Penn Doctoral Student Conducts Anthropological Study of Science

Growing up in Indianapolis, Lizzie Oakley’s family didn’t take beach vacations. Instead, they traveled to historic sites and explored state parks and antique shops around Indiana. This, says the Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, inspired her to pursue a career related to history.

Oakley, the first in her family to complete college, is now a third-year doctoral student in anthropology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. She spent the summer building a foundation for her dissertation project by conducting a pilot study at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Her research focuses on an anthropological study of science: how it is communicated and how science is understood and fits into the world at large.

Using science museums to better understand this idea, Oakley spent a month observing the Museum’s “ScienceWorks” exhibit and its education programs designed to inspire curiosity and scientific questioning.

The pilot allowed her to test and refine her methods. This included exit interviews with visitors, in-depth interviews with museum staff and observation of exhibits. She studied how exhibit imagery depicted scientists and how displays did or did not allow the museum-goer to consider the history behind the science.

The museum images and programming were intended to convey an inclusive message, that anyone can be a scientist, but, says Oakley, visitors conveyed a different view.

“This picture of a scientist as someone who is innately curious and altruistic emerged. However,some guests did not relate to the idea, since not everyone possesses such features,” she says. “Identifying this gap is a step forward in closing it and will lead to changes in how we, as a society, think about science and knowledge production.”Oakley’s specialty, biological anthropology, means she usually spends her summer months in the lab. Thanks to a Student Field Funds grant through Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which offsets the cost of travel and living expenses, she was able to try something new: field work.

Oakley says she also found support from multiple mentors. Among them was the director of research and development at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, Susan Foutz, who helped Oakley develop her survey as an instrument of evaluation.

“To be advised and encouraged by someone familiar with this type of work at a professional level was invaluable and integral to the success of the study,” says Oakley.

Oakley also had encouragement from her advisor, Theodore Schurr, a professor of anthropology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and a consulting curator at the Penn Museum. Schurr was excited about the project from the start.

“Lizzie came to our program with diverse interests, including classical studies and archeology, and had prior experience with museum exhibitions, as well. Her interdisciplinary training in anthropology and her exposure to ideas about knowledge production and scientific literacy helped her to formulate the dissertation project on which she has now embarked,” says Schurr, adding that he’s confident her project will yield important insights into the public understanding of scientific information.

“It’s definitely a different project for a biological anthropologist,” Oakley says, “and not what I expected to be doing, but to have the support of your advisor when you move in a new direction is crucial.

“I feel fortunate that the Penn Museum values the social sciences and the work of student researchers like myself,” says Oakley, who has blogged for the Museum’s website. That part seemed natural for her because she’s passionate about interpretation.

For her thesis, Oakley plans to continue to investigate and collect data on institutional and visitors’ perceptions of science, as well as information presented in science displays, she says.

 “Any project that unites science, history and people is exciting to me, and, since I’ve always felt at home in museums, this dissertation project feels like something all of my previous work has been preparing me for,” she says.

Oakley is still analyzing her research but plans to present her work at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Nov. 29 to Dec. 3.

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