Fashioning the Future With: Sarita Menon
If you love STEM, reading, learning about rad scientists, then you're probably already a fan of Smore Magazine, and guess what, we have its founder, Dr. Sarita Menon, on the blog today! Stargazing snickerdoodles — or more fittingly stargazing smores — how sweet is that?
Smore Magazine prints six issues a year and contains awesome articles, inspiring interviews, engaging puzzles, and more. Its title comes from the idea of "science-more," and it's the ideal subscription for kids wanting to learn about fascinating STEM topics as well as what young scientists and awesome adult innovators are up to, too. Smore Magazine teaches its readership while also opening their eyes to what is possible for themselves — all in a fun, accessible way delivered right to your mailbox!
We've described Smore Magazine as awesome, inspiring, and engaging, and it's no surprise that Sarita, herself, is all those things and more. Sarita is a scientist (She has a PhD in Cancer Biology with a Master's in Biotechnology and a Bachelor's in Chemistry, no less!), a mom, and a force in science communication.
We were thrilled to ask Sarita all about how Smore Magazine came to be, what scicomm means to her, what advice she has for young scientists, and much (s)more! Meet Sarita Menon, founder Smore Magazine!
When did you first know you were a scientist?
As children, we are all curious, adventurous little scientists. I was one too. While I didn’t really go looking for bugs under rocks, I have always be fascinated about how things work. I also had a voracious appetite for books which acted like fuel to the fire.
What was your path to earning your PhD in Cancer Biology like?
My decision to pursue a PhD did not happen until after my Masters when I had to choose between job-hunting in India, or going abroad for my PhD. Much to my parents anguish, I chose to travel 8,000 miles to a foreign country and study at a University in the Midwest (I am a total city girl!). I picked the Free Radical and Radiation Biology program at the University of Iowa which was a great program with excellent faculty. It was a completely new world for me, but there was so much diversity on campus with students coming from all over the world that it really helped me get adjusted. The courses and research work was challenging but exciting too. Up until then I had a very passing knowledge about cancer biology. But now I was taking a deep dive into cell biology, radiation therapy, and my own research of cell cycle proteins in cancer, which was absolutely fascinating to study for me. I have my PhD mentor to thank for teaching me everything from basic research techniques, to grant writing, giving talks and the fine art of responding to manuscript reviewer critiques. I published 4 scientific peer reviewed papers, won a couple of conference awards and overall had the time of my life in graduate school.
How did you transition into scicomm from your previous career?
I made the decision to pursue entrepreneurship after my postdoctoral training and started a children's science enrichment company where we do hands-on workshops, camps and science shows in schools and libraries. In my opinion teaching kids science is the best way to transition into scicomm! You really have to pack your scientific explanations into exciting, and easy to understand yet scientifically accurate nuggets. If you ramble on, these kids will be sure to let you know how they feel about that.
Do you have a personal philosophy as a scientist and/or science communicator?
I go with the philosophy of Einstein: “If you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.
What is your favorite part about being involved the STEM community?
Being a part of the STEM community means I am still very much in science even though I don’t work in a lab anymore. Getting to see kids faces light up when they see you do a cool science experiment is the best kind of job satisfaction.
When did you get the idea for Smore Magazine?
October 2016. But like all ideas, it didn't come fully formed as the Smore magazine you see today. It was my husband who had the initial idea of a local science newsletter, which after countless iterations became Smore.
How did you come up with the ethos, voice, and structure of the magazine?
It was a combination of many things including my beliefs, my observations and my experience working as a science educator. The voice of Smore came from certain issues I felt strongly about including the lack of visible female STEM role models in mainstream media.
What was it like running the Kickstarter campaign for Smore?
When I decided to take the leap and start Smore, I had no clue about the publishing industry. I had zero publishing experience and next to zero cash to fund this. So like any well-trained scientist I did a ton of research. I learned about this great crowdsourcing platform called Kickstarter to share new ideas and see if people liked it enough to give you their support and their money. We figured things out on our own and put together the Kickstarter page. Our brilliant illustrator Olga created the first looks of Smore. We then shot a wonderfully amateur video and sent Smore out into the world in March 2017. We closed the campaign with 480 people backing us and Smore went from an idea to a reality.
Have you learned anything unexpected running Smore?
When I shared our idea of a children’s print magazine with people, many said “print is dying, don’t bother”. But we learned that parents almost overwhelmingly chose a print copy over the digital version. We had so few digital subscribers that we have now stopped offering it. So do your own research and trust your own gut before you make decisions.
What future would you like to see for Smore?
I see Smore becoming a brand that makes everything about science and technology look cool and the people doing science nothing less than aspirational celebrities. I hope Smore can push the boundaries of how young children, especially girls think about science and can find their place in the STEM world.
What’s a day in the life of Sarita Menon like?
Since Smore is still a small startup, everything is done by me with help from my husband - social media, sales, marketing, and customer service. I am usually up by 5 in the morning. I get some morning meditation done and plan out my goals for the day. It’s also the best time for me to get some writing done which could be social media posts, or some editorial content.
Once the school lunches are packed and kids are off to school, I will continue working on Smore - finalizing a current issue or planning out the future ones, contacting scientists, writers, and artists (there is a LOT of emailing going on all day!).
Afternoons are typically spent on the Smore social media pages. Occasionally I will teach an afterschool STEM lab. Evenings I will cook dinner while hanging out with the kids and sometimes try to get out for a quick walk/run. After dinner I will spend a couple of hours finishing up the days tasks which is usually responding to more emails! If I haven’t crashed by then I do some reading before turning in for the night.
Which scientists and science communicators (modern day and historical) inspire you?
Marie Curie’s passion and determination is my inspiration forever. There are many science communicators I follow online and they are all amazing!
What advice do you have for young people who want to get into STEM?
Figure out what is it about STEM that you enjoy before you go looking for a career to fit into. Don’t worry if you don’t see yourself as a university research faculty. Nowadays a degree in STEM can open doors to a lot of non-traditional careers as well.
On that same line: What advice do you have for those interested in getting into science advocacy?
There has never been a greater time for science advocacy than now. Our future generation is going to inherit some really big environmental and resource depletion problems that our generation has contributed to. Start small and volunteer at your local school or library to host earth day events or STEM workshops. You can blog, get on social media, even start your own podcast to connect and grow your audience. For the truly motivated, there is no shortage of options for science advocacy in today’s world.
What are some of your hobbies you enjoy in your free time?
With raising two kids, running two businesses and a household, free time is a limited luxury lately. But I still make sure to get an occasional “me” time to go for a run, or read a book or watch a movie.
Do you have any favorite fictional scientist or scicomm characters in books/movies/other art forms?
Growing up in India, I was not exposed to all the cool fictional science characters from here. I eventually did catch up with X-Files and Dana Scully was awesome. Shuri of Black Panther is how smart women in STEM should be portrayed in all the media!
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
It would have to be a device to clone myself. One would help find solutions to our environmental and sustainability problems, one would work on Smore, one would be on Mommy duty and one would binge-watch Netflix!