Speaking to… Indre Viskontas

“Passing along the excitement of discovery and our knowledge of the world but also creating a sense of wonderment that is the heart of science: we pursue scientific study to find out what’s unknown, not to explain what’s already obvious.”

Image credit: Kirsten Lara Getchell

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Indre Viskontas


Indre Viskontas

Where are you based?

San Francisco

Who do you work for?

I’m a freelancer with different clients, as well as a part-time Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

What type of science communication do you do?

I teach aspiring professional musicians how to apply neuroscience to develop effective practice strategies.

I edit the journal Neurocase, and I also co-host a science podcast called Inquiring Minds in collaboration with The Climate Desk, a journalistic partnership between Mother Jones, Wired, Slate, Grist, The Centre for Investigative Reporting, The Atlantic and The Guardian.

I often give talks to the general public about memory, creativity, music, cognition and the brain.

And I’ve just finished shooting a 24-lecture course called 12 Essential Scientific Concepts for The Great Courses. It will be out in March of 2014.

Finally, I have a grant to study the link between empathy and conflict resolution and effective musical performance – the end goal of the study is to create a website for the lay public to explore how music and empathy are connected.

Who is your main audience?

Depends on the forum but largely educated lay people and musicians.

How did you get into it?

It’s a long and winding road. But mainly by following my nose – or, more specifically, my interests. If I had to choose a moment, it would be when I was hired to play the scientific foil to a believer in miracles on a 6-episode docuseries that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011 – called Miracle Detectives. That was my first foray into science communication to a large audience (our first episode alone had over a million viewers – far more than will ever read any of my scientific papers), and it was a trial by fire, you might say. I’m much better at it now but it lit a spark in me that has only grown over the past 3 years.

What was it like working with Oprah Winfrey?

It was very exciting. She has a whole powerhouse of smart people that surround her and the energy is incredible. She’s also very sharp. I had many great conversations with her producers and other staff. But she’s also ruthless: there was a high turnaround in terms of the people she works with. I didn’t agree with all of the choices that she made in terms of what to focus on in our interview or how she treated certain topics on her talk show, but I also didn’t make the mistake of underestimating her. She is a force.

Why do you do it?

It was a challenge that I couldn’t resist. The topics of each episode were absolutely fascinating. I had the naiveté to think that my scientific training combined with my performance experience as a singer would qualify me to host the show. I learned a lot about how to communicate complex ideas to a wide audience.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Because science is the only way forward – humanity can’t progress effectively without it and too many people are being left behind because they are not sufficiently literate in science. That’s a shame. We all need to make better decisions in our lives and science can help us do that. It’s the straightest path to saving our world, if you’ll pardon the cliche.

What do you love about science communication?

Passing along the excitement of discovery and our knowledge of the world but also creating a sense of wonderment that is the heart of science: we pursue scientific study to find out what’s unknown, not to explain what’s already obvious. Bringing someone along on that journey is a lot of fun.

What has been your favourite project?

Oh boy. They are all so different. Whatever I’m working on in the moment tends to be my favorite. I love the podcast, I love the music and empathy project, I love teaching musicians about neuroscience. But I have to admit that being on camera is probably the most fun.

What is it about being on camera that you enjoy so much?

TV and other media work is very competitive – and so the people both in front of and behind the camera are highly capable, smart and passionate about what they do.  Everyone works very hard and everyone is highly skilled. I love that atmosphere – that we’re coming together to give everything we have to a project that is limited in time. It’s completely immersive and I find it exhilarating. There’s a pressure to perform when that little red light is winking at you, and I find my brain goes into overdrive.  I suppose you could say that I often find myself in what psychologists call the state of flow, when I’m performing either in front of the camera or as an opera singer. But the pay is much better in TV.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Yes, there are several in the works but apart from the release of my Great Courses lectures in March, it’s too early to talk about them in public.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Just do it. Find a medium and work hard to perfect your voice and your material. The cream rises to the top and if you put in the effort, it will be well worth your while.

You can follow Indre Viskontas on Twitter at @indrevis or visit her website