I consider myself to be a “professional question asker”. I’ve held roles as a research scientist, a science communicator, and a data journalist. In each of these positions, I strived to ask questions, design studies to help answer those questions, and then determined the best way to communicate my findings in a simple and accessible way. The questions, audiences, and methods of communication may have changed as I moved from one role to another, but my interest in learning and sharing knowledge has remained the same.
The Long Version
Hey there, I’m Amber. Professionally-speaking, I took a bit of a winding road to get to where I am now. By training, I’m a marine biologist. I studied marine biology (and chemistry) in college, followed it up with a Master’s in Marine Sciences, and ended up with a full-blown job as an Aquatic Research Associate at an aquarium (yes, that’s a real thing).
Throughout school and work, I never really found a niche field that was more fascinating than the rest, which is generally frowned upon in focused academic work. Luckily for me, I was allowed (and encouraged) to be flexible, so I’ve spent time studying seal pups, cuttlefish, parasites, water chemistry, stingrays, dolphins, corals and other underwater topics and critters.
When explaining my job as a scientist to visiting children, I started referring to myself as a Professional Question-Asker (hence the seemingly strange Twitter handle @ProQuesAsker). I’d tell them that my job was to ask questions about the animals around me and do my best to find ways to answer those questions. It was the perfect description of my work and the ideal segue to finding my next role.
You see, when people tell you that marine biology is a hard field to find/maintain steady employment, they aren’t kidding. As much as I enjoyed studying life beneath the waves, I decided that I should consider pivoting slightly to a different career field. For a while I had considered pursuing science communication since I loved breaking complex topics down into simple, easy-to-digest pieces. I even co-founded a sci-comm service to help others communicate their work. But I missed being involved in the knowledge discovery process.
So, I took stock of the pieces of my job that I enjoyed the most: research, data analysis, and communication, most commonly through data visualization and story-telling. I started exploring roles in data science and analysis before finding The Pudding, an online editorial for data and visually-driven stories about topics debated in culture.
After starting as a freelance contributor, I eventually joined the team full-time and worked there for several years. My role was very similar to my role as a research scientist. I still asked questions about the world around me, designed experiments to answer those questions, collected data, analyzed it, and found ways to communicate my results. The biggest differences were that the topics had changed and I was now communicating with a general audience of internet-users instead of publishing primarily in scholarly journals.
The stories I wrote were widely varied in topic, but most often fell under the vague umbrella of “culture”, particularly cultural topics that have traditionally (and stereotypically) been of interest to women. Amongst many other things, I studied the size disparity in women’s pockets as opposed to men’s, visualized how 20,000 people utilize contraception, investigated the biases associated with the way complexion products are named, and learned how high school dress codes sexualize students.
In this role, I learned about web development and design, and ultimately became quite familiar with creating interactive data visualizations using front-end web technology (e.g., HTML, CSS, JS, d3.js, Svelte etc.) More recently, I’ve been working to improve the accessibility of The Pudding’s work even further. I drove the creation of our team’s technical accessibility guidelines, created a repository of commonly-used components that were keyboard and screen-reader accessible by default, and began working with a Data Viz Accessibility group, aimed at improving the way all users can interact with data visualizations on the internet. I even started experimenting with novel accessibility features, like the ability to turn off “scrollytelling” animations.
In my next role, I hope to continue this pattern. To be able to ask interesting questions, help find answers, and experiment with ways to make the information I learn accessible and useful. Sound like your cup of tea? I’d love to hear from you.
On a more personal note, my physical locations have also been on a bit of a winding path. I grew up and attended all levels of school in New England (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, fwiw). I moved to Orlando, FL for work and survived the scorching heat for a few years before moving to Seattle, WA with my partner in 2016. Before you ask, no, it doesn’t really rain every day.
We have a puppy that I’m
mildly obsessed with. His name is Pixel and he’s a Mini American Shepherd. In my free time, I like to hike, read, watch way too much Netflix, and practice aerial arts (particularly aerial silks – think Cirque du Soleil type things). Care to chat about anything I mentioned or something I left out? Find me on Twitter @ProQuesAsker or email me.