February 15, 2017

An Interview with Daniela Quaglia on Synbio and Science Communication

Daniela Quaglia

“I like to define myself as a versatile person.” This is how Daniela Quaglia, scientist, synthetic biology enthusiast, writer, editor and occasional actress, introduces herself. Daniela is a prominent scientific communicator with a close history to the SynBioBeta community, which helped her discover her passion for synthetic biology and foster her work in science and communication.

Nature Does It Better

In a society where scientists are both lead to and expected to know as much as humanly and inhumanly possible in a very narrow field, Daniela Quaglia stands out for all the good reasons.

“I’ve always been a curious person, and I’ve always been interested in many different things,” says Daniela. She declares she’s loved writing since she can remember – to the point where, back in high school, she looked forward to being tested on the subject, times where the class would be given a theme and she would write about it for three hours straight. Back then she was also part of the theater club, and acting became another lasting passion of hers. So how did science fit into her life?

“Science is curiosity. I’ve always been drawn to trying to understand how nature works.” For someone with as many talents as Daniela, the end of high school came with a difficult choice: which one of them to pursue professionally. “I found myself choosing between a writing career and a science career. At the time, I felt that I could always continue to write, or maybe get back into it later in life, but I didn’t think I could do science in the future if I didn’t do science at that time.”

It wasn’t a matter of difficulty, but of availability and future choices. “It’s not that writing is easier, not at all. It’s just that it’s something you can continue to pursue on the side.” Science, on the other hand, requires infrastructure, special training, at the very least. We have seen the emergence of DIY science and self-taught scientist (re-emergence, in this case), but the difference between a scientist and a Scientist, with a full educational background and a couple of degrees, is still quite obvious today.

Daniela began her studies in organic chemistry, and soon realized that while she was doing reactions, she kept thinking “well, Nature does it better.” Biological complexity became her fascination, and she decided to move her PhD focus to biocatalysis, and later on, to synthetic biology.

When Daniela finished her PhD, she began looking for a job in synthetic biology. Her initial dream was to work for the Craig Venter Institute, which sadly didn’t work out, but that didn’t stop her. “I really wanted to be in the synthetic biology field. […] I thought that my versatile background, that spanned from chemistry to biotechnology and molecular biology, etc. would be perfect for synthetic biology.”

At the time, a job offer from Synthace came out. Synthace was the first UK-based synbio company. “Serendipitously I came across a flyer that was presenting a SynBioBeta workshop on synthetic biology, and I saw that Synthace was one of the companies that was participating in this workshop. So I decided to inquire to see if I could attend, mainly for networking purposes, however the workshop was addressed to people that had no real knowledge in the synthetic biology field.”

John Cumbers told Daniela that she was overqualified for the workshop, since she already had a PhD in a closely related field. “You misunderstood me,” says Daniela remembering how she tried to convince John back then. “What I really want is to have the possibility to network with people in the field. Not necessarily only Synthace, but all other companies that were participating in the workshop.”

With this declaration, Kate Wildauer and John Cumbers invited Daniela to join the workshop as a Teacher’s Assistant (Daniela recounted this story during her interview with Wildauer for PLOS Synbio) and her involvement with the SynBioBeta community began.

During the workshop, she met Sean Ward, Synthace’s Founder and current CTO. After chatting and asking some questions related to the company, Daniela immediately confirmed it was the right place for her. She put in an application, and even though it didn’t work out right away, after some insistence on her part she was given an interview. She connected with the team right away, and was offered a job the very next day.

“[Working in Synthace] ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I’m really grateful to SynBioBeta, because somehow they helped me understand that [Synthace] was a great opportunity for me.” Says Quaglia. “SynBioBeta helped me doing some great networking, even with people [from the synbio field] that still today I’m in contact with, and I got to meet them in that workshop. These workshops that they do, the conferences, etcetera, are great opportunities for networking on the field. They are invaluable.” Daniela is today back in academia and she has worked in the laboratory of Prof. Turner in Manchester (UK) first, and currently in the laboratory of Prof. Pelletier in Université de Montréal (Canada).

Seeing the Bigger Picture and Keeping Yourself Grounded

Throughout our conversation, the topic of Daniela’s broad interests and how they affect her scientific work emerges repeatedly.

“I could never accept to be someone specialized in one narrow thing or narrow field” she states. “I have a very deep love for knowledge. I think that these things are really like a drug, because the more you learn, the more you know that there is so much that you don’t know, and the more you want to learn different things, and experiment different realities.”

What stood up to me was what Daniela said next: “This gives you a discreet advantage. Because it gives you a way to approach reality from many different perspectives. This is what sometimes people that are very specialized in one field lack, in my opinion. They’re just too much into their own little thing, and they don’t see anymore of the bigger picture.”

“I guess that all these passions that I have help me greatly to keep me grounded.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are various studies on how literature fosters empathy, a basic trait to understand the social impact of science, and how the study of arts and literature both benefits and complements a scientist’s work (I personally recommend “Why scientists should study art and literature” by Chad Orzel).

So, should you sign up for those acting classes or that book club you’ve been surreptitiously following on twitter? Yes. It has obvious benefits: Daniela herself tells me about how when she moved to Dublin for her PhD she took acting lessons as a way to cope with stress, (“scientist by day, actress by night” as she jokes) and is still pursuing this passion. But there are underlying benefits that make taking an interest in arts, literature and their broader topic, communication, a priority for scientists.

Democratization and Accessibility

“Science communication is fundamental.” Says Daniela. “We live in a world in which very few people are scientists, unfortunately, and very few people have a science-related education. This is something that saddens me deeply, and also scares me a lot. Without proper basic scientific information, people tend to treat scientific facts as dogmas.”

“It scares me when I hear people saying “I believe that” about something related to science. I mean, there is nothing to believe in science! It’s not magic, it’s fact-based, and you either prove something or disprove it. You can’t just state that it’s true or false because you believe that’s the way it is, and many people don’t understand this, and it’s not their fault. It’s just that they haven’t been trained in thinking this way. We live in a world in which science is advancing so dramatically, and we hear a lot about science democratization, synthetic biology democratization, but if we want this democratization process to be effective, I think that we need to make sure that people approach science in the right way.”

“I believe in the importance of science vulgarization,” states Daniela , “to make it accessible to people, because what I always see when I have conversations with people who are not scientists, I see that they are not willing to listen. It kind of scares them, because they don’t understand it. So, to have people that can make complex concepts easier for people who are not trained to understand that is fundamental.”

Our role as scientists doesn’t stop at the laboratory: it includes putting our science out there, making our discoveries useful and known. We need to interact more, among ourselves, and with our communities. Sadly, this mantle is taken up by very few within our community, but there are enough reasons for scientists to consider including formal communication education and strategies in their work.

Did you know that scientists that reach out through social media, especially twitter, tend to have a higher h-index and increase the impact of their interaction with traditional news media? Twitter has also been shown as essential for since-related crowdfunding campaigns, with audience building taking a key role in the campaign’s success (you can read the study, published by the creators of the #SciFund Challenge, here). Citizen projects and crowdsourced research projects also tap into their online network to recruit participants, perform annotations, among other things.

Daniela’s internet presence is a great example. She writes in the Huffington post and other scientific blogs for the general public. Her editorial position for PLOS Synbio as Community Editor for their blog is different, because the audience is more specialized, but is still key to sharing knowledge within the community. “It allows the knowledge to spread faster, and helps people stay up to date and understand what is going on in different laboratories around the world, in the industry, what are the trends, etc. Of course, this is also an invaluable experience for me, because I get to write, and I get to write about science, and I get to write interesting articles that give me a lot of visibility. It enriches me, it allows me to interview leaders in the field of synthetic biology. This is not only so inspiring, it is also great for networking and it keeps me up to date about what’s going on. It’s beautiful!”

“As scientists we need to make an effort and interact more,” concludes Daniela. She says she’s already seen efforts in this area, most notably, from the SynBioBeta community. “The workshop that I attended, 3 or 4 years ago, the audience they were expecting was non-specialized people. [SynBioBeta] is in a pole position to continue this work, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they will approach it.”