After surviving a crash course in comedy, a cohort of NIU researchers will perform their stand-up comedy talks on June 11 and 18. The STEM experts from NIU and Argonne National Laboratory have been working with Science Riot, a nonprofit dedicated to helping scientists harness the power of laughter to connect with broad audiences and explain complicated research in engaging ways. On June 11 (in person at the Field Museum) and June 18 (livestreamed), they’ll share the results of their training in five-minute comedy talks.
Tickets are $18 for the in-person event and $10 for the livestream and are available on the Science Riot website.
“Science Riot is something that the university has been interested in since 2018,” says Gillian King-Cargile, director of STEM Read in the NIU Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, who has coordinated the collaboration and will be one of the speakers. “NIU sent me to a Science Riot show at the Field Museum in Chicago and asked me to report back on whether this would be a good training opportunity for faculty and staff. I attended the comedy showcase and had a blast.”
Now, King-Cargile is thrilled that the NIU Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development and the NIU Libraries have collaborated to bring Science Riot to NIU, supported with funding provided by the Friends of the NIU Libraries.
“I’ve always been impressed with the talks Science Riot trainees present,” King-Cargile says. “I’ve learned about BioArt and dinosaur poop and ways that fictional zombie outbreaks help researchers model actual epidemics. I’m so excited that we’ve been able to bring this to NIU and our STEM partners and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to continue this unique training on a regular basis.”
Patricia Wallace, adjunct professor in the NIU Department of Psychology and research compliance coordinator in the Office of Research Compliance, Integrity and Safety, jumped at the chance to participate.
“I saw an email about Science Riot and thought, I have to do this. When I was a kid, I always thought I’d be a comedian one day. I’ve always liked to laugh and make people laugh. Instead, I became an experimental psychologist, which isn’t exactly an obvious alternative to comedy! But when I teach – and I teach a lot of classes like research and statistics that the students aren’t necessarily excited about – I tell a lot of stories and inject humor into the class, and I think that really increases student engagement.”
For her comedy talk, Wallace plans to discuss the research process, addressing how scientists develop a research design to make sure they’re studying what they think they’re studying.
“Some topics are especially hard to study,” says Wallace. “I studied aggression in graduate school, and aggression is a tough one to look at in the lab because you don’t want people punching each other! So we had to come up with a clever way to look at it while actually still measuring aggression, and I like the idea of getting people to think about that process. Most people aren’t going to go into research, but they are going to learn about research results all throughout their lives, so they should be critical thinkers.”
David Gunkel, distinguished teaching professor in the Department of Communication, will be talking about his research into the ethics of emerging technologies (think Robot Rights, for example – the title of Gunkel’s 2018 book).
“I got involved in Science Riot, because it seemed like a really interesting and unique challenge,” Gunkel says. “Every instructor has had the experience of saying something unexpected in class and having it produce an outburst of laughter. And it is clear that this comic relief can help to create a more engaging classroom experience for our students. This is an opportunity to take control of that process, using humor as a way to help connect with your audience and communicate ideas.”
According to Gunkel, “The most difficult part isn’t being funny. The most difficult part, for me at least, has been brevity and concision. Academics learn to write long, complicated explanations containing words like ‘brevity’ and ‘concision.’ There’s no room for that in a short stand-up piece that has got to make its point from the first sentence. Getting there has taken a lot of work and numerous drafts, but the exercise has been incredibly informative and useful.”
Wallace, Gunkel and King-Cargile will also be joined by Bethany Cockburn, assistant professor of management in the NIU College of Business; Karen Lichtman, associate professor of Spanish linguistics in the Department of World Languages and Cultures; and Oreoluwa Akinbo, graduate assistant in the Department of Psychology; as well as scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and the Shedd Aquarium. The evening is sure to be a fun introduction to many different fields of study.
The participants have appreciated the chance to gather (virtually) to talk informally with one another and learn about the process of creating comedy.
“It was really neat to get to be in the role of the student and see the approach the leader took to make participants more comfortable,” says Wallace. “I’m so often the one in charge of the group. It was nice to be a student learning something new – I love the idea of people learning their whole lives.”
The NIU Science Riot in-person show will take place on Friday, June 11, 2021, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Field Museum in Chicago. The online show will take place on Friday, June 18, 2021, from 7 to 8 p.m., livestreamed from the Field Museum. Tickets are available on the Science Riot website. The event will not be recorded to view later, so don’t miss it!