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’
This is a guest post by Kirk Englehardt, Director of Research Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also a father to two boys whose fascination with science is increasing every day.
It was a cool January night and my two boys were ready for bed, when I said I had a surprise for them. They were going to see Jupiter that night, and they seemed genuinely excited. We grabbed our binoculars and ran outside. I watched as they stood in the driveway staring at the little white dot just to the left of the full moon. It took only ten minutes, but that night they realized science was more than just something you read about in books; it was real and it is everywhere.
Children have an endless supply of questions about the world around them, and science helps provide them with answers. I remember the teachers who inspired my love of science. While there are still many superb science teachers inspiring young people, their job is becoming more difficult. Now more than ever, parents and science communicators need to play a role in inspiring the doctors, scientists and engineers of the future.
This guest post, by Professor Bob Newport, explores his adventures in science communication.
To begin at the beginning: my name is Bob Newport, and I’m a sixty-something Professor of Materials Physics at the University of Kent. This post arises from one of my tweets – “It’s slowly dawning on me that two things only are needed for Public Engagement in science: love of subject and love of people” – and picked up by Julie Gould; the rest, as they say, is history. What follows is a personal ramble through my developing interest and activity in the area: I offer it only as an individual ‘case study’ and in the hope that the story will prove encouraging in some way.
I’d never really thought of myself as a ‘science communicator’ as such, but I have come to realise that I have been working towards that goal for a long time. A significant part of what my university has paid me for throughout the years of my academic career is the teaching of students; but although it ought to be intrinsic to teaching, communication is not necessarily evident in the absence of focused effort. Genuine communication comes out of the desire to move beyond the mere transfer of information into the realms of motivation, enthusiasm and passion, and that is what so many of us in my profession strive to achieve. In my case, the process was accelerated when I found myself teaching within our Physics Foundation Year and needing to move my unsure and uncertain students to a place where they could begin actively to engage with their learning. In that situation I discovered the potential of using movie clips and media articles as accessible entry points for what often became extraordinarily lively discussions; these, in their turn, helped to add context to the more formal syllabus we needed to progress through. The approach was later picked up by a writer with Science News, a popular weekly magazine in the USA, and led to an extended telephone interview for their article.
Generically, it’s this same approach I adopted within my efforts to reach out to regional schools. We have a phenomenally successful Outreach team now, led by a wonderful former research student in my group, Vicky FitzGerald, who re-trained as a school teacher (i.e. she is fluent in the languages of both ‘school’ and ‘science’ – hugely important for the role in my opinion). However, 15 years or so ago we had no such setup: it was all down to the voluntary work of a few individuals. The principal starting point for me has been my area of research: I am immensely fortunate to have been able to work on materials that offer both intellectual challenge – my aim is to explain their behaviour and attributes via a detailed understanding of their atomic-scale structure – and a relatively easy link to contemporary ‘real-world’ issues. These materials have included photovoltaics, ultra-hard coatings, non-linear optical glasses and most recently bioactive glasses (which, for example, can be used to promote the regeneration of bone). Moreover, the very nature of the research has meant that my research group and choice of collaborators has of necessity been inter-disciplinary, giving me access to chemistry, materials science and biomedical science as enhancements to my beloved physics. I also had an in-built link I could utilise to the impressive ‘big toys’ that my group used in order to gain our core data: facilities like the ISIS and ILL neutron sources and the Diamond and ESRF synchrotron X-ray sources. Taken together, this combination of factors made it relatively easy to talk about science. I love doing this, and have had the pleasure of interacting with school groups from Year 5 to Years 12/13, and in the context of formalised talks, class visits to the Science Museum and open classroom discussions. Thanks from school students and teachers is always welcome – I’m only human – but it’s some of the questions that form the most memorable feedback: like the Year 8 student who wanted to know whether bioactive glass could be used in order to grow a Klingon skull. The reason I still remember that question comes from the fact that it spoke volumes to me about the depth of this young student’s newly gained understanding of these materials. Thankfully, I was geek enough to know what a Klingon is.
However, we all change as time passes and in my case this has been associated with a migration from Outreach into the wider realms of Public Engagement, and from a relatively young audience to one comprising adults. Outreach has, for me, involved talking about my research to a well-defined cohort of people – but this is only a part of public engagement, albeit an important one for a university: public engagement encompasses so much more. Leaving aside the area of ‘crowd-sourced science’, in which I have had no involvement, there are outstanding high-profile examples of scientists engaging wonderfully well with the wider public via TV/Radio (Alice Roberts, Mark Miodownik, Jim Al-Khalili, Brian Cox etc.) and in newspapers/online (e.g. Athene Donald, Jon Butterworth). I am not amongst their number. No, mine is a more modest, ‘amateur’ and regional effort which has grown in a rather ad hoc fashion, and which is squeezed into and around an already full ‘Day Job’. Having said that, there are common elements between us. We have all developed the confidence (or is it foolhardiness?) to engage with non-experts from a variety of backgrounds in such a way that, whilst our science expertise is intrinsic to the exchange, the overall ‘agenda’ is theirs. As an example, I have in the past couple of years given three talks on glass at one or other of the Canterbury Museums. At the Museums’ request these have each been in different formats (an extended talk followed by afternoon tea – filmed by one of our students should you be interested, one in the evening and another as a 15-minute ‘bitesize’ talk at lunchtime) but all of them used my expertise in the context of their exhibits and artefacts. Naturally, I was able to weave a lot of science into the talk, including bioglasses and synchrotron X-rays, but I did so primarily in the context of the audience’s desire to learn more about what was in the Canterbury Museums’ collection.
One also has to be flexible in terms of venue and facilities. I recently spoke to a group from the National Womens Register: from a dining room chair, I chatted to a group of about 20 in someone’s packed living room with only a tool box of ‘show & tell’ items by my side. Unusual and challenging certainly – but what a great environment for uncluttered free-form discussion about contemporary science; again, to their agenda. Can such a low-key event have an impact? Judging from the message I got from one participant’s husband via Twitter, I must conclude that it can – at least at the level of the individual: “My wife [is] an NWR groupee. I’ve never known her be so interested in science”. Not only is positive feedback like this encouraging per se but, let’s face it, in a busy week there’s only so far one can reasonably go in terms of trying to meet the challenge of criticism before deciding that ones time is better spent elsewhere. That’s not to say that constructive criticism isn’t valuable and welcome, far from it, but merely a reflection of the fact that public engagement of this kind often remains a time-pressured ‘hobby’ in the eyes of managers trying to assign limited academic resources.
Perhaps the most involving, and boundary-extending experiment for me in recent months has been my on-going work with the Turner Contemporary gallery. Their visionary Head of Learning, Karen Eslea, contacted me as part of her search for scientists prepared to engage in conversation with artists. The particular focus at the time was to complement their exhibition of work by the renowned American sculptor Carl Andre, and to use the discipline of Philosophical Inquiry in order, hopefully, to derive something special from the exchange. We jointly sought and obtained modest funding for the project from Canterbury Festival’s Prosper project, which also entailed a commitment to a series of whole-day workshops in local drama venues. Workshops in drama studios can be rather scary for a physicist, intimidating even, and clearing entire days for what were decidedly off-piste activities was no mean feat. However, these became prized events in my diary as I realised the value of working and conversing with such a broad range of energetic and passionate people; I learnt so much! The pinnacle of our experiment was an extended exhibition-focused conversation between about 30 artists and scientists, led by philosophical inquiry guru Ayisha de Lanerolle. This was recorded and ‘mapped’ by folk from an award-winning local company, Cognitive Media, who generated a four-minute animation from their 70-minute audio file. The film became part of the exhibition (and has moved with the exhibition to its new venue) and provided a vehicle through which gallery staff have been able to gauge public perception of the sculptures. Never before has my name appeared in the credits of a film, any film , let alone one associated with an excellent arts gallery; I’m taking this as a good thing.
My perspective on this is necessarily limited, so I’ve taken the liberty of asking Karen to provide comments on this from her perspective; she has kindly written something for this post: “Working with a scientist is a huge privilege and has helped me to experiment with new ways of working. During the Philosophical Inquiry (an event which enabled deep thinking and listening between artists and scientists) I had a moment of revelation when listening to a description of nickel. I realised that my engagement with art works is based mostly on their appearance, references, ideas and context. When a scientist looks at things, whether they are artworks or materials in a laboratory, it is as if they can experience them under their surface. Their connection with things extends far beyond the visual, with their mind able to imagine temperature, structure, the behaviour of atoms in different conditions. In terms of creativity, and the ability to make vast conceptual leaps, artists indeed have much to learn from scientists.”
Where next? Well, I’ve already tried to brief a librettist about the basics of Chaos Theory (after mugging up on it myself) in preparation for a musical item he’s working on and have volunteered to join a panel to address questions on public engagement. In truth, my heart currently resides with the desire to take the positive outcomes of the ‘Turner Contemporary Project’ further by rolling out the generic approach to a more widely drawn range of participants. It’s encouraging that we already have offers of help, for example from Kent’s new science and technology park at the ex-Pfizer site at Sandwich. It would also be great to see Canterbury Festival weave science more overtly into its already excellent portfolio, and with enough time I’d love to do some more writing and perhaps to interact with writers. Time will tell; I am content to look out for opening doors and see what emerges.
To return to the tweet which sparked off this post for Speaking of Science, the lesson I have learned over and over again is that for the public, people, to be engaged with and by science they need to see scientists who care about what they do and who care equally as much that others understand where this is coming from. The first of these attributes is easy to supply; what’s needed thereafter is a commitment primarily to listen, and then to be open to learn and to change.
 Dylan Thomas’ opening phrase for Under Milk Wood. Listening to the classic BBC performance, with Richard Burton as the narrator, is one of my all-time favourite calm-down aids on the train home after a troublesome meeting somewhere.
 There is also support at the Faculty level via another talented ex-school teacher physicist, Dr Gaby Roch; schools outreach is taken really seriously I’m glad to say.
 Actually, that’s not entirely true: I did a voice-over for an animation designed, scripted and put together by children at a local primary school (where my son was teaching): they wanted an ‘old’ voice!
Alanna Orpen is studying Science Communication Msc at Imperial College. In this post she explores dancing in science and how the two could be integrated; how can dance help encourage those who are normally put off by science to enjoy it in a new way. She has also explored this subject on Refractive Index.
Science is one of the key learning areas within the educational curriculum, valued of great importance in every child’s life to aid them in their quest of exploration and to develop their understanding of the world around them. Stereotypically, science is a subject that children consider ‘boring’, but by adopting a suitable method, teachers should be able to encourage an atmosphere of enthusiasm and curiosity to stimulate a pupil’s interest.
Children learn in many ways, yet traditional schooling relies on a limited range of learning and teaching methods. The classroom and book-based learning caters for linguistic and visual learners, while kinaesthetic learners, who prefer learning using their body and hands in physical activity, struggle to understand class material. It is important to cater for all learning styles and abilities, thus innovative educators in America concerned with improving student achievement are seeking ways to create rigorous, relevant and engaging curriculum.
Dance and science may appear to be of two different worlds. The former considered merely as a form of exercise and entertainment, inhabited by artists and athletes, while the latter viewed as an academic discipline and a systemic enterprise, inhabited by researchers seeking to build and organise knowledge. However, a new movement has arisen, where dance and science unite raising students’ interest and helping them to achieve greater levels of competency in understanding scientific concepts. Teachers are leaping out of the classical routine to perform chemical ballets and explore the solar system through interpretive dance. They are realizing that dance is a powerful non verbal form of communication, which can be an important educational tool that not only motivates and encourages students, but is proving to be an excellent vehicle that promotes deeper understanding through experiential learning.
By depicting the subject through dance, the students reached a depth of exploration that would not have occurred in the regular classroom setting. Many found it helpful to think about the concepts in a different way, as dancing out the reactions provided a means to picture the invisible. The connection between the choreography and the science enabled the students to visualize the concepts that they originally found challenging. Therefore, this shows that dance can aid in the deeper conceptualization of knowledge by providing ‘a way of doing’.
The integration of dance into core academic science classes is a creative and innovative approach that is gaining a foothold in public schools around America. Fostering imaginative and abstract thinking through movement helps students of all ages grasp a broad spectrum of scientific concepts, where primary school children enjoy dancing through the stages of photosynthesis and the water cycle, while more advanced students dance out chemical reactions. These teachers who are pushing beyond the boundaries of traditional disciplines are witnessing the positive results of this interdisciplinary approach. The success of dancing in science class projects in America highlights the potential of integrated curriculum to act as a bridge to increase student engagement and achievement. Could the Americans be setting a trend that other nations will shortly be adopting? Will dance manage to waltz its way into British school laboratories?
Martha Henson is a science communicator who explores the use of technology and games in science, public engagement and learning. She is now venturing into the freelance world after working at the Wellcome Trust; here she shares some of her experiences in games and science communication.
In August 2010, an unusual paper was published in Nature. It was on the subject of protein structure prediction, an important area of science that represents, as the authors describe it “a formidable computational challenge”. Rather than use computer power alone, though, this team were testing whether humans were better at solving the problem. Recognising the motivating power of a good game, they built FoldIt, a multiplayer online game in which players collaborate and compete to push and push a protein into the optimum possible shape. Their instincts were right: humans were better at solving the structures, the game was a huge success, and their results were impressive.
On the 10th December this year Sebastian Seung, a computational neuroscientist at MIT, announced the official launch of Eyewire. Perhaps inspired by FoldIt, this project also aims to harness the power of the game-playing crowd, in this case to map a retinal neuron and its connections. Clearly some scientists have recognised that games have the potential to be a powerful force for good in their research.
Until I left to go freelance just a few weeks ago, I was the Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust. The Trust also recognises the potential of games, and has recently been working to encourage applications from games makers to its public engagement awards and running projects such as Gamify Your PhD, and Games Jams on a scientific theme in conjunction with ExPlay.
Together with my colleague, Danny Birchall, we were also commissioning our own games for Wellcome Collection. Our first big success was with High Tea, a game about the history of the Opium Wars which was inspired by our High Society exhibition on drugs. The game reached millions of players, and produced some very interesting and encouraging results in terms of learning and engagement (see our extensive evaluation, here). For example, over 50% of players said that they were inspired by the game to go on and do their own research into the subject, and there was extensive discussion of the history and debate around the issues on the games portals, blogs, forums and in all kinds of unexpected places.
To create High Tea, we worked with Preloaded, an award-winning game studio, but also collaborated closely with the exhibition curators. This was also our approach for the next game, but this was on a rather different subject. The exhibition this time was Brains, and we brought in a neuroscientist, Richard Wingate for a day of brainstorming (forgive the pun) with us and Preloaded. What we were looking for in particular were rules in the science that we could turn into rules of the game. It was crucial for us that the factual elements (the learning, if you like) were embedded into the gameplay rather than tacked awkwardly onto it.
The result was Axon. Within the game, on the “Science” pages, you can see the video that was perhaps the greatest inspiration for the game. It was created by Richard Wingate, and shows neurons developing in a foetal chicken brain. We were struck by the aesthetic, the bright neurons against a dark background, but also by the mechanics. The neurons are growing towards protein targets, and they are essentially competition with each other to form the strongest connections. If they don’t, they will die out.
Once we heard that, we knew we had the rules of a game. So, in Axon, you must click rapidly on available protein targets to grow your neuron, and do so before the rival neuron. The game was a hit. Last time I checked we had over 4 million plays, and the early evaluation results were again very positive. Players liked the game, liked that it was based on fact, and learnt something from playing it. Here’s a short video of how it works:
The potential for games with a scientific basis is huge, and largely untapped. All kinds of areas of science would be absolutely ripe for mining for game rules. Maybe chemical bonding, electricity and magnetism, larger systems such as weather patterns or all kinds of cell behaviour. As FoldIt demonstrates, the feel for a subject that games can give you makes it less abstract and easier to understand and this is why many are using games in both formal and informal education.
I would urge all science communicators to think about using games as part of their approach. The future of games about science is bright.
Other scientific games:
Routes: this was a Channel 4 game about genes, evolution and genetic testing
Rob Wix has composed music for a diverse range of projects, starting with a touring musical theatre production when he was 16, around twenty planetarium shows, Edinburgh Festival plays and most recently for ITV2 and Channel 4. In this blog he discusses the positive affect of music in science communication
My parents tell me I was playing the piano at the age of 3.
I wandered home with a violin when I was 7.
My 12th birthday present was a synthesiser…come to think of it so was my 18th, 25th and 32nd.
Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, and one of the best things about my job in science communication is using music to enhance what I do. One of the areas I’ve used music a great deal is in the planetarium. In a planetarium the audience is taken into a new world where what they see and hear is finely tuned to provide a truly awe-inspiring atmosphere as the scale and wonders of the Universe unfold. A good planetarium presentation helps to contextualise information; it lets an audience know how to react when information is presented…and boy does it have some information to be presented.
However, the topic of Space can sometimes be overwhelming:
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space…” (Adams D, 1979)
The numbers concerning the distances and sizes are almost beyond comprehension; consider our Sun at 93,000,000 miles from Earth. That’s ninety three MILLION miles. A distance of one million miles cannot even be measured on Earth’s surface, so how do you effectively convey the vastness of space to a lay audience? How can the threat of Near Earth Objects or the advanced stellar discoveries of ancient human civilisations be adequately described and communicated in 25 minutes, appreciated and understood by an audience of school pupils, or members of the public who have called in for some science communication between grocery shopping and trying on shoes?
Thankfully, the science communication toolbox contains a medium that can reach deep inside humans and connect with them in a way that is truly profound – music.
Play someone a piece of music and they can describe pretty accurately what it is they should be feeling. People also instinctively know when the music is “wrong”. Picture the tear-jerking finale to ET The Extra Terrestrial with a Bavarian ‘Oom-Paa’ Band pumping away, or a funeral with some frantic Belgian techno, and you’ll know what I mean.
In the same way that a film score can influence how you feel during scenes in a film, a good planetarium score can aid effective communication within the presentation.
Want to convey a sense of awe and wonder? Try high, simple chords using breathy voices such as choirs or slow, warm strings. How about the violent storms raging within Jupiter’s great Red Spot? Try some strong, deep brass, insistent pulsating strings and swelling basslines. The instruments used must also be carefully selected so that the frequencies they produce do not conflict with any narration.
Music that is rousing and swelling and using full orchestral sounds can imply a concept of enormity and grandeur, whilst lighter music can draw attention to how delicate and finely balanced the Universe can appear. Melodies and leitmotifs can accompany key moments in the narration or visuals, or be associated with stars, planets or galaxies. A change of instrument and volume can bring light and shade to the presentation and key facts can be highlighted by a subtle change of instruments or melody.
Have a listen to the short clip that accompanies this blog, it’s of one of the very first planetarium presentations that I scored, back in the days when everything had to be played in by hand and decent microphones were only a dream. The dulcet, lilting tones (to which I could listen to for hours) are those of Elin Roberts, who wrote and narrated Lights In The Sky. I think it was around 1997.
Music doesn’t have to stop at the planetarium – the next time you have to show a video or some slides in a presentation, or if you need to record some science communication for a podcast, add some music. Tell the audience how they should feel when they connect with your presentation, try out a few different pieces, try to create a mood for your endeavours…
Speaking on the panel I proposed that engineering is still lacking in enough performers, or stars, that can infiltrate the mass media and thus reach large numbers of adults. Yes, of course this isn’t the in depth engagement we’d like there to be, where a dialogue happens with community groups affected by the topic in some way. But it is still a critical route for getting messages out to the masses about what engineering is. And for reaching parents who may influence their children.
People engage best with people. Mark Miodownik pointed out beautifully in the keynote that Steve Jobs gave Apple the human face that turned the company around. Engineering might sometimes be about the ‘shiny things’ produced, but the public still need a human face to help relate to that shiny thing.
Has anyone ever studied the characteristics of engineers vs scientists? Are scientists more extrovert or likely to be exhibitionists? Could that explain why more brilliant engineers have not yet made it onto the prime time TV slots occupied by Al-Khalili, Miodownik, Roberts and Cox? Why have we not seen more explicit engineering on the pinnacle of STEM TV; The RI Christmas lectures? (1974 was the last time by my research).
My other theory is that many scientists might wander into the world of communication seeking a more immediate social reward than their research alone can give them. Most engineers tell me they are driven by the desire to improve lives, and the world more generally, so perhaps they get their social reward fix every day? After all most engineering has public engagement firmly built in with public consultation a critical part of the job. Not to mention of course that careers in engineering are lucrative, and it would take a dedicated person to sacrifice that financial lifestyle to become a poverty-stricken communicator full time.
So, do we need to dig harder to find the engineering presenting talent of the future? Or do we need to develop a support network of engineering communication professionals who can help get their message out for them? As Steve Cross put it, if you take away all the plethora of professional science communicators, perhaps scientists themselves haven’t greatly increased the amount of engagement they do directly, but we’ve just evolved a huge team of supporters who go out there speaking on their behalf.
When we tried to recruit an Engineering Communicator for our Engineering Explained project some years ago we received less applicants than for any other job we have advertised in 10 years. But if there are plenty of well paid, socially rewarding alternatives out there for engineers, why would they want to do it?
And Steve Jobs and Apple? Well possibly the biggest engineering company in the world, but you never hear the word engineering. Engineers are referred to as designers but we know engineering is what makes the product a success. Oh, and a lone genius, on a stage, performing and giving the product a human face. And all the time reinforcing the misleading message that engineering is conducted by single genius figures and not done by huge diverse teams.
So we need to see a range of engineering faces out there giving the public someone to emotionally engage with whilst understanding that engineering doesn’t progress on the back of one lone genius. It is going to be my mission now to talk to all the engineers I can find to dig out the extroverts and find out why they aren’t motivated to become the new face of engineering. FameLab Engineering could be a good first step.
Yes, E is for engineering and engagement, but we need to see a bit more extroversion and exhibitionism too (within the realms of decency of course!) And for any engineers who are already out there in TV land, please stand your ground and tell people you are an engineer and not a scientist. Come out of the closet and let society see you!