“so put your personality into it and make it your own. Welcome to a bigger world; a grown up world of storytelling”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jon Wood
Where are you based?
I live in the Midlands but I’ve done events nationally. On a micro scale I’m mostly based in my kitchen as most of the equipment I use for preparing science demonstrations is lurking in the cupboards.
Who do you work for?
That currently depends on what day it is. I’m freelance as a science presenter/performer and my clients range from BBC Learning to individuals who want science themed parties for their children. For the other half of my time I’m the Byrne Outreach Officer in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. I take the lead in delivering outreach sessions in schools. I also train researchers to translate their projects into something accessible to their various stakeholders and particularly for a younger audience.
What type of science communication do you do?
I’m a kinesthetic and visual learner so love to experience things or see them demonstrated. I subscribe to Michael Faraday’s approach of teaching, where exposition rules all. I provide a platform for others to discover science with their own senses and if that proves beyond their skill set then it has to be via demonstration. You develop a love of storytelling in order to frame the topic, either in relation to its history or future potential. I’m consciously trying to no longer refer to myself solely as a ‘science communicator’ as it has such a wide meaning, especially in the field of journalism. Yet communicate science is what I do, but primarily as performer of it.
Who is your main audience?
My cat has been overly curious of some practice trials to her occasional peril.
Audiences vary widely, depending on the nature of the encounter. For instance, busking events offers a vast array from children to teachers, young families to elderly patrons. The common feature is that they choose to interact because they are interested. I often find that adults feel that their children are being entertained but quickly realize that they themselves have just learned something they hadn’t expected and they get drawn in. It’s fun working with older audiences and there is no shortage of appreciation or interaction. I’ve lectured for U3A and the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. Sounds an unusual choice, but my style is to blend history and art with science as I tell the stories. I try to make all my treatments available online, often on my YouTube channel so my ‘audience’ is an interesting demographic.
How did you get into it?
It was probably 2003 when I undertook delivering outreach sessions for a colleague at Aston University. Rather than teaching for purposes of assessment, the experience refocused the balance of my teaching to include elements of teaching for inspiration. I developed a range of themed sessions centering on activities suitable for younger teens, many of which became very popular with schools, and I ended up teaching more outreach than undergraduate sessions. Add to these, the requests from schools for sessions I delivered as a STEMNET ambassador and it soon became apparent that freelancing was beckoning. My portfolio of work appealed to BBC Learning and they were my first big client, giving me the opportunity to join their flagship science show ‘Bang Goes The Theory’ on a live tour of the UK in 2012. We’ve worked together on a number of similar events and each one is special.
Why do you do it?
I think back to my time at school and while I enjoyed it, I lacked the focus or goal to be more than I was. If somebody had turned up and said, “I’ve got something really cool to show you”, then I might have taken a slightly less leisurely route though my science career. I merely try to provide others with the opportunity I never had. One wonderful day, at the end of a session I did with a school group, I left them with the thought that in ten years time they were going to be facing the problems we hadn’t even imagined yet and were the future scientists solving them. The class got up to leave and one boy said, “In ten years time I want to be doing what you’ve just done, and to be teaching you something while you sit there.” I cried with joy after he left. That’s why I do it.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Reflecting on my inspirations for science I remember my father demonstrating the magnet to me while explaining that the iron filings were likely bits of meteorite. It’s a long time ago, when even science programming on television was prominent. To a child, Johnny Ball presenting ‘Think of a Number’ was prime time viewing. I’m not saying it isn’t there today; BBC4 is generally the only channel I watch. The message and the medium have both evolved. The quality science communication is diluted by a flood of celebrity drivel that encourages the ideal of a gifted future, with a three-album deal and a tour, or your own perfume label. Science communicators have to shout their inspirational message above the din of celebrity rhetoric.
It is easy to say that there is new research being done today that impacts on our lives now and how the future may be, but the reality is more complicated. The skills required for researchers and academics to do this do not come naturally in the modern setup of academic career pathways. Even the skill set of a science communication method has to be communicated and that has to be understood by those needing it.
What do you love about science communication?
When I work with researchers I tell them that this is the moment in their scientific research that presents the most opportunity for creativity. The hardest and most time-consuming aspect is done and now it is time to have some fun with it. In a way, them showing people what they have done, celebrates what has been accomplished. For researchers, it may be a new discovery; for journalists, it may be new or it may be the anniversary of something important. For me, I express my creativity in designing new ways of presenting something that an audience may not have realized is science expressed in everyday minutiae. I see the nonchalant become intrigued as they realize their abilities. The moment when they realize they have been tricked into learning something, or finding out they can describe a concept they previously thought complicated, is golden.
What has been your favourite project?
One project I’ve only delivered twice and each time I do it, I say it will be the last. At the British Science Festival in 2010, I delivered an event called ‘The Greatest Smell on Earth’ with Sally Hoban, a historian. We had produced a science and history lecture as a ‘Barnum-esque’ spectacular that focused on an opportunity to smell a rare plant extract. Shunning the academic environments of a University campus and lecture room, we spent our entire event budget by booking The Old Repertory Theatre in Birmingham, hiring a string quartet and buying two beautiful flower arrangements to dress the stage with. The lecture covered the science of smells and smelling, plus how plants, animals and humans communicate via volatile chemicals. Eventually, the ‘rare extract’ was delivered to stage and people reported using voting handsets the intensity with which they could smell it. Maybe it was the presence of the BBC science correspondent interviewing members of the audience and their regional news team recording it, coupled with the perfect environment that made people say they could smell what was actually just water. The reminder of the lecture was a debrief into the science of authority and conformity, followed by a review of the historical record of how the wonder of such spectacular events compared with the size of people’s world view. It was bizarre waking up to being on the broadcast news all day. I recently reprised it in Hereford for the Royal Society of Chemistry, but it isn’t the sort of trick you can do very often without people catching on.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I’m delving further back in history than my research colleagues and examining those beautiful experiments and discoveries that formed the basis of our modern science. Researchers usually try to work backwards through history from the current thought, leading back to the origins of that thought. We think this because so and so proved this and that. My project is taking the first principles and working forward, telling the story in the historical context, to see where it might have gone. For me, teaching is performance, sometimes in costume, so I’ve launched ‘Wood’s World of Wonders’, through which to offer something special as an option for those people who want an element of the spectacular at their event or party, as well as the science.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
It’s a shame that the people most in a prime position to do this are the very people that don’t usually have the skills to do it. Many early-career researchers are too busy with research to gain sufficient confidence and skill in teaching beyond their contractually obliged lessons. Occasionally presenting at a conference is not sufficient practice for translating your research into something that isn’t esoteric, with an everyday or common place application, and that can be understood by any audience. Fortunately, there is no shortage of help and science communicators are eager to provide advice and guidance. Because science communication is such a wide field of approaches then you will need to build a network of people whose approach and delivery is the same as yours, as you see it. Pin down what it is you want to do. If demonstration is your goal, then consider joining the British Interactive Group forum. If you are preparing to work with schools then join STEMNET and get some practice in. If you work in a university then tell your Outreach or Schools Liaison team. They’ll thank you for it.
Still feeling ill-prepared? Try this. Write down in twenty-five words what your research is all about. Then ask your mother to explain what you’ve written. If they can’t, then you haven’t done enough. Break down the jargon and try her again. Repeat until you both agree what it is you do. Now you need to investigate some way of demonstrating it. Start very simply, remembering that most of what you are working on is probably based on scientific principles from a long time ago. You may not have time to demonstrate the whole process so never forget the line, “Here’s one I prepared earlier.” Most important is the application of your research, which is the crucial part of your session. Now check that you have all these elements: the background, the interesting bit in the middle and the ending, all told in the right language. What you have is a story; a true story; a true story about science and that is science communication. How you tell that story is up to you, so put your personality into it and make it your own. Welcome to a bigger world; a grown up world of storytelling!
You can follow Jon’s actions on Twitter at @JonwoodScience