Dr Emily Grossman
Dr Emily Grossman is a science communicator and broadcaster who is an expert in molecular biology and genetics. She has taught in a wide range of schools and museums across the UK as well as regularly appearing on a mix of radio and television programmes. In 2014 she took up the role of biology expert in Sky’s science panel show ‘Duck Quacks Don’t Echo’hosted by Lee Mack.
So if you start to make science something that people actually find relevant in their lives, then it becomes interesting
On getting interested in science
My first inspiration, who continues to be my inspiration, is my dad. My dad’s a doctor and he used to take me on long car journeys when I was really, really young and we’d have what he’d call theory afternoons which were actually really, really exciting! And he’d tell me about how we all used to be monkeys and we’ve evolved from monkeys, or he’d tell me how if we travel super, super fast, we could make time slow down, or you can make a train shorter than the train platform, nuts! Or that he was colourblind and I wasn’t but my kids might be. And that just got me really excited in science. And I started asking for puzzle books for Christmas, which I thought was very normal, books of problem solving or logic problems, and I just couldn’t get enough of it.
And then I had some really inspiring teachers at school. I was lucky, I went to an all-girls school and a lot of the science teachers, pretty much all of them, were actually women, they were women who were strong and really smart, but they were still feminine, they were still womanly women that I could really aspire towards. And then my favourite tutor at university, once I’d moved from physics and then toward biology, realising that biology was actually just as problem-solvy and as exciting for me as I thought physics would be, we had a brilliant lecturer when I was at Cambridge…we had a brilliant lecturer named Ron Laskey, I don’t even know if he’s still around, I haven’t said his name for years, and he gave brilliant lectures on cell biology that were really inspiring, I’d just sort of sit and listen, and he’d always bring out his guitar at the end and he’d sing a song that he’d composed about the cell or about DNA. And I think he actually made a CD, I never bought it, but it was just such a brilliant combination, because that’s what inspires me is that combination of scientific logic and rigour, but also combining it with something performative, or creative, or engaging with an audience and communicating those ideas and just…it’s a long time ago now but I always remember that when I think of science.
On studying molecular biology
OK, so the truth is I went to university to study physics and I did a year of physics, but I did a natural sciences degree: I was lucky enough to be able to do all the science subjects and maths in the same degree. And I started doing physics and it just got really gritty and really technical, and the thing I loved about physics and maths at school – which is what made me want to do maths with physics at university – was all the problem solving and the putting things together and working out logical processes and coming to an answer, and that absolutely fired me up and buzzes me.
But at university the physics got really dark and really technical and the biology got really logical. And at the end of my first year, to be quite honest, I was really put off by physics because I was surrounded by pretty much only guys. So all the other peers on my course pretty much were only guys, my tutors and my lecturers were men and I felt really intimidated. I went to an all girls school and up until that point it didn’t even occur to me that it was sort of a male dominated field and at that point when there was suddenly all these guys, I felt like I was struggling and I just thought, oh my gosh, this is too much for me, and the biology I was doing at the time started to get more technical and more logic-based and more fascinating on a molecular level, with the DNA and the signalling pathways and the genetics.
So I thought, well, actually, this sort of ticks the boxes of what I enjoy about the maths and physics and I can come away from an area where I’m just sort of losing my confidence. The irony being that I didn’t realise that what was going on was just a different learning style and when it came to the physics exam I actually did as well if not better than the guys; it was simply a bravado thing.
On making people engage with biology
The thing I love teaching the most in a biological system is that first time when people really understand about DNA and how it works. Real cliché, but so many students come to me and they say, I don’t really get it, what’s the difference between a gene and a chromosome and DNA: which is which, which is made of which? And, again it’s a bit of an old cliché, but I talk about it in terms of recipe books; so talking about the chromosome as a recipe book, and then each gene a recipe within the book, and the DNA is the letters and the ink and the words that make up the recipes. And when you think of it as that and when you talk about each recipe book, having a similar recipe book in a different colour, so for each recipe book, you’ve got a green one and a red one and then within those recipe books, you’ve got…the first recipe might be chocolate cake and in the green book you’ve got the recipe for milk chocolate cake and in the red book you’ve got the recipe for milk chocolate cake with raisins.
And so there you’ve got an analogy, which is what I love doing, working with fun, silly ways of explaining stuff; an analogy to explain a pair of homogenous chromosomes, two genes representing the same protein but different alleles of the gene and then the paper and the ink is the DNA that makes it and the whole book is the chromosome. And then suddenly I see students go, oh, so that’s how it all fits together and, oh, so that’s what a gene is. And then once you start talking about it in a language that actually means something, so, this is the recipe to make your hair curly, this is the recipe that makes my nose this shape, the recipe that give me funny knees, then actually…and they start to be able to apply it to their lives, then it becomes more interesting, because I think in science there’s a lot of fear around something that’s not understood. Even with adults who are in the pub, people who don’t understand the conceptual difference between DNA and chromosomes but they may talk about genetic modification because they’ve read about it in the Guardian, but they don’t actually understand what’s going on underneath and I think that’s where the fear in science comes from, there’s a sort of embarrassment to ask those basic, basic questions.
Well, I think what you have to start with is the basics which is yes, a gene controls a characteristic. I think getting that basic knowledge across in the first place is really important, but then expanding out from that to say OK, actually, maybe two, three, ten, twenty, two hundred genes actually contribute to a particular personality trait or a particular characteristic, especially if you’re talking personality or sexuality or something like that. So, yes, you’ve got to get the science which is: gene makes protein makes character, but then you say, how do they all come together? So if you’ve got two hundred interacting genes and each contributes a tiny little bit of your personality, then how’s the overall effect manifested? And then you’ve got to take into account the environment, so all these studies with identical twins who actually turn out quite different in characteristics that are also partly genetic based. So then you look at…you talk to people about the effect of the environment for example on height, you may be destined to be a particular height because your parents are but if you have poor nutrition as a child then you’re not going to get there. So there’s all these interacting factors but I think it does start from a basic understanding that it comes from your genes but then everything else comes in on top of it .
On communicating science
I think you have to make scientific ideas really relevant. I don’t mean relevant like, oh, should you buy these genetically modified tomatoes off the shelf in Sainsbury’s, I mean relevant to their everyday lives, so people actually start walking the world saying, oh, why is the rain falling out of the sky? Why is the sky blue? Really silly basic stuff. My favourite one is, if you hear an ambulance going by, it goes nee naw nee naw, [lower pitch] nee naw nee naw as it goes past. And I always remember as a kid thinking, that’s really weird, it changes sound, and when I learnt that at school that it was to do with the shifting of the waves and it’s called the Doppler effect, I was just like, amazing, and every time I hear it now in the street I’m like, wow, and when I’m teaching my students at home, I’m like, right, OK, there’s an ambulance going by in the street, listen out.
So it’s about making it not just relevant to what we hear in the news, or what we read in the government, or whatever’s going on, but relevant to day to day lives. Again, a physics analogy – because I teach physics as well and I actually really love teaching physics – is that you’re in the bath and you try and grab the soap and you can’t get it because it’s not where it should be. Why is it not where it should be? It’s actually sort of down there. It’s because of refraction, it’s because the light rays are bending. If you try and teach people, students or grown ups in the pub, or on media shows, if you try and teach people about refraction and make it boring and sort of technical, who cares? But if you find a way of making it something people will actually come across in their day to day lives, like a rainbow is dispersionor, you know, when the Millennium Bridge was built, the wobbly bridge, and people started walking across it in step, sort of mentally, subconsciously, and it started to resonate because everyone hit the natural frequency of the wobbly bridge, it just started to swing, which is a perfect example of resonance. It’s again why some buildings fall down in an earthquake and others don’t and it’s not the tallest ones, or the shortest ones, it’s the ones that hit that resonant frequency of the earthquake.
So if you start talking about science in a way that actually gets people going, oh yeah, why does that happen? Why does a string vest keep you warm if it’s got holes in it? That doesn’t make sense, surely the holes let out the heat? No, the holes keep the air in and the air is an insulator. Then you can start talking about the properties of thermal transfer, of heat transfer, and then you can start talking about why do birds fly: yeah, they flap, but what about when they’re soaring? When they’re soaring, why don’t they just plop down? And you say that to someone and they go, oh yeah, hadn’t thought of that. And it’s like, OK, so those are heat currents, thermal convection, convection currents that are rising up through the air and keeping the birds in the sky.
So if you start to make science something that people actually find relevant in their lives, then it becomes interesting and then, that’s your jumping off point.
My favourite biology one…my dad’s colour blind, but I’m not because it’s much more rare in women, but I remember him telling me when I was really little, I’m colour blind, but you’re not, but your kids might be and it doesn’t matter who you marry, half your children, if they’re boys, half of your sons will be colour blind. And I said, what? But I’m not, and you are, I don’t get that! And it’s…as soon as you start saying that to people and they go, how does that work? And then you say OK, right, so think of your recipe book, think of one recipe book from your mum, one from your dad, and then you go into the story and then suddenly it’s relevant. Find something that someone has in their life, it may be colour blindness, it may be a genetic disease that they’re concerned about, it might be a trait like ginger hair. It might be something that is relevant to them and then you can find a scientific way of explaining it.