The Art of Science Communication
Host Veronica Combs asks Kenna Hughes-Castleberry about quantum marketing and communications, what’s new at the emerging quantum hub of Boulder, CO and her fascinations with octopuses and crows.
Kenna is the Science Communicator at JILA, a joint institute of the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST (National Institute for Standards & Technology), and Editor-in-Chief of their journal Light & Matter. She is also a freelance science journalist; her beats include deep technology, quantum technology, AI, diversity within the tech industries, cephalopods and corvids. Kenna’s work has been featured in publications including Scientific American, New Scientist, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica, Astronomy Magazine, Leaps Magazine, ChemistryWorld, Physics.org, Colorado Magazine, Inside Quantum Technology, The Quantum Insider, The Deep Tech Insider, the Metaverse Insider, The Debrief and Octonation. She sits on the board of SWARM (Science Writers Association of the Rocky Mountains) and teaches science writing to graduate students at JILA.
Host Veronica Combs is a quantum tech editor, writer and PR professional. She manages public relations for quantum computing and tech clients as an account manager with HKA Marketing Communications, the #1 agency in quantum tech PR. Veronica joined HKA from TechRepublic, where she was a senior writer. She has covered technology, healthcare and business strategy for more than 10 years.
Host Veronica Combs: Hello, I’m Veronica Combs and this is The Quantum Spin podcast by HKA Marketing Communications. I am super excited to be talking with Kenna Hughes-Castleberry. She is the Science Communicator at JILA, which is a physics research institute. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of their journal Light & Matter. She is a freelance science journalist, and she writes for everybody, it seems: Inside Quantum Technology, The Quantum Insider, Scientific American, and of course, the best for last: Octonation. Kenna covers everything from deep technology, quantum technology, AI, diversity within the tech industries – which is, sadly, an ongoing topic that we all need to think about – and teaches science writing to graduate students at Jila. Thank you so much for joining us, Kenna.
Guest Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: Thank you so much Veronica. It’s a pleasure.
Veronica Combs: Did I get all that right? You’re a very busy person. I think you just published a book recently, too, right? (On the Shoulders of Giants: 10 Quantum Pioneers of the Past)
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: I did. Yes. “When am I not busy?” I find myself asking all the time. What is free time, who knows?
Veronica Combs: Who knows? But from my perspective, you have a really great job. You are surrounded by scientists and technologists and researchers all day; your job is to learn what they’re doing and then explain that work to everyone else who doesn’t know about all the nitty gritty details of physics.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: I think it’s really fun to be that institutional writer for JILA where I get to write about quantum physics, astrophysics and biophysics. JILA, the institute where I work, has about 70% of our scientists doing quantum research. The majority of my writing is focused on quantum, but I also really love talking about folding proteins or black holes or teaching physics to different age groups. There is always a new story coming out. I get to work with CU Boulder students, researchers, graduate students, post-docs and sometimes undergraduates on crafting these articles so that anybody can read. That is a really fun and fulfilling time because I get to show them how a journalist would interview them, how they might come across to a journalist and how to tone down the language or come across in a more visual, engaging way.
Veronica Combs: What are some common mistakes people make when they’re writing about complicated subjects? Or trying to explain their work in the lab to people who may be interested in science but don’t have that technical background?
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: People tend to approach that conversation as not a conversation. They see it as two different people on two different levels, and usually the scientist is at the upper level and their listener is at a lower level. They tend to talk down. From my background in science communication – I got my master’s degree from doing all this work with students – I have really tried to encourage people to see it as a conversation where they have a back-and-forth and it’s a dialogue. Scientists need to allow people to ask follow-up questions or possibly “dumb” questions because it means that they’re paying attention. That is the first mistake I see: a scientist comes into an interview, says their spiel to the other person and then they just leave it, walk away and wash their hands of it as if it’s done: “I don’t have to deal with the press anymore. I don’t have to deal with the journalist anymore.” Well, that’s not really going to be a productive conversation because you’ve closed everything off.
Veronica Combs: Transparency seems like a vague concept to some, but if quantum machines and algorithms are going to be making decisions that affect someone’s ability to get a loan, or where to locate a factory, or whether to put a policy into place, people should be able to explain them and understand them. I have noticed, too, using language as a way to either keep people out like, “I’m smarter than you” or to bring people in and say, “This is what we’re doing, this is how it might affect you and these are the things we don’t know about. How can you help us?” I’m glad to hear you are making sure students understand that they need to bring people in, not just be the smartest person in the room who won’t have a conversation.
You’re in Colorado, where there is a quantum hub. What could you tell people about the Colorado quantum hub?
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: Most people don’t know, but CU Boulder is one of the #1 physics graduate programs in the country. People will come here for quantum physics. This is like a fun trivia fact: another thing that people don’t realize is a lot of the reason that the government facilities are here is because they would be much harder to bomb during the Cold War, because we have the mountains here. People don’t usually think about that, but once I tell people that, they’re like, “Oh yeah, that makes a lot more sense. That’s why everything’s kind of around the Rockies,” right? Or like in Los Alamos, in New Mexico. We also have a lot less radio interference out here because it’s the country; we don’t have big cities as much, so there is a lot less interference with electricity, sound waves and radio waves.
As far as the other sort of hub, obviously we have all the big quantum companies here. We have Quantinuum, we have Atom Computing, we have Infleqtion; we have NIST, we have JILA, we have CU Boulder. This is a big network as far as students who may be going from studying at CU Boulder to one of these other companies and they don’t really have to leave the state. There is a lot of cross collaboration between the companies and the university / NIST plus collaboration between the quantum companies in general. I think it’s one where Colorado has become more of a quantum hub recently, with the moves of several of these companies opening different branches here in Colorado: Atom Computing opened up a branch rather recently. I think that has helped solidify the area as a secure hub for quantum activity.
Veronica Combs: I feel like I have to ask you: have you seen Oppenheimer?
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: I have. I’ve seen it twice. I actually wrote an article about it and interviewed a group of scientists about being extras in the film, which was an absolutely wonderful experience. I will never regret doing that interview. It was great.
Veronica Combs: What did you think of the movie?
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: Oh, boy, that is a little bit of a loaded question because I have a lot of feelings about the movie. From a science communicator’s perspective, I’m always happy to see science portrayed in film; not just in like a science fiction, blown-out-of-proportion something like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but something really accurate that is discussing the ethical dilemmas of scientists, showing the humanness of scientists, which is something that motivates me personally. I appreciated the film for doing that. I thought there could have been a lot more discussion around the local individuals in the Los Alamos area who were affected by the bomb, and also the female scientists who were working on it. Neither one of those groups of individuals really entered the narrative but I also understand that Christopher Nolan, being a creative mind and artist, is pulling from different source material. Perhaps so. I thought, overall, it was a rather interesting experience. I was also very pleased that it got such a wide reception from people, where so many people went and saw this and got exposed to what scientists look like, how they interact with each other, what the end goal was and how government and science works together. Do they always play nicely? They may not. What does that look like for the future of the US or society? A lot of big questions come out of that film – and by the end, you are just exhausted. It’s a very heavy movie.
Veronica Combs: It is a very heavy movie. I think a lot of those questions, like you mentioned: how do scientists and government officials work together and what are the moral implications of the work? How do you go forward? I think all of that is so timely right now when we’re thinking about quantum technology, artificial intelligence, automation and all these things.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: I was also glad to see that so many people were interested and wanted to know more about that story. From a technology writer perspective – and I’m sure you folks at HKA get this as well – we’re all writing about this upcoming technology where, kind of like the atom bomb, there’s a lot of different misconceptions about it. There’s a lot of hype and ethical debates about it. For me – and I know I’ve seen this as well with your group (HKA Marcom) is that we all do a good job of trying to just cut to the facts and show how they would impact the normal person. As far as ethical debates and whatnot, as we see more of this come up with, say, AI or quantum technology, I think it is really important to show where things stand right now, where the limitations are – because a lot of times those aren’t really discussed – then also how this impacts the normal person.
Veronica Combs: What’s the best part of your job? You must have lots of interesting stories every week.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: Oh boy. On the industry side, the most fulfilling thing for me is to do the women in quantum article series that I do (Women of Quantum Technology). I think the one that has made the biggest impression on me has been Areeba Arbab’s story. She’s a high schooler in Pakistan. She’s Pakistan’s youngest quantum computer. I get to highlight different women in this field, talk about their journeys, showcase their work, encourage other people to reach out to them for mentorships or networking or whatnot. It’s just been such a wonderful experience and has really gained a lot of attention – more than I thought it would, so it’s a really positive thing for me.
Veronica Combs: The technology is so fascinating. I think that’s what attracts me to so many people to interview them is… this isn’t like you learn it at a boot camp or go for a weekend coding session and suddenly you understand this technology. People spend years studying and collaborating and writing papers and running experiments. It’s really a commitment.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: You always have to look for that next story, right? A lot of times, that story comes from people’s determination and comes from people saying, “I’m really interested in this. I want to dig deeper.” I’m trying to push my readers to do the same thing and say, “Hey, what about this? What about this? Let’s dig deeper on this.”
Veronica Combs: You are @kennaculture on Twitter – I know we’re supposed to call it X now, but I’m sticking with Twitter a little bit longer. It’s #womenwednesday, right? You tag your stories with that.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: Yes, I do. I never really meant to use that hashtag but the first time I posted on LinkedIn, it was one that popped up, and I thought, “Well, we need to keep this trend going.”
Veronica Combs: I know that you obviously write a lot about quantum computing and physics and technology in general, but I know there are a few other topics on your writing agenda. Tell us what you do, what you study or what you write about when you need a break from all that technology.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: I write quite a bit about octopuses and crows, which are a very interesting combination. With octopuses, they’re just so captivating and they’re so strange. I am interested in new studies that are coming out and new ideas around animal intelligence and how we define intelligence. With crows, I have a similar kind of experience: crows are incredibly smart. Recently, I wrote an article about how they have been found to do statistical reasoning. They are smart enough to maximize how much treat they get in different trials and different challenges. They remember faces. I’m actually trying to befriend the crows on campus where I work, although I do have quite a few crows in my neighborhood, but I don’t really want them to be friends with me as I have a very luscious and beautiful garden that I wouldn’t want them to eat out of.
Veronica Combs: Is there a crow in your garden? He’s upset about something…
As we mentioned, Kenna, you are based in Colorado, where there are lots of mountains and lots of snow. Pretend that you are on a ski lift with someone and the two of you start talking about work. How would you describe what you do every day before you reach the top of the slope?
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: That’s a really good question. First and foremost, I tell people, I’m a science writer but I also am a storyteller. Having a human strand through the story, or a human narrative, makes things a lot more relatable and easier. It helps break down a lot of barriers in really technical science like quantum computing or physics. In 30 seconds or less, I’m a science writer. I write about a lot of different topics. My main beats are technology and quantum. But I also, as I mentioned, enjoy writing about animals and animal behavior. I like going down rabbit holes to satiate my endless amount of curiosity.
Veronica Combs: Thank you so much for joining us today, Kenna. “It’s been great to hear about all your work.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry: Thank you so much, Veronica.
Veronica Combs: You’ll have to keep us posted on your work with those crows at CU Boulder. Thank you all for listening and we’ll see you next time on The Quantum Spin.