Scientists share tales of how they goofed

CorrespondentJanuary 11, 2014 

  • Details

    Who: #sciencefail, a night of storytelling featuring scientists recounting tales of failure within their lives

    Where: Morehead Planetarium, 250 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

    When: 7 p.m. Thursday

    Cost: Free

    Info: 919-962-1236 or

Ask Carol Folt, an award-winning environmental scientist, if she has a history with science experiments gone wrong, it only takes her a second to come up with a doozy.

“I entered science fairs when I was very young, around 12 years old,” said Folt, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill. “I did a project once where I was testing the ingredients in muffins, so I would leave out the ingredients; I took the baking powder and the baking soda, and I had color coded each one with different dyes. The day before the project was to be taken in to school to be shown, my brother ate my science fair project!”

She finishes with a laugh, “But he was fine!”

Folt is one of the guests lined up to perform Thursday when The Monti undertakes its largest-ever production at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. The local storytelling group is joining forces with Morehead and with Scientists with Stories to present #ScienceFail, a night of personal stories told by scientists, including UNC’s Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies, and graduate students. The storytelling begins at 7 p.m.

The event was spearheaded by Clare Fieseler – a doctoral student in ecology at UNC and co-founder of Scientists with Stories, a Duke and UNC collaboration that aims to advance science communication. Fiesler, a previous champion of Monti’s Story SLAM competition, had an epiphany last year during her training sessions with Jeff Polish, founder and director of The Monti.

“Jeff was providing all of the storytellers with coaching, and how to tell a good, live story,” Fieseler recalled. “After that experience I thought, ‘Gosh, every scientist could benefit from this.’ Imagine if every scientist had professional coaching in storytelling, how much clearer and more empowering science would be to the public.”

Meanwhile, Folt was reading about projects on the horizon in UNC’s science departments, when she came upon Fiesler’s idea. She emailed for details.

“I thought, ‘What a great idea, to have people learn about science by understanding how personal it can be through the storytelling process,’ ” said Folt, who then invited Fieseler to speak to the UNC Board of Trustees.

Fieseler responded to that invitation with one of her own.

“When I brought the idea of the event up to Chancellor Folt, her eyes lit up,” Fieseler said. “She said, ‘That is something that even I could benefit from as a scientist.’ So I asked, ‘Do you want to tell a story?’ and she ended up saying yes. I think Chancellor Folt, as a female scientist, realizes the value of being able to present an idea in front of an audience.”

That contagious enthusiasm is one reason for The Monti’s involvement.

Polish, a former science teacher who lives in Chapel Hill, looks forward to the change of venue for the storytelling group, which typically performs in bars.

“It will be more sedate than our club shows, but it will still be spirited,” he said, adding, “I’m really looking forward to telling stories under the stars.”

Fieseler sees this event as an opportunity to share her love of science with a public scared off by the subject.

“This event is all about humanizing science. ... To fail is to be human, and too often we only publicize the triumphs within science, when I believe most scientists would agree that more than 60 percent of science is failure. I think we’re doing the public a disservice by not ... acknowledging that scientists are human just like the rest of us. That’s really what this event is about; whether you are a Nobel laureate, a chancellor, or just a first-year chemistry student, we all have stories to tell.”


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