Podcast with Kenna Castleberry, Author and Science Communicator
My guest today is Kenna Castleberry, a writer and science communicator. Kenna and I spoke about her Women in Quantum article series, diversity in quantum companies, communicating quantum computing to lay audiences and much more.
THE FULL TRANSCRIPT IS BELOW
Yuval: Hello, Kenna, and thanks for joining me today.
Kenna: Thank you so much, Yuval. I appreciate you inviting me on the podcast.
Yuval: So who are you and what do you do?
Kenna: That’s an excellent question. So, I am a science writer, by trade. My main job… I should start by saying that the answer might be a little long-winded, because I wear multiple hats, but my main job is a 9:00–5:00 science writing position with JILA, which used to stand for the Joint Institute of Laboratory Astrophysics. We’re a partnership between the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I’m based and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST.
We’re one of the leading research institutes for physics research, from everything from astrophysics to AMO, molecular physics to quantum physics. And about 75% of our researchers do quantum physics, whether it’s quantum communications, quantum sensing, lasers. So it’s quite exciting for that side of things. And my job, particularly for them, is to take a lot of the publications that they put out and translate the scientific jargon, research language into more popular read articles for our journal Light & Matter, which we put out quarterly.
So that’s really fun, to work with the scientists one-on-one, make sure that they, obviously, like the article, make sure to get some really good quotes, and translate theoretical quantum physics into something more concrete and substantial that people really enjoy. And that’s something that we pass around to a bunch of people. We’ve had it go into senators’ offices, as well as quantum companies. We like to share those, because they’re great and keep up with our current researchers and what they’re doing.
So when I’m not at JILA, when I’m not writing for them, I do a lot of freelance writing on the side, because it’s something that I really enjoy and I am a writer through and through. I’m also a workaholic, so I tend to be quite busy. I have two outlets when it comes to freelance writing. I write for the Quantum Insider, obviously, and its sister publications, the Metaverse Insider and the Deep Tech Insider.
And that’s really fun, because I get to interview key players in the fields, like the Women in Quantum series that I write, but I also get to be on the forefront of what is coming up in these industries and how they grew and whatnot. So I’ve been writing for them for about a year and a half and it’s been really, really fun, even just to see the company itself grow and to see the opportunities that they’ve taken for that.
And then the other publication I write for is called The Debrief, and they’re more broad spectrum. They really like UFOs and space, which is really, really fun. But for them, I have more of a freedom of choice, when it comes to what I want to write about. And usually, I’ll write about some of the newest research publications that are coming out in all fields, not just physics or not just quantum. And that’s really nice because I get a nice variety there.
But I also write press releases for some companies, I’m writing different blogs and whatnot, so I’m always writing. My monthly workload is about 39 articles a month, and that’s outside my normal 9:00–5:00 job. So as you can imagine, I’m quite busy, but again, I do it for the love of writing.
Yuval: Amazing. Now the everyday person would have a hard time translating the physics work at JILA to popular science. What did you study that allows you to do such a good job in that?
Kenna: Sure. I have a very interesting background. I double majored for undergraduate in English and biology. Originally I wanted to be a novelist, but I realized you can’t really make money being a novelist. And I also really enjoyed plants. So I was going to be a plant scientist, but I also really liked English. And I realized, after I graduated, that I could marry the two with a science communication degree.
So I ended up going to London and studying at Imperial College in London to get my master’s degree in science communication. And right around the time I finished that degree is when COVID hit, so I ended up kind of fleeing the U.K. to come back home to Colorado and finish my degree remotely and, obviously, since then have been easily using the skills that I have picked up from that degree, but also cultivating quite a network of science writers, which has been really helpful.
I started a podcast, probably in about April of 2020, just interviewing different science writers about their works and talking about the skills that you need for good science writing. And it’s amazing how many famous science writers will just have the time to let you talk to them, and how friendly they are. And it’s really encouraging, so I try to do that with other people too. If I have somebody contact me and say, “Hey, I have questions about your career. I have questions about what I should do in my career,” or, “I’d really like to talk about X, Y, and Z,” that’s been really, really nice, and I try to be really helpful with that as well.
Yuval: I think you mentioned that the name of the publication for JILA is Light & Matter?
Yuval: Who is the target audience? At what level do you need to write, to speak to that target audience?
Kenna: Absolutely. So our target audience, we try to target undergraduate students. So the language is about a college level language, but it’s not going to be for graduate students or it’s not going to be for PhDs. And that’s a really interesting challenge for me as a writer, is to take a paper that has a really long title, like eight or nine words, and let’s say it’s about theoretical physics, so half of it is math that I don’t know… And I grew up not enjoying physics very much because of the math side of things. I was actually thinking, “This is too hard. This is challenging,” which most people who encounter physics think.
And so I’ll get a paper like that. And the scientist will come to me and say, “Hey, I just published this paper. I’d like to do an article on it.” And so from there I find that it’s best to have a conversation with that scientist and to get their perspective on what they did, why they did it, why it matters, kind of the next steps for things. And that really helps translate that article into a really good read for those undergraduate students because, again, we’re trying to explain the concepts of physics or the concepts of quantum science specifically, but not dumb it down enough to where people feel that they’re being condescended, or not keeping it high enough where people don’t understand.
And I think quantum, specifically, is a really hard one to communicate, because it’s so abstract. With, say astrophysics, you can easily pin all your science into something that people can see, like a star maybe, or a black hole. And with quantum, you really can’t. You can describe molecular interactions, you can describe energy levels, but you really can’t get that in a way that people can visualize.
So as a writer, I have a really fun time playing around with how to do that. And so a lot of times I’ll use analogies or metaphors to kind of come up with ways to describe that. And the fun part for me is the scientists I interview, a lot of the times, they’ll come up with the best analogies that I didn’t even think of. So I know one scientist I interviewed, he paired up with another of our fellows here at JILA and they both were talking about some quantum interferometer. And they described it as running through a corn maze. And I thought, well, that’s really creative. I would never have thought of that. Or another scientist described his work as an atomic trampoline, where the atoms jump up to higher energy levels.
So again, it’s really interesting for me as a writer, to work with these individuals, to come up with some really fun and creative ways to write about their science, but also make it accessible enough that people understand what’s happening, or at least get the gist of the research without needing that higher level of education.
Yuval: My sense that in the past year, writing about quantum computers has evolved. I think a year ago, most articles would start by, “A quantum computer is unlike a classical computer, whereas classical computers use bits that are zero and one,” and so on and so on. And today, we see that less. Is that your feeling as well?
Kenna: Absolutely. I think part of it is that people are now getting more used to quantum computers. So they are getting used to explaining what a qubit is or already knowing what it is. Especially within the quantum industry, you get people who are pulled in, they’ll say, “Oh, I already know what a qubit is. I don’t need to understand that.” So I think, yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons, but I think one of the other reasons is that quantum computers are becoming more mainstream. So even the public audience is starting to realize what these machines are capable of and what they’re good for and how they can be applied to multiple fields such as medicine or finance.
And so I think that also is contributing to people already understanding what a quantum computer basically is made out of and whatnot. I mean, obviously still, there’s still a lot of things that you can do to describe a quantum computer, and they’re always fluctuating and changing. But yeah, absolutely, I would agree with you that the industry overall and how it’s being written about has shifted.
Yuval: I think I got to know your writing through the Women in Quantum series. So let’s talk a little bit about that. First, when I interview some of the women guests on the podcast, I sometimes ask them whether being a woman was helpful or hurtful to their careers. And some say, “Oh, no, it doesn’t matter at all. It’s just about my accomplishments.” And others say, “Well, it’s been more difficult. It’s a male-dominated world,” and so on and so on. You have a much broader statistical view of this, so what do you think is the more prevalent answer?
Kenna: Oh boy. So first off, I get both of those answers as well. And it’s really a mixed bag from people I talk to. I think more women I talk to tend to have the answer of, “It was really hard, but thanks to mentors or thanks to role models or thanks to this community, I’ve been able to succeed,” as opposed to, “Oh, it doesn’t really bother me that much.”
I know when I interview these amazing women, I never know what to expect, because these women are so talented, extremely smart, they’re just at the top of their game. And so the answers I get tend to be really mixed. But the one question I do ask them is I say, “How do you think the diversity in the industry can be improved,” because that question really contains multiple questions within it.
It starts by saying, “You’re coming into an industry that the diversity kind of needs to be improved, so how do you, as a woman, tackle that? But also, talking about your own experiences in the industry and what have you come up with and what have you seen as far as your own personal experiences?” So I think, again, the industry is shifting, which is really, really helpful. And I think a lot of the women I’ve talked to have noticed a change and said that things are improving, but obviously there’s still a lot more work to be done.
Yuval: So what do you think needs to be done to improve diversity?
Kenna: Sure, absolutely. So I think one of the things that we’re doing really well currently, whether it’s the Women in Quantum series or a lot of the panels that I’m seeing by quantum companies. So like, ColdQuanta had a really good Women in Quantum panel, or groups like Women in Quantum, run by Denise Ruffner. These companies are really starting to realize that diversity needs to be addressed and they’re doing a really good job.
I think, obviously, the easy diversity thing to address is women, because women, you can get all sorts of other minority backgrounds with women. It doesn’t matter. But it’s easier to target women as opposed to saying, “Well, we’d like all different diverse backgrounds in here right now,” for a panel or whatever. For a PR side, it’s a little bit easier to target women.
But I think having these conversations is the most important thing, because companies are starting to realize, whether it’s this article series or the panel, that these issues do need to be addressed, people are noticing and taking notice of who you’re hiring, what your makeup is of your company, who you have on staff. And I think that’s really important, which is really, really good. So I think having more conversations is good.
The other thing is, the industry is so new that, as companies are still hiring, as companies are still building, which, everyone’s hiring because we have a talent shortage on our hands, that presents an opportunity to hire more diverse perspectives, as opposed to industries that are much more older or more established. I think it’s harder to get more diverse people in, because they already have their pool of workers, whereas the quantum industry, again, is still new enough that you can pull from a bunch of different areas while trying to build up the industry as a whole.
Yuval: If you look at a company and see that it’s hiring primarily men, and not women, one thing that can be done about it is, as you said, raise the awareness, ask the question, and so on. But some hiring managers would say, “I would love to hire more women. I just don’t see these candidates.” And so, should that conversation really start in high school, getting more women interested in science, in quantum computing and so on?
Kenna: Absolutely. So I’ve actually heard that quite a bit from multiple companies or multiple people I’m interviewing is, “Where are the women? We want to hire them,” or, “Where is this people from this background? We want to hire them too.” And I think that’s wonderful. I think having those companies see that and want to fulfill that goal is really, really good. But yes, absolutely, I think because we have this talent shortage, because we’re worried about people coming into the fields, and because you need such an educated pool to come in and work in this field it, bottlenecks quite a bit.
So, yeah. I think starting from a younger age is really important. I know organizations like Qubit by Qubit, a nonprofit quantum education organization, are really working to educate that next quantum workforce, which is great. But I think having mentorship programs and pipelines are really, really important, because, again, I don’t think high school students are going to say, “Oh, I’m going to get a career in quantum,” because that’s just not something people think about right now. It’s not something that’s at the forefront of their minds.
And so I think one of the things we can do is make that a bigger issue and bring more awareness to that, for our high school students, for our younger students. And I think people like Chris Ferrie, who have written the Quantum Physics for Babies books, are even starting at a great age as well, because they’re getting the parents involved, and the parents can be in every step of the process as well. So I think it’s a multi-level approach. But, yeah. Absolutely. Starting from a younger age is essential, in order to get those people interested and fired up about quantum.
Yuval: How many have you interviewed for the Women in Quantum series?
Kenna: Yeah, absolutely. I was trying to look at the numbers yesterday, and I think it’s around probably 13 to 15 women. And it’s fantastic, because they’ve been all over the globe, they’ve been all different ages, they’ve held all different positions. So it’s really fun to interact, again, with just people of all different backgrounds and perspectives, because I never know what I’m going to get when I talk to them. And all of their stories have been super inspiring, and I’m really, really fortunate to be able to be an outlet for them, where I can help by their story and inspire other people.
Yuval: I think to write such an article, you ask four or five questions. I’m guessing they’re similar in all articles. What are the two or three most surprising answers that you heard?
Kenna: Absolutely. So I think first off, a general trend with these articles is that the women that I interview, they give me their stories, but they give it in a way that they try to frame it to be motivational and inspiring. And I think that’s wonderful, I think that’s a great thing, but I think it’s really hard to be more vulnerable about the experiences that you’ve had in a 10-minute interview or a 20-minute interview. You want to get to know the person better. So I think that’s a limitation, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing because, again, it’s still a motivational piece, it’s still inspiring, and it’s still something that I think people will want to read.
I think one of the most surprising things that I’ve seen though, along that same line, is that women aren’t afraid to call out places that they need to fix. So they’ll say, “Well, I’ve interviewed…” I’ll talk to a CEO or somebody like that. And they’ll say, “Well, I’ve interviewed just all male candidates. And it’s really annoying for me and I really hate it.” Or, “I’ll only get male applicants, because women don’t feel like they’re confident enough to apply to this job.” Or I’ll have women who say, “I studied my PhD in physics, and all the people in my cohort were men and I was the only woman. And now, of course, I work with other women and it’s great.”
So I think it’s really surprising to see how honest women are in that sense, where they call out that problem, but I think it’s also, what’s surprising is how many great ideas they have about fixing it. So a lot of the responses I get are mentorship and role models, where women say, “Oh, if we only had more mentors, if we only had role models, I think that would be great.” And I think that’s wonderful. And my goal with the article series is to provide connections where people can see those women as mentors or role models and keep the conversation going.
But I’ve seen also, from women, some really great, concrete ideas about setting up panels or starting some sort of program pipeline for high school students or doing women-only events. I think those are all really good ideas. And it just surprises me, how many women have thought about this, how many women have felt all this, and are working really, really hard towards working on that diversity. So I think those are kind of the things that surprise me the most, coming into an interview,
Yuval: What can I do to help? If I want to help get more women in the industry, we’re certainly hiring at Classiq, what can I do to help?
Kenna: Yeah, absolutely. So I think one of things that I’ve seen is, if you want to make an impact, going out and talking to people about either the technology or how great the industry is, or just even connecting with students, I think is kind of the big thing. I’m currently reading a book called, You Have More Influence Than You Think. And it’s all about how people actually know notice you more than you might suspect that they do.
And so even just having a simple conversation with somebody about, “Oh, I love my job and this is great,” can be really surprising, because people might want to be more interested in that. But I think working with colleges to come speak for undergraduate students or going to high schools and speaking for high school students are all really helpful, but I think also, even just connecting one-on-one with certain individuals, and again, providing advice, mentorship is really, really important, but I think also making that effort to reach out to places that you haven’t been and stepping out of your comfort zone is really important.
So whether it’s going to more of a, I don’t know, impoverished area and talking to people there, or just reaching out to people that you might not really before, I think is really important. But also, I know for me personally, using LinkedIn and connecting with people that I might not have connected with before… I connect a bunch of students here at JILA, which is great, because I’m able to provide some sort of gateway for them to other companies or industries or whatever they’re looking for. And I think other people need to do that as well.
Yuval: As we get close to the end of our conversation. I want to ask you a question that I recently asked two book authors, Tom Wong, who’s got a wonderful introduction to quantum book, and then Nicole Yunger Halpern, that’s got the Quantum Steampunk book. You are a science writer. You explain quantum computing. How would you explain entanglement to the layperson?
Kenna: Absolutely. So my usual explanation that I go for, because it’s just a quick and dirty explanation, is to just say, “Quantum particles whose states are interdependent, or dependent on each other, not independent,” but I’ve also seen some really good analogies of that where it’s like a braid almost, like you’re braiding hair, and the braids are attached, but they’re also their own individual pieces.
So I think, again, entanglement, things like super position there are definitions that, if you’re an expert, you already know the definition of that, but if you’re a writer like me, it’s really fun to just play around with those definitions and give some really creative answers or metaphors or whatever, depending on what you’re writing.
And so that’s one of the things that I enjoy most about science writing is, the science is there, the facts are there, and you’re working with scientists and you’re working with researchers, but you also can be creative and not make it dry, and make it really, really fun, just in the language that you use and how you describe things. And so, yeah, absolutely, I think for entanglement, you could go a thousand different directions with that definition.
Yuval: Absolutely. So Kenna, how can people get in touch with you to learn more about your work?
Kenna: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I have a website, www.KennaCastleberry.com. Obviously, LinkedIn, I’m always active, to the point where people are like, “Why are you always on LinkedIn?” I just happen to be on LinkedIn quite a bit, because I really enjoy the platform. So, I’m happy to talk to people on there. Obviously, I’m on all the social media channels, because I’m a young person and that’s what we do. But yeah, I think my website’s probably the best to get in contact with me, as far as questions or just comments or whatever. And yeah, I always have my inbox open because, again, I’m a workaholic, so I’m always checking to see what’s new in the world.
Yuval: That’s perfect. Well, thank you so much for joining me today.
Kenna: Thank you so much, Yuval. I’ve really enjoyed this interview.
About “The Qubit Guy’s Podcast”
Hosted by The Qubit Guy (Yuval Boger, our Chief Marketing Officer), the podcast hosts thought leaders in quantum computing to discuss business and technical questions that impact the quantum computing ecosystem. Our guests provide interesting insights about quantum computer software and algorithm, quantum computer hardware, key applications for quantum computing, market studies of the quantum industry and more.
If you would like to suggest a guest for the podcast, please contact us.