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Reyhaneh Maktoufi

PhD Candidate in Media, Technology, and Society

Reyhaneh Maktoufi

When you feel that you are not built to take one single path and follow that one path, don’t interpret this as a weakness or lack of consistency, but realize that this can be your strength. Experiencing different fields and paths gives you a broad perspective, makes you more empathetic, and provides you with a broad set of skills to be creative. ”

Reyhaneh Maktoufi is a PhD candidate in the Media, Technology, and Society program in the School of Communication. Her main fields of interest are science communication, curiosity, and public engagement with scientists. Reyhaneh is also a producer for The Story Collider podcast and is a researcher at the Adler Planetarium, where she studies science communication and facilitates workshops on communication skills. She is an alumnae of the “Skills and Careers in Science Writing” class, which is offered jointly through TGS and Medill.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
When a shooting star hits Earth, is it cold or hot? Hot? Like how we see it in movies? Cold? Well the answer is *drum roll please* cold! This might be unexpected and you were probably curious to know the right answer or why shooting stars are not actually on fire when they hit Earth. Well, that curiosity, the engagement you have with science, the excitement of wanting to know more, is what I study! For the past few years I have been looking at how scientists use science fiction to build mutual ground between themselves and their audience; what makes us curious and how can scientists engage their audience, and how changes in scientists’ behavior change the way that their audience perceives them?

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer. She is a scientist, science communicator, and producer with an emphasis on cultural considerations. She does a lot of work to help the science communication community think critically about how their work considers the audience’s culture and perspectives in their work, how they might be excluding certain voices or adding to certain stereotypes. She also teaches these points in a very thoughtful and engaging way and makes sure she practices what she preaches.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I debate for a VERY long time about what new movie I want to watch, and after going through an endless list of movies, I decide to stick with the shows I wanted to finish months ago. I love doing this while digital-doodling on my Surface.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be so many things! I wanted to be an actress, an artist, a barber, a paleontologist (because Jurassic Park), a hobbit as a full-time job (because Lord of the Rings), an astronomer (because Contact), and to be honest, it feels like my multiple interests are integrated in science communication. I get to work with different scientists in different fields while using my artistic skills to communicate science and engage my audience. I am currently housed at the Adler Planetarium where I get to go on missions to send high-altitude balloons to the edge of space and retrieve meteorites from the bottom of Lake Michigan. Meanwhile, I recently completed a science filmmaking fellowship, where I not only produced a short film, but contributed my animations too. Right now I feel like I have a nice mix of my past interests.

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
When you feel that you are not built to take one single path and follow that one path, don’t interpret this as a weakness or lack of consistency, but realize that this can be your strength. Experiencing different fields and paths gives you a broad perspective, makes you more empathetic, and provides you with a broad set of skills to be creative. There are careers and options for people like us! They are not as well-defined and might need more work to be defined, but they are out there.

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
I have been constantly struggling with imposter syndrome during my time as a PhD student. Over the last year, I have spent a considerable amount of time working on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. I put so much work and thought into the proposal, but eventually the proposal did not get funded. I immediately started questioning myself and my work. Meanwhile, other people, like my adviser, started sharing their rejection stories with me, reminding me that falling down is a part of life. They reminded me that we can’t constantly value ourselves based on the grants we get, our publications, or our credentials. It’s hard to learn how to internally value yourself and not rely on external encouragement, but this was a time when I had to constantly be aware of my imposter syndrome, and tell myself that everyone falls, I fell, and maybe what comes out of this is that someday when someone falls, I will be able to tell them about my experience and they will feel better too!

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
The people I made friends with! I realized through my career that what makes me happiest in the work I do is the people around me, and I have always had a community of AMAZING people that not only were great friends, but also have lifted me up by mentoring me, advocating for me, and allowing me to contribute to their lives as well. I am so proud to have a community of unique friends and colleagues that also keep me accountable at all times.

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