Cosplay for Science uses geek powers for education

Can dressing up as Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park and Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum, or talking about Pokemon and Ice Age help people connect with science?

That’s a yes, according to Cosplay for Science, a nonprofit educational group founded by four self-proclaimed nerds who aim to foster appreciation and better understanding of science in their communities by drawing parallels to pop culture.

The project began in October 2017 after the group’s founders attended their first comic convention, Nerdbot-Con, and hatched the idea of striving to make science more accessible and scientists more approachable through the fun and geeky form of dress-up known as cosplay.

Cosplay for Science’s founding members include Brittney Stoneburg, a marketing and events specialist at Western Science Center; Gabriel-Philip Santos, collections manager and outreach coordinator at Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology; Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, a University of Florida graduate student, creator of the Femmes of STEM podcast, and admin of Instagram’s @boundersofcolor; and Isaac Magallanes, a paleontologist and University of Florida graduate student.

While working at partner museums, Brittney and Gabriel decided to dress up as Jurassic Park characters Ellie and Alan as they manned tables at comic book conventions. They realized cosplaying made them more approachable to the public and the rest is history. 

Brittney is just one of five amazing women who are part of Cosplay for Science, incorporating their love of cosplay and geeky passions, such as Star Wars, Studio Ghibli, Pokemon, Harry Potter, and Dungeons & Dragons, into scientific research, outreach, and education.

 I had the pleasure of interviewing Brittney, chemist and PhD student Kellen Kartub, and Lisa Lundgren — a post-doctoral research assistant specializing in how people learn about science through social media — to talk about their experience as women in their fields, their geek origin stories, and how they use cosplay and pop culture for some serious scientific outreach. 

Brittney Stoneburg

Brittney, you’re a first generation feminist scientist who works as a marketing and events specialist at the Western Science Center in Hemet. You’re also a co-founder of Cosplay for Science. Tell me about how you first became interested in science, a little about your education and career trajectory, and what your job currently entails.

I was super interested in paleontology as a kid, but as I went through school I was told I was bad at math and science. I ended up enrolling as an English major in college, but realized I didn’t want to pursue higher education in that field. I floundered around professionally for a while until I visited the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles — and it was a light bulb moment!

I immediately started volunteering at the Western Science Center in Hemet, CA, and soon after they hired me on. Now as the Marketing & Events specialist, it’s my job to tell people about all of the amazing work we do at the museum. I write press releases, manage our social media, and organize events both at the museum and offsite — and I also have the opportunity to do field work, conduct research, and prepare fossils!

Kellen Kartub in front of a hood where she synthesizes nanoparticles.

Kellen, you’re a UC Irvine PhD student in chemistry. Tell me about how you first became interested in science, a little about your education and career trajectory, and what your job currently entails.

Yes! As I like to say, I am now in my 21st grade of school. A little crazy to think about that. I have always had an interest in science. It started with the natural world and learning about as many types of insects and animals that I could. The plan was originally to study animals, but I had a terrible biology teacher in high school.

However, I had an excellent chemistry teacher. And she set me on a path I have yet to stray from. I went to Wellesley College for undergrad and majored in chemistry, and then I went straight into graduate school at UC Irvine, where I do chemistry research.

Lisa Lundgren in front of a basic social network, showing how people are connected in online spaces.

Lisa, you’re a post-doctoral research assistant at North Carolina State University. Your studies focus on how people learn about science through social media. Tell me about how you first became interested in science, a little about your education and career trajectory, and what your job currently entails.

I got my bachelor’s degree in History with an emphasis on Museum Studies from Montana State University, decided that Montana was too wonderful to leave, and ended up staying at Montana State for a master’s degree in Science Education. After working at a ski resort for a season, I left the frosty Montana winter for sunshine and humidity, getting my PhD in Science Education from the University of Florida in 2018.

I know, I know, you see Science Education and you think, “This lady studies science in schools!” Nah. My jam is looking at how people learn about science in literally every context except school. I want to know how people learn science from one another on the internet! In museums! At comic-cons! Currently, I’m a researcher at North Carolina State University, where I study how people learn about science in online spaces like Instagram, Twitter, and websites designed to help people find citizen science projects.

Brittney at work.

Are there many women in your field? What’s your experience been like in regard to that?  

BRITTNEY: Paleontology is frequently thought of as a male-dominated field — ask a random person on the street to picture a paleontologist and they’ll probably describe a white guy with flannel and a beard! I’ve been told to my face that I don’t look like a paleontologist.

And yet, things are changing — half of the members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology are women and there are lots of amazing initiatives, like Trowel Blazers and The Femmes of STEM (the latter created by our lovely cofounder Michelle Barboza), that are trying to increase visibility of women in our field.

KELLEN: I have been lucky to always be surrounded by a strong, amazing group of women. I believe when I started grad school, about one third of our cohort were women. However, I think this is usually the exception, not the rule. The field in general is slowly moving towards there being more women in chemistry.

But, in all seriousness I have been incredibly lucky. There are so many amazing women in science in my life and I know I would never be here if it weren’t for them.

LISA: I’m interdisciplinary, meaning that I work in a lot of different fields, getting tons of perspectives. The research groups that I’ve been a part of include a pretty healthy mix of men and women. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a number of positive mentors, teachers, and role models who have been both men and women!

Lisa poses with a tiny fossilized turtle bone she found at the Montbrook fossil site near Gainesville, Florida.

What’s your geek origin story and what specific fandoms are you into?

BRITTNEY: I’ve been a geek my whole life! Happens when your parents raise you on a steady diet of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Stargate. My fandoms are quite varied — from Studio Ghibli films to science fiction novels to video games, whatever happens to capture my attention.

KELLEN: Honestly, my love of things geeky started when I was really young and was into Pokemon, Power Rangers, and Yu Yu Hakusho. And then I fell hard into the world of Tamora Pierce when I was about twelve. From there I have continually found people who have introduced me to new and amazing fandoms.

My favorite fandoms right now are Avatar: The Last Airbender (and Legend of Korra), Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, all things Miyazaki, most things Disney, and all the amazing fantasy young adult novels that are out right now.

Fair warning, I consider myself a more casual fan. Unless it is a book, then I could probably talk about it forever.

Lisa at her first hockey game, which sparked (pun absolutely intended) a huge obsession with all things hockey.

LISA: I have a distinct memory of watching Jurassic Park when I was maybe nine? I remember running around my living room, terrified, during the raptors in the kitchen scene. I think that was my first clue that I loved dinosaurs and paleontology. The next clue was when I got a tattoo sleeve that features dinosaurs. Their tails turn into DNA, which splits apart into birds (evolution, baby!).

Hmmm, fandoms! I love so many things on the surface level (NPR! Marvel movies! Wonder Woman comics! The Legend of Zelda!), but I do have a couple of fandoms: Harry Potter and hockey.

I re-read all the Harry Potter books once a year and my first big tattoo was Ravenclaw’s motto (“Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure”) with the chapter art from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Chapter 4: The Leaky Cauldron, with the books in the birdcage). I was 11 when the first book came out so I think that played into my love of it — I wanted a letter from Hogwarts so badly!

The other fandom, hockey, is pretty nascent. I started watching the Tampa Bay Lightning last year and have become obsessed with all things hockey. Hockey podcasts, watching games, hockey Tumblr (it’s the greatest thing ever) … I love the game and learning about the players, learning about the jargon, learning about player stats, etc. It’s just fun!

Brittney with a dinosaur pal.

How did you become interested in cosplay? Tell me about some of the favorite cosplays you’ve done.

BRITTNEY: I first cosplayed Aerith from Final Fantasy VII way back when I was a teenager! My mom helped me sew my outfit as my crafting abilities have never been great. Cosplaying as Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park, especially when I’m doing it as part of a Cosplay for Science event, is always a joy. There’s something special about dressing up as a paleontologist and then telling people you’re actually a paleontologist!

Kellen as Princess Bubblegum.

KELLEN: Cosplay is always something I’ve wanted to do and never felt like I was artistic enough. I also wasn’t ready to commit to like, all the hair and makeup that goes into it, so I thought I couldn’t do it. Then, I decided one year for Halloween to dress up as Kiki (from Kiki’s Delivery Service). I didn’t want to buy a bow and bag, so I decided to make them. And it turned out pretty good!

Since then I’ve told myself it is ok that I am a more “casual” cosplayer. My approach to cosplay is more like a Disneybound — where you dress in a manner that evokes the character rather than completely replicating it.

I love my Princess Bubblegum outfit I made for Halloween this year and I think I totally nailed it. PB is one of my favorites of all time (I mean, she is a scientist and a leader) so I’m thinking I am going to need to replicate essentially her entire wardrobe.

I also did a Sugarplum Disneybound to complement a series I was doing on sugar and chemistry. That was pretty fun.

LISA: My friend, Moira Asheland (@atomicbabycosplay on Instagram), is really the first one who introduced me to cosplay. Her excitement about hand-sewing costumes, getting the minute details just right, and creating unique and mind-blowing designs are what really made me say, “Oh dang, this is COOL.”

But I haven’t done many cosplays myself — I prefer to be a cheerleader for people who do cosplay! I have done one though. I cosplayed as Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park for a small comic-con in Ocala, Florida. Dr. Sattler’s costume was nice for me as a beginner since I could find a lot of stuff like hiking boots, a t-shirt, and shorts in my own wardrobe!

Kellen at a chemistry outreach event, teaching kids about the solar system and the gas composition of each planet.

How do you personally use nerd and pop culture to make science more accessible to people?

BRITTNEY: Popular culture is such a great point of reference for people when it comes to science. I work primarily with Pleistocene fossils like mastodons and mammoths, and what movie features those animals? Ice Age! Using pop culture and nerd fandom gives me common ground with the people I’m trying to educate.

KELLEN: Since I’m a chemist, I love finding chemistry in pop culture. There aren’t always lot of explicit examples of chemistry or chemists out there, so instead I look for the chemistry behind certain aspects of pop culture. Give me any theme, I’m pretty good at finding a connection to chemistry.

For example, at LA Comic Con, Cosplay For Science decided on a Pokemon theme. I decided to discuss how chemistry (and physics) produces the magnetic characteristics of some our favorite steel-type Pokemon.

I usually only use nerd and pop culture to communicate science within the context of Cosplay for Science, but I’m trying to expand more.

LISA: So, the topics I research and publish on are aimed at answering how nerd and pop culture make science more accessible. For example, when we, as the Cosplay for Science team, go to comic cons, what do visitors take away from interacting with us? Do they learn about the science? Do they see scientists as real people instead of nameless, faceless lab workers? That’s what interests me!

Brittney, tell me a little bit about how and why Cosplay for Science was founded. 

My museum really prioritizes outreach, and so we started to do tables at comic book conventions, and of course we asked C4S founder Gabriel Santos, who works at our partner museum the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, to join in. Gabe and I decided to dress up as Alan and Ellie from Jurassic Park, and the response was so great we decided to do it again. And again. When we realized cosplaying made us much more approachable as scientists to the public, that’s when C4S was born.

Kellen in her Kiki’s Delivery Service cosplay.

Kellen, how and why did you become involved with Cosplay for Science?

I was lucky enough to get to meet Gabe and Britt (two of the founders) at Dapper Day at Disneyland last year. They told me about the initiative and were then kind enough to invite me to join! I had just made my Kiki outfit and found confidence in my ability to cosplay, or at least, create cool outfits and I loved that C4S would give me the chance to explore this some more.

As for why I joined, I think it is smart and well needed. As I’ve (and I’m sure my colleagues) have mentioned, using pop culture is a great way to engage a broad audience and get them thinking about the science behind some of their favorite movies, shows, books, etc.

But even more importantly, I think it is well needed because I think academia is overdue for a makeover regarding how we approach science communication. Science isn’t fancy jargon and impossible to decipher papers. Science should be for everyone and academia should prioritize that. Cosplay For Science is a great way to encouraging scientists to expand beyond their comfort zone!

Lisa at the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée in Paris, in front of an Irish Elk skeleton that reminded her of one she had summoned for a paladin she played in Dungeons & Dragons.

Lisa, I understand you are very into Dungeons & Dragons. Tell me more about that, please.

Yes, I love playing Dungeons and Dragons! It’s especially fun to a) get friends into DnD or b) meet people who play DnD and become friends. In terms of getting friends into DnD, I like explaining it to people like this: “Do you like sitting around a table, telling jokes for four hours, and occasionally killing monsters? Congratulations, you’ll like playing DnD.”

The collaborative storytelling, the luck that happens with dice rolls, the in-game jokes that we make in our groups are legitimately some of my favorite things to reminisce about.


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