Monday, October 13, 2014

Interview with Alatariel

...when you have the right idea at the right time anyone can make a large impact. - Alatariel

Ellen Kooijman has quickly become one of the most spoken of AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO)s in history, at least among the "muggle" community.  The production of her Research Institute a.k.a. the Female Minifigure Set, with its pro-active display of women in fields of advanced science, has now been reported on in nearly every major news outlet there is as well as innumerable sites. 

The majority of the articles and reports on both the set and Alatariel (Kooijman's username in the LEGO community) have come from either uninformed or biased sources so I am honored that Alatariel has taken some time out of her extremely busy schedule to have this conversation between FOLs about her history with LEGO, opinions on LEGO Ideas, and her thoughts on the Research Institute.

Alatariel's Pages & Projects

On Alatariel’s Background & History

Can you give us a quick, auto-biography:

I’m originally from Gouda, the Netherlands. I studied Earth Science at Utrecht University and then moved to Germany to do a PhD. After graduating I worked as a researcher in Germany and the US before taking up the position of senior researcher and Head of a national laboratory at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.

We know from your project you are a Geochemist. Can you please elaborate on what that entails?

Geochemists use chemistry to study Earth’s materials such as rocks, sediments, soils and water. This is of course very broad, but my own research is in the fields of metamorphic petrology and tectonics. I use trace-elements and isotopes in accessory minerals such as zircon, rutile and monazite to understand continental crust formation and the tectonics of mountain belts.

When did you first become interested in LEGO bricks?

I think I was probably around 4 when I started playing with LEGO, but I remember having Duplo too so it might have been earlier. It has always been my favorite toy, because of the endless building possibilities. What I liked best is to try and create the alternative models displayed on the boxes or in catalogues, because these did not have instructions and therefore provided a better challenge.

How have LEGO bricks influenced you?

It is hard to pinpoint this, but I imagine it helped me develop a lot of important skills such as spatial visualisation ability, problem solving and collaboration. It was also the perfect way for me to forget about daily life and create my own little world (literally).

Do you have a favorite official Lego set?  Theme?

My favorite themes are Castle or Kingdoms and Harry Potter (also a lot of ‘castle’). I think my favorite set to date is Medieval Market Village. I clearly remember first seeing that set in a catalogue and almost exploding with excitement.

What LEGO builders do you admire? How do they inspire you?

One builder I really admire is GRusso. He is very active on LEGO Ideas where I first learned about his work. The level of detail he brings to his models and the creative use of parts is what stands out for me. One of my favorite models is his Research Lab Submarine

Another builder that creates brilliant models is Alice Finch (Bippity bricks). Her enormous models of Hogwarts, Hobbiton and Rivendell are absolutely stunning. I only wish I had enough bricks to make such large and beautiful models. Her work can be found here.

What inspires your Lego building process?

It can be literally anything, inspiration just comes to me at random times. Sometimes I build scenes from a movie I have just seen, a book I have read or a game I have played. It also happened once that a friend described to me an idea he had for a set. As he was setting the scene I totally saw it growing out of LEGO in my head and decided to build it. The great thing is that the end result was very different from the set my friend built.

Are you a member of a LUG (or other Lego based community)?  If so which one?

I am not a member of any local community, because I have moved around the globe too much in the last 10 years. I intend to become a member of a Swedish one when I understand the language a bit better. Of course, in the online world I’m an active member of LEGO Ideas.

On LEGO Ideas

How did you get started in the LEGO Ideas community and what does that community mean to you?

I just happened upon it by chance when surfing the web. I wasn’t sure it was an actual serious thing, but I really liked the idea so I posted a project (Female Minifigure Set) to see what would happen. When I found out it was real I posted a second project and became more active. Slowly I discovered how much fun it is to share creations with other adult builders. This was a totally new discovery, because it had always been a private hobby and I had never shared my creations with anyone. Through Ideas I also got to know some really nice people and made some friends. Basically, the platform completely changed my hobby by adding a social component, which is really great.

What is your motivation behind posting to LEGO Ideas?

My motivation was the prospect of having your own creation turned into an actual official LEGO product. Just the idea that your design would be produced with a real box and an instruction booklet was so exciting. I still can’t believe it actually became a reality for me. It is such an amazing thing to see your own idea as an actual product on the shelf.

What have you learned from your time on LEGO Ideas?

I have learned that there is a vast community of ‘older’ LEGO fans that like to share their hobby. I have also learned that there are a lot of really talented builders out there that are very inspiring.

Would you like to see any changes to the LEGO Ideas platform?

I think the LEGO Ideas platform is really great, especially after the last update.

Can we expect any new projects from you in the future?

I have been working on a new project for a long time, but my busy summer has prevented me from posting it. I will certainly submit it when it is ready and I also have plans for future projects.

What are your favorite projects on LEGO Ideas, besides your own of course?

My current favorite project is Natural History Museum by tjspencer1  . Naturally, the subject matter appeals to me and I also think it’s a very nice build.

Other projects I really like are Research Lab Submarine  and Mars Base  by GRusso, Edoras  by NujuMetru and Legend of Zelda: King of Red Lions  by flailx.

On the Research Institute Project and its Impact

What was the best part about taking a project to 10,000?

The positive response from people to your creation. It is so exciting to see a stream of support coming in for your project, somehow that’s very addictive.

What was the worst part of it?

I think the only bad thing about it is the occasional negative comment you get, but of course that is to be expected so it’s not a problem to me.

Your stated goals for the project were to add more female figures to LEGO sets show that girls can become anything they want.  I know it is very early to tell but do you think the project has been successful in this regard?

I am not so sure, because of the limited production and availability of the set. I think if the product would have been available in all toy stores worldwide that carry LEGO products it could have had a big impact. For example in Sweden or the Netherlands it was only available online and it sold out within a week. Many people didn’t know about it until it was too late and children never got the chance to see it in a toy store aisle. This is of course inherent to the LEGO Ideas concept of being fan created sets of limited availability, but I think in this case it is really a missed opportunity.

We know that you went to the LEGO headquarters in Billund prior to the production of this set.  Can you share anything with us about this experience?  Did you get to speak with the designer and give feedback?

It was really amazing that they invited me to come over. I met the team that was involved in making the product and they were all such nice people. I also met the designer Steen Sig Andersen who made the modifications to the set. He showed me his builds of the set and we discussed the changes he made. Photos of this can be seen on the Ideas blog! I also got a tour through the LEGO Idea House, a private museum that can only be visited by special guests. I saw the bricks being made in the factory, so cool! I also got a free ticket to LEGOland, because I had never been there before. It was the perfect day for a LEGO fan!

What is the most surprising thing about this process?

I don’t think there was anything particularly surprising about the production process. The different stages seemed logical and it was interesting to learn more about it.

LEGO Ideas project have a comments section and for the most part the comments are pretty friendly. Your project however was often the target of some very “non-constructive” criticism.
Do you have anything to say to this? Do you think the staff at LEGO Ideas handled these comments appropriately?

There are always backwards-thinking people and trolls who like to write negative comments on projects. These comments usually showed how uneducated some people are and they really only demonstrated the need for a project like this. I think the LEGO Ideas staff handled these comments well by deleting them quickly and banning the users.

Your project took 408 days to get to 10,000 votes. Under LEGO Ideas’ new rules projects only have 365 days to reach 10,000 votes. Given that your project took more than a year to reach 10,000, what is your opinion on this new deadline?

I think it is very good that such a deadline is imposed now. It makes sure project creators are put more on their toes when it comes to project promotion and it helps keep the website ‘cleaner’. If a project doesn’t make it to 10,000 in one year it is unlikely that there is a major appeal for it to become a product anyway. The reason my own project took longer to get there is because the platform was very much in beta back then and my original concept wasn’t very well developed from the beginning (as I mentioned before it was a ‘test’ project). I think on the current Ideas platform it would have had no problem getting the votes within a year.

When you created this project, were you expecting it to get the kind of global attention that it has provoked?

It was a total surprise to me that the project got so much attention. I never thought as a ‘normal’ citizen that I could make any difference, but the success of this project really showed that when you have the right idea at the right time anyone can make a large impact.

The Sciences and LEGO are both male dominated communities.  Do you feel a personal obligation to promote women within these groups?

I think obligation is a strong word. I certainly try to encourage younger women to pursue a career in science by being a role model and organising book clubs where the issues that women encounter when working in a male-dominated field are discussed. The attention my LEGO project got also enables me to make a difference so naturally I feel I should put that to good use.

Do you feel that it is the duty of toy companies to promote strong role models for children?

I think the biggest problem lies with the marketing of toys and how they are presented in toy aisles. Dividing toys into pink aisles for girls and blue aisles for boys is just terrible. Marketing of toys could be much more gender neutral. However, I think it should ultimately be the responsibility of the parents to teach children that they can play with any toy they like and that they can become anything they want.

What is your opinion of LEGO Friends?

In general I quite like the Friends line and I own quite a few sets myself. My favorites are Olivia’s workshop and the Jungle adventure sets. I’m sure as a little girl I would have really liked the horse sets too. I don’t like pink very much, but it’s LEGO so I just replace those parts with a different color. I don’t like the dolls either so I just use normal minifigures instead. The success of the line clearly shows there is a big market for it, which is great because it probably gets a lot of girls into playing with LEGO bricks.

Here is a really LEGO centric question...The program you use to create your designs, LEGO Digital Designer (LDD),  updates regularly with LEGO’s newest parts, however even though they came out in 2012, LDD still does not include the Friends “Mini-doll” figures.  What is your opinion on this?

That’s a very interesting question; to be honest I never actually noticed it! I don’t know if there’s any particular reason why they’re not included in LDD, but personally I don’t miss them since I prefer minifigures.

In articles about the Research Institute, the “letter from a 7 year old” comes up, well pretty much all the time.  Do you have anything you would like to say about this?

When I first saw the letter I was rather surprised. At the time I initiated my project, early 2012, there was an obvious lack of female minifigures and the first wave of Friends sets could be considered more stereotypical so at that time I saw a clear need for additional LEGO sets like the one I proposed. However, by early 2014 a lot had changed and the number of interesting female characters had significantly increased (e.g. a scientist, firefighter, Wyldstyle). As such, I think the parents of the little girl should have pointed out these sets in the toy store instead of letting her write an angry letter about the Friends line based on poor research.

In your experience, how has the scientific community responded to this set being produced?

The response has been very positive. I got a lot of interview requests from media relevant to my work such as National Geographic, Science Magazine, Chemistry World and the American Geophysical Union. It is regarded as an important outreach endeavor to encourage women to pursue careers in science and technology. Especially female scientists are really enthusiastic about the set, because everyone likes it to see themselves represented in LEGO form.

How about the LEGO community?

The LEGO community has responded positively as well. I think especially the dinosaur is well received and people are happy to get more female minifigures.

Do you have any advice for people posting projects to LEGO Ideas?

First of all, it’s important to listen to comments from people. These can help you further improve the project. It’s also important to be persistent when it comes to advertising a project. You can send lots of tweets and posts on Facebook without result, but only one of them has to land with the right person and this can catalyse into enormous exposure. It also helped me a lot to be very active on Ideas by supporting other projects and commenting. It is quite a large community and if you are a ‘visible’ user you get more exposure.

When were you informed that your set had been selected for production?
Unfortunately, I am not allowed to give that information.

What do you plan to do with the money from LEGO?

I think I will use the money to support my research.

...research into the best way to organize massive amounts of Lego?

No, research into why the root of the Scandinavian Caledonides, which was as deep as the root of the present-day Himalayas, is currently exposed at the surface.

I walked over those rocks last week. Fascinating and Beautiful but Norway is an Expensive place to do field work so I could use some extra financial support.

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