Scientists and Sci-Fi: A Spotlight on Two Dragon Con Science Experts

Original artwork by Jennifer Lovick.

Pop culture events like Dragon Con are full of activities aimed at satisfying our inner (and sometimes outer) nerd. What sets Dragon Con apart, though, is its elaborate Science Track, which dedicates over 40 hours of programming geared towards – you guessed it – science. But it's about much more than that. The Science Track aims to discuss science and science fiction in a fun, engaging manner, creating an environment where scientists and science enthusiasts can geek out together. We had the opportunity to chat with two scientists who are actively involved in the Dragon Con Science Track and in the field of science communication (SciComm): Dr. Raychelle Burks and Dr. Eric Spana. Both are sitting on a number of panels this weekend at Dragon Con.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. For more about the Science Track at Dragon Con, check out our interview with the program director, Dr. Stephen Granade.

Raychelle Burks 

PhD Analytical Chemistry (@DrRubidium)
Assistant Professor of Chemistry, St. Edward's University

Photo credit: Adam Isaak

What does your research focus on?
I develop easy-to-use sensors, sometimes with smart phone integration, to find illegal substances and the like.

What do you think people would find most exciting about the kind of research that you do?
I get to play with my phone – FOR SCIENCE! Besides that, I’m often working with substances that are “interesting,” like drugs and explosives.

How did you get involved in Dragon Con and other SciComm related activities?
I’ve been involved in sci comm activities for a bit over 10 years. I’m also a huge fan, and my sci comm often merges two of my big loves – my fandoms and science. I’ve spoken at Nerd Nite and Science on Tap events, plus organized an on-going presentation series called Sci-Pop Talks! The interaction of pop culture and science is where I love to be! With ACS Reactions, I’ve gotten to make fun science videos in some of my favorite fandoms. Stephen [Granade, organizer of the Science Track at Dragon Con] and I bonded over our fandoms, scicomm, plus our independent con duties. I am a staff member of GeekGirlCon and am the manager of the DIY Science Zone. Stephen and [his wife] Misty (@mistyg) have helped in the zone since I created it 4+ years ago and I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in Dragon Con’s Science Track going on three years.

How do you use your research and scientific background to communicate science to the public or in the panels you are a part of at Dragon Con?
What I love about Dragon Con, GeekGirlCon, CONvergence, and other similar events is that it’s a conversation between experts. We’ll have fandom / genre experts and scientific experts – and sometimes both! But everybody in the room is an expert at usually one of the two. It’s always fun, invigorating, and informative when you’ve got a juicy conversation going among experts! Also, it’s a good chance to showcase that science is more than a body of knowledge – it’s a process. We can look at fully formed fantasy worlds scientifically the way we do our natural world. We get to talk science facts and about the scientific process, all while geeking out! I’m a chemist, specifically an analytical chemist. My background is in forensics, plus in generally determining what the frak something unknown is. I think this helps me in exploring the possibilities of fictional worlds!

Do you find engaging the public through events like Dragon Con also inspires women to get into science? I don’t mean necessarily as a career, but also just for fun.
Representation matters. People want to see themselves in their dreams, hobbies, and passions. Hearing from a diverse array of voices, seeing a diverse array of people, working with a diverse array of people, is what gives a richer, better informed environment.

Eric Spana

PhD Biology (@EricSpana)
Assistant Professor of the Practice in Biology, Duke University

Photo credit: Eric Spana

What does your research focus on?
I do Drosophila (fruit fly) genetics and developmental biology. In my position at Duke my research is all with undergraduates, and I look at some of the genes that help make fruit fly wings.

How did you get involved in Dragon Con and other SciComm related activities?
I had gone to Dragon Con a couple of times and had a great time and went to a few science track talks (though at the time, they were more like actual science seminars). And then in my fall semester genetics class after Dragon Con, one day we worked through Harry Potter magic - using genetics instead of fruit fly eye color. I thought it would make for a fun Dragon Con panel, so I pitched it to Stephen Granade (who had taken over the Science Track at that point) and he put me on the calendar. I’m doing that talk for the 3rd year in a row this week. That talk led to a few others (Star Wars, Marvel, video games), and I just sort of enjoy the challenge of explaining how something could work. Of course, I also enjoy explaining that some things are very, very wrong.

How do you use your research and scientific background to communicate science to the public or in the panels you are a part of at Dragon Con?
I like to pull out examples from primary scientific literature whenever I can. I just added my first fruit fly slide to my Harry Potter genetics talk after an audience member asked if second-site suppressors were a real thing or did I make that up. Her question pointed to a knowledge gap in the public of how model systems like fruit flies, yeast, worms, etc. really further our understanding of how life works.

As an educator, how do you integrate entertainment themes into your curricula? How does this help students learn scientific concepts?
I actually actively try not to. What I’ve found is that our student body is so diverse, things that I always thought were universal, are really not. Not every student read Harry Potter or read/watched Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. And since my classes are very, very small (usually 12 students) ignoring the background of that one student is almost 10% of the class. It just doesn’t seem fair. I’ve seen it, and talked to them afterward. They just feel left out and awkward.

The “stretching” of scientific truth in entertainment (such as the physics in Interstellar) is a controversial topic among scientists and science communicators, in that it can both mislead and inspire/engage a lay-audience. Do you face this issue in your work? If so, how do you handle it / what is your philosophy regarding responsibility for accuracy vs. artistic license?
There are only a couple places where I’ve seen genetics so screwed up that it was cringe-worthy. The one that got to me was the video game Assassin’s Creed, where the main premise is that experiences of people are encoded in their DNA and that information is passed down through an absurd number of generations. It just skips the part of getting the DNA changes from your brain to your germ-line, and then skips the whole Mendelian segregation thing. Unlike space stuff, genetics tends to not have major plot points that get horribly screwed up.

If you're lucky enough to attend Dragon Con this weekend, you can catch Raychelle and Eric at one of the many panels they are on. And they're not alone. Dragon Con is jam-packed with science programming featuring scientists from a variety of fields. So if you get a chance, go say hello!

- Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology

More information:
Dr. Raychelle Burks (@DrRubidium)
Dr. Eric Spana (@EricSpana)
Dragon Con (@DragonCon)
Dragon Con Science Track (@dconscitrack)