Tapping into Her Talents: in Equal Parts a Scientist and Artist

By: Cynthia Adams | Photos By: Nancy Evelyn

Last spring, Barbara Del Castello was soon to depart Athens, Ga. for Washington, D.C. to spend the summer as a science liaison to the White House. Her role in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, began just as scientific policy making became subject to an unprecedented era of partisan politics. Her primary assignment was at the US Global Change Research Program, or USGCRP. What did Del Castello learn? “Being here has made my passion for science policy grow exponentially in ways I didn’t know were possible. I want to be a continual advocate for evidence-based policy, and stay actively involved in science policy when I’m back at UGA. This has been eye opening.”

For starters, Del Castello, the very vogue STEM scientist, shares a fun fact. She is a steminist.

A what? “Steminism is a variation of feminism, and means the equality of the sexes in STEM fields. A part of this, and something important to me, is the ability for me to dress femininely, something that has been frowned upon in the past, since the sciences are a very male-dominated field,” she explains.

“Steminist—a new term coming along—is a word that describes me…and expresses my core values,” Del Castello says patiently. (And yes, it’s a thing. Proof positive that men and women of scientific endeavor aren’t stuck in stereotypes. No more pocket protectors, and, for the record, beneath that white lab coat may be some very fine designer duds.)

Skeptics, and we know you are out there, can check out the Tumblr site for “The Sartorial Science Project,” described as one which is dedicated to scientists who love fashion. Sartorially oriented scientists, the site says, “can be a part of it too as an academic scientist!” Call it geek chic. Or just call it plain fun—Del Castello offers steminism as proof that scientists are multi-dimensional.

Yet being a snappy dresser isn’t all that separates Del Castello from stereotype. She blows off steam at The Tap Company at DanceFX, a dance school in Athens, when she isn’t inside a lab.

“As a female scientist, I’m not that different to a lot of girls,” she insists. She is earning a PhD in a STEM discipline, specifically genetics. Del Castello, at 24, possesses physical energy equal to her cerebral ambitions.

Conformity has never held much appeal for the California native, who has loved dance and science with equal passion for as long as she can remember.

“When I was three years old, I was the little girl in the pink tutu saying, ‘I want to be a paleontologist’. They were expecting to hear ‘ballerina.’” That is, everyone but her mother the geologist, who wanted her to save volcanos, she notes with a wide grin. “My mother would buy me dinosaur books. I had a college textbook that I carried around with me and I would take newspaper clippings [to insert] and I called it the Dinosaur News Book.”

She began her education in Pacifica, Ca. at a Catholic high school for girls. Her aunt was a pharmacist. Her mother earned a degree in geology.

She describes “pushing towards women being strong,” having had the important influence of a couple of teachers in her early life who had earned doctorates.

“I was still a little conflicted,” admits Del Castello, after having to drop musical theater and dance in order to pursue science in higher education. “And so, on a whim, I went onto Google and searched colleges who allow non-theater majors to study theater.”

She discovered Eckerd College in Florida, where she launched her science studies while also enjoying the arts. At Eckerd College, Del Castello met professor, Denise Flaherty, who worked with nematodes and Alzheimer’s, and Del Castello worked in her lab. She remained in STEM while dancing to her heart’s content.

Finding Conviction: Becoming a Voice

“What seems to be missing is the process and appreciation of science, and the understanding of scientists as authorities on topics of science,” says Del Castello. She spoke from one of the oldest buildings on the UGA campus, a place that has long distinguished itself for its STEM programs and scientific initiatives.

She weighed a question: “As a communicator how are you helping create value for science?”

And Del Castello replied, “I think we are feeling it very acutely because a lot of the things coming down the line affect EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those jobs and acts put in place by Obama have been done to protect different aspects of the environment. Now, it’s very difficult to see those going backwards.” She worries how to be a voice for science, and voice those concerns.

“These are questions I ask for myself,” she added. And well she might, for Del Castello was soon to pack her bags and head to Washington, D.C. where she would spend a summer as a liaison with politicians, serving as a science advocate in the OSTP. “I’ll be a policy intern for the Executive Office of the President, in the Office of Science and Technology Policy,” she said before leaving. “It’s said I will be able to write policy. It is my goal to have my words in someone important’s hands.”

It was then May, and Del Castello was temporarily hanging up her dancing shoes. “When I was originally offered this position; my first step into science, I thought, ‘if not me, who; and if not now, when?’”

This was admittedly not an easy climate to be an advocate, Del Castello acknowledged. “The current administration doesn’t have a current policy in science.”

She later added, “President Trump recommended an eight percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, which would have directly impacted grants. That said, the Congress actually featured a possible increase for the NIH.”

Photo Credit: Nicole White

If she was concerned, Del Castello did not, and does not, let it show. She has worked with the Women in Science group at UGA; she knew by heart the dire statistics about the budgetary hits science had been taking.

“I’m surrounded by scientists,” she added by reminder. All of the recommended cuts were very much in mind.

“There is only so much I can do in a summer; science advocacy is a difficult place to be,” Del Castello conceded. “Being that person, the middle man. Grappling with that position of wanting to do the best for science.”

She muses that, “science has always been part of my life.”

As it happened, tap, made famous in the 1940s and 50s, has also been having a moment. “I recently saw La La Land,” Del Castello said appreciatively. She could have just stepped out of the film. With intense brown eyes and hair, she wore a sundress with a full skirt, one suitable for twirling.

But that is only one aspect of Del Castello. The sartorial part, the steminist—colorfully containing the blithe spirit within the serious scientist.

“As a female scientist, I’m not that different to a lot of girls,” Del Castello insists. She is earning a PhD in a STEM discipline, specifically genetics.

Acting? Dancing? Science? ALL of the Above

In Florida as an undergraduate, Del Castello’s many passions coalesced. She worked in a lab and had a small project. “I teamed up with the Tampa Bay Research Institute, looking for alternative (Alzheimer) therapies that are understudied. We looked at gingko biloba.” Inevitably, this led to her present interest in biogenetics.

And all the while, she was involved in tap and acting in community theater. She met her boyfriend, Andrew Boland, who studied organic chemistry, and as their undergraduate degrees were completing, Del Castello says they started “the talk about Graduate School.”

The couple tried to find consensus. “We sat down and started planning for different schools we agreed on. And, I got a job offer with a science policy think tank where I had interned.” The Florida think tank showed her how to navigate the cross currents of science and policy.

“The think tank pulled scientists and policy makers and put them in a room. They had designated experts who gave a talk, and tried to find common beliefs. They discussed what can we change, and can we understand what the other person’s role is?”

Then, still antsy to get hands-on experience, Del Castello reached out to find someone who would offer good counsel. She found this in a plant geneticist named Liza Conrad. “It was eye opening,” she says. “Liza Conrad was, and is, my mentor. She really pushed me to pursue my love of science policy, even when I questioned myself or my ability. She truly has been there for me.”

When she was accepted into UGA Graduate School, along with her boyfriend, she repeated the same gambit, again reaching out to professors, again hoping to spend time in the lab in the months before beginning her studies. She contacted Nancy Manley in developmental biology. Soon Del Castello was working in Manley’s lab and her boyfriend was in the biochemistry Department in Christopher West’s lab.

This year, Manley sent an announcement:

“A first year PhD student who joined my lab from the ILS program, Barbara Del Castello, has been selected to be a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy intern for this coming summer,” emailed Manley before her student departed for Washington. “I am very proud of her, and am sure she will represent UGA well.”

It was an auspicious time to be a scientist in Washington, especially in the arena of policy making. But she was undaunted.

Before her August return, Del Castello sent an update from Washington:

“I feel like I’ve landed in the middle of some incredible history-making moments,” her message began. “I went to the congressional baseball game after the shooting, I was in the climate science office watching with everyone as the President pulled out of the Paris Agreement…”

She added, “My work has been divvied up in two offices. My main position has been at the US Global Change Research Program, or USGCRP (http://www.globalchange.gov/staff/barbara-del-castello), where I’ve been helping the National
Climate Assessment, which is the premiere source of climate change data. I’ve also been working for the main OSTP office, where I’ve been helping with Biosecurity work, as well as attending science-related congressional hearings to create briefings, and attending meetings. I’ve been very blessed to have my fingers in many pots, so to say.”

Despite setbacks, Del Castello says the work has only intensified her passion for science policy.

“My eldest brother told me that you know you’ve found your dream job when you wake up every morning excited to do your work, and I have never been as excited as I have been now. I look forward to starting my career in science policy, and being the next John Holdren in the making!”

Holdren, now a Harvard physicist, was President Obama’s top advisor on science and technology at the OSTP. He filled that position for eight years, the longest-serving director since the office was created.

Created in 2010 by Ann Hoang, STEMinist focuses on women in Science, Tech, Engineering and Math. By aggregating and featuring stories about women in STEM from across the web, Steminist hopes to: (1) Increase the visibility of women in STEM (2) Promote and elevate the perspective of women in underrepresented fields (3) Encourage younger women and girls to pursue careers in STEM (4) Capture what’s trending for women in STEM.