Meet Sarah McAnulty, a squid biologist, founder of Skype a Scientist, and owner of the “Squidmobile.”
• Evolutionary elegance: “Squid have found a route to complexity completely independently of us.”
• Hot wooder: “I’ve taken a lot of heat for my pronunciation of wooder over the last 15 years. When I’m talking about science, my Philly accent almost completely goes away — until I say I wooder.”
When squid biologist Sarah McAnulty decided to cover her Toyota RAV4 with paintings of squid and write the words “WANT A SQUID FACT? Text 9-RUNG-SQUID” on the back, she was ready for things to get weird.
And she was not disappointed.
“I get texts from people who I am 100% sure think I’m a robot and realize I’m not a robot 10 texts deep," she said. "I had this one guy texting me about his divorce. So we just had a conversation about his divorce.”
But even that interaction, as unexpected as it was, furthered McAnulty’s ultimate goal of giving people not just access to science, but direct access to scientists themselves.
As the founder and executive director of Skype a Scientist, McAnulty, 31, of Fishtown (as if there were any other neighborhood for a marine biologist in Philly), helps connect thousands of working scientists with educators, classrooms, and groups of people around the world through video chat.
The Squidmobile she drives around Philly (and decorates with removable paint) is just another vehicle to facilitate those type of interpersonal interactions, she said.
“I want to make connections between people and scientists. I want science to be accessible,” McAnulty said. “Being open to talking to people can lead to some really interesting stuff. It’s how connection happens.”
Growing up in Bucks County, McAnulty had her closest encounters with marine life when she visited the New Jersey State aquarium in Camden, or explored the drainage ditch creek in her Bensalem neighborhood.
But it was a National Geographic Kids video she rented from the library that ultimately sealed McAnulty’s fate. Halfway through the documentary, as the mood changed and the Twilight Zone-like music began, the narrator introduced a cuttlefish, a type of cephalopod similar to a squid that moves very fast and changes colors.
“They were the weirdest-looking animals I’d ever seen and I said ‘Oh my God, this is what I need to focus on in my life!’” McAnulty recalled. “I couldn’t believe such a cool-looking animal was real.”
After graduating from Central Bucks High School West in 2007 and earning her bachelor’s degree in marine biology at Boston University, McAnulty spent two years working in molecular biology labs in Germany before earning her doctorate in molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut.
It was there that she studied how squid immune systems successfully communicate with bacteria to see what humans could learn from the symbiotic relationship.
“Cephalopods have been on earth for longer than trees have been on earth," she said. "They’ve had a lot of time to approach life in the ocean in different ways.”
While she was working on her doctorate, McAnulty founded Skype a Scientist in 2017 after she saw her colleagues expressing concern on social media about what a Trump presidency might mean for science.
“I was on Twitter watching all these scientists basically publicly panic together about what would happen,” she said. “We had all this energy and people wanted to make the world better, so I wanted to harness it to do something positive.”
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In three years, Skype a Scientist has connected more than 11,000 scientists across all disciplines, from jellyfish to geology, with more than 31,000 classrooms around the world.
McAnulty tries to pair STEM scientists from underrepresented groups — Black people, people of color, and women — with classrooms of a similar background.
“Students seeing themselves in science is so important," she said. “There are so many conceptions of what scientists look like and who should be doing it, and we’re trying to break all of that down.”
After completing her doctorate in 2019, McAnulty took her Squidmobile on a “Squids Across America Tour” to science centers and universities across the country to talk about squid.
At a roadside motel in New Mexico, the Squidmobile started a conversation between McAnulty and a retired fisherman from Alaska about the collapse of salmon fishery. And in Kansas, she kept getting texts to the squid-fact hotline from people who wanted to talk to her about religion.
“We’d go back and forth,” McAnulty said. “They’d send me a Jesus fact and I’d send them a squid fact.”
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When someone texts the Squidmobile for the first time, McAnulty always responds with the same message: “Squid have beaks for mouths. Would you like another squid fact?”
“There’s a list of 30 squid facts. After that, if you go off script then Lord knows what kind of fact you’re going to get,” she said.
Today, McAnulty shares her Fishtown home with two cats (Kharjo and Rupert); an axolotl salamander (Declan); a gecko (Woodchip); a bearded dragon lizard (Teak); and a yellow ball python (Sabrina).
And every day, through Skype a Scientist and the Squidmobile, she’s helping others to see how accessible science and scientists can be to them.
“I used to think you had to be super genius smart to be a scientist," she said. “But I think you just need to be super in to one thing and persistent as hell.”
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