May 30, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! It’s kind of a funny story

Gather round while talented bioengineer and gifted storyteller Abby Kelly spins some of her favorite tales.

Abby Kelly, instrument scientist, AbbVie, with son Harrison at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Abby Kelly, instrument scientist, AbbVie.

Abby Kelly spent the better part of her youth transfixed by colorful bedtime stories, educational TV mysteries and imaginative sci-fi movies. Often perplexed by the thousand and one questions each narrative provoked, her parents taught her to use every resource available in her never-ending quest to find answers. So she set out to do just that: observe, self-educate, experiment and explore … and could now fill a book with her many amazing adventures. These days, she dedicates her professional life to rewriting the pages of scientific discovery.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

When I was a toddler, my dad would read to me at bedtime from his Scientific American Journals, hoping they would put me to sleep. Although these early days are a bit hazy in my memory, he often reminds me that rather than falling asleep, I would come alive and ask questions.

I do remember always being very inquisitive and having that curiosity supported and encouraged. When my parents didn’t know an answer to one of my hundreds of questions, they wouldn’t pretend to. Instead, in those pre-internet days, they would show me how to find the answer for myself, either in books, from experts or through experimentation. I was always encouraged to watch educational television and play with educational toys (my favorites were Lego’s and Capsela). Also, my dad and I watched a lot of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Science has just always been in my blood.

One of your dad’s favorite stories of how you fell in love with science involves a concept called Rayleigh scattering. For us non-scientific peeps, can you explain?

Yes, my dad loves to tell the story of my younger self asking why the sky was blue and how he proceeded to tell me all about Rayleigh scattering. Basically, when light hits a molecule, it bounces off in all different directions (i.e. scatters). Most of that scattered light is of the same intensity as the original light, meaning no energy is lost. This type of scatter is called Rayleigh scattering and accounts for most of the light we see. The reason the sky is blue is because shorter wavelength light (like blue light) travels faster and therefore hits more molecules and scatters more light compared to longer wavelengths (like red). Although I may have been too young to even absorb it, I think that may have been the exact moment I fell in love with science!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Because both of my parents are engineers, naturally I wanted to do anything else. As a kid I wanted to be either a doctor or an architect. I also had a love of geometry and art. I was frequently asking my parents for help rearranging the furniture in my bedroom … in addition to painting on my walls, sewing my own bedding and collaging my ceiling. My dad was happy to help with the furniture moving, but only if I could prove to him beforehand that my arrangement would fit; he required a to-scale drawing. I was 9 years old when he showed me how to scale a drawing, and I fell in love with drafting and spatial planning. While I didn’t end up an architect, my dream now is to someday build a home that I’ve designed. In fact, it’s already drafted up for when the opportunity someday (hopefully) presents itself.

You spent 2016 conducting research in Australia. While doing so, I understand you also helped develop a science outreach program. Can you share more about this amazing opportunity?

My husband and I spent the entirety of 2016 living in Melbourne, Australia. I was fortunate to receive a Fulbright scholarship to conduct research at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). While there, I was able to help another scientist at CSIRO develop and implement a science outreach program at the Ntaria indigenous community school in Hermannsburg, Australia. The K-12 school teaches English and maths (British for math), but not science. The challenge was to develop lesson plans suitable for kids K-12 with no previous exposure to science. Some of our activities included paper airplanes, rockets, bubbles, small motors, magnetic fields and paper-based diagnostics. The ultimate goal was to spark their curiosity and show them a methodology to answer their questions, as well as show that scientists are just regular people and that it’s a viable career path. The children were absolutely wonderful. They were full of energy and really loved the hands-on activities.

You mentioned a funny story about your grandmother’s garden that has a unique connection to your time in Australia. Care to share?

Growing up, my favorite place in the world was Lewellen, Nebraska, a tiny rural town that both sides of my family are from. Both of my grandmothers kept beautiful gardens; one fancied flowers and the other gravitated toward vegetables. One thing always present in my grandmother’s vegetable garden was kohlrabi, a delicious root vegetable that tastes a bit like broccoli stems with the texture of an apple (but smooth, not grainy). Nowadays, I’m always on the lookout for it in grocery stores … and as luck would have it, I was able to find it on the other side of the world at a market in Australia!

I hear you have an adorable 2-year old who loves to read. What was the last science-related kid’s book you read to him?

I have a 2-year old son, Harrison, who is the light of my life. One book he loves is “Ada Twist, Scientist.” For those of you with a 2-year-old, I suggest you check it out! Ada Twist is an abundantly curious second grader who is constantly asking questions, causing chaos and making messes. The illustrations are beautiful, and the cadence and rhymes are really engaging. The book really nails the innate curiosity of most scientists, as seen in this line: “She asks lots of questions; how could she resist. It’s all in the heart of a young scientist.” As a parent, I’m grateful for books encouraging kids to pursue STEM careers.

What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?

Seize every opportunity, but more importantly, train yourself to see the opportunities. What often looks like extra work on the surface is an opportunity staring you in the face. If a teacher has an after-school project, volunteer. If a parent or family member needs help with anything, volunteer. If you find yourself working on something you think is particularly exciting, volunteer to present it or write about it; find or even create a venue if you have to. You never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet. This is how knowledge is gained and networks are built.

What keeps you coming to work every day?

Curiosity and the satisfaction I get from working to improve people’s quality of life. I would also be remiss not to mention my hilarious and kind coworkers who bring me joy every day. Fun fact: 40 percent of my SPaRCS group co-workers happen to be named Dave (SPaRCS = Specialized Research in Chaotic Systems). I knew I had found a fantastic work family when someone referred to me as Dave #5 about two months in.

I hear your shared love of the cinema played a huge role in bringing you and your husband together. Can you explain?

Growing up my mother and I always went to the movies. It was our time together away from the rest of the family and some weekends we’d often bond over two or three movies at a time. When I met my husband, he was a student at Columbia College down in the loop (in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.) working on his degree in film editing. He and his younger brother had spent their childhood with a camcorder, making their own little films. We fell in love while sharing our joint appreciation for movies.

Our love of movies actually led us on a whirlwind four-day vacation to the Northern Island of New Zealand. While here, we were able to visit Karekare Beach, the black sand beach where parts of the movie “The Piano” were filmed, as well as Hobbiton from “The Lord of the Rings” movies and Cathedral Cove from “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The beauty of New Zealand is obvious on film, but even more unimaginably breathtaking in person.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science rocks because its modern-day exploration, its ingenuity and creativity combine to understand and improve our world. I can’t think of anything that rocks more!


Fun Facts About Me:

Media inquiries

Jaquelin Finley
Call: + 1 847-937-3998

Sign up

Stay up to date on recent news, stories and more by signing up for our topic alerts.

Tags: R&D, Our People