Karyn Traphagen


This year I attended ScienceOnline2013, an incredible convergence of science communicators.  In many ways, the conference and its organizer extraordinaire, Executive Director Karyn Traphagen, inspired this project.  When I shared the idea with Karyn, she responded, “Hey Rachel, I’m a grandmother and I do lots with STEM!”

Below are exerpts, quoted with permission, from a recent blog interview of Karyn by Bora Zivkovic, a founder of Science Online.  Here’s Karyn talking about her life in relation to STEM:

I had an amazing chemistry set (which no doubt is illegal these days).  Of course, all the illustrations were of boys, but that didn’t bother me one bit. I had a picture of my mom before she was married and she was working in a lab with all manner of science glassware. I thought that was the best picture ever of my mom. Even though she stopped working in the lab to get married and have us kids, I thought it was perfectly normal to want to do science. It didn’t even occur to me that I couldn’t figure these things out. I also had a small mirror microscope that was nearly impossible to get to work. But I still had slides and slides of samples I collected. Even today my office is full of geologic and botanical specimens I’ve collected.

Another thing that changed me was the monthly arrival of the National Geographic magazine. Someone must have given us a subscription, because I’m sure we couldn’t have afforded it. But I (absolutely) loved reading about Jane Goodall. I wanted to go sit in the jungle and be like her. I would lose myself in the photos of space and dive in the ocean with Jacques Cousteau. My love of science owes a debt of gratitude to NatGeo for the visual imagery and stories they brought to me.

In high school, I was part of the “advanced track.” This meant that I had double periods of math and double periods of science every year. Double periods of math! I was invited to be part of the school’s Math League team. I hardly noticed that there were only two girls on the team. Double periods of science meant lots and lots of labs. Let’s just say that having a lab partner who sutured our fetal pig back together each night should give you a glimpse of the kind of classmates I had. But I also played violin, taught myself guitar, and sang in the choir. I became a thespian and loved drama (apparently, both on stage and off). You see, it was just the beginning of my interest in everything. I owe it to my mom that I always thought that if I was interested in something I could just go out and learn it and do it. So, I just kept doing that.

The short story is Life and Family (capital L and F) became priorities for various reasons. The result is that along the way I got married, had 2 daughters (both awesome), had my 2 youngest sisters come into our house under our guardianship, had my other sister live with us for a time while she finished her undergrad degree, ran several entrepreneurial endeavors, learned a lot of new things, and moved a lot.

Karyn describes many exciting experiences in the interview.  Here’s a few…

I hiked and backpacked all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks (becoming an ADK46er along with my husband and our 2 daughters). I have taught physics to high school students, undergrads, & grad students. I did research with cadavers to help develop a tibia index to make more biofidelic crash test dummies. I coded. I studied (and taught) ancient languages and their writing systems, like Ugaritic, Aramaic, Biblical Hebrew, and Babylonian. I studied Tolkien linguistics (and created a Tengwar Primer). I created miniature medieval calligraphy pieces (with period techniques for pigments and gilding). Less academic, I taught myself how to make molds of my own ears so I could design elf ear prosthetics. Yes, really.

I’ve been to several NASATweetups (now called NASAsocials) where I was able to meet people like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson (& amazing NASA people) while we watched rockets launch missions to the moon and Mars. My name is on a chip on the Mars Curiosity rover! I absolutely love how NASA has re-invented itself in the public eye.

Eventually, all the experiences and education came together in a kind of perfect storm that led me to Bora and Anton and ScienceOnline.

I don’t blog as much as used to, or as much as I would like. My current personal blog is stay-curious.com and I still have all these ideas, but a lack of time. I’ve been writing for ScienceOnline (organization documents, grants, policy, copy for projects, etc) but it’s not the same! I miss having time to introduce people to aspects of the world they live in that they may not have noticed.

I think the various social media platforms are invaluable for data acquisition, data sharing, data analysis, science outreach, professional development, community, and communication. I like to explore ways to exploit the tools in ways their creators never imagined.  This excites me for the future because there are tools we haven’t even created yet and new ways of sharing information and community still to discover.

Karyn has six (6!) grandkids and they do lots of science together. She has taught them how to design objects for her 3D printer, they spend lots of time at the Life and Science museum in Durham, NC and they collect all manner of specimens to examine on hikes. But mostly she encourages them to be curious about everything!

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