Tag Archives: art

Jon Wood

Speaking to… Jon Wood

Jon-Wood-science-communication
Jon Wood

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

Name?

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?

Science-busking-science-communication
Science busking

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

Kate Whittington

Speaking to… Kate Whittington

Kate-Whittington-science-communication
Kate Whittington

“Just get out there and DO IT! Seriously. No excuses.”

 

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Kate Whittington

Name?

Kate Whittington

Where are you based?

Hertfordshire

Who do you work for?

Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), Kew Gardens.

What type of science communication do you do?

At BGCI I work as an education communication intern. As a whole, BGCI aims to raise awareness of the importance of plants in supporting human-well-being, and to ensure that no plant becomes extinct. The education division provides advice, tools and training for other botanic gardens, museums or science centres to develop effective outreach programmes. I spend my time sourcing news stories, disseminating information about project activities, and increasing and interacting with our followers on social media sites. So I guess in a way I’m more communicating about science communication itself and ways in which to engage local communities, but I do also get to write blog posts about more general news items relevant to BGCI and their conservation work.

In my spare time I also write a blog on my personal website, mainly covering topics relating to ecology, conservation, and our relationship with the natural world.

I have also done some work in wildlife illustration and hope to keep building on this to incorporate more of my own illustrations into my written work.

Who is your main audience?

At BGCI it’s mainly aimed at people working in botanic gardens, museums or science centres to provide support and ideas for developing educational outreach activities. As the largest plant conservation network in the world, the audience is pretty broad! BGCI are involved with a lot of different projects, including “INQUIRE” which is a European initiative to promote “inquiry-based science education”, providing tools, advice and training for educators.

On my personal blog I aim to write for fellow science enthusiasts and anyone else curious about the natural world.

How did you get into it?

Well, out of the entirety of my 4 year undergraduate degree (Environmental Sciences with a Year in North America at the UEA & the UBC) my favourite module was Science Communication – something I’d never considered before, but once I had a taste I knew it was what I really wanted to get into… However, short of doing a masters in science communication or perhaps a journalism course (neither of which I could afford), I had no idea how to get started in the field.

I spent a couple of years since graduation deliberating over what path to take, I took some short courses – one in freelance writing with the Field Studies Council, and another in The Art of Natural History Illustration at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Jersey. Keen to gain experience in as many forms of communication as possible, I even ended up providing the voice-over for an audio tour of Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park!

Giant Scops Owl Sign
Giant Scops Owl Sign

Having always enjoyed drawing I thought I may as well give it a go in my spare time while I was looking for work so I applied for an interpretive signs internship with Endangered Species International and, when they saw some samples of my “artwork” (merely some amateur sketches in my opinion!) they took me on as an illustrator. I produced 11 watercolour illustrations of native Philippine species to be displayed on a trail through Mount Matutum Protected Landscape. The trail will be guided by members of the local indigenous B’laan tribe and aims to teach visitors and locals the importance of this habitat for a number of unique and threatened species.

Once I had my website set up for my art portfolio I decided I’d give blogging a go on the side and that’s now become my main focus. Shortly afterwards I got the internship at BGCI and here I am… For 5 months at least anyway, then it’ll be back to the job hunting!

Why do you do it?

Because I can’t not do it! I think the realisation that I really wanted to work in science communication came when I had graduated, moved back home, and was no longer surrounded by people with the same love of science that I have… I needed to find an outlet for those occasions when I’d hear some really cool science news story, or find out about some weird and wonderful creature and excitedly try to tell someone, only to be greeted with a blank, confused or disinterested expression. Fellow science-enthusiasts may know the feeling – it seems ridiculous, impossible even that someone could not find this stuff fascinating!  So I wanted to be part of the sci-comm community and do my bit to spark curiosity in others, and to promote not only the wonders of science but its importance to society.

Why do you think science communication is important?

When you think about it science is engrained, in one form or another, in pretty much everything we do, but sadly it sometimes gets overlooked or taken for granted. That’s why I think it’s vital to try and make scientific advances and discoveries relevant to people’s every day lives. It’s no wonder that so many scientific and educational organizations have been in uproar over plans to remove climate change and environmental/sustainability topics from the national curriculum – encouraging an inquisitive attitude in children is the first step in generating the inventors and scientific pioneers of the future. The sense of wonder and constant questioning of the world around us that we all possess in our youth shouldn’t be dulled or be trampled out as we grow up, it should be nurtured.

I also think it’s important to make things more transparent so that science doesn’t seem like a lofty, inaccessible sphere. I think things have come a long, long way on this front  already, and activities like crowd-sourced science and campaigns for open access are breaking down these perceived barriers, making science something that is available and relevant to everyone.

What do you love about science communication?

The thing that struck me most when I first dipped my toe in the vast (and initially quite intimidating) scientific blogosphere is that – everyone is so welcoming! There really is such an incredible sense of community between those practicing science communication. This means that there are also SO many great nuggets of advice and opportunities to get your work out there. I met lots of new people at Nature’s SpotOn conference last October and everyone is just so enthusiastic about communicating science, and doing it well. And when you follow lots of blogs and delve into the realms of twitter sci-comm you find such an incredible variety of cool and original content crossing all fields of science and for every kind of audience.

When (I’m being positive here) I eventually manage to secure a career in science communication I will consider myself so lucky as, to me, there really is no career more exciting, challenging and rewarding than communicating the many wonders and benefits of science to humanity. I have always been determined to find a job in which I’m constantly learning and improving my skills in whatever I’m doing, I can’t stand the thought of my work-life ever becoming a stagnant – so, since science is always evolving, science communication is a perfect match!

What has been your favourite project?

Narra Tree Sign
Narra Tree Sign

Well there’s only really been one official “project” that I’ve been involved in, and that’s the illustration work I did for Endangered Species International. I guess some people might not consider wildlife illustrations as a kind of science communication – but in a way you’re still aiming to inform, entertain and inspire people on a scientific subject. The interpretive signs trail was quite close to my heart as, when I was younger, I always envisaged myself doing hands-on conservation work in the mountains tracking wolves or something! So an opportunity to support such a great grass-roots organization, which works for the benefit of both indigenous people and their native wildlife, was a really rewarding experience. I was very proud recently when I was emailed some photos of my paintings of a giant scops owl and a narra tree (the national tree of the Philippines) on signs in the rainforest on the other side of the globe! I really hope I can visit the site in person one day.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Yes – I am very pleased to have recently been invited to blog for Nature Education’s Scitable network, writing explanatory blogs on environmental topics ranging from biodiversity to climate change, to green technology. I’m really excited to have a new platform to communicate science and to continue honing my writing skills, this time with a slightly more educational rather than entertainment focus (but hopefully a mix of both!)

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Just get out there and DO IT! Seriously. No excuses. There are so many free and easy to use channels – start a blog, a podcast, youtube videos. Get on twitter and follow all the hundreds of incredible science communicators out there! As I’ve said, they’re a welcoming and encouraging bunch that I have always found eager to help the next generation of sci-commers. And there are a wealth of articles from top science communicators giving advice on good science writing and/or how to get started. At the end of the day everyone’s working towards a common goal – to celebrate our most brilliant minds, exciting innovations and wonders of the natural world.

I underwent a long period of “imposter syndrome” (which to be honest I still battle with!) which held me back from even daring to write a blog on my personal website, let alone put myself forward for anything else. And now I’m kicking myself for not starting years ago, while I was still at uni and surrounded by interesting stories and people.  But once I started I was fortunate and grateful enough to have my second ever blog post picked up by Scientific American’s Incubator blog as part of blogs editor Bora Zivkovic’s “weekend picks”. This gave me the encouragement I needed to continue, feeling that I must be on the right track.

I referred to myself for a long time as an “aspiring science writer” until I found this brilliant (and much welcomed) comment from the inspirational Ed Yong:

  • If you could give aspiring science writers only one piece of advice, what would it be?

“You are not an aspiring science writer. You are either writing and are thus a science writer. Or you are not writing and are not a science writer. So, write. Write, write, write. WRITE. You will continue to suck until you get enough practice that you don’t. You will continue to go unnoticed until you do enough that you aren’t.” http://www.scilogs.com/communication_breakdown/ed-yong-interview/

Can’t argue with that!

I still worry that maybe I should at least have a masters, if not a PhD, to be talking to people about science, but from what I’ve learnt so far (and I really hope I’m right) the best thing you can do to get good at communicating, is to get out there and do it…lots! After all, the scientists are the ones doing the science (and that’s probably a good thing since I was always terrible when it came to any kind of maths or statistical analysis) – all I’m trying to do is translate their incredible work into something more manageable for a non-scientific audience. I’ve also asked the opinion of a few people in this field and the consensus seems to be that, whilst qualifications like a masters in science communication, or a PhD certainly help, they’re not necessarily essential as experience is almost equally as important (provided your work is of good quality, obviously!). And you can gain experience via a range of other routes such as internships, writing your own blog, volunteering at museums or science festivals, etc…

As for paid roles – I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice on that since I’m still looking myself! But I’m sure all this voluntary stuff will pay off eventually… 😉 In the meantime I’m just doing what I enjoy!

You can follow Kate on Twitter at @WhittingtonKate

Haylie Gillespie

Speaking to… Hayley Gillespie

Haylie-Gillespie-science-communication
Hayley Gillespie
© Cole Weatherby

“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

Name?

Hayley Gillespie

Where are you based?

Austin, Texas, USA

Who do you work for?

Art.Science.Gallery.

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?

Charles-Darwin-science-communication
Charles Darwin
© Hayley Gillespie

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.

Jane-Goodall-science-communication
Hayley Gillespie and Jane Goodall
© Hayley Gillespie

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.

Speaking to… David Benque: Communicating Synthetic Biology

David-Benque-science-communication
David Benque

This feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… David Benque.

David Benque is a research associate in the Design Interactions Group at the Royal College of Art.

One of the subjects he works with is Synthetic Biology, a relatively new scientific field. His work is a type of science communication and aims to get people to question and critically evaluate synthetic biology using objects. It offers a space for the imagination to flow and dialogue to begin.

Useful links: Blueprints for the Unknown

You can have a look at his website, read his blog, or follow him on Twitter at @davidbenque