This post is written by Morgan Sweeney, a recent graduate of the Cognitive Science program at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Morgan’s relationship to science was transformed after a knee injury; in her words “it wasn’t my physical therapist’s detailed explanation of the muscles in my leg that changed my perspective: it was the Scientific American magazines I read while waiting in the office.” For Morgan, the power of science is embedded in stories – those Scientific American articles certainly had an impact! Morgan now lives in Chicago, where she works as a freelance writer and science communicator, and she also creates the podcast Magic of the Mind, which communicates science through fantasy stories. Find out more about Morgan’s work here.
I’ve never been good at describing myself. I take far too long to answer easy questions, like “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?”.
I could give the easy answer: “I moved here from California”, and “I’m a science communicator”. Or, I could give the honest answer: “I’ve moved somewhere new every 2-3 years of my life, how far back do you want to go?”, and “I want to write fiction that communicates science to people, but have no idea how to make a living doing that, so I’m freelancing for now.”
I don’t want to alienate anyone I just met by oversharing, but I don’t want to lie by over-simplifying either. And so I struggle, attempting to fit myself into a comfortable, bite-sized box that’s familiar enough that others can understand me.
As a kid, it didn’t matter what box I chose: I could fit in a thousand boxes all at the same time. I loved gymnastics and math. I could read all day or wander outside playing pretend. I was constantly changing who I was and what I wanted to be, because the boxes I put myself in were ephemeral. As I passed from box to box, the people around me accepted that.
The trouble came when the boxes became solid. As I grew, the boxes became categories I was supposed to put myself in, that determined what I did and who I did it with. If I liked reading, I was a geek. If I liked sports, I had to be good at them. If I liked science, I must be a know-it-all.
In high school, the boxes I chose started to have repercussions that reached outside my friends and free time, determining what I would do for the rest of my life. I liked science, and took biology and psychology so I could learn more about people. Cognitive science seemed like the perfect place for someone like me, who loved the science and philosophy of the mind equally. The only thing I missed was creative writing.
Then, I learned about a box I hadn’t known existed: science writing. It sounded sparkly and beautiful. Not only could I tell stories, I could share important knowledge with other people! What could be better than that?
I started writing for my student newspaper, The McGill Tribune. It was wonderful to meet other people with my same passion, to realize I wasn’t alone.
Student journalism was fun, but the form felt smothering to me. It didn’t engage me like the fantasy novels of my youth, where characters and conflict were at the center of every story. I was devastated to give up my narratorial voice. Facts are important, but where was the fun? I wanted to make people care about science, and I didn’t feel like I could do that without humanity.
That same year, I took a gap semester to travel around Latin America. I spent hour upon hour in transit, filling my time with podcasts. Radiolab was my absolute favorite. The magic of discovery they conveyed through sounds, storytelling, and science held a constant atmosphere of teamwork, one I had sorely missed while writing isolated articles. It opened my eyes to a whole new form of communicating science, one where a group of people were able to change the way others looked at the world. Podcasts seemed like the corner within the science communication box where I just might belong.
I got involved with a few podcasts in Montreal, and found a community of like-minded people. It was great to be a part of a team again, and inspired me to create something of my own. I wanted to build a part of the box that felt like mine. My dream was to make a science show that felt exciting and magical, and placed female scientists like me front and center.
I decided to take the two things I loved most and put them together: fantasy stories and science communication. With a lot of help from incredible people around me, I made my own podcast, Magic of the Mind.
Growing up is realizing that we’ll never fit perfectly into the boxes that the world gives us. Growing up is also realizing the potential we have to create a box that feels like our own. Despite the uncertainty of this time, I still have some semblance of belonging, in the little corner of this science/fantasy box I’ve marked as my own. I’ve pasted notes from friends and family who love and support me on the walls. I’ve made a niche where my creative, curious, magical podcast is able to belong. It’s still not easy to explain what I do to other people, but it’s much easier with the knowledge that I’m not alone.