Dr. Bridget Coughlin: Haikus in the Age of Big Data

Casey Gordon | June 22, 2016

Often when we speak of professional storytellers, we’re referring to those in advertising or digital media.

Today we’re talking about biochemists.

Dr. Bridget Coughlin is the newly appointed CEO of Shedd Aquarium, Chicago’s most visited cultural institution for 18 of the last 24 years. After picking up her PhD from the University of Iowa, Bridget began a career in applied biochemistry until one precipitous day — now over fifteen years ago — which she recently recounted for the Chicago Tribune:

“I had been going in and doing my bench research and I realized that I hadn’t spoken to another human being in 24 hours.”

In that moment she realized what she loved most about her field wasn’t so much the process of data collection as it was the act of translating her data into a compelling story to be shared with those of us lacking post-grad experience in an infectious disease laboratory.

Bridget left her research gig and did a five-year stint in Washington D.C. as Managing Editor of the National Academy of Sciences’s world-renowned scientific journal, before ultimately winding up telling data-infused stories at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS), where she served as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships & Programs for a decade.

In 2009 Bridget led the creation of Expedition Health, an $8.7 million permanent interactive exhibit that kicked off the DMNS’s 10-year strategic plan. The exhibit received the Association of Science-Technology Center’s 2010 Leading Edge Award for Visitor Excellence. Bridget also established a community-based lab that gave museum guests the opportunity to participate in ongoing scientific research.

With her wealth of research experience and storytelling acumen, it’s no wonder Shedd tapped Bridget to fill the shoes of 22-year CEO Ted Beattie after he retired earlier in 2016.

Bridget shares 5 tips for telling a story with data.

1. Everything is data. Constantly ask yourself “what can I learn?” “How can this teach me?”

2. Collect data intentionally. Otherwise you’ll end up with an overwhelming mountain of data and no idea what to do with it.

3. News you can use. You’re not done with your data until you distill it into something as simple and communicative as a haiku.

4. Data in the dark space. Data typically measures something that is present. How do you measure something that is absent?

5. Data points are individuals. In the age of big data it’s easy to forget that every data point has a unique story to tell. Try to remember.

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