Interview with Dr. Paige Madison on the occasion of the AHEAD Congress
Dr Paige Madison is a science writer fascinated by paleoanthropology and its history. She has a Bs in anthropology and a PhD in the history of science from Arizona State University, working across the Center for Biology & Society and the Institute of Human Origins. She has written for National Geographic, Aeon, and Sapiens. Her first book, on the story of hobbits in human origins, will be published by Scribner, Simon & Schuster in 2025. You can find her on Twitter @FossilHistory.
Her seminar will explore creative ways of reaching and involving public audiences beyond the scientific community when doing science dissemination, to actively involve peers and citizens who would otherwise remain out of reach for traditional methods of communication.
The seminar you will be presenting at AHEAD is about creating scientific engaging content. When did you start being interested in science dissemination and outreach? And when did you realize you needed to make your content engaging?
I’ve always been so excited about fossils—and science—so I always wanted to share it with people. I didn’t realize until I was in graduate school that science outreach was a thing I could do formally. Since then, writing and social media have given me an avenue to do this thing I love: talk about fossils.
The moment I realized I needed to make the content engaging was when I tried to write one of my first blog posts. I began with the most boring introduction in the history of introductions. I was writing about a really interesting–and forgotten—scientist who was friends with Darwin and who brought Neanderthals to spotlight in the 1860s. But instead of opening with a fascinating facet of his story—I opened with “George Busk was born in 1807.” Yikes. My twin sister absolutely scoffed at me. I had never considered the importance of making things engaging, I had a lot to learn. My sister and I still laugh about that post all the time.
Finding the tools to make the content engaging then became the challenge. My non-scientist friends have been crucial sounding boards, I’m constantly bouncing things off them to see what they find interesting. It’s often different from what we in the science find interesting. I’ve also started to pay more attention to people who do things well—like at lectures, mulling over what works and what doesn’t. Or reading actively, asking myself what I like about a piece of writing and why. That’s such a helpful way to learn how to frame things and what angle to use to get people reading or listening about a topic.
I still need feedback all the time, and I’m always collecting information. Recently, while running in rural Skye, Scotland, I paused at an info panel on the side of the road detailing the geology of the region. A stranger turned to me and said, “I think it’s interesting that the landscape is still changing.” She doesn’t know it, but that was a great data point.
Now, I’m surrounded by folks at the company I work for who have more experience with science communication than me, and they teach me things every day. Within our team working on the show PBS Eons, for example, even the non-science experts like our producers are a great source to hear what’s interesting to a broader audience. When it comes to my book, it’s my editors, agent, and beta-readers who serve as that valuable sounding board—and I value their input immensely.
You recently decided to leave academia (a decision shared by many other in all research fields after their PhD or postdocs). Since then, you have been working as a freelance writer for magazines such as National Geographic and Sapiens. Why did you decide to leave academia in the first place, and how does it feel now?
The short answer to why I left academia is that my postdoc had become so damaging to my mental and physical health that I needed to act quickly. And since the academic job market moves slowly, my choice was simple: leave academia. Fortunately, right when I made the decision to leave, a job opened up at the online educational media company I work for now, Complexly. I had long admired their work and joining them allowed me to leave on more stable ground than if I had turned to freelance writing full-time.
The long answer is more complicated; the shift had probably been building for some time. Aside from the challenges of that particular postdoc, there are a few major reasons why I left. The uncertainty of ERC life was difficult for me; it felt like there were no jobs and I was terrified of what might happen next year or the year after. Also, I wanted control over my location. My happiness is tightly correlated with my proximity to nature, and being chained to a desk in a crowded office in a city-center was tough for me. Finally, I wanted to be able to see my friends and family. I lived so far away—and had so little flexibility—that I was watching my goddaughter grow up through a screen, unsure of when I’d be able to see her next. In short, I was done sacrificing my quality of life for a job.
By the time I left, I had been writing for magazines and giving public lectures for six years—so I had some practice, some connections, and some examples of folks who had made the transition. The insight into that world helped, though the transition has still been an adventure. Overall, things are less clearcut than I imagined. I’m still involved in academic projects that are difficult to reconcile with my new life. Academic work is now extra work that must be negotiated outside of my full-time job hours, along with writing magazine articles and writing a book. And while academic work is unpaid and now carries very few benefits for my career, I am trying to see a few projects through. This has been in a word: hectic. In my first year, balancing it all has resulted in working longer hours than I’d wish on anyone, and I’m still often behind. I look forward to fixing that soon.
I am, however, much happier. My work now feels impactful, I feel like I have agency, and the uncertainty is gone. I now live in one of my favorite places and I get to travel often, visiting friends and family while working remotely. I even celebrated my goddaughter’s third birthday with her—in person, not on a screen. Working with a wonderful group of humans at Complexly certainly doesn’t hurt, and I feel less isolated. I’ve also been fortunate to work with great editors for freelance pieces and the team behind my book is equally incredible and lovely to work with. Overall, projects move at a faster pace, and everything is more creative, collaborative, and fun.
Let’s get to know a bit more about anthropology, one of your passions (and ours). One of your most-cited articles is on the discovery of the first Neanderthal. Can you tell us about this discovery, the science that was done just immediately after it (1856–1864) and the controversies?
Can you also tell us something about fossil hobbits (do they exist???!) and your forthcoming book?
Hell yeah they do! Well, kind of. Back in 2003, a team of scientists excavating in a cave in Indonesia discovered the remains of a small individual six meters below ground. The individual was just over a meter tall, with a tiny brain, and some pretty primitive features—like a big brow ridge. At first, the scientists didn’t really know what to make of it, and they jokingly called it the hobbit for its small size (it also has big feet, much like Tolkien’s hobbits!). The find was shocking in more ways than one. International debates broke out over who this tiny individual was, whether or not it could have made the stone tools buried alongside it, and even how it reached this remote island.
My book, tentatively titled Fossil Hobbits: The Tiny People Who Showed Us Who We Are, explores how the bones became embroiled in a debate over whether or not they were even truly a new species (Homo floresiensis). That debate lasted for almost two decades, and there are still many unanswered questions. The book traces the find as it moved from that cave into the heart of the science of human origins, sparking a shift in how we see ourselves and our past in the process. It’s a pretty wild story, and readers will see the specimen declared the most important find of a lifetime, dismissed as a diseased individual, linked to ancient folktales of cannibalistic grandmothers of the forest, and even stolen and broken.
I’m in the middle of writing it now for Simon & Schuster press, and we expect it to be out in Spring 2025!
Many thanks, Paige!
We are looking forward to attending your seminar!