A Solar storm chaser: Interview with Miho Janvier for the Science Communication Awareness Month

by Maria Eichel

Last year’s Visions & Science conference organized by the Max Planck PhDnet was centered around the topic of Science & Society. Amongst the many exciting talks by various guest speakers one highly motivating talk by “Solar storm chaser” Dr. Miho Janvier stood out to us. Miho is a solar/space physicist who studies the sun at Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale, Université Paris-Sud.

Miho Janvier in front of a model (not to scale) of the ESA satellite called SoHO.

Her impressive and beautiful images of our lovely sun and the way she explained her science immediately gripped the attention of the audience. Even as a biologist, who has little clue about space and solar storms, I was able to understand easily what solar eruptions (solar storms) are, how they could impact our life on earth and why this research is so important. Like little children fascinated by dinosaurs, superheros and planets, I was bursting with curiosity and interest. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that  after listening to Miho`s presentation, a big part of the audience wanted to become a solar storm chaser themselves. But what was the key to this “success”? How can someone learn to perform excellent science and also give back knowledge to the broader public in an understandable way? And why is that utterly important?

For our Science Communication Awareness Month, the Offspring interviewed Dr. Miho Janvier asking questions ranging from the importance of science communication to tips & tricks for young researchers, social media as a blessing or curse, how to cope with stress when facing many tasks (like doing science, pursuing a career and being a science communication advocate) and women in STEM. Learn more about how Miho ended up being a TED fellow, her favorite science moments (spoiler: there are too many) as well as her recent projects which include exciting Virtual Reality (VR) technology.

For more information on Miho, her TED talk and some of her projects make sure to visit the following websites:

Miho @ her TED talk in 2017.

The Offspring: Miho, many thanks for joining our interview. You participated in the Max Planck PhDnet Visions & Science conference in 2018 and gave an excellent and outstanding talk: How did you like the ViS?

Miho: First of all, thank you for the feedback! I had a great time at ViS, the talks from the other speakers were really interesting and informative. I like to attend talks that are not in my field and that give me an overview of what kind of research is being done in other fields. It gives me food for thoughts and ViS was certainly a good place to get my neurons fired! It also gave me the opportunity to meet PhD students who were doing very interesting research; it was great getting to know them.

The Offspring: And your inspiring TED talk? How did that feel?

Miho: I got into the TED fellowship program in 2017 and since then it has been an amazing adventure. The fellowship program is not a just a one-off event: you get into a community for the rest of your life, and as such you feel like having a new family. The network of TED fellows is incredible, as you get to know people who are truly changing the world with bold ideas. I got to meet activists, social workers, artists, scientists from around the globe and we all share one common thing: a passion for what we do. As part of the fellowship, we are invited in one TED conference to give a talk. My event was at TEDGlobal in Tanzania, so we were in this fabulous setting, near the Kilimanjaro, meeting incredible human beings and getting prepared to give a talk in front of an audience of more than 800 people! Quite scary to say the least, but the energy was fabulous, and because our preparation went for months, everything went smoothly. Then, there is also the excitement when the talk goes online, because with the TED platform, this becomes an opportunity to share your ideas around the world. I wouldn't have dreamed of having more than one million viewers listening to a talk about solar storms! So in a nutshell, I feel incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to join the TED fellows family.

The Offspring: How important is Science Communication for you? And what do you consider are our responsibilities as scientists?

Miho: Its importance, for me, has grown years after years. The different formats I tried when communicating science, whether at small or larger events, have convinced me that the general public really likes science and to be part of it. From kids to adults, I have seen the eagerness to understand in people's eyes and in their questions to me. This desire to understand the world, I think, comes from deep inside us, as curiosity is in our DNA; this is what makes humans explorers in the first place. I also think that it is even more crucial in the current world to communicate, as a scientist, on the knowledge you gain and how you gain it. This is because first of all, most of science is funded by public money, and I feel it is important, and fair, to give back to society by sharing what we learn. I don't believe that results, new understandings, new scientific outcomes should only be held in the hands of a few persons. We work on behalf of the rest of humanity, and as such it is part of our mission to share what we do. I also think that in this day and age when everything and anything can be found on the internet, misinterpretation, or fear of science, can be really harmful (e.g. the theories of anti-vaccines, flat-Earthers).  Science communication is not just about communicating our results; it is also about sharing the practice of the scientific method.

The Offspring: What do you think are the challenges that scientists face when it comes to discussing their science?

Miho: There are many hurdles that I can see, and that I discussed during the round table at the ViS event. First, we are not equipped, as scientists, with the tools to communicate science to a large audience. This might not be true in some countries, but discussing with my colleagues, I realize that the competitiveness of scientific careers means that there is less consideration given to how to better communicate, and discuss, our science. Now, I think this is changing, especially with younger generations that are eager to take on opportunities to communicate their science. But this takes time, and again, it is difficult to set aside some time to do science communication when we (as in, the scientific community) expect a young researcher to be extremely competitive. Finding the balance, finding mentors, finding the right institutional structure that promotes science communication, all of these are difficult to achieve.

The Offspring: How did you learn to do it?

Miho: When I was doing my PhD, I didn't think too much about science communication. I would say it all started when I got a post-doctoral fellowship from the AXA Research Fund, and was invited to talk about my research to the CEO and other representatives of the AXA group. To prepare for our talks, we were given tips to find ways to explain the science we do in an engaging way. The AXA Research Fund also organized a workshop with several post-docs they financed: we spent two days preparing how to communicate science to a general audience, and I really liked it! Hearing others talk about their own research, whether on volcanoes or on how diseases spread was fascinating, and it gave me more incentive to communicate about what I do. Then, I was given several opportunities to do more outreach, all in different format (vlogging, participating in the FAMELAB contest in the UK, presenting at my institution’s open days), and every time I got more joy at the challenge of conveying and sharing my passion for my research. I also had the chance to meet a really talented moviemaker with whom I collaborated on several projects. Dipping a toe in movie production allowed me to consider other formats to do outreach, and since several years, I have been developing projects using augmented and virtual reality to show what kind of science we do in astrophysics. And when time allows, I also like to participate in events, like TEDx events, or record podcasts. I really like the format of podcasts, because you get to have a conversation with someone about anything, and it makes me less nervous than talking in front of a camera!

The Offspring: Now can you tell us a bit more about your current projects (as non-astrophysicists)?

Miho: I would say that I have a foot in two fields: one is solar physics, the other one is space physics. And they are both connected due to how our Sun behaves: in the Sun's atmosphere, that we call the corona, the most energetic events in the solar system take place. We call these events solar "flares", as they are associated with intense radiation and energetic particles. Sometimes, they are also associated with the launch in space of enormous clouds of magnetic fields and particles: these are solar storms. They propagate in the solar system, and sometimes, if a planet is on their path, can interact with the space environment of these planets. They are responsible for auroras here on Earth, as well as on other planets of the solar system (although on Earth, they can also harm our satellite and electricity systems, so we really want to be able to predict them!). One of my current projects is on the understanding the conditions of solar flares by simulating the intense magnetic fields in the Sun's atmosphere and comparing these simulations to observations taken from remote-sensing instruments in space. Another project is on investigating space probes data with in situ instruments that are literally in the solar storms and can collect data that inform us on a variety of things (such as the intensity of the magnetic fields) about these storms. By collecting these data, I work on getting the most generic features of these storms, so that we can combine this knowledge with that of their birth at the Sun. With my student and collaborators, we are also now working on a bigger scale simulation, trying to reproduce the ejection and the propagation of such storms all the way from the Sun's atmosphere to the Earth, and compare with the wealth of data we have. As I work as an astronomer in France, part of my work is also about taking care of national facilities. In my case, I work on the Solar Orbiter probe, which is a European Space Agency mission to be launched in February 2020.  The probe will get very close to the Sun, so for me this is a tremendous opportunity to get data of solar storms just as they are being born at the Sun and launched into space!

The Offspring: And how about your exciting new VR Project?

Miho: I have now finished two VR and AR projects: one is Solar Storm VR (www.solarstormvr.com), which is a short 360 movie about solar storms for VR headsets, and an augmented reality project about solar physics (hopefully soon available on stores so that it can be accessed on any device). Since I am involved in the next ESA solar/space mission called Solar Orbiter, I have started a new project, which will showcase the mission and the specificities of the spacecraft in virtual reality. We have already finished the proof of concept and can't wait to work on it more! It should be ready for the launch of the mission (February 2020, fingers crossed!).

The Offspring: What was your best Science moment ever?

Miho: There are several, I cannot pinpoint one in particular. I think there are all these moments when I discuss with some colleagues and we discover and/or understand a phenomenon, and at that moment you know you are the only ones to know about this. It is really exciting. Other moments, although it might sound nerdy, are when I work on space data and I pause for a moment and realize that the data that I am analyzing come from a tiny robot somewhere in the solar system that we, humans, sent on a giant rocket. It blows my mind and gives me goosebumps to think about this!

The Offspring: You opinion on Social media: Blessing or Curse?

Miho: Both! I clearly spend too much time on social media! In all seriousness, I believe they can be detrimental if used too much. We can already see the effect on the mental health of teenagers, so in a way one really needs to have a healthy relationship with social media. I try to have rules (like no phone before/after a certain hour), but I also really love the interactions and the accessibility social media give. I've followed more science projects, opened my mind to new subjects, new fields just by browsing social media. I get inspired by people who share their stories on social media. And finally, I myself share a lot and have had really great conversations with random people through social media. So as long as you know how to use them, I think they are great at communicating your science and reaching out to people who might not have thought about science without them.

The Offspring: What advice would you give young researchers on their way to empower themselves and openly discuss their science?

Miho: Start as soon as you can, and get help along the way. Try everything, especially when you just start. Science communication, and communication in general, comes with practice. Start with local organizations (like science clubs) or schools. Get involved in local events. About getting help: the hurdles I mentioned earlier are going to get bigger as you are doing more science communication, so try to get help, whether it is by finding a good mentor, or by getting support from your organization.

But also, I strongly encourage you to understand the current issues around science, for example, and especially, issues around gender or equal opportunities. This is because as you are doing more and more science communication, you become an advocate for science, and it is important that you use your voice to help changes occur for the better in the scientific world. The words you will be choosing, the way you will express yourself when communicating: all this has been crafted by the social norms of the field you come from, and it is important to be aware of all this so that you can use communication to the best of endeavors; that is, to inspire as many people as possible and let your audience know that science is for everyone.

The Offspring: How do you manage a balance between doing your science and science communication & outreach projects, which are both very time consuming?

Miho: I wish I had a secret formula for this! Unfortunately I don't, and I am still trying to figure out this balance. And even if everything seems to be in balance one day, I know the feeling will disappear the next day. I guess that is life! I think one thing I have realized recently is that it is important to take care of yourself first, because without this foundation, the rest cannot follow. Find out the ways to be in a good place mentally and physically, then figure out what you like to do, where you are losing time for unnecessary tasks and try to reduce them. Reflect on what your core values are, what makes you happy, and try to spend as much time as possible doing that. This means learning to say 'no' to things, and I am certainly still learning to do that!

The Offspring: I am pretty sure the majority of us can relate to that to some extent. But let me ask you how do you relax from all of this?

Miho: My personal time is really important to me, and since I have many hobbies, I do spend quite a lot of time away from science and outreach. Spending time in nature for me has become one of my relaxing hobbies, and I do so by being active: I love outdoor sports, so whenever I can, I go snowboarding in the winter, and surf and hike in the summer. I picked up free diving some time ago, so I am also always up for new challenges. I also do and teach yoga and meditate, which has really helped me stay afloat at times. Finally, I have started a routine of reading more regularly, which is something I didn't realize I missed so much, and always have a podcast in my ears when I commute. Both help me gain perspective and realize there is a lot happening in the world!

How do you relax from all of this? Miho spending time in nature.

The Offspring: Last but not least we wanted to collect some opinions about current topics in the general research world and focused on Women in STEM. What do you consider important steps that group leaders, professors and institutes/universities should undergo when it comes to Equal Opportunities in Science?

Miho: Educate themselves! I think that should be compulsory. There are many books written on the subject to be read, seminars to be attended, discussions to be had. It is the role of both individuals and institutions to do the above and provide an environment that is safe and nurturing for minorities. When I hear that certain research areas are "not doing too bad", it makes me angry and sad that my peers are not pushing to make things better, because we are still so far from equal access to opportunities. We are only starting this conversation, so I hope that at every scale, whether individuals, teams, divisions, institutions and communities, the conversations continue and applicable outcomes come out of it.

The Offspring: What challenges did you face or do you notice in you daily work-life working as a young and successful woman in your field?

Miho: Being a young woman in science is a double-edge sword. There are the obvious challenges, for example not being taken seriously, being seen as "too young" to have the space to express my voice. Fortunately, this does not happen in my community: as I have been around for several years now, people know my work. But outside of this community, I do face the usual dismissiveness or being mistaken for a student. I have been to meetings or been part of discussions where I have felt very little confident. Part of it comes from my own insecurities, probably nurtured by years of feeling inadequate, but sometimes the environment creates this as well (being cut in the middle of sentences, being mansplained). The more we have these conversations with friends and colleagues across fields, the more I realize that many women live similar experiences.

Then, the double edge is that for people who know my work, being "young" and "female" means that I am asked to participate to a lot of committees or groups, first because being young is often equaled as having more time (we do have the same amount of hours in the day as senior people though!) and because there are less women in the science community.

The Offspring: Imagine you have a magic wand and can change three things regarding this, what would it be?

Miho: First, my first wish would be for the present: I would give more confidence to women and underrepresented communities in STEM right now. Have you heard of the imposter syndrome? It is so much more prevalent amongst these people. So, giving a boost of confidence would make them already feel so much better about themselves and let them know that they really belong to this field.

My second wish would be for the past: it would be that all the persons from underrepresented communities (women, POC, etc) who have participated in scientific discoveries in the past get immediate recognition. There are many stories of such people who were forgotten and were never mentioned. Some of them are rediscovered, but most of them we might never know of. So I would use my magic wand to go back in time, change history books and give them the recognition they deserve.

My third wish is for the future: I want the rules and the laws to be changed to facilitate access to science to underrepresented communities. Rethink access to education not as a privilege but as a right. Provide community and society support for women and family carers to pursue a career in science. Make the scientific career a flexible one, one that is adapted to many profiles rather than many profiles adapting to one.

Thanks a lot for the interview Miho & good luck with chasing solar storms in the future!

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