The Story Collider

7 mins read

What do two physicists and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree holder have in common? 

Storytelling, with over one million listeners!

The Story Collider is a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 on a mission to reveal the vibrant role science plays in all our lives through the art of personal storytelling. During live events, people—scientists, comedians, journalists, and others from all walks of life—share their stories from the stage about how science has affected their lives.  

These live events are recorded, and then, their podcast by the same name features two of those stories every Friday. Episodes are produced by locals who work on a freelance basis or by Erin Barker.  

Erin and her colleague, managing producer Misha Gajewski, listen to 50-60 yearly show audios and choose the ones they’d like to run on the podcast, which they also host.

Physicists Ben Lillie and Brian Wecht were the first producers and hosts of The Story Collider. Personal friends of Erin’s, they asked her to work with them on the show. The three then founded the nonprofit together in 2012.

In addition to the shows and podcast, they developed an education program based on the coaching methodology they use in their shows. They also offer workshops for scientists and other STEM professionals on storytelling and how to integrate it into their work. 

Erin is originally from Ohio. She then moved to West Virginia and went to journalism school for college. Next, she moved to New York, because she wanted to work in publishing.

“I had a very boring job, as is common when first starting out, when I first moved to New York. I was copy editing for a telecommunications news company. So, I would listen to podcasts while I worked. I think all the people sharing their stories are so amazing and brave. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, worked at a local comedy theater that had a class on storytelling. He said, ‘I really think you should take this class… it would be good for you to have a creative outlet, because you’re so bored at work and everything.’

Erin took his advice and enrolled in the class, despite her then very deep fear of public speaking. In fact, when the class ended, it was graduation show time, and she was so nervous, she broke out into hives due to the level at which she was freaking out. “I’ve never had anxiety to that level before,” she shared.

But when she went up on the stage and told her story, she realized it was okay, as she didn’t die. “Some people laughed at my jokes, even. So, I thought, I gotta do this again. It made me feel inspired, to face fear like that and come out of it okay. So, I started telling stories more with The Moth.”

She did a few mainstage shows with The Moth, traveling to different cities with them. She was also featured on The Moth Radio Hour, which Erin thought was “very cool.”

It was in that storytelling class that she met Ben Lily, one of the physicists who founded The Story Collider.

“That’s when we started working together. The rest is kind of history. Collider became my full-time job in 2013. I was a senior producer, and Ben was the creative lead. Since then, I’ve been the artistic director, and now, I’m the executive director.”

As a storyteller, she is the first woman to win The Moth’s GrandSLAM storytelling competition twice. Her stories have been featured on public radio multiple times and on many podcasts, such as The Moth, RISK, Family Ghosts, and more. One of her stories was included in The New York Times bestselling book, The Moth: 50 True Stories

Listening to The Story Collider, some people may be surprised by how some of the stories relate to science. Not every story takes place in a laboratory, for example. Some of the connections are a little more abstract, and some of the storytellers aren’t scientists. But others are, like the neuroscientist who’s no longer able to face her work, because her partner just died of brain cancer, and it’s bringing up painful memories for her. 

Generally speaking, scientists are not very self-involved: they often don’t take the time to think about themselves and their experiences. So, it’s really pretty amazing to see the realizations they have and the impact the process has on them.

Listeners can expect to hear stories about people deciding to become scientists and what inspired them to do so. There are stories from comedians like Wyatt Cenac talking about doing the drunk driving simulator at his high school. Another comedian and previous kindergarten teacher talks about this strange phenomenon in his class where all the kids wet themselves at the same time every day.

“One thing that I think is exciting about the work we do at Story Collider, and with storytelling in general, is the power that stories have to change people’s minds and shape their perceptions,” Erin said. 

The Story Collider is involved in a few different research collaborations that have shown that impact. One study conducted by researcher Jeff Schinsky found that community college students who listened to stories/personal narratives from scientists over the course of a semester were more interested—and could better see a place for themselves—in science.

In her spare time, Erin enjoys spending time with her husband and taking her beloved dog Wally to Morningside Park in New York.

Why not give The Story Collider a listen and get a behind-the-curtain view of the people of science and the stories they tell?


September 2022 Issue

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