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Falling in Love With Science: Adventures in Learning with Science Editor in Chief H. Holden Thorp

And so you have some checklist of all these things that you have to teach your students, and nowhere on there does it say teach them how to love science and teach them how what the social implications of this particular scientific principle are, things like that. And those are the things that we're missing.

Why is science so important in our lives? And how can we do a better job of preparing young children to love science and to embrace the wide range of STEM careers available to them? We discuss all this and more with H. Holden Thorp, Editor-In-Chief of the Science family of journals.

I've known Holden since we were kids growing up in Fayetteville, NC and involved in the Fayetteville Little Theater, which is now the Cape Fear Regional Theater. Holden was one of my first role models for someone who seamlessly blended a love of science with a love of the arts. In fact, you might say Holden was one of my first role models for what somebody who was involved in a career in STEM and STEAM looked like. Holden Thorp is the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, holding appointments in both chemistry and medicine.

Holden previously served as Washington University’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and as the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also served as Morehead Planetarium's director and was instrumental in the establishment of the North Carolina Science Festival, the first statewide celebration of its kind in the nation. He earned his Ph.D in inorganic chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, and completed postdoctoral work at Yale University.

Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed, general science journal in the world. The Science family of journals includes Science, Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, Science Robotics, Science Immunology, and the open-access journal, Science Advances.

To follow Holden's thoughts and blogs, check out Twitter @hholdenthorp, LinkedIn, mastodon, blog posts, substack, and more. To listen to our entire conversation, please follow the Adventures in Learning podcast.

What follows are some highlights from our conversation.

Summarize Your Adventures in Learning in Three Minutes or Less

[01:44] Dr. Diane: So, before we start, I was thinking maybe in three minutes or less, can you give us a sense of your Adventures in Learning? How have you gotten to where you are today as the editor of the Science magazines?

[01:57] Holden Thorp: Well, like a lot of people, I was fortunate to go to a high school that had an outstanding chemistry teacher. I hadn't thought about being a scientist. I knew I was good at math, but I really fell in love with science when I had a great teacher who took an interest in me and taught me how beautiful chemistry is. And then I had a great experience in college. I was going to be a premed because I never met any scientists before. Growing up in our hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, there aren't a lot of scientists running around. But when I got to college, I had professors who were doing research, and I took a lot of interest in that. And so I changed my plan and didn't go to medical school, but I went to get a PhD in chemistry instead. And the first part of my career was pretty typical. I did what's called a postdoctoral fellowship, where you just do research for a while, and then I became an assistant professor at North Carolina State and then UNC. And for the first 15 years of that, I was doing normal things that chemistry professors do, experiments and training students and writing papers. Then I went off on an administrative adventure as the Chancellor of UNC and the Provost of Washington University in St. Louis. And when that was over, I went back to science, and I got the dream job of any scientist, which is to be the editor in chief of Science and the Science family of journals.

What do you think makes a good scientist?

[03:49] Holden Thorp: Well, I think the most important thing, and I think this is very critical for early education too, is the recognition as early as possible, that science is not this book of facts that falls down out of the sky that we all have to memorize. There's some of that, of course, but most of it are things that you can look up or teach yourself.

What's most important is the recognition that science is a process. It's a process carried out by human beings, human beings who have all the flaws that human beings have when we do anything else. We're not special in that regard. So that means science has a lot of the problems that we see in other parts of society. But it also means that the process of science is something that's exciting, and it has lots of human drama in it. That's what makes my current job interesting.

And so I think the most important thing we can do is cultivate a sense among everyone that science is a process. It's not something that's fixed in time, that facts have a shelf life because we do more experiments, and that's what makes it fun. And the people who get that the soonest are the ones who do the best if they want to be a scientist.

How do we help kids understand the depth and breadth of STEM career possibilities available to them today?

[05:16] Dr. Diane: When you were talking about your background that there weren't a lot of scientists running around Fayetteville, I know that was my experience as well. I didn't realize until much further into my career how much I loved science. I had had good teachers, but didn't know there was something I could do with it beyond joining the army or something, which I did not do because that was not my thing. But how do we help kids understand sort of the deep breadth of jobs that are available in STEM today? Because it's so much more, I think, than just you have to be this kind of engineer or you have to be a doctor, as you were saying, right?

[05:56] Holden Thorp: I mean, it's critically important, and we've done a very bad job. We've done a bad job because for one thing, the college professors don't really help us very much because all they know about are people who became scientists and then became college professors. So we all have to rededicate ourselves and academia has probably the most work to do on this, to not only letting students know that you don't have to wear a lab coat and hold a pipette in your hand for 40 years to be a scientist. You can do lots of other things.

In my particular line of work, there's 160 people who work for me. Most of them have at least an undergraduate degree in science. Many of them, the editors, have much more education and experience than that. And we run the most influential source of scientific information in the world. We don't do experiments, but we know a lot about experiments. And the colleagues that I work with know about every kind of experiment. So just that is important. But we need people in science policy, we need outstanding science educators. We need people who are good at communicating with the public about science. I mean, a lot of what we have seen with denial of COVID and climate change is a product of the fact that we haven't prioritized all the other things that scientists can do besides doing experiments and putting them in the literature. And so that's one of the reasons, it's great to see you again, but that's also one of the reasons why I was eager to come on your podcast.

What can educators do better to get and keep kids excited about science?

[07:43] Dr. Diane: How do we share these stories in a way that we get kids excited and we start off with a lot of hands on exploration. We allow them to sort of get to know their world, to focus, and I feel like somewhere between that early childhood point and when they hit you in college, that gets lost in translation. And so, from your perspective, having seen it through higher ed and now seeing it as editor in chief of the magazine, what are some things you think that maybe as educators, we ought to be stepping up to do a little bit better?

[08:22] Holden Thorp: Yeah, I think the most important thing is, and this is certainly true in K through 12, it's even more true in higher education, we don't need all these redundant requirements anymore. You can teach yourself anything if you want to learn it, and you can find all the materials you need to do that easily. Now there are so many outstanding pedagogical tools for people to learn science. There's great videos on Khan Academy, and there are outstanding science writers who write about things, and there's a vast internet of scientific literature.

And so we need to focus on teaching people to enjoy science, to understand the process, and to learn how to teach themselves. --Holden

So I really get on the case frequently of the engineers, because they pile their degrees full of class after class on mass transport and thermodynamics and all this stuff, and they don't teach the history of science and enough about how science affects society for engineers to understand that.

And that error of thinking goes all the way down to K-12, because in K-12, in a way, you have even more standards. So you have some checklist of all these things that you have to teach your students, and nowhere on there does it say, teach them how to love science and teach them what the social implications of these particular scientific principle are, things like that. And those are the things that we're missing. We're really, really good at the reductionist part of science. We got those COVID vaccines in record time. We published a lot of those papers. They just came like rain. We explained COVID perfectly, but all the scientists were just stunned that people didn't want to go get their vaccines or wear their masks. Well, that's because they haven't been reading the history and social science of science. And you can't blame them for not knowing that because we didn't require them to learn it.

[10:53] Dr. Diane: And I would think even added on to that, it's that idea of also learning how to teach yourself using critical thinking. I think that's something that's missing as well is to be able to wade through all of that knowledge and be able to go, okay, what makes this true? What's the source? How do you read for content and for understanding? I think that would be another factor that you'd want to be teaching kids as we're going through and thinking about that love of science, and then also how do you read and trust what you're reading?

[11:24] Holden Thorp: Absolutely. Definitely. And we don't have enough of that, so and I think, you know, even in informal science education, you know, as you know, I didn't, I didn't include this stint of my life, but for four years I ran a planetarium.

[11:40] Dr. Diane: That's awesome.

[11:45] Holden Thorp: I worked with people who really knew a lot about K-12 education. And of course, coming in as a practicing scientist, you know, I was wanting to cram all this material into all of our programs. And I worked with a really great elementary ed expert who one time just got so frustrated with me, she didn't grab me by the shirt, but she did figuratively. And she said, they're in the third grade. And I think a lot of the people who are crafting all of this stuff don't get that and don't get that this all starts in cultivating well being and confidence and all of those things. Most people could teach themselves anything if they want to and if they believe they can do it. And that's what we need to instill in folks.

Right. We start with curiosity, we start with wonder, and then we learn how to learn as we go through, I think, right? -- --Dr. Diane

What are some of the science stories we should be watching right now?

[14:20] Dr. Diane: So from where you are right now, what do you think are the biggest issues that are facing us today in terms of, maybe some of the coolest science coming down the road, some of the stories that you think we should be paying attention to that maybe we aren't?

[14:34] Holden Thorp: Well, some of the things that are really cool are things that are apparent to most people. I mean, artificial intelligence is just burning through every single field, particularly in protein structure prediction, and lots of things in medicine. And the algorithms are getting better and better and more able to do some things and not others that humans can do, and there's a lot of excitement there. But there are a lot of also very big questions about how we're going to handle all that.

Of course, the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST is producing already a lot of information about exoplanets, and there'll be a lot of other things in cosmology that will come soon. We made JWST our breakthrough of the year this year, and we have a lot of great coverage upon that and videos and stuff on our website if people want to read more about that.

Quantum computing is something that is coming along pretty quickly, but also still has a lot of challenges. But it's certainly the case that we're going to have quantum computers that do certain things, whether some of the technical problems that are there are going to get it worked out and by when, some of that's still up in the air, but there's a lot of exciting stuff there.

And then we don't know, the mRNA technology that was used in the vaccines, what other things that can be applied to probably a lot of things in cancer and metabolic disease even, or who knows? There's a lot that could go on there. I could keep going.

Immunology. There's a lot of exciting stuff going on in immunology because we're now finding out things that go on in immunological cells, like B cells and T cells, macrophages that happen in other cells, and what the implications of all that are in terms of autoimmune diseases and even cancer. A lot of that has an immunological component. So I don't know. I have the greatest job in the world.

How do we bridge gaps and reach people who are science deniers?

[17:20] Dr. Diane: You do have the greatest job in the world, and you kind of alluded a few minutes ago to folks who are science deniers, who denied COVID, deny climate change. What can we do to bridge those gaps and help those folks understand how magical science is? And that science is not infallible, science is changing. And that's part of what makes it science, is we learn more and then we move on. How do we reach those folks?

[17:47] Holden Thorp: Yeah, so the first thing is to figure out how not to reach them, which is some of what we've been doing, because as we were saying earlier, it's not really a pedagogical problem. A lot of scientists ascribe to something that gets referred to as the deficit model, which says that the reason science denial is there is because we haven't done a good enough job of explaining it, and the people who are science deniers, if they just saw the perfect video or PowerPoint or whatever, that explains why evolution is the only answer to how we all ended up here, then they would come around immediately. That isn't true. The human mind is amazingly capable and in everyone, and people learn things if they want to.

And so science denial is not pedagogical, it's ideological. It's because their political views conflict with science or their religious views conflict with science. So you're not going to solve it by just bombarding people with really great videos, which is unfortunately what a lot of practicing scientists think we should do. I get all the time, why don't you put more of those cool videos on your website so that all these science deniers will realize they're wrong? I'm happy to have cool videos on my website. We have a lot of them. But it's not going to address that particular problem, right?

So part of it is we're just wasting effort on the wrong things and we have to get past that. My role is to explain this to scientists more than anybody else. So I try to write a lot about how the history of the last 100 years or so, really more, but that's a good enough chunk to focus on, that takes you back to the Scopes Trial, how the history of the last 100 years has led to this point.

And COVID denial didn't just fall out of the sky, right? It's the product of 100 years of history. And the most important influencer is the tension between individualism and collective behavior and between economic freedom and regulation. So the people who are against COVID vaccines are people who think they ought to be able to decide for themselves whether to get a vaccine and who believe that we shouldn't have the government telling them to get their vaccine. And those are ideological views that have nothing to do with whether the vaccine works.

So how do you address that? Well, it's a long slog. I mean, what you're doing is the best possible thing because getting young people to understand what science really is is inoculating them against being manipulated later on in life.

What are the connections between the arts and STEM?

[21:12] Dr. Diane: Change of pace for a moment,. Growing up, I was in awe of both you and your wife for your incredible theatrical talent, and I was always just blown away — I was sort of the tag along — to see how you were able to come into a space and play any music. You were so musical. And before I knew what STEM or STEAM when you add the arts in were, I had this role model that sort of made me think, wait, the arts and science kind of connect together because you were sort of the example for that. Have you found that that is a natural connection between somebody who loves the arts and is good at the arts and also has sort of an aptitude for science?

[22:15] Holden Thorp: Yeah, I think there are a lot of ways in which it goes together and yes, I see that a lot. First of all, the appreciation and curiosity about details is something you need in both. Music is about details. It's about learning fingering and how to read music and how your instrument works and the history of the music that you're playing and all this kind of stuff. Same thing with the theater, and science is all those things, too.

It's a deep interest and curiosity about how things work. So the ability to focus your mind on science and focus it on music are adjacent, I would say. I'm not a childhood education person who knows a lot about that, but certainly appears that way to me. It's also something that requires practice and discipline and devotion to doing something well. Most of the things that go wrong in science are where people weren't as attentive to details as they should have been. And same thing with music. So a lot of these things go together, but ultimately what informs both of them is what we've been talking about, which is just unbridled interest in what you're doing.

What STEM role models would you highlight for kids today?

[24:58] Dr. Diane: I love that. You talked about the role models you had as a boy in terms of your chemistry teacher. Are there folks that you would highlight today for kids that you think they should look to in terms of role models in science, stories that maybe we should be telling?

[25:17] Holden Thorp: Well, I think we're in an amazing moment in chemistry where the three most important chemists in the world are all women and all won a Nobel Prize. Jennifer Doudna, Frances Arnold, and Carolyn Bertozzi. Those three. And they're amazing leaders and amazing human beings. And there's a whole book by Walter Isaacson called The Code Breaker about Jennifer. And they are three very visible people. So I would say, for today's world, those are the three people that I think are leading us right now. And I do a lot to try to amplify the things that they stand for. And I think all three of their life stories are inspirational. So that would be my answer.

What brings you hope or joy right now as you look towards the future?

[26:24] Holden Thorp: Oh, I mean, I still think that the scientific community is extremely capable. And if we can marry that to a better appreciation for the sociology and history of how all of it fits together, then there's even more potential, because you would think the hard part is developing the technical expertise. Well, we have that. We always want more people who want to get it. But if we can marry that to an appreciation for the historical and social aspects, then we can accomplish even more. And we need to, because for all the reasons we've talked about, we're up against some serious challenges with science denial and with all kinds of political problems that are not just in the United States. So, yeah, human potential is what gives me hope, and I get to see the positive parts of that every time I open up another paper that comes into our journal. So that's an easy thing to be inspired by.

Please download and subscribe to the Adventures in Learning podcast for weekly conversations with authors, illustrators, and STEM/STEAM thought leaders. Let's talk about ways to build connections and ignite a love of science in our global community.

If you would like to check out the books discussed in this blog and on the podcast, visit Note: I am a Bookshop.Org Affiliate. If you click through and purchase, you support your chosen independent bookstore and I make a small commission. However, please know that I curate these lists to provide you a reference point for selecting and using books to connect STEM and engaged learning.

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