When Story and STEM Collide: Faculty Get Personal for 2 Podcast Series

April 28, 2023 By Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu

Often when we think of academia, we think of answers. But behind all that knowledge, there are real people who struggle with questions – not just ones that preface their research, but about the choices they should make in life, including how to address obstacles and conflict.

University of Virginia faculty members in science, technology, engineering and math fields shared some of their heartfelt life dilemmas Thursday night for two popular podcast series: “Story Collider” and “HOOS in STEM.”

Related Story

Hosted at Carr’s Hill, President Jim Ryan’s residence on Grounds, the special event was dubbed “Story Collider on the Hill.”

“I absolutely love stories,” Ryan said. “I love to listen to them. I love telling them. But I know it takes a certain amount of courage to share your stories. So I’m incredibly grateful that you’re sharing yours.”

Each tale described a fork in the road for these five UVA professors, two of whom serve as deans.

Self-Confidence, Career

Sarah Kucenas, a professor of biology who specializes in neuroscience research, told the story of how a high school swim coach’s verbal tirade shook her confidence and, for many years, doused her love of swimming.

“He took his stopwatch and threw it at the pool deck, and it shattered into what appeared like a million pieces,” Kucenas said. “And we all stopped dead in the water. ‘Why aren’t you trying harder?’ he screamed.”

He then singled out Kucenas, whose maiden name was Stahlhut. “‘Look at Stahlly. She works so hard, and she doesn’t even have talent.’”

The pool suddenly went from a place of calm and joy for her to a place of self-doubt.

Neuroscientist Sarah Kucenas speaks to crowd
Neuroscientist Sarah Kucenas shared the story of trying to move past a swimming coach’s biting comments that challenged her feeling of self-worth.

“Did this mean that my hard work was for nothing?” she asked herself. “Did this mean that every time I had to work harder, it was because I was a failure?”

She went through the paces of Division I collegiate swimming before shunning the water completely. But her love of swimming had long disappeared before then, she said.

Kucenas, who ironically studies for a living things that swim, namely zebrafish, went on to share how her personal arc led to UVA, and what it took for her to finally dive back into a pool.

Other faculty members shared career stories:

Sara Maloni, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, told how a senior colleague in her field made an inappropriate comment to her at an international conference, how she struggled with whether to say anything, and how her academic peers ultimately rallied around her.

Scott Doney, the Joe D. and Helen J. Kingston Professor in Environmental Change, explained how an opportunity to discuss his work at a conference for science journalists led to an expansion of his academic focus. His ocean research had originally been on helium isotopes.

“But that’s a really hard sell when you’re trying to talk to a journalist,” Doney said.

He added, “Other environmental scientists at this workshop were talking about works on saving spotted owls and old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. One scientist was working on stopping illegal deforestation in Indonesia. Another was cleaning up toxic waste dumps around Chicago.”

Dean Philip Bourne of the School of Data Science speaking to crowd
Dean Philip Bourne of the School of Data Science described driving cross-country on his motorcycle during the polar vortex of 2014 so he could assume a new role in government.

He considered where his expertise intersected with public service and decided to tackle the question of how automobiles and other generators of carbon dioxide gas might be affecting ocean life.

Though incorporating a relatively new area – ocean acidification – was a risk, it paid off. Twenty years later, his research has led to a White House appointment to help address the problem.

The Best Laid Plans

Philip Bourne, who serves as Stephenson Dean of the School of Data Science, talked about leaving academia after a long career – in fact, traveling by motorcycle across the country during the polar vortex of 2014 – to serve as the National Institutes of Health’s first chief data officer. He also detailed why he returned to education after three years of trying to wrangle bureaucracy.

Dean Jennifer West of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, meanwhile, told the story of how a disruptive storm determined what type of scientist she would be.

As a prospective college student, West was supposed to visit Cornell University, where she had planned to study veterinary medicine. Traveling alone for the first time, she went to check out the school before her parents paid the deposit.

“There’s a huge snowstorm, and I get stranded in Boston,” West said. “The little plane to Ithaca can’t take off. … I’m in Logan Airport, 17 years old, panicking about what to do.”

She called her mom, who suggested that she visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. West had applied to MIT to get her father “off my back.” Even after being accepted, she had no interest in attending. But given the circumstances, a tour made sense if it could be combined with a free place to stay during the storm.

‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan
‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan

“So my mom managed to call the admission office at MIT and said, ‘Hey, my daughter happens to be in Boston and can she come by for a visit?’ And fortunately, this woman in the admissions office was extraordinarily helpful and found a student who would let me sleep in a little cot on the floor in her room while I was there, which was good because I didn’t have a credit card; I had two traveler’s checks, like, it was not clear how I was going to survive.”

She added that though she was thankful for the hospitality, she maintained she was “still not interested in MIT.”

But as fate would have it, West ended up having a life-changing tour of the school the next day. Biomedical engineering captured her imagination, and Boston is where she would study it.

“So one snowstorm changed the entire direction of my life,” she said. “And I couldn’t be happier that it did.”

More for Your Ears

Story Collider on the Hill was co-sponsored by the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost. The talks will be available soon on the UVA podcast “HOOS in STEM” and in the weeks ahead on “Story Collider.”

Acclaimed UVA math professor Ken Ono coordinated the faculty participation.

“In short, the goal is to raise awareness for STEM on Grounds by showcasing some of UVA’s leading researchers,” Ono said in an email prior to the talks. “In addition to the new podcast HOOS in STEM that I host, with the same goal, we plan to have many further events in the future that showcase the achievements and impact of UVA’s STEM researchers and students.”

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications