Visiting Scientist Day was by far the most enriching outreach event I have been a part of so far. NYU’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs co-organized this exciting day where fourth and fifth graders, with their clipboards and pencils in hand, fired questions at a group of seventeen scientists of different backgrounds, ranging from STEM research to archaeology and food studies. The science professionals, as we were called, were asked to shortly introduce their work in a thirty-second elevator pitch, and subsequently engage with the kids in smaller groups.
Two students seemed very interested in street food research and asked relevant questions in relation to content. A girl was interested to know what my favorite street food was and chuckled when I said it’s arepas. She also asked if New York has a culture of street drinking (good question!). “Well, vendors sell water, sodas, coffee and bubble tea from vendors, but they are not allowed to sell alcohol.” She replied that she loved bubble tea and that she had to try arepas one day. A fifth-grader wanted to know more about the archives I consult for my research. I told him I use a lot of old documents, like reports and census records, that give me a good idea of what street food looked like in, say, New York in the 1930s. “Oh, and what’s the oldest document you’ve read so far?” – “Well, that’s most probably a report written in 1896 about vendors’ licenses, but there are documents way older than that.” – “And where do you find most food vendors in New York today?” – “You can find vendors in every borough and I would even say every neighborhood in New York. Since vendors are mobile, it’s not always easy to keep track of their whereabouts, but there are most definitely quarters and streets that attract a lot of vendors. Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, for example, or Broadway in Manhattan, or Throgs Neck in the Bronx.” – “And what do you know about fruit and vegetable carts?” – “I know that the City of New York has special regulations for what we call green carts. You can find these carts in neighborhoods where supermarkets are sparse. The green carts make it possible for people to buy fresh produce without having to commute too far.”
Most students wanted to learn about the life of a researcher (scenes of National Treasure and Indiana Jones flashed before my eyes). The most common questions were if I like my job and what my workday looks like. I told the kids at my table that I love what I do, that I get to do something I am passionate about every day and that it’s a one-in-a-million feeling. I get to read and talk about food, and I get to taste a lot of delicious treats too! (Chuckles). The most difficult question was without a doubt what challenges I face in my work. I knew I would lose my audience if I would explain how tough the life of a postdoc can be (read my Postdocalypse piece if you’re interested) and so I decided to focus on data and data analysis. Because turning tons of information I gather from those old documents into patterns can be a challenge at times. Sometimes you don’t dominate the material – it dominates you. A question I didn’t expect at all was if my income is reasonable. Flabbergasted, I asked the girls addressing the subject why it was on their radar. “We will have to pay off our student loans at some point and we want to buy a house when we grow up.” Ten- and eleven-year-olds should not be worrying about student loans and they should not let issues like that determine their choices. I could feel a raging rant about America’s crazy higher education system bubble up, but I was saved by the bell. I did send off those girls with my evergreen, that they should always always always follow their heart.
Special thanks to William Ruben Helms for pointing out the importance of pluralizations.
Illustration courtesy of the author.