“I meet interesting people & visit interesting places, I get to learn new things without having to take an exam and I revel in the positive feedback”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Ben Valsler
Benjamin Valsler, but you can call me Ben.
Who do you work for?
I’ve recently started a new job as the Online and Multimedia Editor of Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Before that, I was a radio and podcast producer at Cambridge University’s Naked Scientists.
What type of science communication do you do?
So far, I’ve predominantly been involved in radio and podcasting, making magazine-style programmes and documentaries. I’m now doing more written communication (blogging etc), editing journalistic writing and producing short audio and video packages for online publication.
Who is your main audience?
I’ve produced content for a range of audiences. The magazine Chemistry World is distributed to RSC members, so the primary audience is people working in the chemical sciences. However, as online and multimedia editor, I will be reaching out to a broader, less specific audience, engaging through social media and the Chemistry World website.
How did you get into it?
Having recently graduated with a degree in Zoology, I was keen to do some travelling. I was teaching science in North East Thailand when I was given the opportunity to join some of my colleagues on the nightly “English hour” on Thai local radio. We had free reign to talk about whatever we wanted, as long as it was in English. I quickly realised that the topics I wanted to discus were the scientific topics I had been teaching.
With that epiphany, I then applied to do a Science Communication MSc at the University of West England in Bristol, and applied for the Association of British Science Writers Student Journalism Bursary to help with the costs. I was successful for both, and moved to Bristol on my return from Thailand.
Coincidentally around the time I finished my MSc course, a job came up at the Naked Scientists. I travelled to Cambridge for the interview, and just a few weeks later returned to take up the position.
Why do you do it?
There are a huge number of ways to justify communicating science. I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments around improving scientific literacy, accounting for use of public funds in science and the slightly patronising “deficit model” idea that people would support science more if we told them more facts.
I have worked in South Africa throughout my time at the Naked Scientists, and been shocked to see roadside signs offering to “cure HIV with herbal tea”, and hear politicians broadly dismissing the AIDS epidemic. This put the arguments around improving scientific literacy in a new context for me. At the same time, the thirst for science in South Africa is huge, so there’s a positive and progressive feel, and it’s nice to be a part of that.
I have to confess, I mainly do it because I enjoy it. I meet interesting people & visit interesting places, I get to learn new things without having to take an exam and I revel in the positive feedback I get when I’ve shared something interesting or helped someone to understand something.
What do you love about science communication?
As a field, it inspires people to be creative, and often on a very tight budget. You meet people who communicate science because of their passion, not just because it’s a career.
What has been your favourite project?
Undoubtedly my work in South Africa, and in particular working with Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. Prof. Berger is a prominent anthropologist, and with him I’ve visited the cradle of mankind and held the skull of an early human ancestor. Very few people have these opportunities, and each visit has resulted in hours of engaging radio.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
As mentioned, I’ve recently started a new job as Online and Multimedia Editor for Chemistry World. It’s a brand new position, so I have a clean slate to start from. As such, I have plans for new video and audio series, webinars, interactive elements and much more.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
If you can afford the time and fees, a science communication MSc gives you an excellent grounding in the background and theory behind science communication, but it’s certainly not essential for a career in sci comm.
Take every opportunity you can get (and make your own!). If you have the chance, work with editors to improve your writing. If you’re interested in radio, record and listen to your own voice. Get used to how you sound and learn to control your rhythm and pace.
Consume science communication – listen to science podcasts, watch science TV, visit exhibits and see as many public events as possible. Find out what other people are doing well and doing badly, and then work that into your own ideas.
Talk to other science communicators about what works – we’re not always good at sharing our evaluations (when they even exist).
Mainly, enjoy it – enthusiasm is contagious.
You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenValsler