Across the Bench with Virginia Schutte

Virginia Schutte

I had the pleasure of meeting with Virginia Schutte here in Liverpool, UK, where we chatted about science, toxicology, and outreach over tea and coffee. Our meeting didn’t come from our connection as fellow Americans living abroad nor as enthusiastic scientific researchers, but instead from our common interest in looking beyond the lab bench for careers and personal fulfillment. I had a chance to talk with Schutte about her work and to hear more about her role as a science mediator. When I first heard the term “science mediator,” I envisioned some intense and serious discussion about science policy issues, not an afternoon art session and morning cup of tea. But Schutte’s role is just that: as a mediator, she works with scientists to help bring their ideas to life and also works with the public to help them engage with scientists about their work and what it means for them.


Schutte earned her PhD in Ecology from the University of Georgia, which is just a few hours’ drive from my PhD alma matter, the University of Florida (Gators > Dawgs…sorry, Va!). Schutte’s initial plan was to become an academic researcher. As a graduate student she was heavily involved with teaching and was even a part of the Future Faculty Program. Schutte soon found that her dream job as a researcher had less of a connection to people than she wanted. Schutte explains, “I had the best time when I was doing research, it was amazing. But I didn’t often get to talk to the people that I was ultimately hoping to impact through my work.” As a marine ecologist, Schutte saw first-hand the importance of having people understand the research she was doing. “Much of the world’s population lives near the coast and eats coastal seafood as their main source of protein. So the science that I did looking at how we manage the ecosystems where coastal seafood grows up was very relevant to a lot of peoples’ lives in a very real way.”


Towards the end of her PhD studies, Schutte found herself focusing more of her time on the communication and the people side of science. In the midst of this work, she found that her passion for science communication was stronger than her passion for being a professor. Now, while her husband is working on his post-doc, Schutte is working on her transition into science communication by establishing herself as a freelance science media consultant. She takes pictures, makes videos, builds websites, and does career and brand coaching. “My role is to help people, scientists or not, tell science stories. I try to make science more useful and more fun,” said Schutte.


Schutte created a website called Real Life Science. She is working on developing this website as a forum for two-way communication between the public and scientists. When asked about her motivation for starting Real Life Science, Schutte said, “I’m really interested in how people talk about science in the media, especially in the popular media, so I’m working on a few things that will hopefully get more people talking about science instead of just having it be a unidirectional thing from scientists to everyone else.” On the Real Life Science website, there is a starting place for either scientists and the public to submit their ideas, questions, and stories.


About the future of the website, Schutte commented, “I envision Real Life Science as a place where anyone can talk about science, and hopefully we can have conversations together which include scientists and non-scientists. I think that’s really when we’re going to make strides forward: when scientists understand how the public views science and what issues or types of science they’re thinking about.” Through her website and her other science communication activities, her goal is to help people understand where research is, how to access it, and what it means for people’s day-to-day lives. One example of this is the “Your Questions” posts, where Schutte provides resources and answers to publicly-fielded questions about science and education. She views what she does as a way of helping people use science to make good, well-informed decisions.


Schutte certainly has her work cut out for her, but thankfully she’s working on these ideas in a time when science communication is at the forefront of agendas at universities, non-profits, and research institutes, all of whom are looking for science-trained and enthusiastic people for science communication roles. Schutte is hopeful that her freelance work through Real Life Science and in collaborative activities will help her transition into this growing area. “There are lots of people who have PhDs in the sciences that are realizing that academia and research is not the place for them, so they’re now moving into science communication.”


In terms of the best part of her role as a science mediator, Schutte enjoys the freedom and variation of her work. By far her favorite thing is the impact she sees in her work, which is something she missed as a researcher. “My job is to extract the best from the scientists I work with, and watching that happen is pretty cool. Getting something new out of a researcher that really describes what they do well and also helps them see why what they’re doing is important—that’s an exciting thing.”


While Schutte enjoys freelancing, she says that the work does have its downsides in terms of predictability. She is now looking for permanent roles in science communication as a way to broaden her message—and for achieving her dream job of becoming the next Bill Nye the Science Guy. After spending time with Schutte, her enthusiasm for making new connections and her passion for sharing science certainly had me convinced that she’s up to the challenge, although I might recommend for her to find an alternative accessory to the bow tie. 


Erica K. Brockmeier (@EKBrockmeier)
Guest Contributor
PhD, Toxicology