OSU professor talks unsung scientists over a beer

As a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Clark University in Massachusetts, Dr. Katherine O'Brien walked the same halls as acclaimed ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice. O'Brien's career path eventually led her to Columbus to work for OSU's Museum of Biological Diversity. And approximately 90 years earlier, Nice also settled in Columbus, where she would conduct ground-breaking research on song sparrows.

But O'Brien just learned about Nice this year.

“I've heard of both of her advisers, [Granville] Stanley Hall and Dr. [Clifton] Hodge, but not her,” said O'Brien, who both manages outreach at the museum and teaches at OSU. “As scientists, we need to get better about advocating for women who do this kind of work.”

That's why O'Brien organized the “Women of Science: Ohio Edition,” which will take place at Up Front at Shadowbox Live on Thursday, Jan. 3. During the event, she will talk about Nice, along with scientists Dr. E. Lucy Braun and Dr. Margaret Green.

“Women of Science” is part of the Columbus Science Pub, which was born out of the international grassroots Science Cafes movement. The idea is to make scientists more accessible by encouraging them to discuss their work with the public in informal settings.

“We prefer to get our science with beer, so we changed it to a Science Pub,” said Rob Evans, who co-organizes the monthly series with O'Brien. Evans works in communications at Battelle, a science and technology nonprofit. “We've had a forensic psychologist. We've had a sex therapist. We've had some of the folks here at Battelle who are doing some groundbreaking work on paralysis. … It really spans the whole universe of science.”

To prepare for the upcoming event, O'Brien asked some of her colleagues to name women scientists who influenced them. One of the choices, Dr. E. Lucy Braun, was a botanist and professor at the University of Cincinnati. A conservationist, she helped preserve the 52-acre Linx Prairie in Adams County.

In many ways, Braun strayed from society's expectations of women at the time.

“She bought a car in the 1930s and then drove all the way out to Western Washington to sample plants by herself,” O'Brien said. “She and her sister, neither of them ever married. They were both scientists, and they bought a mansion outside of Cincinnati.”

While scientist Dr. Margaret Green decided to marry, it didn't hold her back from an influential career. The OSU professor went on to work for the present-day Jackson Laboratory in Maine in the 1950s. There, her research became the foundation of the Mouse Genome Database.

“It's a massive amount of information, and it requires doing thousands of breeding diagrams between mice and seeing which genes get inherited,” O'Brien explained. “It's absolutely amazing to do something like that by hand.”

Though she worked with mice, Green was terrified of them until she got bit during a presentation for an audience of donors. But she was able to keep her composure and finish her talk.

“She's like, ‘Well, if I can survive that, I can survive any other mouse thing,'” O'Brien said.

Stories like that help humanize women scientists and extend their narratives. “I think when you mix their life story with their science, that's what makes it easier for people to understand the contribution that they made,” O'Brien said.

O'Brien's entrée into science began as a child; she grew up with a grandmother who was a “wacky” high school biology teacher.

“I just really liked science both from her … [and from] being a little bit of a Star Trek geek,” O'Brien said. “One of those places where you started to see more women scientists was in science fiction.”

After obtaining a PhD in evolutionary biology, O'Brien did post-doctoral work studying how twin organisms developed in separate environments. She focused on alcohol metabolism in flies, or, “getting under-aged flies drunk for a living.”

Now O'Brien is passionate about being a bridge between the university and public.

“I think that working in genetics was super informative, but I really do love the outreach work I do now,” she said. “When you're just a scientist, sometimes you feel like you're in an echo chamber where you talk to the same group of colleagues over and over again.”

The Science Pub is an additional outlet, and it has been drawing audiences for several years.

“It's worth people's time to invest in the evening because science can affect so much of our daily lives,” Evans said. “Every Science Pub people walk away knowing something new and having learned it in a fun, informal way that's just hard to find anywhere else.”