“It’s such a wide field that a huge range of people can find their niche and bring something unique.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… 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