabel Gong on Sharks, Storytelling, and Science Communication

Annabel Gong is a behavioral ecologist studying sharks at the University of San Diego (USD) for their master’s degree. They are advised by Dr. Andrew Nosal, and one of the members of their thesis committee is Dr. Camrin Braun, a professor with the UW’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences. Recently, they began co-hosting a podcast created by Felix Berrios called the LGBTQ+ STEM Cast, which highlights LGBTQ+ voices in the sciences. There is also a Discord server, an online forum that is a companion to the podcast and serves as a community space for LGBTQ+ people and their allies in STEM to meet, interact, and build connections.

Like me, Annabel is an Asian-American queer person from the Silicon Valley who pursues ecological research, engages in science communication, and thinks about the way the natural sciences intersect with other fields and the wider world. After I joined the Discord server, I was struck by the immediate sense of community I felt and became interested in hearing more from Annabel about their work. I spoke with Annabel about their research, how they plan to use their social science training, and what they enjoy about hosting the podcast. Annabel’s responses have been edited for length and clarity and are presented below as a continuous story.

San Marino, CA (August 18, 2019) – Annabel on the grounds of the Huntington Library. (Photo credit: Annabel Gong)

 

Growing up in the Bay Area, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and being Asian-American–well, you know how it goes. There’s lots of pressure to go into either medical science or tech. I felt that pressure a lot, but not from my parents, perhaps because my mom in particular was kind of forced into going down a certain career path that she wasn’t quite interested in. I’m very thankful that they’ve both always been very supportive of anything I do. Even from my grandparents there wasn’t really much backlash, so it was mainly the societal pressure from my school community and Silicon Valley. There was no specific source; I just felt like since I was Asian-American, there was a general expectation that I would go into medicine if I was going to go into STEM.

I was never that big on science until I had an amazing biology teacher in the seventh grade, and I will forever be thankful for her. Because of her I always thought that science could be an option for me, but I was also leaning towards the fine arts realm and thinking I could be an animator. During high school, however, I ended up interviewing this shark ecologist at the California Academy of Sciences, Dr. John McCosker. Not to get cliché or anything, but he changed my life, and I learned only about a couple months ago that he’s one of the biggest names in the field. His work encaptivated me, and it’s the sort of stuff I study now, which is shark behavioral ecology: how do sharks behave, and how does that relate to conservation? I was hooked. I thought, “Wow, this is something I could really get into,” and that’s how everything started.

When I went off to college as a baby gay from the liberal Bay Area, and I entered a Catholic and predominantly white institution, I felt like I’d hit a brick wall. I thought, “Oh my god, where am I?” It was a huge culture shock. But as soon as I found the LGBTQ+ community on campus, as soon as I found a community that was more diverse, with people of color, I felt like I belonged. My friends my first year were mostly people of color in this institution that was two-thirds white.

When I heard there was a Women and Gender Studies Minor offered at USD, I realized it was something I was really interested in and I thought it would also be a great change of pace from all the STEM work I was doing. Women and gender studies is something that I’m really passionate about and want to explore further, just so that I have that foundational knowledge. My identity is how I perceive it, but there’s a lot of scholarly work out there that might help me understand my identity more. So I ended up taking on that minor, and it proved to be really, really useful: not just for understanding my sexual and gender identity but also my racial identity. It wasn’t really something I had thought about before, but I took an Asian-American social movements class which really connected me with my own history.

I wrote a paper on how Asian-Americans and Asian women are portrayed in Western media in relation to science fiction and scientists’ roles, so that I could really understand where people are getting their perceptions from, because we get our perceptions from the media all the time. How are people viewing me when I step anywhere in an academic space? And well, I found out a lot of interesting things: Women are sexualized. Asian women are viewed as being really cold but really intelligent and strangely competitive. And there was more along those lines.

I’m hoping that I can put this social science training to use when it comes to my future plans, like being a principal investigator and starting a lab. How can I foster a community that’s intentionally diverse, in a way that doesn’t perpetuate a stereotype? Also, how can I leverage my Asian-American identity? Specifically, I have a lot of privilege compared to a lot of other people of color, because I am perceived as belonging in academia. It’s expected of me to be in STEM, basically. So how can I use that to make space for other people of color when I form my lab and begin recruiting lab members?

Cover art for the LGBTQ+ STEM Cast podcast depicting Annabel (left) and co-host and founder Felix Berrios. Berrios is an undergraduate student at the Universidad Ana G. Méndez, Recinto de Gurabo, in Puerto Rico. Artwork by chemist and podcast interviewee Kemi Oloyede.

 

When I was still an undergraduate at USD, my department was extremely white, and I believe there was just me and another woman of color in our department in our year. It was really unfortunate, but since I wasn’t really connected with my racial identity until maybe a couple of years ago, it didn’t really strike me as something that was challenging. I have a lot of internalized assimilation, so it was easy for me to get along with everyone. But now, as I’ve been moving through grad school, I’m becoming hyper-aware of how our program lacks racial diversity, especially since I’m the only person of color in my cohort. That’s been a little challenging, but since school is remote right now, I’m able to spend time with my friends of color and be in community with them.

Speaking of community, I still run a storytelling event called “My Story” on USD’s campus. I started off telling my coming out story and I tell it pretty much annually now, at every freshman orientation. It’s kind of embarrassing, but we need that kind of storytelling for students who are coming into a religious institution. I do it for the girls and the gays, and no one else.

Later I started mentoring people and helping them tell their stories, so my background as a storyteller was great preparation for doing more on-the-spot interviews for the LGBTQ+ STEM Cast. The creator of the show, Felix Berrios, offered to let me co-host after I had offered to help him out with editing work. Once my friend Eo Hanabusa got on board as well, we were able to think more about ways to expand the podcast, such as through the Discord server. We started the server because someone I interviewed suggested it: they wanted to get to know the other podcast interviewees, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for all of us to meet each other. We want the podcast to be a big thing and for everyone to interact, so that we all feel like we’re a part of this community and this movement.

One of my favorite things about the show is that I’m able to interview LGBTQ+ scientists from all over the world. I think that’s something really unique about our podcast, that we didn’t limit ourselves to location or specific kinds of career paths. For example, we’ve had people who’ve just started their program as well as really seasoned people. We interviewed Kemi Oloyede, who’s an artist as well as a chemist, and we have an episode with Ray Holloman who works in IT. I’m also hoping we can interview an undergraduate like Felix so that we can diversify the idea of what a scientist is.

I’ve also learned about so many different fields of science that I didn’t know existed. Jost Migenda was my first interviewee: they talked about exploding stars, and it was awesome! I also recently interviewed an archivist for astronuclear engineering. I didn’t even know that was a field, and it was so cool to hear from her. I’ve learned so much from doing this podcast, and it’s  been such a fulfilling journey.

San Diego, CA (April 3, 2019) – Annabel and students gather for a photo after the “My Story” event at USD. Photo credit: Annabel Gong.

 

Whether you’re doing storytelling, interviews, or podcasting, I think the most important aspect of good science communication is knowing your audience. Communication is a really audience-tailored experience that requires a lot of thought, skill, and planning. Good science communication requires you not to dumb down but to distill the information. If I was explaining my research to a third-grader, I would sure hope that I wouldn’t be using the same language as I use with you. I can still communicate to that third grader what I can communicate to you, but in different terms, and hopefully you’d both walk away with the same basic knowledge.

Science communication also involves thinking about art and fields beyond STEM. For instance, a lot of my research revolves around using video footage for tracking sharks, and I’ve found that people just love pictures and videos–any raw footage of my research. Obviously that’s a really easy form of communication I can share with others, but I want to be able to apply that idea to other kinds of research projects as well: how can we use visual tools or other creative ways to communicate our science? Maybe that means you are doing it yourself, or hiring a colleague to do it, since there are a lot of people in our community with incredible talents. It’s a great way of sharing your science and getting people interested in what you do.

It makes people care, you know? Especially when it comes to sharks, where conservation is extremely important and changing the societal mindset around sharks is incredibly important. Creative ways to communicate why we should care about sharks is extremely integral to my research, because that’s the whole point: I want people to care about what I research, so that we can show the public why sharks are so important to our ecosystems, and so that we can conserve their populations and protect their lives. When people can relate to your science, people start caring, and that can influence how your science impacts social spheres, policy, and the wider world.

September 7, 2020 – Annabel joins Jaida Elcock, co-founder of MISS (Minorities in Shark Sciences) and a graduate student in Dr. Camrin Braun’s lab, for a fun presentation on underrated shark species.