The Graduates


Fatima Abdurrahman


Andrew S.: You're tuned in to 90.7FM, KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing and this is The graduates, the interview talk show or we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I am joined by Fatima Abdurrahman of the Department of Astronomy. Welcome to the show, Fatima. 

Fatima A.: Thanks for having me. 

Andrew S.: It's so great to have you here. So I hear you study black holes.

Fatima A.: I do, among a few other things. But yeah, that's kind of what occupies most of my time these days. 

Andrew S.: How does one study black holes? 

Fatima A.: That's a very good question. The question that might come before it is, why is a black hole hard to study? 

Andrew S.: Why is a black hole hard to study?

Fatima A.: Not to do your job for you-

Andrew S.: It's cool, Fatima. Whatever you want.

Fatima A.: Right. So the thing about black holes, in case people aren't aware, the reason we call them black is that we cannot see them. Because of the very, very strong gravitational influence they have on the area around them, light cannot escape from a black hole once it gets too close in, so they are an inherently invisible. For something to be a black hole means it is undetectable in itself. That's why black holes are hard to study, so the whole point of what I try to do is kind of just trying to find them first. I look for black holes and then try to count them, basically. 

Andrew S.: How do you look for them? 

Fatima A.: There many different ways that people have kind of overcome this difficulty of black holes being invisible and floating off in space very far away from us, and have still managed to find some. The ways people get around this is basically by looking at the effects black holes have on objects around them, or maybe not even necessarily around them, but objects between you and them, perhaps. Just like I always give the example of you can't see the wind, but you can see trees kind of leaning over. You can see hair blowing, you can see leaves blowing in the wind, whatever. We look for the effects, and the particular effect I look for in my research in order to determine whether or not there are black holes around, is something called gravitational lensing.

If you were to imagine you're looking out at the sky and there's a some star that you're looking at, if a big glass lens were to pass between you and the star, it would magnify the light from the star, right? Just kind of like a magnifying lens would, and you would see some distortion just like you see distortion anytime you look through glass. Well, turns out that if you have enough mass and enough gravity, anything can distort light the way a lens does. If instead you replace that lens passing between you and a star with a black hole passing between you and a star, the black hole and it's super-strong gravitational influence can also work to warp spacetime in such a way that the light, coming from a background source, whether it's a star or whatever, is distorted. And so I look for that distortion and try to understand the signal we see in that distortion in order to infer the presence and then properties of a black hole.

Andrew S.: Okay, so the mass of an object actually bends light?

Fatima A.: Yeah.

Andrew S.: But it has to be super-massive. 

Fatima A.: I mean, theoretically anything does it, anything with mass-

Andrew S.: You and I could bend light?

Fatima A.: Sure, but just like by the tiniest, tiniest, unmeasurable amounts. 

Andrew S.: Right. So you would need it an impossibly sensitive sensor to see light bended around a human. 

Fatima A.: Exactly. So anything with mass technically is distorting space-time to some degree, but a black hole is a thing with enough mass concentrated in a small enough volume that it produces these effects on scales. We could see it. And in fact, other objects also produce the same effect. People can use this same technique to find planets orbiting other stars. It's pretty routinely used to do that, in fact. And people have detected other objects like this. It just kind of lends itself really nicely to black holes because it is a technique that doesn't depend on seeing the object you care about. Right?

Andrew S.: Right. 

Fatima A.: So you could use it for anything. It's very useful in black holes, but also other things. 

Andrew S.: Right. So it's easier to see things that are more massive? 

Fatima A.: All other things being equal, yes. 

Andrew S.: Oh, so what else is there to worry about? 

Fatima A.: Everything you can think of, basically. How far away is the black hole? How far away is the thing that it's distorting? Does it pass by directly in front, or is it a little bit offset? How fast is everything in the equation moving? Like is it the thing in the background stationary or is it moving, is it moving the opposite direction of the thing passing in front? There's quickly a lot of ways you can complicate the situation, but all other things being equal, the thing with more mass would create a bigger distortion, act as a stronger lens. 

Andrew S.: Okay. So based on the distortion, you can tell whether or not you're looking at a black hole usually? Is that kind of how it works?

Fatima A.: The distortion tells you that something is there, and then all my work is basically trying to determine what the something is.

Andrew S.: How would you even do that? 

Fatima A.: That's a great question. 

Andrew S.: Is that what you're doing right now [crosstalk]-

Andrew S.: This is literally what I've been sitting at my desk doing all day. It's basically a game of eliminating everything else, which kind of seems like an impossible task because there's a lot of things in the universe. If we're looking for something invisible, then we can only fairly say it's that thing if it's nothing else, right?

Andrew S.: Right.

Fatima A.: Even seeing this distortion, we're never going to be able to see it. We're never going to be able to check what the thing ... I mean, for now, what the thing is so we just have to say, "Is it a star of this variety?" "No, it's not that." "Is it a planet?" "No, it's not that." "Is it a neutron star?" "No, it's not that," And we have to come up with different, clever ways to eliminate any other possibility of a thing very meticulously and with lots of data. 

Andrew S.: Wait, the thing that's come out recently, right, is the gravity waves?

Fatima A.: Right.

Andrew S.: Is that starting to help people to quote unquote see black holes? 

Fatima A.: Yes, so gravitational waves have been detected by LIGO are kind of what you get when you have not just a massive object existing, but a massive object accelerating. So if you have something very, very massive, like a black hole and it accelerates, it emits gravitational waves and then we detect them here on earth. One really easy way to have things accelerating is things going around in orbits because circular motion is acceleration. Physics 101. And then if you have two black holes orbiting each other, this is a situation in which you would ideally measure gravitational waves because you have two very, very, very massive objects going around in circles, which means they're accelerating and, as they would fall into each other, they would accelerate even faster.

By looking for gravitational waves, LIGO has been able to detect black holes. However, because of the nature of this detection method, they can only find black holes that are in binaries. It's always two black holes orbiting each other, or one black hole and one neutron star, or potentially two neutron stars, but you have to have a pair. 

Andrew S.: What's a neutron star? 

Fatima A.: A neutron star is ... A good way of summing up a lot of things in space is you have stars and then when a star dies, different things could happen to it depending on how big it is. The biggest stars will become black holes when they die. The second biggest class of stars will become neutron stars, and that's basically just another kind of end result or a stellar corpse, as we say in astronomy, that is a big ball of neutrons, simply put. But then you have weird effects on them like star quakes, and super-fluid and super-conductive interiors and all these crazy exotic things. 

Andrew S.: So it's a big ball of neutrons, neutrons being just one of the particles in atoms. So you got rid of all its protons, is that you're saying?

Fatima A.: Exactly. No protons, no electrons. It's just the neutral part of atoms, which is a weird thing to imagine, but we think it exists. I mean it's, quote unquote, been known to exist for a very long time, the way we know anything in astronomy to exist. I like putting conditions on that a little bit, but ...

Andrew S.: Sorry, I got off topic. 

Fatima A.: So many tangents.

Andrew S.: We were talking about why gravitational waves. First off I brought up gravitational waves, but I'm not fully sure I understand what a gravitational wave is, so could you just describe that too?

Fatima A.: Goodness, I'll try. I'll try. Let's see. What is the gravitational wave? What's the best way to put this? When you drop a stone into a pond, you can see the ripples kind of move outwards from where that stone fell in, right? And if you think of what the ripples actually are, it's like almost a ring of density emanating outwards, right? 

Andrew S.: Right.

Fatima A.: Like there's a little bit over the water that's all bunched together, and that bunch propagates through the water and moves out from the center. And then you have continuous bands of higher density, right? 

Andrew S.: Right.

Fatima A.: So imagine that except instead of water being the thing that you have rings of density emanating outward from the center, it's space itself. So a gravitational wave is a wave that propagates through space itself. Sound waves move through air, water waves move through water, gravitational waves move through space itself, which is a very out there idea to imagine. But it's literally like the space we exist in contracting and expanding in these like ripples outwards from wherever two black holes are smashing into each other somewhere in the galaxy. 

Andrew S.: We ourselves and everything around it is expanding and contracting.

Fatima A.: Exactly. In tiny, tiny minute ways, and the reason we can't tell, besides the fact that it's very tiny, is because anything we would use as a reference point against which to measure these contractions and expansions basically you get from wave, is also subject to that, right? If this room that we're in just shrunk by an inch, the ruler we would want to use to measure the change in the size of the room also shrunk by some scale appropriate amount. So these gravitational waves are moving through the universe, but almost anything we could use to measure them are kind of useless. 

Andrew S.: How do you even handle that?

Fatima A.: That's a great question. Definitely wasn't setting you up for that one. The answer's lasers. So the one thing that is exempt from this brutal contraction and expansion of gravitational waves that we're all subject to is light. Light has this remarkable quality that no matter ... Well, I shouldn't make any really all-encompassing statements. So light will still travel the same distance in whatever amount of time, even if there are gravitational waves happening in the space it's in basically. 

If you would imagine the detectors they've built for gravitational waves are these really, really long tunnels. I don't know if they're like a mile, or several miles, or like less than a mile, but roughly that scale. Really, really, really big structures. Right? And you shoot a laser down these tunnels and you have two of them that are perpendicular to each other, and there are mirrors or whatever at the other side sending them back, or maybe it's just a sensor detecting when the laser light arrives there, and you know how long the tunnel is and you know how fast light travels. 

So if you send your little laser pulse and it gets to the end of that tunnel a mile long in a time that is different from what you expect, that means that the space that the laser was traveling through must have changed. 

Andrew S.: Dang. 

Fatima A.: Right?

Andrew S.: That's insane.

Fatima A.: It's a lot. It's a lot Hopefully I'm making this clear, at least a little bit, but that's basically it. It's you know how fast light is moving, so if you set light on a certain path and it deviates from that path you expect it to be on, that must be because spacetime is all warped. Right?

Andrew S.: Wow, that is so crazy.

Fatima A.: It's really ... it's pretty crazy. 

Andrew S.: Just to reminder that you're tuned into The graduates. I'm speaking today with Fatima Abdurrahman of the Department of Astronomy.

Okay. Honest question, when you think about things on astronomy, do they actually make conceptual sense to you at a certain level? Like where-

Fatima A.: Sometimes.

Andrew S.: So you just kind of have to like, "This is the physics of it and that's how I'm going to understand it," or are there things you just can't comprehend on a certain level? 

Fatima A.: It really depends. I will admit that I'm very often not confident about much of the things I say, many of the things I say. Because, I mean it's just crazy to me when people say stuff about something that happened 13 billion years ago, however many light years away when the universe was a tiny spec or ... I mean, it's not like we don't use a lot of data and rigorous methods to support everything we do in astronomy. But I never feel confident being like, "Yes, there is a neutron star at exactly this position in the galaxy doing exactly that." I mean, there's so many steps of logic we needed to take to get there, so I always kind of approach everything with a little bit of hesitation. But then even beyond that, I mean there are plenty of things, like when when somebody says, "And then spacetime is warped," like we live in a 3D world and experience time, it's physically impossible for me to conceptualize what that even means. 

You can kind of try to understand things like that through analogy, by describing two dimensions and then projecting what you're understanding in two dimensions is to three dimensions, so you can kind of build an intuition for something you don't even really understand. It's when you don't really understand the thing itself, if that makes any sense?

Andrew S.: Yeah. 

Fatima A.: And then there's also the case that sometimes just math is where I put my trust in, like, "The derivation shows this, I have no physical intuition of this because nothing like it exists on earth, but I trust math pretty, pretty well."

Andrew S.: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. 

Fatima A.: Yeah.

Andrew S.: You would say a lot of astronomy is putting faith in math?

Fatima A.: I mean, I would think a lot of physics, in general, is putting faith in math I think is the better way of putting it. Yeah. 

Andrew S.: Would you say that you're like a math genius? 

Fatima A.: No, not by any ... I would hope not, just because I don't want to be that arrogant at any point. But I mean I like math, but I also kind of think that math is just taught poorly and anybody could be good at math if they just had good teachers. You know? 

Andrew S.: Yeah.

Fatima A.: I don't think math skills is anything remarkable, it's just kind of hard to acquire in the education system we live in. 

Andrew S.: Right. So you think just about anybody could get ... The math isn't beyond anybody that wants to be an astronomer?

Fatima A.: No. I mean I ... This might just be like getting into philosophy and stuff, but I'm kind of of the belief that, I mean saying anybody can do anything is I sound a little bit like a motivational poster or something, but there's always this idea of math being this really inaccessible thing people are just born with the ability to do sometimes, and if you're not good with numbers, then you're not good with numbers. And that's this side of the brain, and I am good at that side of the brain or whatever it is. 

But it's I think our education system is just awful. When it comes to STEM being a poorly taught thing is not a new idea whatsoever, right? I think math is just the most egregious example of that. There's just so many things that get people in today's society hung up about their abilities in math that just prevent them from learning from it, or being interested in it or anything. So yeah, I think anybody with the curiosity motivating them to study astronomy, if they had a good teacher or good resources and put their mind to it, would be able to learn the math necessary. 

Andrew S.: Would you say that you had good math teachers? Is that kind of how you were able to get into astronomy? 

Fatima A.: I kind of cheated. My dad's a physicist, so my success is very much just a function of the conditions that I grew up under, basically. I'm not a math genius. I am not any kind of special person in astronomy, I just like space a lot and have a curiosity about it. And I think that was very much fostered by my dad when I was young, and then that kind of just set me up to enjoy math a little bit more as a kid, especially. 

Actually, people always were like, "Oh, you can just as your dad for help on your homework," but that's actually a really awful thing to do and all my siblings would like make a joke about if you ask him anything he'll lecture you for hours, because he will just like go off onto ... As a third-grader I asked him a question about, "What's an exponent?" And then I got a several hour lecture on logarithms. I mean, that sounds not very complicated now, but as a little kid I didn't even know what the word was, and he was just talking at me and yeah, so that was always fun. 

Andrew S.: And then you went into school and tried to explain logarithms and your teacher said, "Hey, we're doing exponents, please."

Fatima A.: You know what's actually funny? I'm like outing myself as a huge dork. I was in a math contest in middle school or something, maybe high school, middle School I think. And it was each week we had a challenge problem that we would take home for the, such a nerd, we would take home for the weekend and try to work out and see if anybody could come up with it the next week. And I remember there was one week that I was the only one who got it, but that's because I asked my dad to help me with it and basically, I don't know, it was like a statistics problem. And the way he decided to solve it for sixth grade me was using the Monte Carlo method, which I don't know if your listeners are familiar with statistical analysis, but this is not something you would do in sixth grade. 

In fact, this is something that I only properly learned at grad school. But literally he just pulled out Excel and made a Monte Carlo simulator to simulate whatever little stats problem I had for this contest. And I went to school and presented this as the answer and they're like, "How did you do this?" I'm just like, "Oh, you know. I read a book."

Andrew S.: Why would the question even-

Fatima A.: I'm sure there was some other way to solve it, but that's just the thing he came up with when I asked for help, and it's just to illustrate the nonsense of those interactions if you would ask him for help on something, where it's just like way throwing more at the problem than is needed. 

Andrew S.: Yeah. How was it going when you first got to your undergrad interacting with professors that weren't your dad?

Fatima A.: I mean, kind of nice because they were all used to answering questions and not needing three hours to answer it, you know? They prioritize their time. I mean, it was kind of nice because when I started studying physics, because in undergrad I started with physics, no astronomy. That came in later. It was kind of cool to constantly be surrounded by other nerds, because how it was in my house growing up or even now, whenever our family is together, it's like there's all the normal people in my family, and then me and my dad sit around in a corner and do math problems together. So now everybody was like that, you know, like everybody thought physics puns were funny, and everybody thought a really difficult riddle was a fun way to spend an hour.

Andrew S.: All of a sudden you were like the coolest kid in school.

Fatima A.: Right, right, right. I'm the coolest physicist person, which is a very, very low bar. No, I'm joking. That's not even true of the students I work with now. But yeah, if anything I've gotten too used to only being around other astronomers now. Because now it's like you go out into the normal world and you try to talk about something, something order of magnitude, and people are like, "What are you saying?" So I don't know. 

Andrew S.: Yeah, I think if you started explaining gravitational waves, people would just kind of say, "Oh, okay. Yeah." Is that how most conversations mostly go?

Fatima A.: Well, because I get really, really into it ... If somebody was at my house and asked me that, I would pull out a whiteboard. I'm not joking. I actually have a whiteboard. It's huge. Everybody who comes through my apartment see it because, at some point, I'll compulsively need to explain something in great detail and I'll be drawing diagrams for you until you understand it, basically. 

Andrew S.: So you're kind of like your dad now? 

Fatima A.: Oh yeah. No, no, no. I'm a carbon copy. He just cloned himself.

Andrew S.: Nice. 

Fatima A.: Yeah, it is what it is. 

Andrew S.: Wait, so when you got to undergrad, I guess you were kind of like used to the whole academic environment, so was it pretty easy to get into research right away?

Fatima A.: I got into research, I mean I went to a really good school for research. I went to University of Maryland. It's remarkably easy for undergrads to do research there. They literally had a class in the physics department that's like, "If you sign up for this class, we'll teach you how to do research and then sign you up for a project with somebody." It was pretty straightforward. That was my sophomore or junior year of college. Sophomore year of college, yes. And I remember that very first project I worked on was actually also on black holes, even though I've done a bunch of different things in between now and then. 

And it's basically the kind of thing, I think that once you get your foot in the door, you're just kind of like in it. Once you get that first research opportunity, then that's your jumping off point and you can apply to other internships for research positions, and then you have all this stuff for grad school, and then it's just snowballs, you know?

Andrew S.: Yeah. 

Fatima A.: Yeah. 

Andrew S.: Okay. But how did you decide to get here? Why did you pick Berkeley? 

Fatima A.: Yeah, that's funny because it was such an afterthought. I had the same list of seven or eight grad schools I was planning on applying to for two years, and then a couple of days-

Andrew S.: Right. Was Berkeley one of them?

Fatima A.: No, it wasn't. And then a couple of days before the Berkeley deadline, I'm like, "What about this school? It looks kind of nice." That sounds like I have this really high ... I didn't get into all the Ivies or something, but it just never occurred to me to think of Berkeley for some reason. And it was weird because within the span of a couple of days, it went from being not on my several year long list to being the top of it. And it was a combination of really good astronomy program, cool area, blah, blah, blah, and for some reason, just over the course of a couple days I'm like, "Man, I really, really want to go to Berkeley."

And somehow it was the first place I heard back from, and as soon as I got that call and they're like, "Oh, you got in," I just emailed everybody else and I'm like, "Nope, not interested," cut off the whole admissions process kind of early, which sounds kind of reckless and like I wasn't putting a lot of thought into my decisions. 

Andrew S.: Wait, yeah. This is the person who makes spreadsheets. How does this happen? 

Fatima A.: It's weird because I swear to God, I put so much thought, and effort, and energy and planning into the tiniest decisions, and then the really big ones are just like snap judgments whenever it hits me. You know?

Andrew S.: Yeah.

Fatima A.: That backpack I have over there? I literally spent two years shopping for that backpack. 

Andrew S.: So do you have time to actually enjoy the Bay or do you spend a lot of time doing research? 

Fatima A.: I think so. I think my department's really good about work-life balance for the most part. When I came and visited the school before I got accepted, I was really impressed by how much it seems like all the grad students had going on. I got to come visit and meet everybody and see what they're all doing, and besides the fact that they were all really cool and I wanted to be friends and work with them, they all ... I mean, half of them are super-serious rock climbers that go on all these climbing trips. So honestly, I feel like everybody has some really cool thing that occupies their time outside of research that they spend a lot of time on. And you don't really see people in our department sitting there until late hours of the night trying to get research done. It's really not that kind of energy, I guess, in our department, which is wonderful and I love ... Wait, what were you saying?

Andrew S.: I was just going to say, you don't stay up late into the night even thought you look at stars?

Fatima A.: Because it's astronomy?

Andrew S.: Yeah.

Fatima A.: Actually, I do a lot. Not everybody who studies astronomy does that. It's only the observers. The theorists don't have to. But when I do do that, I don't wake up and go to work in the morning. I just switch, you know?

Andrew S.: Nice.

Fatima A.: I'm still, if I have to spend the whole night working, I'm just not going to work for two days after that.

Andrew S.: That's pretty cool.

Fatima A.: In the end it ends up even, even if some of us have really weird hours, which is super-fun. 

Andrew S.: Wait, is there a telescope here on campus that you-

Fatima A.: So there is a telescope here on campus on the roof of our department. It's basically just for PR and teaching. The telescopes I use are primarily in Hawaii. Sometimes I get to go out there to use them because-

Andrew S.: Is that why you're an astronomer?

Fatima A.: You know, you would think like while you're an astronomer, you know you would think that that's ... I mean, it's nice because I do get to go out to Hawaii a lot, but observing sucks. I like astronomy and I'll endure observing for the end result, but people always imagine, "Oh, you're sitting outside at night looking through a telescope, how romantic," but in reality it's like you're on a mountain, it's 14,000 feet up, which means you're at 40% oxygen so you can't breathe. Well, you kind of can but it's basically the same amount of functionality as if everybody were drunk. And that's not an exaggeration. It's really awful being at altitude like that. There's oxygen tanks everywhere that we're all using the whole night, and you have to work at night.

Literally, I would get there to the summit as the sun is setting, work until sunrise, then go to sleep because the telescope has to be open to the sky, so you're basically outside. And if you're on a mountain that's 14,000 feet up, there is snow on the ground, so it's freezing. And then, because you can't have a light from whatever sources interfering with the telescope, you work in the dark. So it's dark, cold, middle of the night and you can't breathe, and you're just trying to do really intense, complicated work with really high stakes and I'll just have like a week of that. 

Andrew S.: All right.

Fatima A.: Yeah. It's-

Andrew S.: That's doesn't sound like as fun as I thought [crosstalk]-

Fatima A.: It's not, but you know, Hawaii. That's the thing. I've gone down there and not seen the beach at all, or not seen sun except on the day that I arrive or something. 

Andrew S.: Dang. 

Fatima A.: Right? But sometimes I'll like be able to hang out a few days extra and make it worth it. 

Andrew S.: Well, so we've definitely talked for longer than these 30 minutes, and you can listen to the rest of the show on our podcasts on KALX's website. But as we wrap up, Fatima, is there anything that you would like to leave us with? The nature of science or reality?

Fatima A.: I mean, I think people always hear all that kind of thing about looking at the whole universe makes us feel very small, but it's also kind of beautiful because we're a part of it. Like the Sagan quote about star stuff, thinking about stars, like yes, we're a tiny, tiny bit of the universe, but we're also the same stuff that the rest of the universe is and are this crazy anomaly of things existing in mostly empty space. So yes, it's kind of existentially depressing, but it's also kind of beautiful and amazing at the same time that we could even exist in all of this. Yeah.

Andrew S.: Very true.

Fatima A.: Yeah, it's-

Andrew S.: Yeah, I feel better.

Fatima A.: I'm glad.

Andrew S.: Thank you.

Fatima A.: I'm glad. That was the goal.

Andrew S.: Today I have been speaking with Fatima Abdurrahman of the Department of Astronomy. We've talked about her research and her path to astronomy. I would summarize what we've talked about, but I'm still-

Fatima A.: It was a lot.

Andrew S.: Yeah, and it was a lot of stuff to process. So I'll just let you listen back to it on the podcasts. I'm Andrew Saintsing. Thank you so much.


Fatima A.: Thank you for having me. This was very fun. 

Andrew S.: Tune into our next episode in two weeks.

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So, Dacher Keltner here in Psychology studies awe. The research has been I think maybe 10 years now, 10 to 15 years on, and so, rather in its infancy still. But, awe is really this experience of when you are presented with this like mind-blowing stimulus that you can’t really even comprehend, and a lot of people, they realize they're in awe when they're like, wow. Like wow is like this vocal reaction, right? So, a lot of our research comes out of nature, so like the Grand Canyon for example, or like beauty, music, and so, it's this idea that you then feel relatively small in this like greater vastness, but there's something kind of bigger than you out there, right?Saintsing: Yes.Ziemer: And, awe could be negative, too, right? It could be, it could be like a tornado. It could be a person, that you're like, how did that happen? How did they get into power? I’m in Berkeley, so I think I'm safe to say that here.Saintsing: Yeah, I think you’re safe to say that anywhere. Well, maybe not. So, so there's this like speechlessness about awe that's like really yeah. Is that kind of fundamental to the self-transcendence, or…Ziemer: No, not specifically more self-transcendence is like you are really kind of taken out of yourself so you're focusing on yourself less. It's kind of like this – sometime, I mean oftentimes self-transcendence is spoken around like a spiritual religious context, but it really is this idea that we're connecting with someone else so in like in cooperation or caretaking. Like compassion for example is a self-transcendent emotion. Some emotion researchers would say that these are.Saintsing: So, it's self-transcendent because you're –Ziemer: Go aheadSaintsing: With awe, you're connecting with someone else because you both have this like awestruck reaction with something, and you can relate more because it seems like you're reacting to some – I mean aside from maybe when you're in awe of a person in particular – but it seems like you're in awe of some spectacular vision, or…Ziemer: Yes, and you could be by yourself, right?Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: You could be by yourself in the Grand Canyon, but because you kind of recognize that you're the smaller sense of self, that you, that there's something greater than then you out there, that it then leads you – and I think perhaps and maybe I'm even overstating here, but I don't know if they fully understand the mechanisms of why it leads to social connection, but just they call it in research literature they call it pro-social, so the ability to like be in awe allows you to be more altruistic, more generous, to want to help out other people because you realize that you're not alone essentially. But, there is a bigger thing out there than you, this like collective value.Saintsing: Oh, yeah. That's really interesting is that that kind of, you know, thinking about religion, right? Where you have – I think all religions but I guess I'm not sure – it would have this belief in God would generally inspire awe in someone believed in that. And so, is that kind of the basis of religion having this community like tapping into this community building sense of awe?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, definitely. The origins of awe – I couldn't – when scholars write about awe they oftentimes reference, like, reverence to God. It's kind of mind-blowing concept, and you feel like there's something greater than you out there, so to speak. But, then you're coming together as a community, yeah, but around this belief,Saintsing: Right. So, there's more emotions than just awe that would through self-transcendence allow this community-building?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, so oftentimes folks also speak about gratitude that way. They speak about self-compassion. Now mind you there's a lot of disagreement amongst the emotional world, so I don't even want to get into like the semantics. What I think is important to share, though, most specifically to my interests is, I think, some would say that love is also this self-transcendent trait. So, my own research interests over the past few years have really evolved into this idea of self-love and it's been an interesting journey for sure. As I started talking about self-love with folks over the past, I don't know, eight months or so from a research perspective because there's such a gradient, a spectrum so to speak of how people see self-love. So, if I go back to the self-transcendent nature, how I see self-love is self-love really has this ability to take us out of ourselves to then connect to others so we're focusing on ourselves like filling up our own love tank so to speak with the ability to then show up for others more and to connect more because if I'm feeling really good in myself and I'm taking care of myself that means I have more bandwidth to show up for other people as opposed to if my love tank is empty if my self-love is low then I'm doing things perhaps with expectations of receiving in return. When that's not happening, I'm feeling resentful and all that is very like negative low vibration feeling within ourselves, and ultimately, it's not the type of connection that we're searching for, right? To me self-love – and I'll say that if I can to give you a definition of self-love – one of the folks I've seen written about it the most, who wrote about the most is a psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, and he wrote a book called The Art of Loving, I believe. It was like in the five different types of love, I believe. It's like it's a hundred-page book, and it's really easy to read, and it talks about like five different types of love, like a love for God, a love from your parents. It talks about like a brotherly love – and that’s more like a friendship kind of feeling – but he also talks about this love for self, and it's this idea of caring for, respecting of yourself and your actions in the way that you're going about your life, and it's this stagnant – for me, I think it really is a stagnant way of being, so when there are adversities and when we have to be resilient, right, self-love is so important, but even when things are going great, right, like self-love is still a constant thing, and it's, I think, it's actually tied to other emotions that when we are in a state of self-love we actually experience calm and joy, and we're able to be more aware for these other opportunities to opt in to connection, right?Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: But I think – if I can just say – I think there's a myth I'd really like to bust actually about self-love, which is I think oftentimes there is this, there's this idea that emerged I think in the 80s maybe, or the 90s – I'm blanking on my timeframe right now – came out of the self-help movement which is, which was to say that like before, before you can love anyone else or anyone can really love you that you have to love yourself first, right? So, which for me I find problematic in a lot of ways. I feel like it doesn't really encapsulate the full story. I think that when we are really loving ourselves, sure I think perhaps we're choosing better partners or choosing better relationships that are healing and wonderful for us, right? But, I think – and I see this in this self-love movement right now – that kind of happens in pop culture that puts such an onus or a burden on people to really like, there's almost a perfectionism tendency of, like, I need to get to self-love. Otherwise I'm not good enough, and yeah, and this idea of like not being good enough, that's truly not self-love anyway, right? It really is a self-accepting piece, and so, I think the second part of this, also this myth I want to bust, is that, you know, we are wired for social connection, right? There are researchers, and Brené Brown has talked about this. Matthew Lieberman talks about this, and like an actual brain part of our brain literally is like wired to connect, and so, if I go back to this idea of self-love that, when we are opting into relationships and connection with people, that it can the reciprocal nature can be so healing within ourselves that we don't have to first achieve this like unachievable self-love before we can get into relationships with other people, okay? So, did I explain myself okay there?Saintsing: Yeah, you, so you're saying that self-love has this requirement that you accept yourself as you are, right? Which I guess is true of any sort of love, right?Ziemer: Yeah.Saintsing: Whether it’s directed inward or outward, right, there's this acceptance to it.Ziemer: Lovely, yeah.Saintsing: And so, you're saying that people tend to view self-love as something that they earn from themselves.Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, I think that's a great. Right. There's this like earning quality, and I think that's really well said. That it's like, to earn implies I have to do, to do, to obtain, obtain, obtain as opposed to like self-love just is because I exist, because you exist right here right now, right? And, that's my like mindfulness piece kind of tapping in there a little bit, but it just is.Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: It's, it's been interesting when I talk to – so my own research interest about like what am I actually studying for my PhD, because I'm a social worker, I'm also very much interested in like interventions like what can we do alongside our clients, alongside our community. What can we do in tandem with them to kind of get them this outcome that they're looking for. So, perhaps it's like feeling better about themselves if they're experiencing depression for example, right?Saintsing: Right.Ziemer: And, with self-love I started thinking about, is there a self-love intervention that would be really interesting to try out and study in some way from this like scientifically rigorous procedure for a scientific research method, right? And, when I started talking to people about, there's a common one that is spoken about in self-help, and I've also found it prevalent in addiction communities in like rehab, for example, where you look at yourself in the mirror you make, you literally make eye contact with yourself in the mirror, and you say something positive about yourself. So, I prefer that it's not statements related to like your physical appearance because I do think that it could take like a narcissistic trend, but we're really thinking about like a self-affirming statement, like I'm a good friend or even – I think and really I'm such a fan of this is – really just telling yourself that you love yourself. So, saying like I love you in the mirror while you're making eye contact with yourself. To me, to love, to love somebody else is to say like, I see you, and so self-love, you're really like, okay I see you, you know? Like, you're not that bad. Like, you're actually pretty great, and I will tell you that when I've talked to so many people about this, adolescents, I've spoken to clients of mine who are coming to see me wanting to feel better from depression, I've spoken to scholars about this, and so many people, I get two reactions. One is like absolute repulsion about absolutely not. I will not look at myself in the mirror. Like, this is, why would I ever do that, and two, I think going back to this idea that you were talking about. It's almost like confusion about well like why would I even think about myself. Why would I love myself as like this other entity, but I'm so focused on, you know, loving everybody else. That really to love is to love others, right? Like in scholarly research, we talk about one of the definitions of love is like being a trusted caregiver to others. I mean that's a very amended definition, but love is always this other-oriented emotion, and so, self-love, it's like, like why would I, why would I even do that.Saintsing: It's kind of like awe in some senses. In awe you sort of see something spectacular that makes you see how small you are or how much more there is.Ziemer: Yeah.Saintsing: And, in this self-love you have to see yourself as just another person instead of like where love is flowing from, right? But, self-love kind of like makes you realize you're not like the center of the universe or something. That you're, that you're just another person, and that like, that, that makes you more able, as you said in the self-transcendence, to connect with other people, I guess.Ziemer: I think this is actually why I feel so strongly about self-love is because I think this exact idea that you're talking about is folks who are experiencing depression or addiction, for example right? So, I'm actually, I'm funded. My dissertation is funded through the NIAAA, which is alcohol abuse and I work specifically with the funder here in the Bay Area that alcohol research group. So, oftentimes when we're experiencing addiction or depression we become so tunnel vision in our own mind about what's wrong with ourselves, how things aren't working for me and when we're in depression and addiction, often social isolation is happening it's very difficult to connect to others. And so, I'm such a believer that self-love could have the potential, and this is where I'm curious, right? Like, so from, you know, I'm hearing like my mentors and my advisors’ thoughts in my head right now about, you know, sometimes in the scientific world it can almost be a negative to be a believer, right? That, I think like self-love is a super power. But, I really need to employ my like scientifically rigorous, you know, unbiased view so to speak. Let's be curious about this. Could self-love actually be a superpower? As opposed to like approaching this self-love as a superpower, right? So, I should – let me reel it back for a second to say that, however, yes I do feel like, coming back to this point of awe, that, that self-love definitely, I would hypothesize, leads to feelings of awe because of this ability to connect us to other people, and that it gets us out of our own head. I think my greater vision for my research is to think like how can we employ self-love. It's free. It’s accessible, which I like, right, because a lot of these other therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy. Although I'm a believer, you see there's an access issue. If you go to a private practitioner in New York City, it's $200. I think San Francisco, it's 150, 200. So, my greater vision really would be for people to be able to really continue to cultivate this self-love within themselves.Saintsing: More specifically, what, what would you say your research for your PhD actually entails?Ziemer: Yeah, so yeah, thanks to that questions. I think self-love first. I was just kind of thinking of self-love, I think of, is this like umbrella term, this idea that if self-love is an umbrella and the prongs. There are many different prongs. So, to me it's this idea of like self-compassion, which is like when we're judging ourselves, criticizing ourselves, we’re able to accept ourselves, you know, amidst that. Self-care, which is like the respecting, doing things, really acting caring towards ourselves. This self-esteem idea, right, that we feel competent about ourselves. So, so the reason that I say this kind of umbrella term is because there's little research out there right now that that actually includes self-love, certainly how I know it to be true in these in therapeutic communities, for example. So, I'm so fascinated by, I'll say, phenomena of self-love in popular science in like the Psychology Today blogs, on social media. Like, if you go to Instagram and you type in #selflove, you get 32 million posts on Instagram. Google, you Google self-love, you get three billion returns. So, something is happening out there. What is it? So, I think what the, to me, the intriguing pieces. So, before I can go ahead and develop an intervention, right, even though I really want to jump to that phase, we know that a PhD that you have to take little bits by bits, right? That is actually talking about a career-long pursuit. So, it really, my own research really is conceptualizing this idea of self-love in these lay theory views. So, when I say lay theory I don't mean like scholars who have already written about self-love. I mean people who are on Instagram, and they're posting about self-love, so right now I'm in the process of thinking about perhaps analyzing Instagram posts to see how people, what sort of images people are posting when they're doing #selflove, and specifically within the context of like addiction and sobriety and recovery and that, so where these two worlds of like self-love and addiction intersects and how are people and these lay communities, you know, these therapists, everyday people, how are they talking about self-love? I'm really curious to kind of dig through that because I see, I do see some posts that could be it seen as narcissism, right? Right? I see posts that are very much moving away from this like self-care realm. So, so self-care really is rooted in this like black feminist queer theory, Audrey Lorde. This idea that like you're taking care of yourself so that you can show up for the collective, and this really activist mentality to now this transition of like #selfcareday Starbucks ad with your Frappuccino, whatever. On the beach, #selfcare, right? This is like commoditization, right, of self-care, and people there's you know, so there's, there's like #selfcare, #selflove, but what are we really talking about here? And, I'm so curious to kind of capture some of that, to also include therapists’ voices, people in recovery to kind of see like, what, what is this idea of, of self-love to them?Saintsing: Okay, so you draw on psychology, sociology, lots of different research techniques.Ziemer: Yeah, behavioral health.Saintsing: Yeah, so would you say that's generally true? People who are getting PhDs in the School of Social Welfare, that this is really interdisciplinary?Ziemer: Yeah, what a lovely question. Yes, thank you for saying that. This is why I love social work so much by the way. I really love the social work profession because I do feel like you know in this applied profession we really are always working in these interdisciplinary environments, right? If you're like a clinician working in a hospital you're working with doctors and nurses and psychiatrists for example, right?Saintsing: Right.Ziemer: And so, I think the beauty of this PhD at Berkeley in the Social Welfare Department has so much been about the freedom to connect with other professors and other departments. It's, so in public health for example I've connected with some professors there or some psychology whether it's emotions research or like adolescent development psychopathology for example. So, and I have, yeah, I have you know lovely people in my cohort who are bridging the gap with like anthropology, criminology, for example, so yeah, education. It's really, it's cool.Saintsing: And, you knew that you wanted to be a social worker right out of college?Ziemer: I took a very interesting path. I think I always knew, like in high school, I always was intrigued by the psychology profession, and yeah, I was, I was thought, you know, I'm so drawn to like authenticity and people's lives. Like, what's really happening, you know? I always was drawn to that, but when I was in college, I went to the University of Wisconsin, and they had a great business school, and so, I got a business degree, and I actually, my family, I come from, you know, a long line of people who are in the business world. My dad had been in sales for so long. My brother’s in sales now. My mom was, you know, this is like badass. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. Badass in the corporate world. So, it was always kind of an influence for me, and I did, I was a consultant, an IT consultant, but I realized, like, yeah, I need to, I felt like there was something, my soul was dying. I really wanted to pursue something that I was so excited and curious about, so yeah, about eight years ago I got my Masters in Social Work. I started my MSW program in New York City. That coincided too with some things that were happening in my family, and it just felt like the right time to like leave the corporate world and dive into the Social Work arena.Saintsing: And then, you, you got your masters, and then you worked a little while as a social worker, right?Ziemer: Yeah, so I I did my MSW. It’s a two-year program, and then I was working in New York City for three years at an after school, like a high school Support Program. It was an after-school program, and it was, I mean, I learned so much. It was incredible. I have such love. It's, the program is to reach youth and it's a working at a public high school in Brooklyn, and I think there, maybe, I don't know, our team was maybe ten people or something, and I have such love to this day for these people that I worked with. I mean the environment was so fun. Like, you – we were, we were working with teenagers, teenagers who didn't have a lot of resources at their disposal. I mean this is like a New York City public-funded high school. It's what, the school's we were working with were like C grades, so the way that New York City rates their schools like ABC, so we were a C school, and that means people that I worked with, the strategies they were using were so creative to get these young people what they needed while also providing such a safe space for these young people to learn about themselves. And so, I was actually, I was doing therapy with kids who are high-risk, so who were at risk for suicide, who were just really having a hard time academically or at home and whatnot, but it was such a fun environment. I mean people were so authentic, and I mean, I don't know your experience with young people, but young people, they can sense when you BS. And so, you really have no other choice but to show up authentically, right? And it was such a gift really to work there.Saintsing: So, that was a great experience, and what I guess drove you… I – most people in social work, or if you're a professional, I guess, you mostly just need the masters, and then, you could do the work. What drove you onward to the doctorate?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, so, so I think there were two things. So, one was I would run, every Monday afternoon, I'd run a girl's group. So, like 16-, 17-year-olds. They would come, and we would talk about all the things. Whatever they wanted to talk about, and I was finding a lot of the girls were expressing such anger, and this anger of just like what was just happening in life but then you know the microcosm of like the school environment and Facebook and people calling each other out and you know subliminal subs that were being thrown on Facebook for example, that would then transfer to the school day the next day. And, there would be fights, and girls would get suspended, and so, when I started talking to them about anger and what anger did for them and getting to fight, it really, getting into a fight is a release, right? Like, your adrenaline’s so high and you punch someone out or you do something like, you feel better but it's instantaneous because any of these long-term consequences of getting suspended, your parents finding out, what not, right? Right, so I'd say to them like, yeah what are strategies? How can I – literally I was like what are some strategies that we can use in order to kind of sort through all the different feelings that anger brings? Because ultimately anger is powerlessness, like we get angry when we feel powerless, and so, I started investigating mindfulness. Mindfulness was really just becoming a thing. This was like 2014. At least that was when I first started hearing about it, and so, I would try to understand like, what is this mindfulness? How do I use it? So, mindfulness really is, a definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn in the simplest form that I like, is this idea of non-judgmentally noticing, so like noticing that I got really pissed when someone posted something on Facebook about me that may not be true and like then taking the breath in the pause before I respond, before I respond something nasty to someone on Facebook or want to punch them out the next day for example, right? When you're talking to adolescents, this pause is very difficult because you're also talking about like an age in development where you have impulsivity, and like they're trying to figure out who they are? So, I started diving into this mindfulness. I thought like this could really work, but I was so, mindfulness research was so new at the time. I think it really hit its peak around like 2016 in terms of like the amount of journals are published on it like exponentially increased. So, I knew that, how mindfulness is being talked about in terms of the population, I was working with, so people who were coming from primarily like black and brown communities, lower socioeconomic having toxic stress, mindfulness felt very like white, waspy, affluent. Part one. Part two was I couldn't figure out what are these mindfulness techniques and how can we actually apply them to adolescence. So, I am getting interested in that and started reading all that I could and figured I really wanted to work on interventions for adolescents that were geared around mindfulness to these specific populations I talked about where I felt like there was such a lack of evidence at that point for these groups, so that was part one. Part two: around the same time, I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times written by Dr. Keltner here in psychology, and it was, what is – something like, What is the Emotion of Awe, and I thought that sounds like, what is awe? And, how should I get to know this person? Who is this person? Which then started, for me, like a flurry of googling UC Berkeley, and I knew I wasn't going to be do PhD in Psych, but I found a professor here, Valerie Shapiro, who's my advisor and has been so lovely navigating this PhD world with me. She's a prevention and implementation science researcher here in School of Social Welfare, and she had a study examining social emotional learning programs here in elementary schools in California, so like teaching little kids about empathy for example. So, I thought, oh that's like emotion, and it has to do with like kids and in schools. Like, even though my interests aren't completely aligned, let me reach out to her and see if I could work with her. So, that's kind of how I came to study. My two main areas really have been mindfulness and then positive emotions, specifically now self-love but in this greater context of you know these social problems, like social isolation, depression, addiction and yeah.Saintsing: So, unfortunately, it's been a lot of fun, but we're coming up towards our time limit. Usually at the end of the interview we'll take a minute to offer guests a chance to address the audience about anything that they'd like to talk about. Oftentimes, people talk about like social issues or some things specific to their research.Ziemer: I think, well one thing I want to say for sure is that I think I just want to do a shout out of gratitude as I've been really developing this idea of self-love, I have been working with an undergrad in the Social Welfare Department, Joyce, who's really has helped me kind of start thinking about all this like self-care and self-compassion and where all these terms kind of intersect and cataloging these different Instagram posts to figure out like, yeah, what, what really is self-love and how people are talking about it. So, I wanted to do a shout out to her, and then, I think, you know, lastly, I guess I would say that I think for me I think it's such an important point to hit home is that for me self-love really isn't a selfishness, but it really is, and it's not this like me-focused thing, but it really is in this idea of continuing to like connect and show up as our authentic selves with others, so I think it has some serious healing power behind it. So, we'll see. Yeah, more will be revealed.Saintsing: We all look forward to the results of your research. Thank you so much. Today I've been speaking with KellyZiemerfrom the School of Social Welfare. We've been speaking about her research on positive emotions and the potential therapeutic benefits of self-love. Thank you so much for being on the show, Kelly.Ziemer: Oh, thank you for having me. This is lovely.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.

Sara ElShafie

Keywords: climate change, global change biology, reptiles, science communication, narrativeAndrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm AndrewSaintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by SaraElShafiefrom the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Sara.Sara ElShafie: Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. So, Sarah, you're a paleontologist. Is that correct?ElShafie: Yes, I'm a paleontologist. I always introduce myself as a global change biologist, which just means that I study how climate change and environmental change impact life over time, and paleontology is part of it.Saintsing: Right. So, would you say you're first and foremost a global change biologist?ElShafie: Yeah, just because I don't only work on fossils. I also look at stuff that's around today in order to understand how climate change and stuff impacted life in the past and also what that tells us about where we're headed now and in the future.Saintsing: Okay, cool. So, you're looking at like our current climate change?ElShafie: Yes.Saintsing: Yeah, but also, so the climate has changed a lot in the past, you'd say.ElShafie: Yes, and, and there have been really dramatic events of climate change before, some of which kind of mirror what's going on today, so I look at how those past climate change events impacted life that lived millions of years ago in order to try to better understand what we might expect from climate change today and how it will impact animals that are currently around and also people.Saintsing: What were kind of the outcomes of past climate changes? Is it looking bad for us?ElShafie: Well, in terms of like how climate change now is going to affect society, yeah there are a lot of concerning ramifications that we're already seeing. In terms of how it's affected life in the past, it has all kinds of effects. It can affect where things can live. It can affect what they eat or what's available for them to eat. It can affect how big they get. So, I kind of look at all of those factors in a big picture.Saintsing: You look at all animals, all plants, all organisms? Or, are you looking at specific things?ElShafie: Specifically, I focus on reptiles because reptiles are especially susceptible to changes in climate and changes in their environment because they can't generate their own body heat metabolically the way you and I canSaintsing: Right.ElShafie: Most of them can't and I look at lizards and, and crocodiles and their relatives specifically because they're really abundant in the fossil record, and they have a lot in common with lizards and crocodiles that are around today, so I can use the lizards and crocodiles that are around today to understand the ones that are in the fossil record.Saintsing: Okay, and so, you are looking at how their bodies change over time basically? You're looking at how big the fossils are at certain periods compared to other periods, before and after climate change and how big they are compared to today?ElShafie: Yeah, pretty much body size is the main metric that I use, the main kind of factor that is influenced by climate change because I can use the partial skeletons that I find of lizards and crocodiles in the fossil record to figure out how big they were in the past at any given point before, during, or after a major climate change event. And, I can use lizards and crocodiles that are around today to try to estimate how big they were in the past using only a piece of a skull or a piece of a limb, for example, because it's actually very rare to find whole skeletons in the fossil record of these things.Saintsing: Right. That must be really frustrating.ElShafie: Yeah, well, it also means that I get to I have an excuse to study lots of stuff that's around today in order to understand the fossils, so it gives me a more holistic research experience which I enjoy.Saintsing: So, do you actually get to study living animals? Or, do you mostly look at the bones of the living animals?ElShafie: I do. I study living animals, the living lizards and crocodilians, to understand their body proportions and how I can estimate like the whole length of the animal from just one element, like one piece of the skull or the jaw or the arm bone or something and also to understand how the animals live today and is there any relationship between their morphology, how they look, how their bones look, and what part of a habitat they might live in or what they might be eating or what their physiology might be like.Saintsing: Okay.ElShafie: So yeah studying the living animals is really important for understanding the fossil animals.Saintsing: Right, and so you study specifically reptiles and crocodiles? So you say you studying global change across time, but is there specific period you're interested in, or are you just comparing all the different periods?ElShafie: Yeah, so specifically I look at a period of time, geologic time called the Paleogene which was from about 66 million years ago to about 23-ish million years ago. So, this is right after dinosaurs went extinct up until about 23 million years ago, at which point we had ice at the poles again. We actually didn't have ice at the poles earlier right after the dinosaurs went extinct, and so, during that whole timespan, climate change was happening. The world started off pretty warm, and then it got super-hot relatively quickly right around fifty-six million years ago when there is this incident called the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. So, within a relatively short span of time, a few hundred thousand years or so, the world got really, really hot really fast. Like it increased five degrees Celsius or so, and that's actually even hotter than the warming that we've experienced just in the last century or two, but the rate was actually not even quite as fast as what we're experiencing now, so it is a really powerful analogous event to look at and to better understand what we can expect with the rapid climate change that we're experiencing today. So, it got super, super-hot and around that time the world looked very, very different. Like, there was no ice at the poles at all and the interior of North America actually looked like a jungle if you can picture Utah which is now a desert looking like the Amazon. That's how different it was, which is really crazy to think about. So, to find fossils of crocodiles and these huge lizards and like the first primates and crazy horses and all kinds of stuff in the deserts of Utah and Wyoming and Colorado, and, and it seems it's all from a jungle that looked more like what South America looks like today, which is really awesome, and then over time it kind of dried out and got more arid and more grassy after that.Saintsing: Thinking about what I've grown up thinking about, you know, the extinction of dinosaurs, right? You get this picture in your head that the asteroid hits and then things get really cold.ElShafie: Mm-hmm.Saintsing: There was this drop in temperature that led to the dinosaur extinction still?ElShafie: Yeah, I think it got cold for a while. Right after the asteroid hit event it like, you know, blocked out a lot of sunlight and stuff, but then after that, you know, about 10 million years or so or not even that long. Then the world had largely recovered, but it also looked very different.Saintsing: So, it was an overall pretty warm climate?ElShafie: Yeah, it's – the earth has gone through a lot of changes over millions of years, and it's cool to look at those changes on a timescale of millions of years rather than just, you know, a few hundred years or even thousand years because, since climate is changing so rapidly today, and it's, it's different than anything that humans have experienced in human history. We really have no analog for it in our own history, so looking at much older events in the past and the rate that that happened and the changes that happened and at what pace they happened helps us try to anticipate what we can expect in the future.Saintsing: Right, so what brought about – why did the ice appear again at the poles?ElShafie: At that point Antarctica became isolated, and it was isolated by a current that still flows now around Antarctica. I think it's called the circumpolar current or something, but it keeps, it basically keeps Antarctica refrigerated and that's part of what contributed to it.Saintsing: Just having Antarctica in the place that it's in was enough to give us the climate we have today?ElShafie: Well, yeah. Cuz it's almost like having two giant freezers at each pole of the globe so to speak, and, that you know, they don't exist in isolation either. The ocean currents travel all over the world. They pass by the Arctic or the Antarctic and they bring cold water and that affects the like nutrients and upwelling in other parts of the world including the California coast, and it, you know, it affects how climate and temperature play out over the entire Earth. So, yeah, it's all connected.Saintsing: Yeah, I guess we're dealing with how connected we are right now, right?ElShafie: Mm-hmm. Exactly.Saintsing: So as a climate change scientist – or a global change scientist but you, you know, you're really interested in climate change, I guess. A lot of your work is focused on informing the public on climate change and about science in general. I know you've done a lot of work on improving science communication as a student here, right? Or, at least studying it to understand how it can be improved. So, yeah, can you tell us a little bit more about the work you're doing on that front?ElShafie: Absolutely, yeah, science communication and outreach has always been a big passion of mine and that really started in college, and by the time I got into my master's degree, I realized that I not only wanted that to be a big focus of my career, I actually wanted it to be my primary career direction, in fact. So, I actually came to Berkeley with the intention of pursuing a career in science outreach leadership and science communication, and I knew that I wanted that to be a big part of my activity while pursuing my dissertation here in integrative biology because I also wanted to get the highest scientific training. So, while I've been here working on my dissertation I've also been doing a lot of work in science communication which started as just an attempt to improve my own skills because I realized a couple years into my program here that I myself was really struggling to explain my research to my own family members…Saintsing: Right.ElShafie: In a way that was at all meaningful to them. It really bothered me that I was struggling with that, so I decided to work on it, and I realized that I wasn't the only one that seemed to be having that challenge, and probably a lot of my peers could benefit from it as well, so I got really interested in storytelling, in story development because I figured, well everybody likes stories, so if I can talk about my science in that context, you know, and using storytelling, good storytelling then maybe I would get somewhere. And, I've always been a huge film buff and especially a huge fan of Pixar movies, and I knew that Pixar Animation Studios was actually only a couple miles from our campus. Pixar is in Emeryville, which was just south of Berkley, and so, I just decided to email them one day and actually got a response from a couple story artists who were really interested, and I invited them to come chat with grad students at our UC Museum of Paleontology. We’re based in integrative biology. And, it was going to be just a kind of pilot seminar conversation, let's just see where this goes with some grads, and it's turned into everyone from undergrads to emeritus faculty crammed into our little seminar room to hear from this story artist who was just talking about bread-and-butter stuff of the kind of strategies that they use to develop stories for their films at Pixar. And then, we had a conversation about how some of those strategies might apply to how we can talk to the public about science in a more effective and engaging way, and that was about three and a half years ago now, and since then, you know, that one seminar totally changed how I was thinking about science communication, and everybody else who was in the room responded really positively to it and remarked how useful it was, so that sparked an ongoing conversation and more and more artists at Pixar got involved volunteering their time, and now it's become this whole workshop series called Science through Story that I've been running for about three and a half years now. It started here at Berkeley on campus and has since, we've gone to other campuses, conferences, museums, organizations. So, yeah it's been a really, really fun experience and very helpful.Saintsing: Yeah, that sounds really incredible. So, you, you've taken this on the road. Is it still mostly Pixar is the main partner involved, or do you have like other studios, other artists involved?ElShafie: I've worked with other artists at this point, and the workshops, it's not a formal program of Pixar. Pixar doesn't sponsor it or anything financially. They've just been very generous in allowing their, some of the artists that work at the studio, anybody who wants to be involved to volunteer their time. So, several artists have come and run workshops with me here at Berkeley and at a few other campuses and conferences, and I meet with artists there periodically to learn from them about the creative process they use and how they approach story development, and then I adapt that into strategies that scientists and science educators can use to talk about science and an engaging way, using storytelling techniques, so Pixar people from Pixar have been involved. I've also worked with an artist who works at Industrial Light and Magic and a couple artists from DreamWorks Animation as well as an artist who was working at Double Fine productions and a guy who's a gentleman who started his own graphic design firm. Improv people, all kinds of artists through these workshops, and also we ran actually a full-day symposium called Science through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences, and that took place at a major biology conference, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology last year in 2018, when the meeting was here in San Francisco. We had a full day symposium on this topic, on science storytelling with speakers from both the scientific community and from different artistic disciplines all weighing in from their different perspectives and experiences on how to engage the audiences with science through storytelling and in different avenues, different media, different disciplines. It was really, really awesome because, to my knowledge, I think that's the first time that scientists and artists have spoken together on the same platform at a major biology conference, and we also had a lot of early career presenters involved as part of that, and out of that symposium we not only had the event itself but we also ended up publishing a whole volume of papers in a peer-reviewed biology journal, Integrative and Comparative Biology, which are now available online, and these are all peer-reviewed papers in a biology journal, but they are all written to be accessible to any reader even a high school student. Actually, we had some high school students in the past read it for some workshops that I've done at high schools in the area. We use papers from that symposium with REU, research experiences for undergraduates, program just this past summer. So, anybody can read them and get something out of it, and I, my own paper that I contributed to that volume is just called Making Science Engaging for Broad Audiences through Stories, something like that, and I wrote that paper for myself three years ago for any grad student or any student who wants to start doing more science communication or wants to get involved with science outreach and doesn't know where to start. If you're looking for a place to start, if that, if that sounds like you, then I encourage you to check out these papers because it's not just, you know, it's grad students, its scientists, its animators, it's video game developers, it's people who work in Hollywood, it’s people who work with data visualization. All kinds of voices weighing in on this, and, and they're really a fun read.Saintsing: That sounds like a really great resource.ElShafie: Yeah.Saintsing: I hope everyone takes the time to check that out. You started by talking to people at Pixar, and that was like obviously, Pixar's really close to Berkeley, and so that's sort of a matter of like convenience, right? But also, I just noticed that a lot of the people that you mentioned kind of are involved in special effects or animation or things like that? Is there a reason why that's more relatable to science, or is that just a matter of, like, you went down this avenue of talking to animators or people who are involved in animation and then that snowballed into more and more people who were involved in that side of the story developing process?ElShafie: It's a good question. Honestly, I think that scientists can learn something valuable from any type of artist, no matter what discipline because artists and scientists actually have a lot in common in terms of how we approach problems and, and what we're all trying to produce might seem very different, but ultimately the approach that we take is very similar. Both scientists and artists have to use their observation skills. That's very, very important for both conducting science and for doing art. It's all about observation. Both of us are trying to distill complexity out of a whole bunch of material that we could use, and we're trying to distill the most cogent, most cohesive, most compelling version of that story, of that study as we're presenting it, of that thing that we're trying to capture in some, some visual form or a musical form. So, it's distilling complexity. It's using the power of observation, and in terms of the artists that I ended up working with, that was just, it kind of was a combination of who I happen to meet through my networking, people that were introduced to me by colleagues that expressed interest, and we were really wonderfully fortunate that we got such a great variety of people involved. And, that was also part of it that we, you know, if we already had someone who is an animator, then we tried to get other disciplines that we didn't yet have represented for that symposium in particular. So, that was kind of how we went about it, but I would encourage scientists to talk to any and all kinds of artists because you can learn something valuable from anybody and any and all kinds of scientists.Saintsing: This is just a reminder that you’re tuned into The Graduates. Today I'm speaking with SaraElShafiefrom the Department of Integrative Biology. So, you mentioned that you came to Berkeley with the intent of being a science communicator?ElShafie: Yeah.Saintsing: Of pursuing some kind of leadership position in science outreach?ElShafie: When I came to Berkeley my, my long-term goal was to become like the director of a major science museum or science outreach nonprofit, something along those lines, and I knew that to do that I would, it would be really helpful if I had a PhD in science. People in those positions tend to be either previous professors or curators at museums or past CEOs or university presidents and I wasn't interested in the latter two so much, but I really wanted I wanted to learn more science. I wanted to get the highest scientific training, so that's why I came here to do my PhD because I was very upfront about my career aspirations in my interviews for PhD programs and when I came to Berkeley, they were just totally supportive of that. My advisor was very supportive, the people at the UC Museum of Paleontology that I spoke with were very supportive. So, I, that's why I came here and also because being in the Department of Integrative Biology, which has this wonderful resource, the Berkeley Natural History Museums. We have a paleontology museum; a zoology museum, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; plus an herbarium, the Jepson Herbarium; and the Essig Museum of Entomology with all the insects. We have all of those in-house, right in our own department, and, and all those museums, especially UCMP, is very, very active with science outreach. So, I realized that by coming to Integrative Biology at Berkeley, I could not only be doing my dissertation, which, Integrative Biology was perfect because I wanted to do research that integrated several different fields together, but also, I could be learning from these museum educators and people who do a lot of science outreach and community outreach. So, it was kind of like getting training in both areas at the same time.Saintsing: Right, so you graduated from undergrad knowing that you wanted to do science communication then, or was that more of a kind of developing process?ElShafie: I would say it was an ongoing process. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Chicago. I'm from Chicago originally, and, and I had a great experience at U Chicago. I was working in, at the UC, a new Chicago fossil lab there for years as an undergrad, and I did some research for a thesis and everything, but through that fossil lab, I also had the opportunity to participate in a lot of science outreach with Chicago Public Schools after school and summer science programs, and I really enjoyed that and I loved seeing the transformation that the students would go through just coming in not really sure if science is for them and then leaving much more empowered in general. Not just in seeing themselves as scientists. So, I knew that I wanted that type of work to be a big part of my career as I was graduating undergrad, and then when I went into my master's program which was at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, coming in I knew that I wanted to pursue more scientific research and get my graduate degree, but one semester in I realized I think I actually want the outreach to be my main focus. I was really jazzed about the research I was doing. I was really enjoying it, but I was starting to realize that my primary passion was not just doing the science but actually sharing the science with other people who might not have access to it yet or might not be familiar with it or see themselves as, as scientists or understand the role that science plays in their lives. That was really my, my main focus that I wanted to take, but I also know I wanted the scientific training so I finished my masters in Nebraska, and fortunately my, my master's advisor in Nebraska was very supportive of that realization in that aspiration, and he basically said, hey if you want to be the bridge between science and the public, awesome. We need more people like that. Get your masters in science first because that'll open more doors to you down the road, but while you're here start exploring and figure out what that career path might look like for you. And, I was doing a lot of my data collection for my master's thesis in collections at natural history museums around the country, and through that, I was kind of reminded how much I love working with museums and loved being in museums and because that was a big part of my childhood growing up in Chicago which has great museums and zoos and aquaria and such. So, I knew that I wanted to work with museums and an informal education in some capacity and kind of by the time I finished my Master's, I had realized, yeah, I think I want to pursue a leadership position with a museum or some science outreach program because there seems to be a really big demand for people who can fill those positions, people who can wear the science hat but also have a lot of outreach, education, communication experience and also who understand how to manage a team and manage a budget.Saintsing: So, you would say that as a child it was probably your experiences going to museums that sparked this whole career interest in science and in science communication?ElShafie: Definitely, I would always be begging my parents to take me to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium or the Brookfield Zoo or the Museum of Science and Industry. Growing up in Chicago those were like my favorite places to hang out, and, and in addition, I would visit my parents or my grandparents down in the Florida Keys every winter. They would spend the winters down there, and my grandfather was a fisherman, and he used to take me out on his fishing boat, and I would snorkel off of his boat and we would see dolphins jumping around, and I just, I think that's, that's the earliest memory that I have as a child, when I was like six and he took us out on Christmas Day and all these, this whole pod of dolphins came and jumped all around us and it was just the most magical thing I've ever had in my six-year-old memory. That's when I really fell in love with nature and animals, and I've been hooked ever since, and, and the specific focus has kind of changed over the course of my life from marine biology for a long time to paleontology to herpetology now, working with reptiles and, and kind of global change more broadly. And then, science communication and science outreach I think has always been part of my interest because I love to share my passion for nature with other people, and so, now it's kind of it's all come together now, working on my PhD and even tying in my interest in film, working with film artists and different kinds of artists as part of the science communication work. So, it's been a lot of fun.Saintsing: All right, I was gonna ask, so as a kid you really liked talking about science?ElShafie: Yeah.Saintsing: So, you're probably just telling everybody non-stop about all the cool scientific things you were learning?ElShafie: Oh, sure. Anybody who wanted or didn't want to know about dolphins and sharks and lizards and whatever I was reading about at the time. Yeah, I love that stuff.Saintsing: But then, you mentioned earlier, part of the reason why you started getting more interested in, at least the, what you wrote the article that you published with the symposium, that was partially to help you understand how to communicate science in some ways.ElShafie: Yeah, absolutely.Saintsing: So, would you say that maybe it's harder to communicate the science that you're actually doing than just to share scientific facts you're learning?ElShafie: Definitely. You've hit the nail on the head. I think it's, it's really fun and easy to just like share cool facts about animals because animals are very cool and there's lots of cool facts that you can share about them just you know in, in conversation, but when you're doing scientific research, especially, you know, long term in-depth scientific research, the specific questions of which might be a little bit more removed from people's everyday experience, it is a lot harder to figure out how to share that in an engaging way with other people you know. When I started my program here, if you asked me what's your research about, I would have jumped immediately into a detailed, jargon-laden explanation of how I study these lizards that lived 45 million years ago, and, and their body size got much bigger as the mean annual paleo temperature got a lot hotter in the Eocene and, and etc. And, you know, when I used to give that explanation to my family members, who are like farmers in rural Maryland, or my family members in Egypt on my dad's side, they would nod politely and, and be excited for me because I was clearly excited about it, but they couldn't relate to it at all because I wasn't connecting it to anything that they could relate to. So, now when people ask me what do you study I just start with, I study how climate change impacts animals over time. That's it.Saintsing: Right.ElShafie: And then, if they're really that interested, then maybe I would get into that I also use fossils, and if they're more interested, then maybe we get to the point of: I study reptiles and some of the details that we discussed earlier. But, it's, you know, it's, you almost have to unlearn a little bit of how you're trained to talk about your science as a graduate student. I think that's why it's really important for science communication training to be part of any graduate training program, no matter what your field is, especially if you're, if you're in a STEM field, if you're training to be some kind of scientist because it's when we write our, you know, technical papers we have to talk about science in a particular way, but even there having some story structure can really help the paper flow, but when you're talking about science with broader audiences, especially non-specialist audiences or even scientists outside of your own field, it really helps if you can start at a more general level where everybody can, can clue in and, and relate to what you're saying and then you get into more detail from there as, as needed. But, you don't even need to go to that level of detail in most cases. People just want the general sense of what you're doing. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is who is your audience, who are you talking to, and what is your goal for that audience, what do you want them to take away from your interaction with them, and that might be something specific like, I want them to understand what's really cool about this method I'm using. It might be more general like I simply want this person to understand that I'm a human being who cares about the same things that they do.Saintsing: Right, we're coming up at the end of our interview. Typically at the end of the interview we just offer our guests a moment to speak on any issue they'd like to speak about, about social issues or about their topic, their research area in science, or really anything you'd like to address to the listeners.ElShafie: Sure. Appreciate it. I would love to say to anybody listening who is not currently in a science graduate degree program but if you're interested in science in any capacity then I hope that you pursue that interest in some form, whether it's pursuing a degree in science or even just learning about whatever scientific field you're interested in, and, and I encourage you to bring your other interests into that as well. I think the, the best scientists I know who are the most creative about how they approach their science are those who are interested in lots of different things, and, and, and vice versa. So, I think combining interests in lots of different fields is actually a really, it's, it's a great way to enrich your work no matter what you do, and, and scientists want to meet you, and scientists want to talk to you no matter what it is you do. We love, we love talking about science, but we also love learning about other things other than science because that just enriches our perspective about how we approach science. So, if you're an artist, if you're an educator, if you're a farmer, if you are whoever you are no matter what you do, please come chat with us because we'd love to meet you, and if you're a scientist listening, I really encourage you to step outside of academia as often as you can, especially if you're a graduate student or postdoc, you know. Don't wait until you finish your degree or until you get your career up and running. It already is running, and I think the more you meet and interact with people outside of science, the better scientist you will be because it will, you learn how other people think and that's really important for science communication, but it also just enriches your perspective and enhances your appreciation for what you do, and it's also a lot of fun, and especially if you have interests outside of science whether it's a hobby or another field or whatever it is, don't wait to dabble in that. Get involved with it. Take a class. Read a book. Join a group. Whatever it is, get involved with that now because being involved in lots of different things and expanding your horizons while you're in grad school is really great for your mental and emotional health, and, and it also just gives you a broader sense of how you can use your scientific training in the world, whether you want to pursue academia or potentially something else.Saintsing: Right, open dialogue with people who don't study the same thing as you, who are coming from different backgrounds, that would be good not just for scientists but for everyone, right?ElShafie: Mm-hmm.Saintsing: Yeah, but yeah especially for scientists. That's a great message, Sara. Thank you so much for being on the show. It was really great.ElShafie: It was a lot of fun talking to you today. Thank you so much for having me.Saintsing: I've been speaking with SaraElShafiefrom the Department of Integrative Biology. We were speaking about her interest in global climate change and how she communicates her science to the public. Tune in and two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.