Mariola Kulawiec and Witty Scientists

Photo: Marta Bras
Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle" Mariola Kulawiec

Her knowledge, spirit and practical approach towards life intimidated me at first, but during our first meeting, I realized that Mariola is an incredible, action-oriented woman!

Mariola decided to make the best of her great passion – science. In 2013 Mariola established her company, Witty Scientists.Today she is educating hundreds of children proving to them that science can be fascinating.

Mariola, you fulfilled your career and love what you do!
What were your first steps in the U.S.?

Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Mariola Kulawiec"
Photo: Marta Bras Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle – Mariola Kulawiec and Witty Scientists

I always wanted to do science in an American laboratory. I came to the U.S. as a postdoctoral fellow after graduating with a PhD from Maria Curie- Skłodowska University in Lublin.
Then, I was appointed at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY to the Department of Cancer Genetics. Interestingly, Maria Curie- Skłodowska and one of her two daughters, Irène, visited the Roswell Park Cancer Institute on June 17, 1921.
I have to admit that Skłodowska-Curie has always been an inspiration for me.

I enjoyed my life outside of work in the City of Good Neighbors, as many people called Buffalo, NY.  After more than 6 years in Buffalo I moved to Kent, WA near Seattle to start my new adventure called a family life.
I moved here and soon after I found a position at another great non-profit research institution – Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC).

Witty Scientists is a great combination of your education, professional experience, and parenthood.
What made you start your own company?

While I was working at the FHCRC I often volunteered at my son’s Montessori school with fun science activities. I noticed a huge demand for quality, educational STEM programs for K-12.  Moreover, I was always very uncomfortable with the common stereotype of a ‘mad scientist’. When my grant at the FHCRC expired, I decided to start my own informal education business and enjoy the flexibility and freedom that it gives.
I must admit, self-employment is a 24/7 job but I believe making decisions by myself and following my own standards rather than following others is liberating.
Besides, my commute to and from Seattle was at least one hour each day so we rarely enjoyed a nice family dinner at home.

Tell us more about Witty Scientists – what are the workshops like and who can join them? How old should kids be and when can parents sign them up for experiments?

I do not promote “crazy experiments.” Real scientists are not crazy and they perform rather serious work but sometimes they may be witty. That’s why I created Witty Scientists – to show kids and their parents that science is approachable and that scientists are very reasonable, nice and funny people. Young students always feel like wearing a lab coat is essential for real scientists! I have programs for Pre-K – 12 that are held in schools, community centers, and libraries.

At the beginning of the class, I don’t make a big presentation because it’s kids who rule the roost.
I also use professional yet understandable language and expressions that make students feel even more special – especially the younger ones. I practice a hands-on experience approach and there is definitely no place for boredom in my classroom – it’s intensive. Moreover, I always make sure kids get lab notebooks in which they write down their observations and conclusions – exactly as they would if they were working in a real laboratory.

My courses are not only great fun for children but for the parents as well.
Four and five-year-olds are often accompanied by their parents who also have a chance to learn something new. Integrating play with the learning process when mom or dad discover something new together creates a special bond between the two.

I think that one of the biggest advantages of Witty Scientist’s courses is the fact that they are tailored for different age groups: from kindergarten to teenagers.

Do the kids who join Witty Scientists have to be already passionate about science?

My tagline reads:  Curious, Amazed, Inspired. I require at least some curiosity that is in abundance in our kids anyway! When kids come and experience my program, very often they leave not only amazed but also inspired! Some students are coming back and following me around – that is the reason I keep doing my programs.

I’m happy when parents tell me that their kids want to continue with STEM ( science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Is there anything better than to inspire children?

Another reason for me to keep doing “Witty Scientists”  is my son. As you can imagine he became my assistant and he experiments with me whenever time allows. This coming summer will be quite busy for us because we have workshops scheduled in many libraries. I just can’t wait!

You also organize summer camps. What does ‘scientific’ summer camp look like?

My summer camps are very educational since I am instructing and designing the curriculum myself. It is not too common to have a highly educated instructor during a summer camp. That’s why my camps are different and special. Also, I have a limited number of seats available since my priority is quality.

I am especially excited to collaborate with the King County Library System and bring my science and STEM workshops to the libraries. In 2015 I started providing my workshops for The Summer Reading Series national initiative when the theme was: “Every Hero Has a Story.” For that, I designed and presented my program about my hero – Maria Curie- Skłodowska. I even found an appropriate dress to look like her! I welcomed my students in Polish and French and presented her incredible achievements in the form of hands-on activities. The participants learned that Madame Curie coined the term: radioactivity, and they ‘degraded’ a ‘radioactive Candy-ium’ by eating a carefully determined number of candies for a certain time hence calculating the half-life of their radioactive element.
Not many adults in the audience knew that the Curie family received 5 Nobel Prizes overall!

This year’s theme of the Summer Reading Series is: “Build a Better World” and I am coming to many libraries in the King County with a few programs including the one inspired by the book “H.O.U.S.E.” This book was written by Polish authors Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski. Our program identifies 10 architects of highly creative houses around the world. We will build houses using various materials. These houses will also be based on numerous environmental factors including climate and terrain. We will introduce the principles of the engineering design process to help young architects make blueprints and prototypes. We hope to see creativity at its best!

You are incredibly inspiring! Let me wish you everlasting creativity and energy for teaching.

I’d like to inspire more and more young students and make them enjoy the knowledge and use it creatively. They do better when they go back to their science classrooms.  We should remember that informal and after-school education belongs in the educational ecosystem.

Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Mariola Kulawiec"
Photo: Marta Bras “Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle” Mariola Kulawiec”