Bringing Science to the Stage

Helena González Burón and Oriol Marimon Garrido, life partners and members of The Big Van Theory, often perform for unlikely audiences. González and Marimon—who are 31 and 30 years old, respectively, and recently defended Ph.D. theses in Barcelona—have been living double lives for several years now, as scientists by day and socially committed actors by night.

People often say, ‘You don’t look like scientists.’ The show breaks stereotypes.

A meeting of minds and hearts

Born to a family of professional dramaturges, González toured as a child with her father’s theater company and started acting at age 12. “I am the weird one in the family for switching to science,” she says. She pursued a first degree in biology and biochemistry at the University of Salamanca, graduating in 2007. She followed that with a master’s project in cancer biology and then moved to Barcelona to do a Ph.D., at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), where she studied how epigenetic anomalies can lead to DNA breakage and, ultimately, cancer.

During her spare time in Barcelona, González got involved in two associations that use humor to support populations in crisis: Clowns Without Borders and Pallasos en Rebeldia (Clowns in Rebellion). In 2011, as Pallasos en Rebeldia organized a clown festival in Palestine that was designed to protest military occupation, “I e-mailed colleagues at the IRB, asking them to join [local] events aimed at raising money for the festival,” González says. Her e-mails “mostly fell on deaf ears,” but one scientist did respond: Marimon. He was in his second year of a Ph.D. at IRB, working to determine the structure of a bacterial protein involved in the formation of biofilms.

In his spare time Marimon, who did his first degree and master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Barcelona, was acting in an amateur company and volunteering for a nonprofit association that provides after-school educational activities for children. When González’s e-mail came, he was planning a trip to Burkina Faso to work with a nongovernmental organization  that supports international adoption. His goal was to run the same educational activities for African children as he did for Spanish children. He did not speak French, so he intended to use clownery to bridge the language barrier. “When I received Helena’s e-mail, I thought: clown[s] in conflict zones! She is doing exactly the kind of things I need to learn about,” he says.

That year, González and Marimon spent their summer holidays together at the Palestine festival, where González gave clownery shows and workshops and Marimon worked as community manager for the festival’s social networks and took care of real-world logistics. They soon fell in love. Together, they decided to launch their own humanitarian project in Burkina Faso, which would bring electricity to a remote village while giving clownery and handicraft workshops to children, with a focus on gender equality.

The couple raised funds from the Catalan government. González and Marimon used part of the money to improve their language and management skills and honed their acting through courses imparted by clownery schools and professional actors. The project became a reality in October 2012.

Bridging two worlds

From the start, the two have been open with peers and advisers about their activities outside of research. “Colleagues mostly thought we were weird. Science is supposed to be serious—rigorous—and clownery seems to be the opposite,” González says.

Over time, her Ph.D. supervisor, Travis Stracker, became concerned about how her involvement in these outside activities would impact her work. “My boss told me that so much social life would reduce my focus on science, even if it did not reduce my working hours,” she says.

They worked it out. “Her communication activity seemed a distraction at the beginning, but she explained to me how important it was for her,” Stracker says. “It is a difficult balance, but Helena has a tremendous amount of energy, and in the end the balance was struck for the most part.” Stracker, Gonzalez says, “Now understands me.” He has “even asked me when we will perform next time in Barcelona, because he would like to come.”

Marimon’s Ph.D. adviser, Miquel Pons, believes that performing has improved Marimon’s science. “The imagination he has in his extraprofessional life has played a role in his research: He has found very unconventional results,” Pons says. He credits Marimon’s success in solving the structure of a bacterial protein—earlier attempts by other groups were unsuccessful—to his ability to identify unusual features. These insights, Pons says, have ushered in a new vision of how biofilms are formed.

Neither scientist won the Spanish final, but the experience yielded an opportunity. At the end of the competition, one of the eight finalists, Eduardo Sáenz de Cabezón, suggested they gather once more to deliver their monologues at a bar he knew in his home town in the north of Spain. The show was so successful that the group gave itself a name—inspired by both the scientific theory and the American TV show —and repeated the experience in other towns. Soon they were performing in venues all over Spain. They performed for Peter Higgs in Oviedo, where the scientist came to receive his Prince of Asturias Award, and in Geneva, Switzerland, for the Spanish-speaking scientists at European particle physics lab CERN, in an event organized by Javier Santaolalla Camino, a member of the group who had done his postdoc there.

Reaching new publics

“We explicitly look for difficult places—bars, discos, social centers—to bring science into,” Marimon says. “Performing arts bring a human factor to science. Even if we talk about cutting-edge research, we use feelings to reach out to people and they become very receptive.” The performers leave time for questions at the end of each show, and sometimes they share a drink with members of the public. “People often say: ‘You don’t look like scientists.’ The show breaks stereotypes,” González says.

The group runs an average of 15 shows per month, with half its 12 performers—technicians, postdocs, university professors, and science communicators, all but one with a Ph.D.—appearing in each show. That frequency allows them to keep science and performance in balance.

González and Marimon recently started a consultancy, called Clowntífics, to give workshops to scientists on how to use tools from the performing arts to improve their communication skills. In November 2013, they gave a workshop in Barcelona aimed at encouraging better communication between bioinformaticists and biologists.

Career plans

Now that González and Marimon have defended their Ph.D.s., they must decide whether to pursue research, communications, or a combination of the two career fields.  They would prefer to continue with both, but that is proving difficult.

“Now I am more oriented to shifting to [science] communication,” González says. “Until now, I have not found any position that allows combining research and communication: If you are doing research, you don’t have time left for outreach. Communication activities are not recognized as a part of a scientist’s job.”

Marimon has taken a short-term position as a research project manager in the Department of Didactics of Mathematics and Experimental Sciences at the Autonomous University of Barcelona as he prepares his doctoral work for publication. He then plans to look for a research position as either a postdoc or a technician.

“He has told me that he is looking for a postdoc,” Pons—Marimon’s Ph.D. supervisor—says, but in the hypercompetitive world of science, these hybrid careers are difficult. In the end he will have to choose, and I would bet he will choose communication.”

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