Rey Maktoufi, PhD: From Space Time Lord to Science Communicator

March 23, 2020
Rey Maktoufi stands in front of her poster at AAAS 2020
Rey Maktoufi, PhD delivers her poster presentation at the AAAS meeting last month. Photo credit: Regina Barber DeGraaff, PhD

by Catherine Steffel

**Editor's note: This post is part of a series highlighting members of the ComSciCon community who recently attended the AAAS Annual Meeting, which took place from February 13-16, 2020 in Seattle, WA.

Growing up, Reyhaneh (Rey) Maktoufi (@TheCosmicRey) wanted to be a paleontologist. And an astronomer. And a Space Time Lord.

She wanted to be everything.

“But I also realized that I really like stories and like talking about the sciences. I like going out and talking to people,” Maktoufi said.

That’s how Maktoufi found herself leaving a career as a health psychologist and joining the PhD program in Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University in 2015.

Initially, Maktoufi felt isolated within her academic program. While the rest of her department studied media, media technologies, and their impact, her research focused on the intersection of science communication, curiosity, and public engagement with scientists.

 It was in ComSciCon that she found her community.

“[ComSciCon-Chicago] was the first time I was like, that’s a thing,” Maktoufi said. “There’s a community, and I’m not alone.”

As she became more involved in ComSciCon and other science communication (SciComm) initiatives, such as The Story Collider and drawing web-based comics, Maktoufi progressed in her research, ultimately defending her dissertation. It was this research, in part, that brought her to the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington last month.

At AAAS, Maktoufi presented a project on personal disclosure, curiosity, and climate change. She found that scientists who share information about themselves with the public are neither more nor less likely to pique the public’s curiosity about climate change. However, the lack of any effect might be because of the type and amount of information used in the study. Regardless, she did notice some correlations. For example, people who asked scientists more questions were more likely to believe in the risk of climate change, and their curiosity was independent of their political affiliation. Whether people viewed scientists as being credible and trustworthy affected their perception of climate change risks. And risk mitigation, measured by a person’s willingness to donate money to climate change initiatives, was not impacted by a person’s curiosity or their perception of a scientist.

This project was important to Maktoufi scientifically and personally.

“Climate change [is] extremely polarized. The results that you get from studying climate change are very different from studying something that is not as controversial,” said Maktoufi. “I come from Iran, and I know a big part of Iran would probably be uninhabitable because of climate change.”

Maktoufi is now a Rita Allen Civic Science Fellow at NOVA PBS, where she is bringing the worlds of SciComm research and science filmmaking together.

For Maktoufi, who is stimulated by curiosity and dialogue, this next step is natural.

“Curiosity makes us more empathetic. Because we keep asking why, and we keep digging deeper and deeper and realize people come from places of fear, anxiety, loneliness,” said Maktoufi. “I think my research, and my work, and the community of ComSciCon have been places that really let me foster that idea of empathy and curiosity because they were empathetic to me.”

Catherine Steffel headshot
Catherine Steffel, MS. Photo credit: Yacouba Traore, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Medical Physics
Catherine Steffel is a PhD student studying medical physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently writes for IOP’s Physics World and is a former Fermilab science writing intern. She is an alum of ComSciCon-Chicago (’18) and ComSciCon-AIP (’19) and is also a member of the ComSciCon Ambassadors program. You can find her on Twitter @MedPhyzGirl.