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Sex, Religion, and Suicide: Nikki Saadat ’16 at The University of Otago – Centre for Science Communication

I work at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. The university was founded in 1869 and is New Zealand’s oldest university. By 1871, the University had three professors with over 100,000 acres of land as endowment for the Arts, Medicine, Law, and Music. This institution is dedicated to academic furtherance. Its mission is to, “create, advance, preserve, promote and apply knowledge, critical thinking and intellectual independence to enhance the understanding, development and well-being of individuals, society and the environment. It will achieve these goals by building on foundations of broad research and teaching capabilities, unique campus learning environments, its nationwide presence and mana, and international links.” Most of their website, and buildings on campus, also include a direct translation into the Maori language. Buildings that are seven stories high are engraved with the language so as to preserve the culture of the native peoples.

The Centre for Science Communication is affiliated with the Department of Zoology. This department focuses internationally on organism biology and exercises major research contributions that are known around the world. The Centre for Science Communication is devoted to the communication of science in all its taxonomical glory through writing, filmmaking, and other digital media forms. There are a number of world-renowned research staff that I work under who have made their profession the communication of science. My immediate boss is Associate Professor Jesse Bering. He is a popular science author who is best known for his work dealing with evolutionary psychology in matters of sex, religion, and suicide. I also work alongside Professor Lloyd Spencer Davis, who is well known for his work on penguins; Ross Johnson, who coordinates the filmmaking aspect of the Centre; and Dr. Fabien Medvecky, who specializes in behavioral economy. Another one of Jesse Bering’s research assistant is Emma Curtin. The Centre’s manager, Sue Harvey, completes the administrative work. She is easily one of the most respected people in the Centre as she has a wide range of experience and is known for her diligence, forwardness, and ability to get anything done and still supersede expectations. She often helps me complete my assignments, since she knows who to call and, more importantly, when to expect more of others. There have been many times when my work has floundered because of the incompetence of another, and Sue will encourage me to be more vocal about my discomfort to encourage more competence from my colleagues. She has easily kept the Centre afloat with intellect, vigor, and charm.

The role I serve at the Centre is highly sought after and is an incredibly well-respected position. I work as an assistant researcher for Jesse Bering and assist in many tasks. The most important of which, currently, is working on promoting the ScienceTeller 2015, the theme of which this year is “Sex and Science.” I am currently organizing our promotional efforts for this three-day event that will run from 30 Oct -1 Nov. There will be a series of exciting guest lecturers, documentary screenings, and Q&A sessions covering different sexuality topics, such as “Weird Sex in the Animal Kingdom,” “Gay, Straight and In-Between: The Science of Sexual Orientation,” and “Sex in Otago.” Our speakers will include internationally known authors such as Dan Savage, co-founder of the #ItGetsBetter campaign. While I will not be here for the event, I am in charge of setting up radio advertisements, creating posters and rack cards, securing venues, final website and logo designs, incorporating other departments in the university and lastly, spreading information throughout the town of Dunedin as well. While the event intends to reach a wider audience, the main goal is to attract undergraduate students to join science communications to expand the department. Jesse Bering proposed this event, and while it is hard to work on, it will surely be a huge success because, let’s face it, who isn’t interested in sex and science?

Another one of my goals is to record Jesse’s notes on suicide for a book he is coming up with. There are several different topics such as Bereavement and grieving, suicide notes, evolutionary psychology, shame and suicide, and more. These are all very heavy topics that I am encouraged to research as well as submit to Jesse in a timely manner. However, this has proven difficult with the amount of work that needs to be done for the ScienceTeller. Another duty of mine is to run the participant study that has been on-going since my second week on the job. We are currently running a transgression study where students/scientists come in and read an article with an editorials note that says something good, bad, or neutral on the author. Then, the participants are allowed to comment on the article to see if their individual bias comes through their objective critique of the author’s description of the article topic. Each study takes from 20-50 minutes and happens almost every hour. Since it takes so much time, it has also been hard to study suicide alongside Jesse since the participants are only in for so much time. Lastly, I sit in on a Creative Non-fiction Science Writing class that Jesse and Lloyd co-teach. In the class, we are taught how to take our ideas, incorporate them with science, and add a creative spin on them to gauge the interest of the reader. Since so many scientific claims are not respected, understood, or encourage change because of the way they are communicated, there is often times when all the scientific data does not make any real change. Thus, there is a large push in this department to put it in frames people can understand and that will encourage public involvement. I am a part of this class because I have many experiences in science that I want to communicate better to help the general spread of knowledge. The overall impact of my work can easily be seen in the descriptions of my every day duties. I constantly juggle the above tasks, along with my life outside of work in a foreign country. This is very challenging, but I can already see the huge difference it is going to make in my life. I am learning things about myself that I never would have otherwise that are coming out through my work at SciComm, and in my social life in New Zealand. While the language is the same, there are still major barriers that I am forced to overcome daily and that encourage intellectual awareness of where I am from and what I represent. Incorporating this with my academic work at University of Otago’s Centre for Science Communication is shaping me into a professional, young person and I can’t wait to share my knowledge with the Antioch Community!

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