jason-g-goldman-science-communication

Speaking to… Jason G Goldman

“As a writer, you can’t really ever see the reaction of your audience to the things you think are really cool. You can’t hear them laugh at your jokes and bad puns. But you can when you’re giving a talk, and as a writer, that’s invaluable.”

jason-g-goldman-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jason G Goldman

Name?

Jason G. Goldman

Where are you based?

Los Angeles, California

Who do you work for?

I’m freelance at the moment. My regular gigs are a blog with Scientific American, a roughly fortnightly column with BBC Future, and just a few weeks ago I began writing a weekly column at Conservation Magazine. I also contribute pretty regularly to the blog at Nautilus Magazine, and I’ve been writing for the Advances section of the Scientific American print magazine for the past few months. The last couple years I’ve also been an Associate Editor at ScienceSeeker, where my main responsibilities have been to coordinate the weekly selection of editors’ picks and to cat-herd the editors themselves. While there I also oversaw the first “ScienceSeeker Awards.”

What are the ScienceSeeker Awards?

It was a contest in which people nominated their favorite blog posts that were written in 2012, and a group of judges selected the best. Winners received small cash prizes. Read more here and here. In the future, the ScienceSeeker Awards will actually be combined with the Open Lab project. More info on that will come soon, I think.

What type of science communication do you do?

Primarily writing. I also take a lot of photos (for fun), and enjoy when I can use one of my own photos to support my writing, but I identify mostly as a writer. Video and youtube are fascinating for me, but for now I’m still in the thinking-of-ideas phase. I’m so used to writing 800 or 1000 or 1500 word articles. Could I translate those skills to writing a 3-4 minute video script? My friend Joe Hanson says I can. I’m still experimenting. And as for what sorts of things I write, I like to write about things I find cool or interesting or surprising, and I like to draw connections between current events and the scientific literature. It’s what Ed Yong has called the “wow” beat. I’ve also gotten the chance to do a few radio and TV interviews, and those are always really, really fun. So is giving talks. As a writer, you can’t really ever see the reaction of your audience to the things you think are really cool. You can’t hear them laugh at your jokes and bad puns. But you can when you’re giving a talk, and as a writer, that’s invaluable.

How would you translate the written word to the screen?

On-screen visuals become more important. While words – that is, what you say – also matter a great deal, you can say less and communicate the same ideas because you can use imagery to do part of the work. At least, that’s my intuition. As I said, this is something I’ve only just begun to think deeply about.

Who is your main audience?

Anyone who will listen to me long enough to learn something! It’s so hard to get a sense of who your readership is beyond metrics like what sorts of browsers they use and what search terms they used to land on your piece. I try to assume that my readers don’t necessarily have a scientific education beyond the high school level, but I also think its important not to patronize them. There’s an important difference between a reader’s intelligence and his or her knowledge. You don’t want to underestimate their intelligence, while also not overestimating their knowledge. I do know that students sometimes use my writings in their school research, so I try to keep that in mind with my writing. My blog (and other writings) is family friendly.

How important is it to use metrics to understand your audience?

I think it’s good to start with at least having a sense of who your intended audience is. Are you writing for other scientists? For people within your own field? For kids? Families? Practitioners of some sort? The question of whether your actual and intended audiences overlap actually coincide is a separate one. I’m not certain that traditional web analytics can be all that useful for that sort of question, but there are other ways to find out who your audience is: you could just ask them, you could try to see who is sharing your work on social media, and so on.

How did you get into it?

I was reading science blogs back in a time when you could just about read every new blog post written about science every day. I realized that I wasn’t necessarily reading what I wanted to read. There were some excellent psychology or cognitive science blogs that occasionally covered animals (like Dave and Greta Munger’s excellent Cognitive Daily), and there were some great animal- or biology-focused blogs that occasionally covered behavior or cognition. Around the same time my own research interests were changing. My masters research involved conducting MRI studies of reading and dyslexia, but what I really wanted to do was investigate the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind. So I thought, “hey, I can totally be a science blogger.” I used the fact that I was increasingly reading more in the animal cognition literature as an excuse to write blog posts about papers. Thus was The Thoughtful Animal born, on WordPress, in January of 2010. It wasn’t my first blog, but it was my first science blog. In March of that year I was invited to join Scienceblogs.com, and that was the start of my realization that I could perhaps leverage my “writing about science in my so-called free time as a graduate student” into a career.

Was it difficult to start writing about the science, or did it come naturally because of your interest in it? 

The difficulty for me wasn’t in writing about science, it was writing about science in an accessible, engaging way. It was in learning what are the sorts of details that are worth including and what are the sorts of details you can leave out. Do your readers want to know the intricacies of the statistical tests that were used in a given experiment, or only what the take-home message was? Should you describe every control condition? (Part of figuring this out is knowing who your audience is; see above) The next step, for me, was to begin to figure out how to infuse narrative into my writing. That is an enormous challenge itself, and it’s one I’m constantly trying to work on. That is, how to tell a story about the science rather than simply describing the science.

Why do you do it?

It’s fun. I really enjoyed research, but as I progressed in grad school I began to realize that the academic life wasn’t necessarily for me, for many reasons. In science, you really have to push hard on one particular question (or set of questions) for at least a few years at a time before switching gears and exploring other questions. But as a writer, I can jump into an entirely different set of questions every couple days. I also think that science communication simply really important. More on that in the next question.

Why do you think science communication is important?

David Attenborough recently said in an interview, “You can’t operate as a sensible voting member of a democratic society these days unless you understand fundamental scientific principles to a degree.” Indeed, the communication of scientific ideas to diverse audiences is critical for shaping policies in areas ranging from species protection and restoration to sustainable agriculture, fisheries management, energy use, and dozens more. For some people, perhaps learning more about the animals we share our planet with can be an entry point into understanding that science is both important and interesting.

What do you love about science communication?

It’s a constant challenge. Forget the fact that you need to understand the nuances of the research you’re trying to explain, or that you need to figure out an interesting, engaging way of explaining it. Both of those things are fun challenges to negotiate, but then there’s the part where the science communication ecosystem is evolving. The technologies we’re using today are going to be obsolete soon enough and we’ll have to learn something new. Science communicators working in a world fueled by YouTube and Instagram, powered by smartphones and tablets, have to think creatively about how to leverage the web and other technologies to construct their narratives and to deliver them to their audiences. Science writing is no longer limited to blog posts, feature articles, or books, but also occurs in the form of Facebook status updates and tweets. The so-called “death of print” has meant that science magazines exist both as print and digital entities. Blogs increasingly look like magazines. Some of the best (and worst) examples of the e-book “revolution” are science-based. And science writing – that is, the use of text – is but one part of a broader science communication ecosystem, and increasingly appears alongside photography, graphics, comics, videos, podcasts, animations, and mobile apps. It complements interactive media like timelines, maps, and games, and shows up even in museum or zoo exhibits. It might be becoming harder to actually make a sustainable living doing this – that’s what I’m told, at least – but it seems like there are more opportunities to actually communicate science than there perhaps have been ever before.

Do you think the world of science writing is doing well to keep up with this technological revolution?

Absolutely! There are a lot of very clever people who are experimenting, tinkering, figuring out how to leverage every new technology for science communication. It’s very exciting to watch and to participate in it where I can. Even just a casual perusal of The Atavist‘s offerings is a testament to the innovation in science communication. I’m a big fan of what they do. There’s also a great deal of more informal science communication that’s thrilling to watch. The official twitter account of the Mars Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) has nearly 1.5 million followers! The National Zoo’s Panda Cam is still going strong. These are different forms of science communication than your more traditional books and magazine articles and even blog posts, but they are science communication efforts nonetheless.

What has been your favourite project?

I’m really enjoying my new column at Conservation Magazine, it’s given me a chance to take a bit of a contrarian perspective on some big, thorny, controversial issues in conservation (like trophy hunting, for example). My sense of accomplishment was perhaps biggest as the result of serving as guest editor for the 2010 edition of Open Lab, the annual anthology of the bets science writing online. After nearly a year of effort, the feeling of holding The Open Laboratory 2010: The Best Science Writing on the Web – made of actual, dead trees – in my hands was pretty nice.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I’m always, always pitching new stories to my editors. I’m excited about organizing ScienceOnline Brain, a psychology- and neuroscience-focused ScienceOnline conference, which will take place in summer 2014 in Los Angeles.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

There is at least one different path for every science communicator out there. The most widely-applicable advice is perhaps also the most obvious: read a lot, and not just science, and not even just non-fiction. And write a lot. Get started with blogging. Those early days in the relative obscurity of WordPress may seem tough – and they will be – but nothing is more important than simple practice. “Practice,” as a dear friend of mine likes to say, “makes better.”

Okay, one more thing. I think watching movies is useful too. Movies are arguably one of the most popular and successful forms of narrative storytelling in our culture today, so its worth paying attention to things like structure and rhythm and scene-setting while watching movies, and even TV shows too.

You can keep up to date with Jasons’ many activities via his Twitter feed at @jgold85 or visit his website.

Dallas-campbell-science-communication

Speaking to… Dallas Campbell

“Douglas Adams always talked about that. A funny thing he used to say where “The terrible thing about having a dictaphone as an aid to memory would be that when you press the on button, it has a terrible habit of turning your brain off.””

Dallas-campbell-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dallas Campbell

There isn’t much structure in this interview with Dallas Campell, as it was just a rambling conversation.

I can only apologise for three things:

1) the background noise (especially his agent) – we were in a cafe

2) that I hadn’t pressed record sooner as the conversation was great fun!

3) the notes below are some of our ramblings but they don’t give a full outline of the conversation

Enjoy!

We start talking about the power of words, and the ability to remember things people tell you when you write them down.

“I’m in awe of people who can write. Can write with clarity and purpose and convey that sense of idea.”

and how there are some people who are brilliant with them (i personally think Dallas is pretty good with words…hence I let him do the talking!) And some (aka me) who question others to get them to say those lovely words. But doing interviews is more about putting people at ease than it is about forcing the answers out of them. And Dallas has much experience in this too.

We go on to talk about his adventures on TV. One of them is a documentary about the Secrets of St Pauls Cathedral, and the technology the program used to discover them. Dallas is also in awe of Wren because of his incredible talents as a polymath: someone who is intrigued by so many different things, and ends up trying them all out and being good at them too!

And this is potentially what draws him to science: Dallas has this incredible thirst for learning as much as possible about as many things as he can! But it’s not just the science, and the ability to be interested in many things. It’s really more about the cross-over between the two cultures that he revels in.

Dallas-Campbell-Supersized-Earth
Image credit: BBC

Another of his projects was Super-sized Earth, a BBC 1 programme where Dallas explored the frontiers of human understanding. Where he was trying to make people aware of the world around them. He then quotes Dawkins: “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity.” It was this that the programme was trying to wake the world up from.

Another documentary that is coming out soon is about treasure hunting (out early 2014), and to Dallas this was the ultimate Mr Ben adventure (a favourite children’s programme of his). A few weeks ago he was diving on a wrecked Spanish Galleon, in between Florida and Cuba…Definitely in it for the adventures.

So when he talks about science, it is always in broad terms, mostly based on his curiosity and tell amazing stories. Which is why he thinks he would be a terrible scientist: he simply cannot specialise because he is so interested in a wider range of things.

“I love the polar opposites: going from Christopher Wren one day….. and then off I go doing something about treasure hunting…”

But how he got into science communi….(uhum) errr leaning towards science presenting? It wasn’t accidental (art history, english and drama background) but it was more that he loved telling stories, and there are such great stories in science about adventures, excitement and curiosity.

We then get into a bit of a discussion about science at school…. Dallas didn’t like science at school. Unless you’re lucky and you get it, science is not associated with adventure. Instead it is an accumulation of facts, naming of parts. It took Dallas a long time to realise that science wasn’t about proving things, about collecting facts, about finding the answers and the end. It was more about continuing the search for questions.

“I remember when I found in a skip…”

He found some blank tapes when cleaning out William Willards office (BBC presenter). The tapes had the title “Growing up in the universe” and were actually 1991 Richard Dawkins RI Christmas Lectures tapes! And this just kick-started an incredible Eureka! moment.

We then go on to Science Communication, which I had already discovered is a term that Dallas doesn’t connect with.

“I don’t know its one of those terms that it’s such a narrow sounding term. And if you… and I suppose think of what i do as quite broad, so I don’t know if it applies”

So we try to find out why he is uncomfortable with the label of Science Communicator. Is it the idea of labels themselves? He doesn’t think it fits comfortably with him, instead: he is a storyteller of science instead…. But cliche or not, labels are useful. Alok Jha had a similar feeling towards the label Science Communicator…

“I agree with whatever Alok says. Listen to what Alok says about science communication and I’ll agree with that…. I haven’t listened to it yet.”

Science, to most people, is a subject studied at school, not anything more. And Dallas believes this is a shame.

“There is definitely a disconnect between people who aren’t involved in science at all, how they perceive science. There is something a bit odd about it….It’s a shame that they see science as such a narrow thing.”

It’s not like music or art. You wouldn’t say “Oh I hate music, I was rubbish at music at school.” This simply isn’t the case. Everyone enjoys music of one form or another. So why can’t this translate to science?

“Science is not a subject, its a method, a way of seeing the world.”

So how do we change science education at school? Let’s not go there… But mostly it’s down to the teachers. And maybe to provide students the opportunity to step back out of the classroom and books, and show them a little more of the Big Picture Stuff (referring back to the Dawkins quote above).

So even though he doesn;t like the label, he does believe this Big Picture Thinking (aka Science Communicaiton) is in a Golden Era at the moment. Prof Brian Cox, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins etc are all out there talking Big Picture.

Image credit: BBC
Image credit: BBC

One of Dallas’ favourite programmes has been Bang Goes The Theory (a programme on the BBC that he did with Jem Stansfield) which explores science of our every day lives.

Dr Who is also something he was involved with: a live show with Prof Brian Cox called The Science of Dr Who.

My favourite fact was that Albemarle Street [that the RI is on] was the first one way street in Britain because it was SO crowded with people desperate to come in and see these great lectures. So they had to invent the idea of a one way street.”

For someone who thinks science is not just for scientists, but is for everyone, he is also a fan of citizen science projects: the wisdom of the crowd.

“What a terrific way for people who aren’t scientists to actually get involved and actually understand a little bit about what scientists actually do all day.”

And we finished on that note…. I hope you enjoyed the ramblings….

“We’re very lucky in Britain to have such fantastic minds historically.”

You can follow all of Dallas’ adventures on Twitter at @dallascampbell

KAtie-Mack-science-communication

Speaking to… Katie Mack

“I live-tweeted a meeting on dark matter at the request of that same colleague a few weeks later, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”

KAtie-Mack-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Katie Mack

Name?

Katie Mack

Where are you based?

Melbourne, Australia

Who do you work for?

University of Melbourne, School of Physics. I’m a postdoctoral researcher, studying dark matter and the formation of galaxies.

What type of science communication do you do?

Most of the science communication I do is via Twitter. I talk about a lot of different things: recent results in physics and astronomy, life as a research scientist, the joys and challenges of academia, stuff I’m working on, and science in general. Because it’s my personal Twitter feed, I also post about what I’m up to on any given day, which I hope keeps me sounding like a human being rather than just a science robot.

I also write blog posts and popular-level articles about science and the academic life, and give lectures, and do school outreach, and co-host an astro-chat YouTube series, and am now branching out to Facebook… I pretty much talk science whenever and however I can!

What do you think branching out to Facebook will add?

Twitter is a great way of connecting with people, but not everyone with an interest in science is on Twitter. I started the Facebook page to see if the science I share on Twitter would be of interest to Facebook users, and to allow for the possibility of longer discussions. So far, over 100 people have “Liked” the page. At the moment, I think most are people who already follow me on Twitter, but I think it’s a more accessible medium for some people and I think there’s a chance it’ll expand to a bigger following. It’s sort of an experiment at the moment!

Why are you increasing your online presence?

I really enjoy doing outreach and talking about science, and doing that online is something that feels pretty natural and non-intrusive. I also like taking on the role of a sort of resident expert on matters of physics and astronomy, and the bigger my online presence, the more opportunities I get to do that. Of course, I also think it’s important for there to be more female scientists out there as role models, and since I enjoy this sort of thing and find it helpful for other areas of my career, I might as well put myself out there as an example.

Why do you think social media is such a useful tool?

The interactiveness is really the key thing. There’s a real need people to be able to engage with scientists directly, as much as there is a need for outlets that simply present information. Social media is a great way to allow for two-way interaction, in a way that’s not too demanding of the scientist’s time. I don’t answer all the questions I get, but I can talk to people directly, get people’s opinions, and find out what kinds of concepts are confusing or most interesting to people. And the system of feedback (retweets, “favorites,” “Likes,” shares) makes it easy to tell what kinds of topics and modes of engagement are resonating with the audience. It’s great for honing communication skills.

Who is your main audience?

When I first got started using Twitter as a science communication tool, I defined my audience to be the sort of person who would seek out and follow an astrophysicist on Twitter. Basically, I mostly write for people who are interested in science but not necessarily educated in it at all. I try to keep the things I write accessible to people with a high-school level of education and no science background. In practice, I think a healthy fraction of the people who follow me on Twitter or seek out my other science communication work are either scientists (aspiring or established) or science educators, but I hope that what I put out there interests the general non-sciency public as well.

How did you get into it?

As for science writing and outreach, I got started in that while I was still in college. I’ve always loved talking about science to anyone who would listen, so talking at schools or writing for the popular press were fantastic things to get to do whenever I had the opportunity.

Getting into Twitter was originally an attempt to use social media as a professional tool. A colleague of mine did a lot of tweeting about conferences and seemed to get a lot out of it, and when I attended a talk of his at Cambridge and saw that he had put his Twitter handle on his title slide, I knew I had to try it. I live-tweeted a meeting on dark matter at the request of that same colleague a few weeks later, and it just kind of snowballed from there. When I saw that a lot of my followers were not fellow astronomers but actually just people who stumbled upon my feed, I realized I could do some very direct science outreach by answering questions and bringing my expertise to the public in an accessible way.

What impact do you think a tool like Twitter can have in science communication?

I definitely think the interactivity is key, as well as the casual nature of Twitter (for most tweeters). With Twitter, scientists can allow non-scientists to have a window into what they do on a daily basis, what they think about, and what their lives are like. Check out the @RealScientists Twitter account for a project based mainly on that concept. It can be a great way to humanize something that most of the public finds completely mysterious. And it allows the public to directly interact with scientists and ask them questions, which makes it possible for the public to have a voice in the communication and to ask about what they are most interested in exploring. It also opens up science communication for scientists who don’t have the time or inclination to get involved in more structured outreach projects — scientists can just pop over to Twitter from time to time without making a major commitment. In that way, it can be a lot more valuable than science communication that just relays facts — with social media, we can relay how science actually works, which is, I think, much more important.

Do you think science, and science communication could benefit more if more scientists use tools like Twitter?

I think so. Things like Twitter are a great way for scientists to connect with each other and to become better communicators, which is helpful just from a research science perspective. And the level of engagement social media allows makes it great for science communication. I don’t think it’s necessary for ALL scientists to use social media. Certainly some people just aren’t into it, and that’s fine. But I think it’s a more versatile tool than a lot of scientists realize.

Why do you do it?

I really enjoy it! There are few things more fun for me than talking about science to people who are genuinely curious. But I also feel that, as a publicly funded scientist, I have a moral responsibility to share my knowledge as openly as possible. Governments fund science because improving our understanding of how the Universe works is something that advances humanity as a whole, and if those of us doing this work just keep it to ourselves (or make it effectively inaccessible by only publishing for specialists), we’re hindering that process. I’m not saying EVERY scientist should do a lot of public outreach, since obviously some of us are much better suited to it than others, but I do think that those of us with a passion and opportunity for science communication really should do it as much as we can.

I should also mention that I think science communication helps my professional work in a number of ways. It definitely helps keep me up to date with the latest advances in a wide range of areas in physics and astronomy, which is crucial for me as an interdisciplinary scientist. It also makes me a better communicator, just by giving me a lot of practice explaining things in simpler and more creative ways than I would usually to do within academia. And it helps keep me enthused about my subject. Academia can be a bit hard on the ego sometimes, especially when you feel like you’re not making much progress, but with science communication, there are always enthusiastic people who are excited about what you have to say, and that makes it a lot easier to get through the tougher times.

Why do you think science communication is important?

It’s becoming more and more important for people to be scientifically literate, to make informed decisions in a democratic society. From climate policy to research funding, voters have to make decisions based on their understanding of the latest scientific consensus, and it’s important that they have access to not only the information but also the scientists who are experts in their fields. And that’s not even to mention all the benefits of scientific literacy in an increasingly high-tech society where an understanding of science affects the daily choices people make in their personal consumption and habits. I think it’s hugely valuable to de-mystify the process of science research and give people a direct line to professional scientific practice, so they can make more informed decisions in their daily lives.

What has been your favourite project?

I’ve been really enjoying doing the YouTube astro-chat series “Pint in the Sky” with my colleague, Alan Duffy. It’s super low-budget and all very haphazard and thrown-together, but making videos where we just talk science in a casual way is a lot of fun. We recently took a road trip out to Canberra for a National Science Week event and were lucky enough to get to interview Phil Plait (Bad Astronomer) and Henry Reich (Minute Physics), which was pretty amazing. We’re probably never going to get anywhere near their level of impact, but it was really inspiring to chat with them and other high-profile science communicators about why they do what they do and what kinds of messages work best.

How did the Youtube show “Pint in the Sky” get started?

My colleague Alan Duffy and I attended a one-day workshop run by the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), on the topic of science communication via YouTube. The workshop went through a number of different ideas and techniques for doing sciency YouTube videos, but at some point Alan and I were chatting about it and realized we both had the same idea, that we could do some kind of low-key astro chat video series. We wanted to recreate the kind of casual science chats astronomers have when we gather for drinks at the pub during conferences. So we just decided to try it and see what happened! We’ve gotten a lot of support from CAASTRO, which has made a huge difference.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I have a few things I’m trying to get together, but nothing big on the schedule at the moment. Mostly I’ve been building up my online science communication presence lately, by adding a Facebook page and working on a personal website. And I’m always doing what I can on Twitter, of course!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

* Be patient and keep at it. If you’re trying to build up an audience, that takes time, and getting good at science communication takes practice. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t seem like you’re making much of an impact right away.

* Know your audience. It’s important when you get started to know who you’re trying to reach, and to tailor your message accordingly.

* Let your passion shine through! Your audience is much more likely to get excited if you’re excited about the science and can communicate that passion.* If your outreach is on the Internet, interact with people as much as you can and don’t talk down to them. People can tell if you’re condescending, and it will make them less open to whatever you have to say. Try to keep things simple without dumbing them down. It can be a hard balance, but it’s worth working toward.

You can follow Katie Mack on Twitter at @AstroKatie to see what she’s been up to!

Indre-Viskontas-science-communication

Speaking to… Indre Viskontas

“Passing along the excitement of discovery and our knowledge of the world but also creating a sense of wonderment that is the heart of science: we pursue scientific study to find out what’s unknown, not to explain what’s already obvious.”

Indre-Viskontas-science-communication
Image credit: Kirsten Lara Getchell

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

Name?

Indre Viskontas

Where are you based?

San Francisco

Who do you work for?

I’m a freelancer with different clients, as well as a part-time Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

What type of science communication do you do?

I teach aspiring professional musicians how to apply neuroscience to develop effective practice strategies.

I edit the journal Neurocase, and I also co-host a science podcast called Inquiring Minds in collaboration with The Climate Desk, a journalistic partnership between Mother Jones, Wired, Slate, Grist, The Centre for Investigative Reporting, The Atlantic and The Guardian.

I often give talks to the general public about memory, creativity, music, cognition and the brain.

And I’ve just finished shooting a 24-lecture course called 12 Essential Scientific Concepts for The Great Courses. It will be out in March of 2014.

Finally, I have a grant to study the link between empathy and conflict resolution and effective musical performance – the end goal of the study is to create a website for the lay public to explore how music and empathy are connected.

Who is your main audience?

Depends on the forum but largely educated lay people and musicians.

How did you get into it?

It’s a long and winding road. But mainly by following my nose – or, more specifically, my interests. If I had to choose a moment, it would be when I was hired to play the scientific foil to a believer in miracles on a 6-episode docuseries that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011 – called Miracle Detectives. That was my first foray into science communication to a large audience (our first episode alone had over a million viewers – far more than will ever read any of my scientific papers), and it was a trial by fire, you might say. I’m much better at it now but it lit a spark in me that has only grown over the past 3 years.

What was it like working with Oprah Winfrey?

It was very exciting. She has a whole powerhouse of smart people that surround her and the energy is incredible. She’s also very sharp. I had many great conversations with her producers and other staff. But she’s also ruthless: there was a high turnaround in terms of the people she works with. I didn’t agree with all of the choices that she made in terms of what to focus on in our interview or how she treated certain topics on her talk show, but I also didn’t make the mistake of underestimating her. She is a force.

Why do you do it?

It was a challenge that I couldn’t resist. The topics of each episode were absolutely fascinating. I had the naiveté to think that my scientific training combined with my performance experience as a singer would qualify me to host the show. I learned a lot about how to communicate complex ideas to a wide audience.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Because science is the only way forward – humanity can’t progress effectively without it and too many people are being left behind because they are not sufficiently literate in science. That’s a shame. We all need to make better decisions in our lives and science can help us do that. It’s the straightest path to saving our world, if you’ll pardon the cliche.

What do you love about science communication?

Passing along the excitement of discovery and our knowledge of the world but also creating a sense of wonderment that is the heart of science: we pursue scientific study to find out what’s unknown, not to explain what’s already obvious. Bringing someone along on that journey is a lot of fun.

What has been your favourite project?

Oh boy. They are all so different. Whatever I’m working on in the moment tends to be my favorite. I love the podcast, I love the music and empathy project, I love teaching musicians about neuroscience. But I have to admit that being on camera is probably the most fun.

What is it about being on camera that you enjoy so much?

TV and other media work is very competitive – and so the people both in front of and behind the camera are highly capable, smart and passionate about what they do.  Everyone works very hard and everyone is highly skilled. I love that atmosphere – that we’re coming together to give everything we have to a project that is limited in time. It’s completely immersive and I find it exhilarating. There’s a pressure to perform when that little red light is winking at you, and I find my brain goes into overdrive.  I suppose you could say that I often find myself in what psychologists call the state of flow, when I’m performing either in front of the camera or as an opera singer. But the pay is much better in TV.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Yes, there are several in the works but apart from the release of my Great Courses lectures in March, it’s too early to talk about them in public.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Just do it. Find a medium and work hard to perfect your voice and your material. The cream rises to the top and if you put in the effort, it will be well worth your while.

You can follow Indre Viskontas on Twitter at @indrevis or visit her website www.indreviskontas.com

Kevin-Davies-science-communication

Speaking to… Kevin Davies

“It’s not a one way track where you’re sort of closed off. It can really lead you to some other exciting careers down the road.”

Kevin-Davies-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Kevin Davies

Kevin Davies took the leap from the lab bench to the writing desk, was the founder of the first Nature sister journal Nature Genetics, and is now a publisher at the American Chemical Society.

Kevin Davies is definitely not the only person to become disgruntled with life at the lab bench. In this podcast we discuss his transition from lab-bench to writing desk, and the challenges, highs and lows in between.

20 years ago, Kevin got the feeling that genetics and molecular biology research weren’t for him. His colleagues were landing great Cell papers, but he wasn’t. He didn’t know what was going wrong. It wasnt the fault of his supervisors or colleagues, it was something that wasnt clicking for him.

To get validation that he wasn’t terrible at science, he started writing. His first big breakthrough was when he had started freelance writing for the New Scientist in 1989, when he had a front row seat to the race to identify the gene for cystic fibrosis. And he never looked back.

Kevin’s belief though, was that this was the only option for him. He had spent the previous years training as a scientist, and hadn’t done anything else. His only choice was to remain involved with science…but in some other way.

I ask him if this is the only option for scientists who are loosing their passion for research. Obviously it isn’t. For Kevin, he couldn’t see beyond science. But it was 20 years ago when he joined Nature. Things are completely different now. There are many more options, and much more support for people now. Although he has found publishing to be a great springboard into other things.

As someone who took the leap, Kevin has some advice for those in limbo. From what he’s seen in the USA, the graduate students are much more open to sharing their challenges, compared to when he was younger. There is a lot more debate, discussion and sharing, which is good.

“It shouldn’t be a prison sentence.”

There is no disgrace in a change of heart. But be careful how, and to whom you share your issues!

After this little sidetrack, Kevin and I delve back into what he’s been up to: writing books and working in the movies.

His first book was about the race to find the breast cancer gene BRCA1. Together with Michael White, he wrote Breakthrough, telling not only the scientific saga with Mary-Claire King and Myriad, but also the broader perspective of the politics behind it all.

His second book, Sequence (UK), (Cracking the Genome (US)) which talks about the mapping of the human genome project.

His most recent book is about personal genomics, The $1000 Genome.

And in the future… there are plans to work on a few chapters for James Watson’s second edition of DNA.

His first book however, got spotted by a movie director. He was asked to provide technical direction on Decoding Annie Parker, a true story about a Canadian woman, one of the first women to take breast cancer gene testing in the late 1980’s. The film also explores Mary-Claire King’s (Helen Hunt) adventures in how the breast cancer gene was mapped.

We talk about how difficult or easy it is for a scientist to provide advice to films, and whether or not it is difficult to see that not all the science ends up being exactly how it should be. Especially if a major oscar nominated actress plays a female scientist, this will attract scientists from around the world. But then it should be noted that the point of the film is not about getting the science exactly right. The point of this particular film is to raise awareness of breast cancer. So if the science isn’t perfect, scientists dont be too disgruntled.

We finish the podcast with some golden tips from Kevin for all those other scientists that are in limbo when it comes to decided whether to stay in science or not.

His advice: if the bench isn’t for you, follow your heart and see where it takes you.

PS: apologies if you can hear the washing machine noise in the background…

You can follow Kevin Davies on Twitter at @KevinADavies

Speaking to… Graham Walker

“Like any bit of PhD research, there is no simple answer!”

graham-walker-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Graham Walker

At the Abu Dhabi Science FEstival 2013, Dr Graham Walker is rushing around Abu Dhabi presenting two different shows.

One of these shows is called “Green Power”, and it explores some of the science behind renewable energies.

Graham has been doing science shows for years, and he’s been doing them so long that he even decided to do some research into their effectiveness. He was curious as to whether or not science shows really do inspire those that watch them.

His research explored different kinds of motivation, from getting kids to keep studying science to the more specific like actually changing the way people think about climate change or HIV Aids.

And then what is it about a show that motivates or inspires your audience? Is it the presenter? The emotions? The humour? All these factors are important when looking at how effective a science show is.

Using a HIV Aids case study in SA, Graham looked at how motivations and beliefs changed from immediately before to immediately after the show, as well as whether or not they had changed again one month after the shows.

Graham has had the priveledge of doing science shows around the world, and for him, one of the most important factors to consider is your audience. Not just the age or gender, but the culture as well. Working in Abu Dhabi, you have to consider their cultural beliefs. These will be different again somewhere else. Every time you take a show somewhere, it has to be changed accordingly. This helps to build relationships with your audience, and allows them to relate to the science that is being communicated.

This was especially true for his HIV Aids show. It would have been difficult for the kids there to relate to the material in the show if Graham had presented it as a white man from Australia. So, Graham worked closely with local people and trained them to deliver the show.

 

It is working with local people and different audiences that keeps the job challenging and interesting for Graham.

“My belief is that a good science show presenter is a kind of tinkerer, an experimenter. Someone who hasn’t forgotten how to play.”

Informal and formal ways – talks about how he got into it.