Speaking to… Courtney Williams

“It’s such a wide field that a huge range of people can find their niche and bring something unique.”

Courtney Williams

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Courtney Williams


Courtney Williams

Where are you based?


Who do you work for?

I’m a full-time undergraduate student with the Open University, having left Imperial College London earlier this year (a combination of mental health issues and disliking the course and environment), but I recently started working as a mentor for Exscitec. I also do assorted voluntary work.

How did you get into science communication?

Back in 2008 I did a Nuffield Bursary placement at the University of Sheffield, working on a neutrino detection experiment. I really enjoyed working on the task I was set and it really increased my confidence and understanding of what a career in research entails. As soon as I returned to school I started giving talks, then I eventually went on to the Big Bang Fair and EU Contest for Young Scientists and communicated my experiences there via talks, writing and even tweeting. I was also given an Ignition Creative Spark award, which really helped me get going and explore lots of options.

What type of science communication do you do?

Mostly going into schools, though I’m getting back into writing and am exploring other areas too. I also recently started New To Sci Comm, an online resource for those who are new to the field like me.

Why do you do it?

Partly for selfish reasons – I enjoy it and it’s a way for me to connect with people – but really it just never occurred to me not to communicate. I started as soon as I returned to school after my Nuffield Bursary placement in summer 2008 and have been doing it on and off ever since. I almost gave it up completely last year, but I’m glad to be involved again.

Why do you think science communication is important?

There are so many young people out there who don’t even realise science is an option for them, which I think is often a confidence issue, particularly among under-represented students. There’s also the issue of science capital – I know that I’d never even met a scientist before I did my Nuffield placement! I think that’s where science communicators should come in; not everyone has to or will love science, but everyone should be given the chance to in good enough time that they can get on the right qualification path. I also think it’s important that people know how science works and how to think critically about it so they can make informed decisions.

What is New To Sci Comm?

It’s a directory of opportunities – paid internships, competitions, jobs and more – for people just starting out in science communication. Currently it’s a WordPress.com site, but hopefully when it’s more developed I’ll be able to apply for some grants to get a domain and expand it further.

Why did you start it?

It followed a discussion on the PSCI-COM mailing list that I felt was going around in circles and not achieving much. I wanted to do something a bit more active and New To Sci Comm seemed the most achievable idea. Usually I am very cautious, often to the point where, by the time I feel “ready” to start a project, someone else will have done it already. With this, though, I started immediately because it seemed important and I wanted to follow up on what I’d said.

Who is it for?

As the name suggests, people who are new to science communication! I’m aiming to make it as diverse as possible, including international links and covering a wide range of types of science communication, not just science writing.

What information will people find there?

Right now it’s a directory of links, each with a small amount of description that I aim to make as neutral as possible. In the future there may be room for people to write reviews. I try to stay as up to date as possible with time-sensitive opportunities like job listings as well as finding (or being sent) links that are more generally informative. The one thing you won’t find on the site is unpaid internships.

What do you love about science communication?

There are some things I don’t love about it, but the things I do love are enough to keep me going. It’s such a wide field that a huge range of people can find their niche and bring something unique. (Also, if there’s one aspect you don’t like you can avoid it!) You can also try out different things without necessarily making a huge commitment. I personally really like getting a chance to spend time with young people as well – every age group is fun, interesting and challenging in its own way. I’m not sure if I’ll go into science communication as a career or if I’m even capable of doing so, but for now I’m enjoying it.

What has been your favourite project?

As a STEM Ambassador, I recently went into a school to take part in a Year 5 space-themed morning. It was the first time I’ve designed an activity on my own from scratch and I really enjoyed delivering my “Planet Guess Who” sessions, as well as learning a lot. I only wish I’d had more time to just chat with the pupils because they had some brilliant questions and observations.

What don’t you love about science communication?

I feel like sometimes there’s a bit too much talk and not enough action, which is probably evident from what I’ve said already. I’ve had some people be rude to me, which happens everywhere, but it’s still off-putting, particularly in a field that’s all about communicating. Sci comm can feel a bit cliquey at times, which is not great for people just starting out. Even Twitter, which is meant to be a leveller of sorts, can easily turn into an echo chamber.

A couple more things: I think there is an overemphasis on getting girls into science to the detriment of other under-represented groups. I also think we need to redirect some efforts into making science less hostile to these groups, because if we don’t do that all the work further down the age groups will be wasted. Finally, I think some science communicators talk about science as if it were the only worthwhile thing to do, which isn’t true and might even backfire.

Overall though, there are enough positives to more than balance these negatives out, and some of the negatives can be avoided to an extent.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

I’m fairly new to it myself, but here are some tips I might give to someone who is at the stage of considering whether sci comm is right for them.

1) Network: it can feel like a chore, particularly if you’re an introvert, but networking can be really valuable. I’ve had a load of opportunities come my way because I talked to the right person, plus I’ve just had lots of really interesting conversations.

2) Don’t be afraid to speak your mind: as long as you’re polite about it, get your facts straight and judge the situation accordingly. People may not listen to you, but it’s better than bottling up your frustrations, even if you just write something on your blog. If you can turn that frustration into action, even better.

3) Don’t let it totally take over: there are certain jobs that can easily take over your life if you let them and it seems that sci comm is one of them. Overworking yourself will just prove counter-productive, particularly if you give up other activities. It’s good to aim high, but take time to recognise when you’ve done something well and when you’ve done enough work.

4) Do your research before plunging in: it’s always annoying to commit to one thing, then find out something else that was more appropriate for you is also out there and you can’t do both. At the same time, don’t just wait for that perfect opportunity to come along.

5) Don’t worry if your trajectory changes: I originally wanted to be a research physicist who did sci comm on the side, but have since realised I’m not capable of that. Having to give up that ambition still makes me feel sad, but the great thing about sci comm is that there are many different routes into it. None of them are necessarily superior and no one has to stick to just one fixed route.

You can follow Courtney and her New To Sci Comm project on Twitter at @newtoscicomm

Speaking to… Roberto Trotta

“Everywhere I go, everywhere I talk to the public, I always find very enthusiastic, very involved people who are really keen to know: what have we learned about our place in the universe.”

Roberto Trotta

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Roberto Trotta

Roberto Trotta is a physicist, a cosmologist, to be precise. He’s always had a fascination for space, which has determined the direction of his career. Continue reading

Speaking to… Sarah Weldon

It’s quite ironic, that technology and things like the World Wide Web mean that we have more access than ever to the world, yet we have also become disconnected to the planet. We take it for granted.

Image courtesy Sarah Weldon

Name: Sarah Weldon, CEO of UK Charity Oceans Project

Based: live in the Lake District, from Henley-On-Thames, and doing a PhD part time at Roehampton University, so I’m pretty much all over the UK, especially as I run talks for schools through School Speakers. 

What is your background? I originally trained as a neuropsychologist, so I’m excited about the biology of the brain affects our behaviour. This led to a 17-year career in the NHS and social services, as well as abroad, mainly working with young people.

As a keen scuba diver, I also trained as an IMCA Diver Medic Technician at the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth. I was terrible at physics and chemistry at school, but loved human biology, its only now as an adult, learning about the electrics on my boat, and things like navigation and tides, that I’m really enjoying STEM subjects, in a real life context.

Why are you interested in science communication?

Probably because I just didn’t get it at school. I was in a mixed ability class, with lots of naughty boys and mainly supply teachers, so we were just given a heavy book to carry to lessons. It was only in later life that I really discovered science and all the different careers, so I wasted a lot of time. If we had been exposed to science communicators and STEM Ambassadors from the world outside of school, I think we would have been more excited and exposed to the opportunities available to us.

I love those moments when I meet young people, talk to them and just know that something has clicked, and their face has a complete look of excitement. That’s how learning should be, it’s about exploration of the world around us and being allowed to ask questions. As we get older, we often stop asking the question ‘why’. The world is changing so fast around us, that we need scientists to continue making progress. In my own lifetime, the World Wide Web was invented and that in itself has revolutionised the way we live our lives. Education really has to keep learning fresh and new.  Continue reading

The perks and perils of freelancing and top tips to help 

Greg Foot
Image courtesy Greg Foot

By Greg Foot, Freelance Science Presenter on TV, Online and On Stage. 

The sand between your toes, a cool cocktail within arm’s reach, the copy for that Wired feature flowing easily in the sun… Ah Freelance Life. Perfect huh?!

Yer right! But with more and more of us contemplating going it alone, what are the realities of Freelance Life and what Top Tips would freelancers give to get closer towards that holy grail combo of ‘do what you love’ and ‘work/life balance’?

This is a distilled and condensed summary of the ‘Going it alone’ session I had the pleasure of pulling together a panel for and chairing at the Science Communication Conference this year.

Joining me on the panel were Ed Yong (a freelancer who writes features for Nature, Wired, Scientific American, New Scientist & blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science hosted by National Geographic), Timandra Harkness (a freelance radio journalist, contributor to various newspapers, & also a live show presenter) & Ellen Dowell (a part-time employee at Imperial College’s National Heart & Lung Institute, a part-time employee at University of Surrey, plus a part-time freelancer whose work includes curating Einstein’s Garden at Green Man Festival). 

The audio from the full session is below, courtesy of Julie Gould at the brilliant Speaking of Science. It’s well worth a listen – as well as giving the story of each of panelist’s route into freelancing it was also a real laugh and included tips that didn’t make my list below such as the genius suggestion of Skyping in a clever mash-up of neat shirt and PJ bottoms… Winner.

As we covered so much in the session, and time is of the essence for a juggling freelancer (juggling work not juggling… oh you know what I mean), I’ve pulled out The Top 5 Perks of Freelancing, The Top 5 Perils of Freelancing, and The Top 5 Tips For Making Freelancing Work For You.

If you only have time to read one quote, make it this one:

‘Freelancing is like the final scene from Braveheart…
where he’s on the table screaming FREEDOM while being disemboweled’

Ed Yong Continue reading

Speaking to… Eimear O’Carroll

“When you’re dealing with an investor who has no technical background, you still have to be able to explain your product so that they fully understand what they’re getting themselves into, whilst conveying the sense that you also know the technical details yourself. Which can be a fine line and a difficult balance.”

Eimear OCarrollThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Eimear O’Carroll from Restored Hearing

Eimear O’Carroll is the co-founder of Restored Hearing, a start-up company that creates products to ease the suffering of those with tinnitus. I met Eimear at #ESOF2014, where she spoke on a panel called “Unconventional Science Innovators”. Her unconventional story was that she and a friend came up with their first product as part of a science fair whilst they were still in secondary school. After doing extremely well, they decided to start a company and sell their products. But this wasn’t quite as simple as it might have seemed. Starting a company needed a completely different mind-set to doing a science project, and it is something she is still (at the age of 23) trying to get her head around. Continue reading

Speaking to… James Randerson

“If you’re going to set up a blog, there is a time commitment to that, to make a go of it you need to give it some energy, thought and time… So you need to think through before you do it, what are you trying to achieve through it?”

James Randerson
Image courtesy of The Guardian

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… James Randerson

James Randerson is the Assistant National News Editor at the Guardian, but yesterday he was the man co-ordinating the science blogging masterclass at the Guardian.

The day included sessions from James Randerson himself (about the rules of science communication and when to break them), Jon Butterworth (about blogging as an academic), Suzi Gage (blogging the evidence) and Dean Burnett (how to be objective, topical and funny).

Together, they gave us a run-down of their science blogging experience, including some top tips and cautionary tales. Continue reading

Speaking to… Lewis Hou

“It culminates in all these children becoming my neurons and controlling me. So when the motor cortex, these kids, vibrate, then I will have to dance!”

Lewis HouThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Lewis Hou

Lewis Hou is a neuroscientist from Edinburgh, but when I spoke to him he was in London for a networking event at the Wellcome Trust. I managed to grab a few minutes of his time to explore how neuroscience and music go hand-in-hand.

The future Dr Hou is currently researching the asymmetric brain (not the creational vs rational) but how asymmetry in our brains could be linked to evolutionary traits that we see in animals, including humans. For example chimpanzees have similar asymmetries to humans, so can he explore that to understand how we evolved language? He’s also looking at how some people with psychiatric diseases don’t have these asymmetries, and how this might be a sign of developmental problems. Continue reading