Sarah McAnulty has a tentacle in every pot
"I just went in guns blazing, like, 'I'm Sarah McAnulty, I love squid.' These other people applying may be older, but I know what I want."
You’re driving in your car, or maybe walking on the sidewalk, when you see it: A 2011 black Toyota RAV4 with what looks to be strawberries painted in white on the sides and back.
As you approach, you realize those strawberries are actually squid, and there’s writing on the car: “WANT A SQUID FACT? TEXT ‘SQUID!’ TO 9-RUNG-SQUID!” The car’s vanity plate, predictably, is SQUIDS. You’ve found the Squidmobile, a science communication tool on wheels driven by 31-year-old Sarah McAnulty.
McAnulty isn’t just a squid and science communication enthusiast. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from the University of Connecticut. She’s also the executive director of Skype a Scientist, a nonprofit she started after the 2016 presidential election. McAnulty realized that scientists wanted to talk to members of the general public, and the public wanted to listen to scientists, but there wasn’t an easy way to connect those two groups. So she created one.
Recently, Inverse spoke to McAnulty about cephalopods, raising baby octopuses, and a high school prom nightmare.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first experience with science?
Either the library or the drainage ditch behind my house. I would go out with my dad and look for bugs in the back of our neighborhood in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. My mom and I would also go to Bensalem Library a lot and check out books and videos. One of the videos that I would always come back to was this one all about the ocean. It was a NatGeo Kids [tv series] called Really Wild Animals, and there was a segment in there about cuttlefish, which are related to squid. The cuttlefish were doing what's called passing clouds. They basically take a black bar and move it across their body in this hypnotic pattern. I lost my mind when I was 8 and I saw that.
Other scientists have also told me they first experienced science through nature. But classroom science is a bit different from that — how did you reconcile those differences?
A lot of times I was like, “Listen, I know that the goal is to work with squid. So I'm going to put up with all this nonsense, like chemistry and math and calculus, to get to squid.” I enjoyed AP Biology, but that was the only science class I enjoyed in high school. In college, I wasn't having a good time in science classes until I got to the marine biology stuff in my junior and senior years. No offense to chemists, but I felt like I needed to take so much chemistry, and I hated chemistry so much. It was a necessary evil on the path to something awesome.
“I just went in guns blazing, like, ‘I'm Sarah McAnulty, I love squid.’”
One thing that a lot of people, particularly kids, don't realize, is that what you do as a scientist is so different from what you're learning in school. And it can be so specific! Even if you really loved one chapter of your high school biology textbook but you hated the rest of it, it's possible you'd still love a career in science, because your whole life could be studying that one chapter.
What did you think scientists did when you were a kid?
I had no clue. My parents didn't really know any scientists. My goal was to be an adult who worked with squid, so I was like, “Mom, Dad, how do you do that?” And they were like, “Maybe you work at an aquarium or SeaWorld?” So I thought, OK, you could be a fisherman, or you could work in an aquarium. I couldn't visualize what a marine biologist looked like — I was like, dolphin trainer?
I thought there was no such thing as a squid biologist until I met Lydia Mäthger. She was giving a talk at Boston University — where I went to college — on cuttlefish camouflage my sophomore year. I went to the lunch after the seminar, and I sat down with her and was like, “How do you do what you do?” She explained that her lab had an internship program, but that I was a little young for it.
I wrote this borderline unhinged letter applying to the lab's internship program. I should have asked someone, “Hey, does this letter seem reasonable?” but instead I just went in guns blazing, like, “I'm Sarah McAnulty, I love squid. These other people applying may be older, but I know what I want. I've been wanting this forever. If you don't hire me now, you're just going to hear from me the next summer and then the summer after that until you hire me.” In retrospect, that was an absurd thing to do. But they read the letter and they were like, “OK, she's either completely weird or she's great.” They brought me in for an interview and against all odds, they hired me.
When did you know that science communication was for you?
I sort of fell into it. In the summer before my second year of grad school, our lab was broke, and I was worried. I was like, “What if we did crowdfunding for our lab?” My lab mate, Andrea Suria, and I built a little bit of an internet following, like 200 followers, and then we launched a crowdfunding campaign. I realized during the process that while the goal at the time was to raise money, I was having fun talking about science with people who weren't scientists. Because to convince people to give you five bucks, you have to convince them that what you're doing is cool and important.
Then the 2016 election happened, and scientists were, on the whole, panicking. They had all this energy, and most of that energy was being funneled toward anxiety on Twitter — fear tweeting and screaming into the void. We needed a way to funnel this energy toward something positive. How do we get a huge number of scientists to go forward and connect better with the public?
That's where Skype a Scientist was born. I made two Google Forms, one for teachers, one for scientists. I thought maybe 100 teachers would sign up, if I was lucky. Eight hundred signed up in a month and a half, and 500 scientists signed up. I couldn't believe it. From there, I matched everybody up, which was the biggest puzzle I've ever done in my life. There were so many people signing up that I posted in the grad student Facebook group [for UConn], “Hey, meet me in the conference room after work today. I've got beer. Please help me.” That following summer, my best friend wrote us an algorithm to do all the matching for us, so now we can handle as many people as sign up, no sweat.
What was your first failure in science?
I swear this story will be relevant: I was going to go to prom with a guy who went to a different high school. Three days before prom, he was like, “My sister's college graduation is the same day, I can't go to your prom.” I needed a date to prom, so in those three days, I asked 18 dudes to prom. The first 17 shot me down, and then the 18th said “fine.” So, failure doesn’t really bother me.
In science, there are constant failures, but that's part of the process — the little failures of setting up an experiment and accidentally breaking the tank. Or getting an octopus, and it lays 100 eggs, and then you have to deal with 100 baby octopuses, and you're the only person working on the project, and you panic.
Wait, did that actually happen?
Senior year of college, I was given $500 to do an independent study senior thesis. I got nine California two-spot octopuses; they’re about the size of a softball. I was in Boston, so I’d save money by going to the harbor and collecting food for them. I’d be on the T with Home Depot buckets, sitting in waders.
The thing about octopuses is that they can mate and then store sperm and hang onto it, and one of the octopuses had mated in the wild. One day I came in, and one of my octopuses was in her flower pot — octopuses like a little hole to hide in, and flower pots are just the right size. I was like, “Why won't she come out of her flower pot when there's food?” And then I looked and saw a bunch of little teardrop-shaped eggs, about 200 of them.
Cephalopods are very hard to raise. They're a huge pain in the butt since you need to keep live food for the babies. At the time I had no funding left, and I was taking four classes. How was I supposed to raise 100 baby octopuses? But I was like, “The other option is letting a bunch of octopuses die — not on my watch.” Once I raised them, I gave them away on Craigslist and TONMO, this octopus message board.
How have you changed your field?
I wanted to be a squid biologist, even though I didn't really think a squid biologist was a thing, and I did it. In my Ph.D., I wanted to also be a science communicator and start a nonprofit, so I did it. With Skype a Scientist, I created something to help scientists connect with the public. So much of the energy required to communicate with the public is administrative work, like finding people who want to talk to you. I thought if I could fix that and make the connection easier, scientists would be able to communicate with more people. Unlike other platforms, we really only focus on connecting people and classrooms to scientists, and it’s a free service.
One of the ways we make science more relatable to classrooms is by having a part of our sign-up form where teachers can tell us if over half their class comes from an underrepresented group in STEM. If so, we’ll match them up with a scientist from the same group.
This semester, we served 6,500 groups, our most ever. We also opened the program to families as well, because we know that not everybody is meeting as a class. We’ve started doing these livestreams where we have an ASL interpreter so it can be accessible to everyone.
What's a rookie mistake that you've made?
Not having accessible content from the get-go. Before we had an ASL interpreter, we were trying to caption all of our live sessions, and that took a really long time. Right now, we can be accessible to everyone, because not everybody has internet access. I wish that were a problem we could solve.
What's your superpower?
Unbridled optimism. One example: At the end of my Ph.D., I was typing up my thesis and getting so antsy. I wanted to go explore the world, so I tweeted, “I am currently considering a road trip where I give talks on science communication along the route. Would you be interested in having a science communication talk in your seminar series?” Two hundred people replied. I said I had to be paid to show up, so 200 went to 50. The scheduling worked out for 30 of those 50, so two weeks after I graduated with my Ph.D., I added 9,000 miles to my car’s odometer, driving from Connecticut to Key West, FL, to San Diego, CA, to Los Angeles, CA, and back across the country. I don't think someone who wasn't as unbridledly optimistic as I am would think it could work. And it was awesome.
“You can teach yourself whatever you want.”
Do people actually text you for squid facts?
Every day. The first fact I always send is that squid have beaks for mouths. That’s pretty mind-blowing to me, like, beaks are weird. In theory I have 30 facts, but most people stop at one fact or get to five. When they text that number, I am personally texting them back.
What's one thing you'd like to do that no one has done before?
I want to put a Critter Cam on a giant squid to see what it does. Deep-sea squid are so varied and so cool. But when you go down to observe them in a submarine, the squid knows there’s something weird in the water. And so what do we see that’s normal squid behavior? Probably not a lot.
You're pretty well-known on Twitter: What's your favorite thing that you've used your platform for?
A highlight of my week is one thing that I do with around 30 other people. Every Monday we promote one person whose work we like, typically a woman, often a woman of color. Recently, we did Chelsea Connor. She’s a lizard biologist and she’ll post these pictures of dewlaps. A lizard dewlap is that thing that’s like a neck flap. So this group of people and I all said, “Today you should follow this person,” and watching their followers go up is great because, in a sense, audience is power.
What's one thing you'd tell your 15-year-old self?
Don't wait for an educator to teach you something. You can teach yourself whatever you want.
And believe in yourself. I remember learning about deep-sea squid when I was in high school, and this one day, my mom and her friend were out on the porch, and I had just read about colossal squid. Squid have eight arms, two tentacles, and colossal squid tentacles have suction cups with swivel-y hooks on them so that it can grab prey in any orientation. So I went out to the porch to say, “I just learned about the coolest animal — it has swivel hooks on its tentacles!” And my mom’s friend was like, “That’s just monster stories. That’s not real life.” It was only years later reading an invertebrate zoology textbook that I realized I had been right the whole time.
And maybe also “pick someone else to go to prom with.”
Yeah, don’t ask Ian to prom. He’s not worth your time.
What's a prediction you have for 2030?
I think between now and 2030, climate change is going to get much worse. By that point enough Gen Zers will be able to vote that our government will be more progressive. I think we'll still be using cars and gasoline probably, but I think green energy will be more common out of strict necessity.
I think the pandemic has taught us — maybe not the United States — but it's taught the world broadly that there comes a point where you have to come together and fix a problem, and that we're capable of it, so we can do it again with climate.
“My goal is to make everybody feel as though science, as a way of exploring your world, is for you.”
What do you do on a day off?
Go into the woods, flip rocks, look for bugs, and take pictures of them.
If your biography were written today, what would you want the title of it to be, and who would write it?
Danna Staaf. She wrote Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, and she’s a great science communicator. I don’t know about a title, but the word “squid” would definitely have to be in it.
Who's one person changing their field who you want to shout out?
Corina Newsome. She's so inspirational, she's funny, she is smart as hell. She’s a bird biologist. You probably know her from Twitter.
What's next for you?
I want to be able to continue to scale Skype a Scientist so that more connections can be made with people. I want so many more people in the United States to have personal connections with scientists so that they trust science. That’s really why I’m doing what I’m doing.
One thing that I think is a misconception about me and our program is that people think I want everyone to become a scientist. My goal is not to make professional scientists, my goal is to make everybody feel as though science, as a way of exploring your world, is for you.