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  • Writer's pictureKaylah Holmes

Comedy, Science, and, Self-Care : Finding normalcy in the perplexing world of Neuroscience

Hi FemNeuro Readers! My name is Shannon Odell and I am a neuroscientist, writer, and comedian based in Brooklyn, New York. I recently completed my PhD in Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine where I studied epigenetics and memory. I’ve also been writing and performing comedy in New York City for the past eight years. At one point midway through my PhD I decided to merge these two passions, and began to focus on creating science comedy. For the past five years I’ve hosted a live comedy show, “Drunk Science” with my friends, comedians Joanna Rothkopf, Jordan Mendoza, and Ernest Myers. I also wrote and hosted a digital comedy science series, “Your Brain on Blank” with Inverse. I currently host a podcast “The Science of Self-Care” with comedians Steven Polletta and Sophie Yalkezian, where we explore the science behind everyday self-care products and practices. Now graduated, I hope to continue to pursue a career in science communication and science comedy. I think that comedy was a perfect tool in communicating science, and that science can be funny as hell!

My love for science began at a young age. While throughout the years the intended “future” career may have changed, science has always been on my mind. At age 6 and fully obsessed with dinosaurs, I learned the word “paleontologist” and was set on becoming one. Entering college I thought I would be a medical doctor, but then falling in love marine biology during my study abroad in Australia. Eventually, I decided to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience. While I knew loved science, the subject itself didn’t always come easy. There were many times in my scientific journey, like after a particularly hard lab course (how did I manage to break 3 beakers in 1 hour?) or failing organic chemistry exam (a 43% to be precise), when I felt I wasn’t “cut out” for science. Luckily I had the foresight to push on, and follow what I loved, rather than what came easy to me.

I am very lucky to have been surrounded by supportive scientists and mentors throughout my PhD. I have felt more push-back when it comes to my science communication and science comedy. The response to my science videos, being a young woman speaking about science in her own voice and often a casual comedic way, is not always great. I’ve received plenty of emails or comments suggesting, “no way she is a scientist”, questioning my credentials and the way I present science as “immature” or “not serious enough”. I can’t help but wonder if I would receive the same push-back if a man were presenting science in the same way.

I remember a time during my sophomore year of high school after taking a chemistry test. It was the first test of the year, and I remember feeling really nervous about it, given that it was my first time taking a chemistry course. As the teacher handed back our exams, I was elated to find out I had not only passed but got and A! While leaving class, the teacher pulled me aside to speak with me. I can’t remember the specifics, but I remember coming away from the

conversation feeling as if I had done something wrong. The tone of the conversation was accusatory, as if there was no way I could have done that well on the test, that I must have cheated. It was clear after that conversation that the teacher did not believe in my abilities, which was discouraging. Why hadn’t the two other students who had received As, not been pulled out and questioned? Was it because they were boys? While this story is just a small instance, experiencing these microaggressions throughout a career that can leave you

questioning your own place in science.

On a personal level, learning about how the human brain works, has been incredibly empowering. Science has shown me that the human body and mind, while imperfect,

work in incredible ways. My relationship with science has shifted from an academic

pursuit of knowledge; to an appreciation of knowing all the weird and surprising ways

my mind works. I love that I get to share this knowledge with others, using comedy. I

believe that science is ultimately about understanding the story of who we are and

why our bodies work the way they work. Comedy helps us to see the absurdity

of the human form.

I think being a woman following a PhD, the question of “well, do you want a family?” inevitably comes up when talking about your future. I, of course think this it is unfair, because I don’t think many of my male colleagues have been asked about it. This expectation that women have to choose between a family and a career is exhausting. Yet, there is a reality that traditional paths of science in academia have not been created with gender equity in mind. I think there is a shift, and that more scientists and institutions are beginning to address this issue; though real systemic change is needed.

I think the most important lesson that I have learned (and try my hardest to follow) is that there is no shame in advocating for what you need. It’s a process of understanding what you need in order to thrive, and making space for that. Obviously this is easier said than done, as there are so many issues in the system of academia, which often glorifies the idea of spending 14 hours, 7 days a week in the lab, obsessing over your work. It is important to remember that you are more than your science work, and you deserve and NEED time off, time with friends and family, and time for activities, hobbies, and wants outside of science. I know in my own experience, I did my best science when I felt the most balanced, making time and space for myself and my needs.

I do not think it is the job of women to defend themselves against bias. I believe that the conversation needs to shift, and to we make sure that men, white people, and those with privilege recognize their own biases, racism and misogyny, and that we need systemic change. I am a white woman in science, and therefore have experienced a lot privilege

in my career. With this privilege, I recognize my responsibility in working to dismantle

current unjust system, and work to create better, more equitable systems in science.

Diversity in science = better science.To those feeling discouraged from pursuing a

career in STEM, know that your voice is needed and important and wanted in science!

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