Paying it forward: Librarian creates space to destress, enjoy weird science

Yes, she wears a cardigan. Yes, she owns a cat. 

But Emily Cukier also has purple hair, which sets her apart from the librarian stereotype, she said. 

Science Librarian Cukier always felt comforted by libraries growing up, surrounded by the musty smell of old books and basking in silence. She said it drove her to make the library a “third place” for students — a safe space away from home or work where they can gather with friends or find distraction from stress, just like libraries did for her in the past. 

“It really made me feel valued as a student that somebody out there recognized that things are tough, and they cared,” she said. “I really like the chance to work here and pay some of that forward.”

On Sept. 14, Cukier held a watch party for the Ig Nobel Prizes, which began in 1991 as a way to recognize humorous research projects that also make people think. The 33rd annual ceremony highlighted studies ranging from electrified chopsticks that change the taste of food to the brain activity of people speaking backward. Each winner was awarded a prize and a quite-realistic $10 trillion bill. 

Cukier said she enjoyed having a chance to share the “glee” of science with students, reminding them that scientists — and science librarians — have a good sense of humor and are not robots, contrary to popular belief. 

“As a scientist, [the awards] let you revel in and enjoy the weirdness of how stuff works,” she said.

Events like the watch party serve as a point of contact between students and librarians, creating a support system on campus. By creating puzzle stations or teaching students how to cross-stitch black cats on Halloween, Cukier shows she cares a lot about her students, said Chelsea Leachman, science and engineering librarian.

When Cukier was a student, she remembered how important it was to take a break from “the grind” when she experienced burnout. During finals week at Harvey Mudd College, she said the campus hosted “noisy minutes,” where students whacked each other with inflatable, squeaky hammers and got into mischief. 

“I love the idea of working in that kind of environment and being able to cultivate and foster that for other folks,” she said. 

Little Mysteries

Cukier hopes the Owen Science and Engineering Library’s environment will help students feel more comfortable asking for help. With graduate students in particular, there is an unspoken pressure to problem-solve on their own, which is a painful way to work, Cukier said. While there may be some challenges when students learn more on their own, the library is not one of those places. 

Cukier remembers helping a student researching codling moths’ effect on apple trees in Washington state. She thought it was a funny research topic, but she later realized the problem was plaguing the apple tree in her own backyard and was applicable to her daily life. She also helped a student from a farming family who needed resources on soil-replenishing techniques. 

“It was just so amazing to be able to see someone with a background that’s very different from my own use library resources to try to solve a problem that is of extreme everyday importance,” she said. 

Cukier said she loves talking to researchers about “cool science,” something she gained as a reporter for the pharmaceutical trade journal BioCentury four years ago. Scientists were so passionate about their work and believed they could make a difference in the world, which she finds reflected in faculty and student researchers at WSU. 

“The tiny little mysteries and understanding all of these things of how life works — I’ve always found them really interesting,” she said. 

Science is in Cukier’s roots. Her father was a chemistry professor, and her grandfather was a chemist during World War II, becoming a part of the French Resistance before coming to the United States. In the back of Cukier’s mind, there has always been an expectation that she would pursue a career in science, she said. 

With her unique background as a reporter and someone with a master’s degree in molecular biology and biochemistry, she feels at home with the science community. Students often have trouble asking questions as they search for literature, and many of their courses are writing heavy, but Cukier’s skills allow her to understand their needs, Leachman said.

“She fits right in and can also have those deeper conversations with faculty members on a different level than I think somebody without a science background could have,” she said. 

Historical Collections Spark Joy

Spending time with botany books from the 1800s, Cukier often finds it hard to toss out texts centuries older than herself to make space for materials more relevant to student research. 

She believes it is her job to collect materials most other libraries have less motivation to collect, like texts about Washington state agriculture. Cukier said it is important to preserve local knowledge, although it might not be as obviously applicable to curriculums or research at the moment. 

As a librarian, she said she has a “just-in-case” mindset, meaning someone, someday might need the materials she keeps in her collection. However, the library has a finite amount of space. 

“I think I, perhaps more than some other librarians, am willing to kind of Marie Kondo things a little bit,” she said. “Say to a book, ‘Yes, you were published in the 1920s, but we have this knowledge in other forms right now. I honor you for having lasted as long as you did. This is not saying you’re not valuable; it’s just you’ve fulfilled your purpose, and now it’s time for you to move on.’”