“don’t waste any opportunities! And be friendly”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Hayley Gillespie
Where are you based?
Austin, Texas, USA
Who do you work for?
What type of science communication do you do?
Right now I’m primarily working on science communication projects that engage people in the sciences through the visual arts. The arts are a great way to get people into thinking about science in a non-traditional way. Did you know, for example, that some of the earliest depictions of human embryos were seen by the public not through anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl’s academic work, but through Gustav Klimt’s paintings in the early 1900s? (If you like this story, check out Eric Kandel’s book The Age of Insight).
I started doing this type of science communication on a blog I founded in 2011. My work on the blog inspired me to open my own art gallery that curates exhibits of science-related art, provides science communication training for scientists and offers fun science classes for everyone! We also want to provide a space for art-science collaboration of all kinds, so bringing artists in to learn more about science and scientists to learn more about art, and hosting public lectures are all a part of our mission.
I also founded a working group about the endangered salamanders I study called Euryce Alliance, because communication with other scientists about the work you are doing in your field is also very important. I’m also teaching a course in field ecology and natural history at Southwestern University because it’s very important to participate in training new generations of scientists and teach them good communication skills.
Who is your main audience?
My projects through Art.Science.Gallery. have three main audiences: the general public, scientists and artists. We want to create a space where people from all backgrounds can discover both art and the natural sciences through new lenses.
How did you get into it?
I’ve always been an artist – there are a lot of artists in my family – but I’ve also known since I was in preschool at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History that I wanted to be a biologist. I was a biology major in college with minors in environmental studies and fine art. I just finished up my PhD in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Texas at Austin in 2011 (where I studied endangered salamanders)! So, I’ve spent my whole life doing both art and science, though not necessarily at the same time. In graduate school I helped start a public lecture series run by graduate students called Science Under The Stars with the goal of creating opportunities for young scientists to gain experience speaking about science for general audiences. Now that I’ve graduated, I can’t stay away, so Art.Science.Gallery. is now producing pre-lecture slideshows of science-related for the lecture series. It’s really fun!
Why do you do it?
1) it’s fun and 2) it’s important (see next question).
Why do you think science communication is important?
It’s so important that we have science communicators in the world because no matter what your background, profession, or belief system, we live in a universe that is governed by natural and scientific principles. No matter who you are you have the right to understand how your own body works, how the Earth supports life (including your life!), how important technologies in your life work, and how to solve problems that affect you. We are not all born with a gift for mathematics, or scientific research – but that doesn’t mean we should be left to fear or loathe science. Science is fun, and very important! Also, public funding of science (and art) have been dwindling in the US, and so it is critical that there be people out there who appreciate the importance of science so that it continues to be taught and funded. And, if you are a scientist and your work is funded in part by the taxpayers in your country – you owe it to them to let them know the fascinating things you have discovered (and they are probably not going to read your academic article). Science communication is a very important part of the equation.
What do you love about science communication?
My particular flavor of science communication combines by love of science and art. It’s fun to tell people what you’re passionate about, and it’s rewarding to know that it increases science literacy and empowers people at the same time. And I get to do this for a living!
What has been your favourite project?
Taking the leap of faith to open Art.Science.Gallery. has definitely been rewarding, but my favorite project so far is probably The Darwin Day Portrait Project. The project is a series of collaged portraits of great naturalists, starting with Charles Darwin. A new portrait in this series is created each year in celebration of Darwin’s birthday (Feb 12th). I design and direct the project, and visitors to the Darwin Day celebration at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin, TX help me collage images of biodiversity taken from magazines and field guides onto the portrait. Then I take the portrait back to my studio and finish it up so that it’s ready to show in the museum. It’s so fun interacting with the visitors and helping them create art – while teaching them about natural history. The children are usually the most
excited about gluing a picture of an animal or plant onto the portrait, and the parents get absorbed in flipping through the National Geographic magazines we often use for collage materials. You can see a video about the 2012 portrait of Charles Darwin here.
The 2012 portrait is now on loan to the Texas Memorial Museum where visitors can come back and see the project they helped to make. The 2013 portrait is of primatologist Jane Goodall, and I recently got to meet this great naturalist and show her the portrait – which she signed! It was fabulous!
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
As a matter of fact we are about 11 days into a crowd-funding project for Art.Science.Gallery. to raise the funds we need to evolve from being a “pop-up” gallery (being guests in other spaces) to having our very own brick-and-mortar gallery space! Everyone who joins our community gets some really great science-art thank-you gifts that have been contributed by science artists, and everyone will get their name incorporated into a unique piece of science art that will be on display in our gallery forever! We are seeing a great response from our community and have raised nearly 30% of our goal with about 30 days left to go before our May 9th deadline. Having our own gallery space will allow us to significantly increase the number of science communication workshops and art-science classes we are able to offer, and it will also give us much more freedom to curate our own exhibitions and work with more science artists. We’ll also get to have a permanent space in which to interact with our community and keep sharing the science we love!
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
We need more science communicators in the world! My advice would be – especially if you are in the academic sciences – please seek all the training you can get in science communication! Learn how to interact well with the media, learn how to speak for a public audience, start a blog for your thesis or research or lab group, learn how to make great data visualizations. Write “lay summaries” of your research papers and put them on your blog if a publisher won’t accept them as “supplementary information”. Collaborate with other creative and passionate people! You don’t have to do it through art like I do – find your own interests and do your own thing. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s a waste of time! Even chance encounters doing everyday things can lead to interesting conversations with others about science (I recently had an hour-long conversation about science and endangered species with a total stranger in an auto shop) – don’t waste any opportunities! And be friendly.