“What I really love is seeing people’s lightbulbs above their heads go off.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Alexander Brown
Who do you work for?
At the moment, I’ve got a student contract in the Knowledge Transfer Group at CERN. That job doesn’t involve much public-facing science communication. I guess you could call me a freelancer for now – it’s all stuff that I do in my spare time, but no-one pays me for it yet.
What type of science communication do you do?
Overall, I’m keen to give pretty much anything a try.
These days, my main output is writing on my blog, although that tends to be a lot of “meta” science communication. I write about topics around science, rather than in it, as it were.
I cover more about science content itself when I do “in-person” communication, which I really enjoy. I’ve given a few talks at open mic nights like Science Showoff and Skeptics in the Pub. What I really love is seeing people’s lightbulbs above their heads go off. That’s not something you get a lot of from an audience where you can’t make eye contact. So, where I really thrive is getting people to try little hands-on demos at festivals and science centres like @-Bristol. Then there’s volunteer street charity fundraising, which is something I did a lot of at university. Standing on a street in fancy dress asking people for money to fund medical research can lead to some really interesting conversations and it gives an insight into what the general public is really like (clue: it’s like nothing in particular, there really is no such thing as the “general public”). I was also a STEM Ambassador for a while, as well as a teaching assistant – it’s really fascinating to see the difference between formal (school) and informal (everything else) learning environments.
I haven’t done much of that stuff in a while, but I recently signed up to be a tour guide at CERN and I’m really looking forward to getting back into it!
Who is your main audience?
I suppose it’s anyone who will listen! It also depends on they type of science communication I’m doing.
For my blog, I don’t think I have a particularly steady readership. I write about lots of different things, and I don’t think there’s much overlap in people interested in all of them. On the whole, I think it’s mostly other science communicators, my friends, plus a few people who follow me on Twitter. A lot of the latter turned up because of one particular post that went a bit viral.
In At-Bristol, it’s typically families with kids, or school groups. That’s about as predictable as it gets, because you never know who is going to turn up next!
Street collections vary a lot depending on when and where I do them. The people turning up on a Saturday afternoon outside M&S in Bath are very different to those in Bank tube station at rush hour on a weekday morning.
How did you get into it?
Like with lots of things, there were a number of factors.
First at school and then at uni, I have always been a generalist. I don’t see why any one bit of science is more interesting or worthy of my attention than any other.
I grew up and went to school in France, so I did a baccalauréat. Unlike UK A-levels, a Bac includes about 10 different subjects. Although mine had a science weighting, I still had to pass exams like philosophy and literature. Then at uni I did a Natural Sciences degree, which was quite pick’n’mix – halfway through, I switched from studying mostly pharmacology and chemistry, to biology and psychology! I never liked the idea of going into years of research to become the world expert one a very niche subject, and then having no-one to talk to about it. So instead I did an MSc in science communication and I haven’t looked back since. I can be writing or talking about physics one day, and biology the next – it keeps me on my toes. On my blog I even go into linguistics from time to time.
I found out about both the MSc at UWE and volunteering in At-Bristol through word of mouth – my housemate during my final year of uni did both and recommended them to me.
In the case of collecting, someone at the Freshers’ Fair during my first week at uni said “hey you, would you like to do a bungee jump, for free?!”. I went along to the information meeting, then that weekend I was dressed as a pirate, collecting change for meningitis research, and I was hooked!
Why do you do it?
Fundamentally, I believe that being switched on and engaging with knowledge and curiosity about how the world works makes people’s lives more worth living. We only have a short amount of time to glimpse the wonder of existence, so we should make the most of it. If I can help in any way, I will. I should.
What do you love about your job?
Feeding people’s curiosity, and my own, is a great feeling. I also love it when someone asks a question I hadn’t thought of before, especially when I don’t know the answer. It’s also fun to find out something I wrote is being read on the other side of the world.
What has been your favourite project?
There have been so many fun and interesting things around, and they’re all good for different reasons! But if I had to pick just one, it would have to be a competition I ran on my blog. It was loosely based on the “Friday Phenomenon” challenge on BIG-chat (an email list for science centre types). Normally, the challenge is to explain a phenomenon in 50 words, with a particular audience in mind. I gave readers a choice of pictures and the question “What’s this?” The sheer variety of answers really made me smile.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Well, I’m only just starting out in the field of science communication so I’m still getting my bearings. Someone with more experience might tell you something different. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve been able to make out so far…
Overall, I think it really depends on what your background is, and what part of science communication you want to get into. Ideally, each case would have its own route neatly mapped out. But of course it doesn’t work like that. There are a huge number of ways into the sector. Some people may already be “science communicators” without realising it (but that also depends on your definition, which is a whole separate debate…)
You could start with an MSc, although that’s a big commitment – both in terms of money and time. UWE also do a 1-week masterclass, which is a condensed version of the MSc and gives a good introduction.
A few things cost practically nothing – read books, blogs and mailing lists, listen to podcasts and radio, attend events, watch TV and films. That should give you a flavour of what’s out there and what you might like to get involved with. Talk to people who are already doing that and ask them for tips. Once you’ve worked out what you want to do, do it! You’ll probably not be brilliant at first, but you will get better. As long as you look after your determination, then practise and feedback will take care of improvement.