Performance and collaboration: creating new scientific ecosystems at CESTEMER

The Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER) was held at the Goodman Theater in downtown Chicago on September 15-17, 2017. Initiated by Raquell Holmes and improvscience in 2012, it brings together a diverse mixture of scientists, artists, humanists and performers to discuss and discover new ways of doing science in groups. I attended to share what we’ve been working on at the Ronin Institute, as well as gathering new ideas and strategies for the way forward. There are now many great venues and conferences for discussions on improving science communication, the value of creativity in our workplaces, or integrating the arts and humanities into STEM and education – CESTEMER was about all of those things, but with an added unique emphasis on group performance and play.

In addition to the regular talks, poster sessions, and keynotes, all conference attendees had opportunities to participate as performers through games and techniques drawn from theater and improv. This meant the conference was not the usual armchair experience – all conference attendees were co-creators of the performance that was the conference itself.  Why is this important? Performance is critical to group learning because of it’s “show, not tell” and experiential nature. To take just one example, the workshop run by Nancy Watt and Carolyn SealfonWhose Idea Is It Anyway?” tackled the ownership of ideas in science. Workshop participants grouped together to solve a physics problem and were asked to “play” different characters drawn from several personality types. By experimenting with different characters, we were able to experience how each group solved problems based upon their willingness to build on other’s ideas, embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, share credit and move the collaboration forward.

The intense competition to demonstrate individual “ownership” of an idea often prevails in the academic world (coupled with an artificial scarcity that is perpetuated by the journal prestige system amongst other things) can sometimes lead to an atmosphere of distrust. Therefore the direct experience of the value of empathetic collaboration to produce both better results, as well as unexpected and serendipitous discoveries, through such workshops, will become increasingly invaluable as a means for cultural change in our institutions. This bottom-up approach, coupled with more top-down changes in publications and funding incentives, will, I believe, lead to more durable cultural change than either alone. Plus it’s also a much more fun way of doing science!

I presented a short talk outlining how the Ronin Institute is aiming to foster new ways of thinking of the scientific enterprise as an “ecosystem” of peers. In this ecosystem, scientists collectively empower themselves to build scientific careers in whatever mode or style works for them in the context of the rest of their lives (whether this is in a university setting or elsewhere). I contrasted this ecosystem idea with the usual “pipeline” metaphor that conceives that pursuit of autonomous research requires following one of a set of fairly narrow career paths, controlled by a relatively small number of gatekeepers. I shared the concrete steps we have made in cultivating our own science communities, such as the face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference, the virtual meetings: the weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. You can see the slides here:

In summary, CESTEMER was a really fantastic opportunity to generate new “spores” in our evolving ecosystem of science and scholarship. I thank CESTEMER for inviting us, and I’m excited for the Ronin Institute to become part of this conversation. I look forward to all these spores travelling back to each of the participants’ everyday workplaces and spreading the message that we all do our best work when we listen and play together. I plan to attend the next CESTEMER conference in 2019 and I invite anyone interested to join me!

Independent Scholarship Survey

Research Scholars Arika Virapongse and Alex Lancaster have put together a survey designed to help us better understand how independent scholars “make it work.” We’ve already begun collecting responses from current Research Scholars, and the preliminary results look really interesting. We’re looking forward to sharing them once the results are in. We also want to open up the survey to anyone who has been doing independent scholarship and anyone pursuing a non-traditional academic career path. If that sounds like you, we would love to get your input on this. Or if you know someone who fits this description, please feel free to bring this to their attention. The survey can be accessed here.

The survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. We know that your time is valuable, but we ask that you try to contribute as much detail as possible in your responses. Unfortunately, there is not a way to save your responses and complete the survey at a later date. For the option to work at your own pace, you can preview the questions here.

We are hoping that the information we collect will help us to develop new and better ways to support diverse models of scholarship and academic careers. And we would love for you to be a part of that.

Ranalli on Thoreau Tonight (October 11) in Acton, Mass

This evening (Wednesday, October 11, 2017), Research Scholar Brent Ranalli will be giving a talk at the Acton Memorial Library in Acton, Massachusetts on Henry David Thoreau’s “Indian Stride.” The talk starts at 7pm and is free. More information found here:

THOREAU’S “INDIAN STRIDE”   Local historian Brent Ranalli discusses Henry David Thoreau’s fascination with all things Native American and the odd fact that at least three contemporaries said the Concord philosopher walked like an Indian. Ranalli presents the results of research into the actual biomechanics of traditional Native American and Euro-American walking styles and their cultural significance, as well as a reconstruction of Thoreau’s own gait based on literary sources. Acton Memorial Library; free.

Monosson Speaking at Arnold Arboretum in Boston 10/4

If you’re in the Boston area, Research Scholar Emily Monosson will be speaking tomorrow (Wednesday, October 4) at 7:00 pm in the Hunnewell Building at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum’ in Boston. Details below:

Natural Defense: Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect Our Food and Health

Emily Monosson, PhD, Environmental Toxicologist, Writer, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

1 Session: Wednesday, October 4, 7:00–8:15pm

Location: Hunnewell Building

For more than a century, we have relied on chemical cures to keep our bodies free from disease and our farms free from bugs and weeds. We rarely consider human and agricultural health together, but both are based on the same ecology, and both are being threatened by organisms that have evolved to resist our antibiotics and pesticides. Fortunately, scientists are finding new solutions that work with, rather than against, nature. Emily Monosson will speak about some of science’s most innovative strategies and the growing understanding of how to employ ecology for our own protection. Natural Defense, Monosson’s newest book, will be available for purchase and signing.

Fee Free member and student, $5 nonmember

Register at or call 617-384-5277.

Call for Papers: “Transnational mobilities in nationalist times: living beyond the nation in the 21st century”

Research Scholar Jaime Moreno Tejada is looking for submissions for a special issue of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies. From the call:

This issue will explore the transnational movement of people, things, capital and ideas, at a time of rising nationalism. The prefix trans means both “across” and “beyond”. Thus “transnational” is here understood as a broad category, including international mobilities across national borderlines, and local rhythms dependent on global networks that supersede the limits of the nation-state. E.g. drug dealing in Manila.

Potential contributors should send a 300-word proposal, along with an academic CV, to Jaime at The deadline for proposal submissions is 1 December, 2017.

The full call is attached here: Call for papers_Special Issue_Mobilities

Lancaster at CESTEMER

Good news Chicago!

This weekend, from September 15-17, is ImprovScience’s CESTEMER conference, at the Goodman Theater ( From their description:

What happens at CESTEMER? This innovative conference brings together faculty, graduate students, K-12 educators and professionals in STEM and art fields who are exploring, practicing, and researching performance in science. CESTEMER advances, among these diverse attendees, the practices of community-building, collaborative creativity, diversity and inclusion and their relationship to ensembles.

And, this CESTEMER will feature a talk by Alex Lancaster, who will be giving an overview of the Ronin Institute. His abstract:

The Ronin Institute, formed in 2012, is a self-organized community of scholars from both the sciences and humanities formed with the core assumption that researchers should create their own measures of success and that affiliation with a conventional brick-and-mortar research institution should not be the sole metric of “success”. As a 501(c)3 non-profit organization the Ronin Institute provides an affiliation for scholars, as well as a financial structure whereby researchers can apply for federal and state grants. In this talk I will share our own steps in cultivating virtual science communities, such as the creation of face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference held in November 2016, as well as virtual meetings: a weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. I look forward to learning more from other CESTEMER participants about how we can continue and extend our journey towards creating living, joyful communities of scholarship.


Use Unpaywall to Find Papers

While a lot of the academic literature is still paywalled, meaning that it can be hard (and expensive) for independent and non-traditional scholars to access, much of that literature is actually publicly available. Many authors post their articles on or researchgate, or even on their own websites. Often, this self-archiving is even permitted under the terms of publication.

If you’re just a little bit ambitious with your web searches, you can typically find these, but it does require an extra step or two, which can fell like a bit of a drag.

Enter unpaywall, a new browser extension currently available for chrome and firefox that will tell you if there is a free version of the article you’re looking for somewhere out there, even if it is formatted differently (like an arXiv preprint). Check it out!

Ronin Featured in Nature Article on Independent Scholarship

Out today is a nice article in the Careers section of Nature called “Flexible Working: Solo Scientist.” It features the Ronin Institute prominently, and includes quotes from an interview with me, as well as Research Scholars Jeff Rose, Gene Bunin, and Vicenta Salvador. Also prominently featured is one of Gordon Webster’s excellent photographs from November’s unconference. Enjoy!

College Affordability Study Finds Dismal Results

There’s a new study out by the Institute for Higher Education Policy that looks at the affordability of 2000 colleges for a number of hypothetical students representing different family and economic situations. There’s a nice summary of the study at the Atlantic. Here’s the take-home message:

Of the more than 2,000 colleges analyzed, IHEP found that almost half were affordable only for students from families making more than $160,000. That means that in addition to being able to afford 90 percent of colleges, half of those colleges are also essentially exclusively reserved for them. For-profit colleges were the least affordable schools, and public colleges were the most affordable. But even then, four-year public colleges that didn’t meet the students’ affordability thresholds were off by an average of $9,000.

For low to moderate income students, with incomes < $69,000 per year, only one to five percent of the colleges studied were affordable. Note that, according to the Census Bureau, median household income in the US in 2015 was less than $56,000.

Op-ed piece on the Alignment of Science and Other Truth-Tellers

Out yesterday in The Scientist is an op-ed piece by yours truly. The basic thrust is that, in an era when facts and expertise and the very nature of reality are under attack, scientists need to recognize that they are part of a larger community of truth-seekers and truth-tellers that includes social scientists, artists, journalists, and others.

You can find the full piece by following the link above, but here’s the core of the argument:

As scientists, our role in society is to act as guardians of truth. Our mission is to discover things that are true, to share that truth with society, and to protect it from corruption and preserve it for future generations. But here’s the thing: we are not alone in that. Discovering and defending truth is also the mission of our colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, as well as journalists. Many of these fields have long been targets of scorn and derision from the most regressive elements in society, and the culture wars of the past few decades have engendered distrust of the media and resentment toward those who embrace social justice. It may be tempting to think that these groups represent softer targets, and that if we distance and differentiate ourselves from them, we can maintain the status quo in science. But if we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.


It seems that every week we are presented with a new attack on facts. If we focus on preserving our own funding, on defending some narrow definition of science, we will lose.

We must fight the impulse that says that we can preserve science if we stay in our lane, that we’ll be safe if we leave our non-scientist colleagues to their own devices. Those who silence artists and journalists don’t embrace a well-funded system of free scientific inquiry. If we focus our defense narrowly on science, the best we can hope for is a politically compromised field no longer worth defending.