(Re-posted cause it’s just that good!!)
Last week we had Kristi Gets Fit (What? Dodging melon balls and pineapple wedges counts!) so now it’s time for another issue of Kristi Gets Smart, inaugurated by none other than Scientific American’s Steve Mirsky!
Who better to carry the torch than Livia King Blackburne: the 24th Most Influential writer on Twitter according to We Follow, and voted Top 50 Female Science Bloggers by Online Universities.
Livia King Blackburne: (whispers) Tell them I can also hold a straw between my nose and upper lip.
Kristi: (hisses back) Stop bragging.
Livia King Blackburne: Jealous.
Kristi: (clears throat) Welcome, Livia King Blackburne! Please tell our readers what you do?
Livia King Blackburne: (smiles) I’m in my 5th year of graduate studies at MIT in cognitive neuroscience.
Kristi: (has the blank stare of someone who hears only elevator music)
Livia King Blackburne: Which means I scan peoples’ brains for my experiments.
Kristi: How lovely – you experiment on people’s… brains? (wishes she’d worn that daffodil hat with the aluminum lining afterall)
Livia King Blackburne: (dissecting Kristi’s scalp with her eyes) Specifically, I’m interested in how the brain develops when you learn to read.
Kristi: Your lab rats must be able read? (smiles, relieved) Guess that leaves me out – I’ve been told I’m an illiterate idiot!!
Livia King Blackburne: Oh? Well, I study them as they’re learning to read…
Kristi: (starts to sweat, looks for nearest exit)
Livia King Blackburne: So I’m scanning kids at different ages to see how the brain changes as they get older.
Kristi: You experiment on children?!
Livia King Blackburne: Yes.
Kristi: Oh, thank God! (the colour returns to Kristi’s white knuckles) Say, I know some little brats, I mean adorable kids, if you need any lab brats? Er… rats?
Livia King Blackburne: No, thanks. We have plenty.
Kristi: I understand you’re a writer, too?
Livia King Blackburne: Yes, my other “gig” is as a writer and blogger. I write fantasy stories for young adults.
Kristi: Why Young adults? What do you have against OLD adults?
Livia King Blackburne: Nothing, YA is a writing genre.
Kristi: Uh-huh, right. First you refuse to experiment on adults, now you refuse to write for anyone but the young… Are you some kind of mad scientist inventing a World of the Young?
Livia King Blackburne: (shifty eyed) What?! No, the Harry Potter books are Young Adult Fantasy, too, but people of all ages read them.
Kristi: Damn! I was hoping to get in on this whole Young World thing.
Livia King Blackburne: Sorry.
Kristi: Your blog is extremely popular: A Brain Scientist Takes Writing. Is the in-ability to write common among MIT brain scientists?
Livia King Blackburne: No – it’s called A Brain Scientist’s Take On Writing. It’s an analysis of writing from a brain scientist’s perspective.
Kristi: That’s what I said. Hey – are you trying to mess with my brain?!
Livia King Blackburne: No, of course not.
Kristi: (whines) I’ll never get in the Young World project…
Livia King Blackburne: There is no Young World project.
Kristi: (narrows eyes) Says you. So what do you like most about your work, other than messing with peoples’ brains?
Livia King Blackburne: Well, I think neuroscience is one of the big scientific frontiers right now. There is a lot of excitement and energy going into this research. It’s really fun to be in the middle of it all.
Kristi: The wild frontier, Yeee-Haaaaw!
Livia King Blackburne: And everybody’s interested in neuroscience.
Kristi: (not afraid to ask the tough questions…) Oh?
Livia King Blackburne: Everybody has a brain, so what I study is relevant to everyone.
Kristi: (…even in the presence of superior intelligence) I assume you have proof to back- up this “everybody has a brain” theory?
Livia King Blackburne: (eyes Kristi) I suppose there could be exceptions to the rule…
Kristi: What do you think is the key to scientific success?
Livia King Blackburne: I used to think being a good scientist was all about programming computers and having good technical skills, but really, a good scientist just needs to pay attention and ask the right questions.
Kristi: (beams) Like I do!
Livia King Blackburne: Um…sort of…would you mind turning that off?
Kristi: (turns off portable tractor beam) What else?
Livia King Blackburne: You need to keep plugging away when the first 10 tries don’t work.
Kristi: Yep, I know that all too well.
Livia King Blackburne: As a writer yourself, I imagine you do. Science is very similar to getting published on that last aspect. Many writers have trouble with the idea of spending years on something with no guarantee of success, but that’s just business as usual in the lab.
Kristi: And in stalking.
Livia King Blackburne: (desperate to stay on topic) In science and writing, there’s lots of creativity involved.
Kristi: Stalking, too! So how do you come up with your ideas?
Livia King Blackburne: Um… I tend to be a pretty spacey person – one of my friends called me Oblivia because I’m always in my own little world. But it’s when I’m off daydreaming that I come up with new ideas.
Kristi: There’s where we’re different. If I space out and start day-dreaming behind the bushes, under a window or hiding in someone’s dirty clothes hamper, I’ll totally miss my opportunity.
Livia King Blackburne: (wide eyed) I can imagine.
Kristi: You’re obviously a highly skilled scientist. Does this come naturally?
Livia King Blackburne: For the necessary skills – observing, understanding, and asking good questions- definitely not. These are aspects that I’ve grown into over the past few years.
Kristi: Have you done anything other than neuroscience?
Livia King Blackburne: Yes, my undergraduate degree from Harvard was in biochemical sciences. After graduation I worked for a year with a Harvard psychology professor, who was instrumental in helping me apply to graduate school. I was also an intern at Sandia National Laboratories for four summers, in the computational physics and biology departments.
Kristi: You mean the national laboratory that has developed science-based technologies that support national security so that 300+ million Americans can have peace and freedom?
Livia King Blackburne: (bowled over) Yes! It was fun because I got to run simulations on one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. I also got to wear a security clearance badge and say things like “The government has forbidden me to speak about my current project.”
Kristi: Wow! Can I borrow the badge?
Livia King Blackburne: No.
Kristi: And lastly, any life experiences you’d like to share?
Livia King Blackburne: I’d say the critical thinking skills that I’ve picked up in my training. They are really useful for all aspects of my life. I’ve learned to think for myself and investigate things before I believe them.
Kristi: Like I do?
Livia King Blackburne: (politely notices spot on ceiling) And as for the blogging and writing, that’s just fun! After five years at MIT, it’s nice to interact with people in the real world. It keeps me sane, and reminds me that not everyone thinks jokes with mathematical punch lines are funny.
Kristi: Why was 6 afraid of 7? (loud snickers) Because 7 – 8 – 9! (cackle) Get it?? 7 ate 9? (snort)
Livia King Blackburne: (blank stare of someone who hears nothing but animal noises)
Kristi: Thank you Livia, for sharing your fascinating life on the neuroscience frontier, and as always –Thank You for Playing!!
(Originally Posted June 14, 2010)