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!