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COSPLAY FRIDAY: An Interview with Cosplay for Science

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Science fiction has been a staple of contemporary pop culture for years on end, and there’s nothing cooler than seeing your favorite Matrix or Blade Runner character being cosplayed by a fellow fan at a convention or on Instagram. But what if you could mix actual science with cosplaying?

That’s where Cosplay for Science comes in.

The group consists of four cosplaying members – all scientists – and their mission is to provide science education to everybody, especially underrepresented communities, by way of cosplay and pop culture. But how does that work? How can science possibly connect to cosplay? Let’s let these unique, talented cosplayers explain it for themselves.

Temple of Geek: So, to start, tell me a little bit about yourselves – who you are, what you do, and how you got into science in the first place. Was it always something you loved, or did it come about later in life?

Gabe Santos as Poe Dameron (Source: Cosplay for Science)

Gabe: Hi! My name is Gabe Santos, I’m from Los Angeles, and a first generation Filipino scientist. I am a paleontologist for the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Los Angeles, California. My job is split into two parts as the collections manager, where I take care of our fossil collection, and as the outreach coordinator, where I plan events and activities for education. My research mostly focuses on the evolution of marine mammals. While I have always loved science, I am one of the few paleontologists who didn’t always want to be one. I originally wanted to do medicine, but I had a change of heart after I got my bachelor’s degree. Switching to paleontology is the best decision I have ever made!

Michelle Barboza in a Rapunzel Disneybound (Source: Cosplay for Science)

Michelle: My name is Michelle Barboza, and I’m also from Los Angeles and a first generation POC scientist. (Gabe, Isaac, and I met while we were getting our geology degrees at CSU Fullerton!) I’m a queer, feminist, Mexican-American nerd who’s always loved reading fantasy and sci-fi, but only recently discovered a love of science itself. I started college as a business major (ew!), but luckily I discovered that you can get PAID to play in the dirt and go hiking (hello, earth science!) so I switched over to a geology major. I’ve always been an avid outdoorsperson (I often take a book to read when I’m sitting up at the top of the trail), but I guess I had just never connected that things I liked to do, like hiking and looking at rocks and trying to ID plants, had anything to do with science. It’s seems silly in retrospect, but it’s why I love talking about science so much now – I have to make up for lost time! I’m currently finishing up my Masters of Science in Paleontology through a joint program at the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida, where I’m also working towards a certificate in women’s studies.

Brittney Stoneburg as a Starfleet Science Officer (Source: Cosplay for Science)

Brittney: Hi! My name is Brittney Stoneburg, and while I’m not from Los Angeles I am a Southern California native! I’m a first generation feminist scientist who is a huge geek and is pretty darn obsessed with bones, books, and her plant collection. I’m the Marketing & Events Specialist for the Western Science Center in Hemet, CA, the largest natural history museum in Riverside County. My job consists of a little bit of everything – planning events, managing the museum’s social media feeds, graphic design,  developing programs and whatever else might need doing. I also do fieldwork and research (currently I’m 3D scanning a bunch of Ice Age fossils!) when I can.

Unlike Gabe and Michelle, I actually don’t have a degree in science (yet, anyway)! I have a Bachelor of Arts in English. I had always loved science and paleontology growing up, but I didn’t have great math grades and I was steered away from those subjects in school. A chance visit to the La Brea Tar Pits after I graduated made me realize how much I wanted to go back to my original love of museums and paleontology – so I started volunteering at WSC and the rest is history!

Isaac Magallanes as a Star Wars Rebel (Source: Cosplay for Science)

Isaac: Hello, my name is Isaac Magallanes and I’m a first generation Chicano scientist from Anaheim, California. I’m a paleontologist currently working on getting a master’s degree in geological sciences at the University of Florida (UF). I received my undergraduate degree in geology at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) where my research focused on the evolution of fossil walruses. Now my research focus at UF has shifted to studying ancient ecosystems in northern central New Mexico.

As a kid I was always into science in some way, but never really saw myself as a scientist. Growing up my exposure to science came from the movies I watched and the books I read. Whether it was learning about dinosaurs through Jurassic Park or wishing I was a Jedi in space like Luke Skywalker, science was always a part of my interests. When I started college I originally started as an English major but quickly discovered that it just wasn’t for me. Two years into my undergrad I took an Introduction to Geology course at CSUF that taught by a paleontologist (Dr. James Parham) and realized that science was the path for me. I soon began to volunteer in Dr. Parham’s paleontology lab and within a year switched my major to geology. Since then it’s been a fun journey that has given my the opportunity to travel, meet awesome people, and talk about my research.

TOG: What made each of you get into cosplay? Where did you start?

Gabe: I am huge nerd and have been going to cons for years! I have always loved cosplay and have done simple ones here and there. It wasn’t until I found a reason to cosplay at the Alf Museum that I actually started “officially” cosplaying. My first one was a Professor Oak cosplay to talk about fossil Pokemon!

Michelle: My first cosplay (and my first con!) was at the inaugural Stan Lee’s comic con in Los Angeles – I dressed up as Ramona Flowers! I dabbled around with sewing and clothes making as a teen, but have found that I just don’t have the skill/time for full on cosplays (though I ADORE them), but since I caught on to the Disneybounding trend, I’ve started bringing back my dress-up love with closet cosplay and low key bounds from all of my favorite fandoms, which I really, really enjoy because I can push my creativity and nerd it up it on the daily.

Brittney: I think the first time I cosplayed was when I was in my teens – I might have been Aerith from Final Fantasy VII? It’s always been a really fun part of nerd culture for me. When my museum started going to comic book conventions as part of our outreach efforts, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to dress up in cosplay and get paid for it!

Isaac: I remember seeing pictures and videos of cosplayers on social media, thinking it looked like a lot fun. When I met Gabe we instantly clicked over our common nerd interests and eventually he got me into it.

TOG: Explain to me a little bit about Cosplay for Science and how it works. How do fictional characters and fandom tie into how each of you educate the public about science?

CFS: Cosplay for Science is an science outreach project that we started to help make science more relatable and scientists more approachable. Since all of us come from different backgrounds as well, we want to help bring science to the communities that need it the most.  Many people don’t realize how much science is a part of the many things they love. So what we do is connect the worlds. By cosplaying, we can get people’s attentions with and then explain a cool science fact. Take for example, if we dress in Mass Effect cosplay, there are so many scientific topics we can connect with that world. We can talk about gravity, space flight, physics, evolution, the list goes on and on! Also, by cosplaying, we hope to make people less afraid or anxious about talking to scientists. It just turns out that going to comic cons is the best place to do this kind of thing! In the end, our biggest goal is just to get people to appreciate the science in their everyday lives.

TOG: How exactly did this group get started? Where did the idea of mixing fandom with science education and #scicomm come from?

CFS: Using fandoms and pop culture for SciComm is nothing new. Many scientists have been mixing fandoms in their outreach or going to comic cons to talk about science for a long time! We are just the next in a long line of nerds who also happen to be scientists. What we think makes us different is that cosplay is our main focus when it comes to our outreach and scicomm efforts.

Gabe: As for how Cosplay for Science got started, the first time I used ever used cosplay was when I did a Professor Oak cosplay at the Alf Museum to talk about the real fossils that inspired fossil Pokemon. From there, Brittney and I combined the forces of our two museums to attend Nerdbot-Con in Pasadena, California. We all dressed as Jurassic Park characters to talk about paleontology and had real fossils with us. Seeing how much the guests learned from us and seeing them interact with us with such ease was such a great feeling. We starting talking with Michelle and Isaac, who are just as nerdy and amazing science communicators as well, about the idea of making this official and from there, Cosplay for Science was born.

Michelle: Agreed. We’re really lucky to have Gabe and Brittney as the main outreach coordinators for their respective museums, and to have open minded supervisors who not only are allowing them to experiment with cosplay x science in this way, but are actually encouraging it!

Western Science Center curator Dr Andrew McDonald at Nerdbot Con (Source: Cosplay for Science)
Alf Museum staff Jared Heuck and Phillip Krzeminski at Nerdbot Con (Source: Cosplay for Science)

TOG: How do people usually react to your approach to mixing cosplay with science? I can assume it would be fascinating to children, but have you gotten any particularly unique reactions?

CFS: People have been really into to our idea! We have only been doing this for about a few months now, but the cons and events we have done have been really great. The kids are usually the ones who walk up to our booths first and when they find out we are scientists, it just blows their minds! Surprisingly, adults have been just as interested in what we are doing. The ones with kids are just following at first, but we can see them inch closer as we start to explain some cool science fact! Probably our favorite reactions are from other cosplayers who walk up in their cosplays to tell us that they love are our idea and that there should be more science education at comic cons!

Michelle: I haven’t had a chance to go with Gabe and Brittney to a con yet (the downside of living on the other side of the country!) but I mention my involvement in Cosplay for Science with just about anyone who will listen, and I’ve received nothing but excitement!

TOG: How do you incorporate cosplay into your everyday job as a scientist? Are there certain characters you choose to cosplay because you think they’d fit your field well, or do you try to mold a character you’re interested in to fit your goals?

CFS: It’s a little hard to do cosplay at our work because while we love this project, we are all first and foremost scientists and cosplay might make our jobs a little hard. We do have our Instagram account where we do a lot of “bounding” to be able to still be acceptable work clothes. Right now we are doing the March Disneybound challenge and talking about some science behind our favorite Disney movies. Jurassic Park cosplays would be pretty easy to incorporate into our jobs every now and then, especially when doing field excavations!

TOG: Do you have a particular favorite character you’ve cosplayed for science?

Gabe Santos as Dr. Oak doing “Pokemon Paleontology” (Source: Cosplay for Science)

Gabe: So far mine has been, again, Professor Oak. As you can tell,  I absolutely love Pokemon. I was 10 years old when Pokemon came out, the exact age trainers start. Now, as a paleontologist, I get to teach kids about fossil Pokemon, it’s like I’ve actually become a real Pokemon Professor.

Brittney: It sounds so cliche, but I loved cosplaying Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park at Nerd Bot Con! She was one of my heroes growing up, and to dress up as my favorite fictional paleontologist, having grown up to actually become a paleontologist myself – that was a really cool feeling.

Michelle: While not a particular character, I love Disneybounding and talking science at the Disney parks! Up until this school year, I had an annual pass and would visit the on a regular basis. While cosplay and costumes aren’t allowed at the parks, Disney enthusiasts always recognize a fellow Disneybounder! This usually sparks a conversation in line, and well, I inevitably get to sneak in a few science facts.

Isaac: I’ve enjoyed Disneybounding with the group, I’m still rather new to cosplay but I look forward to figuring out what my favorite cosplay will be!

Brittney Stoneburg as Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park (Source: Cosplay for Science)

TOG: Do any of you cosplay for fun outside of the team? If so, who do you cosplay?

Gabe: I have cosplayed as easy cosplays in the past because I have not really had the opportunity or time to put in the effort I would like to give. My favorite one I did was a Superboy outfit. I felt really cool walking around with that red S on my chest.

Brittney: I’ve been working on a Jyn Erso cosplay for almost a year now! In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have picked such a complicated character when I’m so busy – oops!

Michelle: Yes! My fiance often joins me with Disney cosplay/bounds. Our school situation has us living in different sides of the country this year, but we’re meeting up in New Orleans next month, and he already asked if we should start planning our outfits for the week!

TOG: What’s your favorite part about being involved with Cosplay for Science?

Gabe: My favorite part is getting to being an educator and help build appreciation for science in our community. Accessibility to science education is not universal. There are a lot of people out there who, for whatever reason, never got the exposure to science that we did. Getting to bring science to them and seeing their faces light up when they get to touch a dinosaur fossil or learn something new is totally awesome. I also really love just being able to work with my some of my best friends. We are each other’s cheering squad and working with them is just inspiring!

Brittney: Getting to connect people with our shared prehistory is very important to me; I find science to be a beautiful lens to see the world through, and and I want to convey that to others. Also showing little girls that they can grow up and be a geeky scientist too is pretty great! And as someone who found their path to a science career a little later than most, I love sharing my passion with adults and showing that they don’t necessarily have to give up their dreams of becoming a scientist. I also am really, really grateful to be working with people I love!

Michelle: As a museum educator, I get to do a lot of outreach events with people who come to visit, which is awesome, but I love, love “sneaking in” some science with people who may know about the museum, or may not even think they’re interested in science! When we start talking about Star Wars and it leads to geology facts or Star Trek and they accidentally learn about quantum physics, it’s just the best!

Gabe and Brittney at LA Comic Con (Source: Cosplay for Science)

TOG: Science in pop culture can often be a divisive subject. Do you think the way science is portrayed in films like Jurassic Park or The Martian can positively influence people and make them want to go into science? Or do you think that the inaccurate science portrayed in many movies reflects negatively on the real life application of it and gives people the wrong impression?

Gabe: I would honestly say yes to both. For one, I loved Jurassic Park and can say it helped lead me to my eventual career as a paleontologist. Science fiction or any science inspired work can definitely have a last effect on people and inspire those willing to ask the right questions to follow the path of a scientist. On the other hand, science fiction can definitely have a negative effect where falsehoods or pseudoscience makes its way into pop culture. The way science can be portrayed in fiction as well can create negative stereotypes of science culture and what scientists “should look like”. I would say that science fiction is science fiction. If someone wants to tell a good story, its not our job as scientists to tell how it should be told. What is our job is to call attention to any fallacy in science fiction and use it as an education opportunity, while not making someone feel stupid for believing something out of science fiction. We, as scientists, have to be the ones to go, “Hey. Jurassic is awesome! I’m a scientist and I love Jurassic Park, but its not quite accurate. Do you want to learn why?”

TOG: You’ve stressed that you are passionate about providing science education to everybody, especially underrepresented communities. Can you tell us a little bit about how Cosplay for Science goes about providing science communication to those who are not as often represented in today’s world?

Gabe: This is very important to us because all of us come from underrepresented communities and backgrounds. I am Filipino-American and there are many in family who didn’t even think dinosaurs were real! Its not their fault though, they just weren’t introduced to science. They didn’t have anyone in the Philippines to make science a part of their lives for them. The same could go for so many here in the US. I think first, by simply being us, we can do a lot for representation and really show our audience that scientists can come from anywhere and have any background. Hopefully someone can see themselves in us and be inspired to be a scientist. Going forward, we definitely want to start creating our own cosplay for science events in our local communities and doing fun challenges online to engage different audiences. It could as simple as making posts in different languages or collaborating with scientists or cosplayers from around the world!

Brittney: I was encouraged not to pursue science as a child, and I didn’t know any female scientists growing up, so I’m very passionate about making sure there’s visibility for people like me. And like Gabe said, I’m excited to eventually start putting together events and programs to reach as many people as possible!

Michelle: Doing Cosplay for Science at events like comic conventions, amusement parks, movie theatres, and other non-traditional science venues let us meet people who otherwise may not be visiting museums or science labs, and thus otherwise might not get the opportunity to interact with scientists and learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Brittney as Dr. Ellie Sattler at LA Comic Con (Source: Cosplay for Science)
The Cosplay for Science gang Disneybounding as Wilderness Explorers from Disney/Pixar’s “Up”. (Source: Cosplay for Science)

TOG: What’s the message that you ultimately hope to impart on the public with this project?

Gabe: I would like people to realize how much science is a part of their lives and how important it is to securing our future. We need a future guided by science. I would also like people to just realize how much more awesome viewing the world with science can be! If people can take a moment to appreciate the science around them, even a short walk to the park can be a scientific adventure!

Brittney: That science is for everyone, and that it’s not as intimidating as it might seem.

Michelle: I want to help people understand what it took me twenty one years to get – science isn’t just about lab coats and test tubes – it’s about everything, EVERYWHERE – and it can be so much FUN.

TOG: What do you plan to do with the group in the future? Are there any places we can look out for you?

CFS: We hope to grow and get other people, scientists and cosplayers alike, to join us in using cosplay for education. If you have a cool science fact about your cosplay or even just talking about the science behind creating your cosplay, please share it! There are a lot of great scientists out there who use fandoms, fashion, and art to communicate science and we hope to have some great collaborations with them soon! We would also like to work with more comic con organizations professionally to bring make education a part of comic con culture. Most nerds already like science, comic cons just seem like the perfect place to get them to love it!

Gabe: In May, we will be attending Comic Con Revolution in Ontario, California with the Western Science Center. We are also hoping to get a panel together about how the look of dinosaurs in pop culture and media has evolved over the years. Later in the year, we’ll also be at Nerdbot Con in Pasadena and Stan Lee’s LA Comic Con!

Michelle: We’re also planning Instagram events and challenges to get more people involved – especially to make a solid connection between cosplayers and scientists (and cosplaying scientists!). You may want to check back into our profile around May, especially if you’re into Star Wars…

TOG: Finally, where can we and the Temple of Geek readers find you on social media – both the team as a whole and its individual members?

CFS: We have the usual social media for the team and we are hoping to build a website in the future where people can find upcoming events and even lesson plans for educators on how they can use cosplay or just fandoms in general in their classrooms.

Instagram: cosplayforscience

Twitter: cosplay4science

Facebook: cosplayforscience

Gabe: You can find me on Instagram and Twitter as @paleoparadox.

Brittney: I’m on Instagram and Twitter as @brittandbone.

Michelle: I’m on Instagram as @michellembarboza, and I also run a Disneybound account that features POC Disneybounds and cosplays at @BoundersofColor.

Isaac: I’m on Instagram as @darth_dude.

Be sure to follow the Cosplay for Science gang for adventures and fun scientific tidbits, and let us know what you think of Cosplay Friday in the comments below!

I live my life with the same grace that Anakin Skywalker did approximately ten seconds before he got his legs lightsabered off.