Top of page

Chair in Technology and Society Ainissa Ramirez on Why Everyone Deserves a Chance to Find Science Fascinating

Share this post:

This is a guest post by Kluge Center Chair in Technology and Society Ainissa Ramirez. Ramirez is an award-winning scientist and science communicator, who is dedicated to making science engaging and meaningful to the general public. A graduate of Brown University, she received her doctorate in materials science from Stanford University. She began her career as a scientist at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and later worked as an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Yale. Her most recent book, “The Alchemy of Us” was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and was selected as a top science book by Smithsonian Magazine and Science Friday.


Andrew Breiner: Could you start out by giving an introduction to yourself and your work – especially how you’ve transitioned from working directly in materials science and engineering to being a science communicator and writer?

Ainissa Ramirez: Ever since I was very little, I wanted to become a scientist. Science answered my most pressing questions at the time—like why leaves change color and why grass was green. Learning science brought me joy. Sometime later, I learned that there were people who followed their curiosity all the time and they were called scientists. However, I must admit that was not the only thing that inspired me to become a scientist. What really propelled me was watching a television program on PBS called “3-2-1 Contact.” On this show, there was a repeating segment of kids solving problems. One of the kids was an African American girl. When I spotted her, I saw my reflection.

After high school, I attended Brown University for my undergraduate degree and then Stanford, where I got my doctorate in materials science.  In this field, I really enjoyed learning about the workings of atoms and how we can change how they act to make materials do new things.  But I must admit that I never really saw anyone who looked like myself in my classes. When I graduated, I decided I was going to figure out a way to make science more inviting to everyone.

With my newly-minted doctorate from Stanford in hand, I got a job at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was there where I saw more scientists of color, particularly African American scientists. I finally felt at home.  It was also at Bell Labs where I got a chance to do first-class scientific research, but I also learned how scientists can bring science to the public. At Bell Labs, there was a lecture series for the general public, where breakthroughs were translated for everyone to understand.  When I left Bell Labs to join the faculty at Yale, I created my own version of this program that targeted kids and called it “Science Saturdays,” which featured the 3Ds—doughnuts, demonstrations, and dynamic lectures.

When I hosted “Science Saturdays,” I worked hard to make sure there was a diversity of science topics but also in the demographic of the scientists that were presenting.  I enjoyed putting this program together to get kids excited about science, but I also learned something about myself along the way.

Every April and October when I hosted “Science Saturdays,” I was full of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement.  However, when the program was over, my energy evaporated. After seven years of this cycle, it dawned on me that I enjoyed bringing science to the public more than researching science.  So when my time at Yale was up, I decided not to get another research position, but begin a new career as a “science evangelist.” In this capacity, I wanted to create more moments of wonder and awe by giving science lectures, by making science videos, and by hosting a science podcast.  My mission then was to make more opportunities for people to enjoy, understand, and connect with science.


AB: What kinds of projects did you work on while in the industry, and how does that translate to what you focus on now?

AR: My field of study is material science—the science of stuff. I am interested in how atoms behave and also interested in coaxing them to do new things so that I can create new materials. Some might say I am an “atom whisperer.”

I came to love this field because many of the things I study can be touched, unlike fields like astronomy.  Esoteric concepts became more understandable to me because I could actually see what was happening. When I taught materials science classes, I would incorporate many science demonstrations so that these science concepts would resonate with my students in a new way.  Many of these science demonstrations I obtained while I was sitting in a classroom but some came to me when I was a junior scientist working at Bell Labs.

When I was working at Bell Labs, I learned how to do science differently. I witnessed that my senior colleagues possessed a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the science at work. Watching them in the lab was like witnessing a chef create a beautiful dish. Their knowledge went beyond the textbook and I tried to soak up everything I could while working with them.  It is this deeper way of understanding materials science principals that I tried to pass onto my students and later to my readers.

As for my own research pursuits, I cannot say that what I worked on in the laboratory is what I write about now. But what I can say is that witnessing this high level of science skill in action is what I work hard to translate onto the page in my books.


AB: What inspired you to spread the word about science and technology? And what are the challenges of communicating on topics that can be challenging and intimidating to people who find them unfamiliar? How do you overcome that?

AR: My inspiration comes from my own love for science and also my desire to correct a grave error.  Most people have a bad experience in learning science because it is taught in a way that is dry, boring, or doesn’t really connect with their everyday lives. I am doing my small part to change that.  Science should not be boring and everyone deserves a chance to understand how the things around them operate.  Everyone deserves a shot to be more connected to the world too.  I attempt to create such connections by explaining science in a way that resonates with a broad swath of people.

Admittedly, this work is not easy. Difficult concepts have to be translated into something understandable, which isn’t always straightforward. Usually, scientists explain science using unfamiliar words or by writing an equation. Scientists expect the reader to come to where the scientist is. I take a different approach.  I try to meet the reader where the reader is.

I attempt to make science meaningful and understandable in several ways. When I co-wrote “Newton’s Football,” I explained heady science concepts by comparing them to America’s favorite pastime. In my most recent book, “The Alchemy of Us,” I used storytelling as a way to pull in readers. As a science writer, it is my job to not only translate science but find ways for readers to feel more connected too.


AB: What can you tell me about the research you’re doing at the Kluge Center now, and your eventual plans for it?

AR: During my time at the Kluge Center, I collected lots of articles, book excerpts, and maps for several of my forthcoming science book projects.  Most of my future books will focus on materials science—showing how the stuff around us shaped culture or how the things that surround us reflect our culture. When I am writing about such topics, I often fold in history as well as interesting cultural details, which is why I needed to peruse towers of books from the stacks to find such nuggets.

While at the Kluge Center I also had an opportunity to work with two undergraduates—Frida Garcia Ledezma and Maya Jan Mackey.  They helped me with a second project, which was uncovering the lives of overlooked African American trailblazers. These two rising researchers combed the stacks and dug into the archives to piece together the stories of two individuals—Norbert Rilleux and Henry Baker.

Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) was an inventor from New Orleans, who created a process to make sugar in the 19th century. His method is still employed today for creating food products and pharmaceuticals. Henry Baker (1857-1928) was one of the first chroniclers to compile a list of African American inventors.  He did this work before the age of the internet. His work was particularly challenging, since patents don’t provide demographic information.

I find this work to be important because culturally we don’t have a full sense of all of the people who made contributions to the objects that surround us. Much of our information is unfortunately missing details, which I liken to a portrait that has colors that have been left out.  My intention is to fill in this portrait. I do this work so that people can develop a fuller connection to what is around them and so that reflections can be fostered for others. Ultimately, I want more people to see themselves in the world of science just like “3-2-1 Contact” did for me.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *