SciComm in Space: A Conversation with "Galactic Chloé"

“It’s important to be authentic, because being real is what gets your message through.”

Galactic Chloé at swissnex San Francisco. Photo by Barak Sharma for swissnex SF / Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco.

Galactic Chloé at swissnex San Francisco. Photo by Barak Sharma for swissnex SF / Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco.

When Galactic Chloé — Swiss student Chloé Carrière — isn’t studying physics at EPFL, she is busy bringing science communication about astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, space missions and space engineering to the public through engaging public appearances, events, and social media. 

She is the creator of Space@yourService, which organizes Astronomy on Tap events in Lausanne, has co-produced science videos for Swiss public broadcaster RTS, and her science communication talk, The Science of Moonwalking, earned her an audience prize from FameLab — despite being the only undergraduate entry among all of the PhDs. 

Most recently, she spent the summer at swissnex San Francisco as a Pier 17 Science Communication Fellow. We talked to Chloé about the real meaning of “outreach,” the value of authenticity, and how escape rooms can become powerful tools for bringing science to life. 

Tell us a bit about your science communication events in Lausanne? 

GC: Astronomy on Tap is, basically, astronomy events in bars. We bring the science to the public instead of bringing the public to the science. So you can be hanging out with friends in a bar, and suddenly, there’s a speaker on astronomy or astrophysics. Sometimes people come to the bar because of the event, but sometimes people just happen to be in the bar. I feel like the public really loves these kinds of events, they just don’t have enough around. 

When I went to my first-ever Astronomy on Tap in Bern, I saw all these people — scientists, but also people who have no idea what we’re doing right now in space sciences — were united and sharing a beer in this informal event. It was a new way to target a different audience. So I — and a great team — started Space@yourService, which now organizes an Astronomy on Tap event in Lausanne. 

Just opening labs to the public isn’t outreach, because people have to come to you!
— Galactic Chloé

We see a lot of outreach events in Switzerland from universities and scientists, but just opening labs to the public isn’t outreach, because people have to come to you! If someone isn’t interested in science from the beginning, they probably won’t come. That’s why I thought this event was such a good idea — we are going to the people. This is what I call ‘outreach’ — going outside. 

Your public presentation, “The Science Behind Moonwalking,” is a great science communication package. It has a bit of personality, it inspires an “A-ha!” moment, and then explains, simply, why things look the way they do on the moon. What’s the story behind your presentation? 

To be honest, the issue I had with the competition is that all of the participants were doing PhDs, at least, and I was the only bachelor’s student, which made me very young! So they were all talking about their PhD, because it’s their science. As a bachelor’s student, I had a very general background, so I was having trouble finding a topic that I felt actually legit to talk about. I’ve been specializing in space missions, and I thought, well, maybe I have something to communicate which is different, maybe not a very specific phenomenon like someone doing a PhD, but more of a general interest topic that could interest the public. 

So my very first talk was called “Planning Your Next Trip to the Moon,” which was about how we get the power to leave the Earth. My second talk, for the 50th Anniversary of humankind landing on the Moon, I had the tremendous opportunity to meet with Charlie Duke, the youngest man to walk on the moon — the 10th moon walker. He told us all these anecdotes about scales and how things look on the moon. This was so interesting, because it’s not the stuff you usually hear about when we talk about humans on the moon. 

What advice would you give to others interested in science communication? 

I think the issue I was having at the very beginning is that I didn’t feel very legit for communicating science because I didn’t have a degree. I think the advice I can give to people is, it doesn’t matter what degree you have, even if it’s not in science. You can be an artist or a student, even a child, and bring something that the world will be interested in hearing about. You don’t have to be afraid to bring your ideas to the public, and it’s legit to do so if you have an interesting idea or a passion. 

I also had a very interesting conversation with Hélène Courtois, who told me, when you’re on stage, it’s very easy not to be yourself. You’re in character, but you aren’t an actor. You’re a scientist — or someone who communicates science — and it’s important to be authentic when you are on stage, because being real in this way is what gets your message through. 

What you are working on during your fellowship at swissnex?

I’m here as a Pier 17 Science Studio Fellow at swissnex San Francisco for a fellowship in science communication, with three different projects. I’ll be organizing an Astronomy on Tap event here in San Francisco. I also went to the Frontier Development Lab program at NASA and SETI institutes, an 8-week bootcamp to use AI to tackle space challenges such as astronaut health, etc. So I’m doing a series of short videos on social media to help the public understand that AI isn’t just the Terminator, but can be very useful for space sciences and is actually the future for a lot of research in general. 

And finally, the big project I have here is to build an escape room — an adventure that happens for one hour in a locked space, which you have to escape. I thought it would be interesting to have an escape room used for science communication, so I am building a mobile escape room to use for conferences, schools, museums, as a moon base. 

It would actually be realistic — two rooms, one mission control, one lunar base, so people understand that in space you’re never alone, there’s always someone having your back on Earth. They would be able to understand better what it’s like on a space mission, but also be able to solve puzzles, etc. 

What inspired this idea? 

I’ve done maybe two or three escape rooms set in space. It was fun, but it was so unrealistic — I was having fun but I was thinking it was just unrealistic, “this thing is supposed to be Russian but it’s not written in Russian,” etc. So I thought, maybe there’s something to do there. 

People I talk to about escape rooms always remember what they did. This is nice, because when you do outreach events, people don’t always remember what you’re saying to them. But by actually doing something yourself, it’s a better way to integrate what you’re doing and you remember the feelings that you have in the room. For example, the tactile dome at the Exploratorium — everything at the Exploratorium, actually, you do yourself — is about experience, and there’s this feeling of achievement in an Escape Room once you solve the puzzle. 

This is great, because it allows people to apply science — you can tell people things forever, but they don’t feel like they know it until they use it. So building a space where you can learn and apply knowledge is really interesting. 

It’s also a question of experience. When you do an escape room, there’s always a problem coming up, it’s a stressful environment. Well, so is space! When you’re in space exploration, it’s a hostile environment always surrounding you. So I’ve been looking at what problems have been critical on the International Space Station (ISS). I saw one issue was the cooling system — the ISS can reach up to 250 degrees in daylight; if you have a problem where the system doesn’t cool properly, lots of systems could shut down. That’s dangerous for the station and for the astronaut’s lives. 

So I’m thinking of applying this to the escape room. Often you have a problem in escape rooms that are unrealistic, such as “you’re running out of oxygen,” but this isn’t a problem, really. You usually bring a lot of oxygen for a space mission! So what are people actually doing up there? They aren’t on vacation. There are real challenges we can show people, so everyone can get a little bit of the feeling of being a moon explorer. 

How do you approach social media as a science communicator? 

Galactic Chloé at swissnex San Francisco. Photo by Barak Sharma for swissnex SF / Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco.

Galactic Chloé at swissnex San Francisco. Photo by Barak Sharma for swissnex SF / Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco.

Social Media sometimes doesn’t have a very good reputation with scientists, because they don’t take the time to do it, or because they think it isn’t a good thing for science communication. I think social media is one of the best ways to communicate science, because you can reach millions of users through Facebook or Instagram, for example. Space at Your Service started doing more social media videos, short recaps of what’s been happening that week in space, delivered in under a minute. Very long videos on YouTube, people don’t watch it, it has to be very short and very dynamic. 

So we’ve been using Instagram and Twitter, more and more. We post videos of Astronomy on Tap to YouTube for people who can’t come. This is why I am doing videos with NASA FDL. I also did a video series with RTS on conspiracy theories around the moon landing — exploring the science behind the conspiracy theories, which had something like 200,000 views with lots of different comments (not always good, obviously!) 

Something I don’t like about social media is that you don’t have human contact. For instance, what I’ve discovered about conspiracy theories is that when you talk face to face with someone, about, say, ‘we’ve never been to the moon,’ the conversation is much more effective because you aren’t hidden by something, and you have human contact. When I talk to people more directly, it’s more effective than a video. But of course, the audience is not as large. 

What’s next for you? 

I’m now starting my third year as a bachelor’s in physics, but my ideal job would be to work in manned space missions. I’m thinking about analog space missions which are done in Austria and here in the US, in Utah. These are simulations of what it might be like to live on Mars or the Moon. And of course, work on manned missions one day is something I’d love to do. The human aspect, the management and psychology of it, is something that’s come to fascinate me as I do these events.

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