“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
Where are you based?
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!
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?
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