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The perks and perils of freelancing and top tips to help 

Greg Foot
Image courtesy Greg Foot

By Greg Foot, Freelance Science Presenter on TV, Online and On Stage. 

The sand between your toes, a cool cocktail within arm’s reach, the copy for that Wired feature flowing easily in the sun… Ah Freelance Life. Perfect huh?!

Yer right! But with more and more of us contemplating going it alone, what are the realities of Freelance Life and what Top Tips would freelancers give to get closer towards that holy grail combo of ‘do what you love’ and ‘work/life balance’?

This is a distilled and condensed summary of the ‘Going it alone’ session I had the pleasure of pulling together a panel for and chairing at the Science Communication Conference this year.

Joining me on the panel were Ed Yong (a freelancer who writes features for Nature, Wired, Scientific American, New Scientist & blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science hosted by National Geographic), Timandra Harkness (a freelance radio journalist, contributor to various newspapers, & also a live show presenter) & Ellen Dowell (a part-time employee at Imperial College’s National Heart & Lung Institute, a part-time employee at University of Surrey, plus a part-time freelancer whose work includes curating Einstein’s Garden at Green Man Festival). 

The audio from the full session is below, courtesy of Julie Gould at the brilliant Speaking of Science. It’s well worth a listen – as well as giving the story of each of panelist’s route into freelancing it was also a real laugh and included tips that didn’t make my list below such as the genius suggestion of Skyping in a clever mash-up of neat shirt and PJ bottoms… Winner.

As we covered so much in the session, and time is of the essence for a juggling freelancer (juggling work not juggling… oh you know what I mean), I’ve pulled out The Top 5 Perks of Freelancing, The Top 5 Perils of Freelancing, and The Top 5 Tips For Making Freelancing Work For You.

If you only have time to read one quote, make it this one:

‘Freelancing is like the final scene from Braveheart…
where he’s on the table screaming FREEDOM while being disemboweled’

Ed Yong Continue reading

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

Sarah Fox

Speaking to… Sarah Fox

Sarah-fox-science-communication
Sarah Fox

“Being a researcher requires you to delve deeply into a single subject. I love the way blogging allows me to do exactly the opposite and flirt with a huge range of different subjects.”

 

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

Name?

Sarah Fox

Where are you based?

The University of Manchester

Who do you work for?

The University of Manchester/GlaxoSmithKline

What type of science communication do you do?

At the moment I’m completing a Ph.D. project exploring how Alzheimer’s disease changes the way our brains store memories. So I spend most my time analysing huge data files and shouting at computers. But, in my free time I manage and contribute to a popular science blog ‘The Brain Bank‘.

Who is your main audience?

My intention has always been to reach out to anyone with an interest in science. So, I try to make sure our blog is accessible to readers of all backgrounds.

How did you get into it?

Ph.D. courses at Manchester are great for encouraging sci-comm activities. My first experience was during a seminar series where we wrote lay abstracts explaining our research. I really enjoyed the deviation from rigid scientific writing; that and my abstract won me a box of Maltesers. So I guess you could say it was a mixture of passion and Operant conditioning which drew me to sci-comms.

Why do you do it?

Being a ‘bench scientist’ can leave you feeling a bit blinkered to the real world. I find the more time I spend obsessing over minute scientific details the more detached I become. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t even own a TV. Science communication gives me an excuse to re-engage with the real world and an opportunity to see my work through new eyes. It helps me relax and feel like part of the bigger picture again, if only for a short while.

Why do you think science communication is important?

I think science communication is a two way street. Since the public help fund our research it’s important they stay informed about what we’re doing. And, since we know what can happen when things get misrepresented, it’s important that research is disseminated by the people who know the most about it: the scientists themselves. Scientists also benefit from this relationship since public engagement gives them the opportunity to see their work as part of the bigger picture and understand the wider issues in their field.

What do you love about science communication?

There are so many things I love about sci-comms, but I think two of the best are:

1)      Being able to be creative: Sci-comms, especially running a blog, means you can really experiment with things. Once the pressures of finishing my studies are lifted I hope I can spend more time experimenting with blogging styles and different methods of communication.

2)     Covering a huge breadth of knowledge: Being a researcher requires you to delve deeply into a single subject. I love the way blogging allows me to do exactly the opposite and flirt with a huge range of different subjects.

What has been your favourite project?

A couple of years ago I became involved in a project designed to foster a link between writers and scientists. This led to the publication of an awesome little book which re-imagined a number of scientific breakthroughs, ‘eureka moments’ as short fictional narratives. This gave me the opportunity to work alongside some wonderfully talented writers and ultimately see some of my writing in print! I think short fiction offers a brilliant way to disseminate science without making it too technical. On the side, I’m playing with this style of writing myself and hope to introduce more of this to the blog in the next year or so.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I’m lucky to work with a talented and dedicated team of writers, we’ve recently been brainstorming and are looking to make some big changes to the Brain Bank. But, with so many of us approaching the end of our studies free time is a big factor, so watch this space.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

If you’re interested in writing, my top tip would be to start your own blog. It’s free, simple and gives you the perfect platform to play around and perfect your style.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @FoxWoo84

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Guest post by Wendy Saddler: E is for…?

Wendy Saddler is the director of Science Made Simple and Engineering Explained, companies that provides shows, workshops and more all geared towards communicating science and engineering.

Engineering-explained-science-communicationE is for engineering, engagement, and a few other ‘E’s’ besides…

I attended a fascinating event at the Royal Academy of Engineeringabout how engineering engagement and science engagement compare.

Speaking on the panel I proposed that engineering is still lacking in enough performers, or stars, that can infiltrate the mass media and thus reach large numbers of adults. Yes, of course this isn’t the in depth engagement we’d like there to be, where a dialogue happens with community groups affected by the topic in some way. But it is still a critical route for getting messages out to the masses about what engineering is. And for reaching parents who may influence their children.

People engage best with people. Mark Miodownik pointed out beautifully in the keynote that Steve Jobs gave Apple the human face that turned the company around. Engineering might sometimes be about the ‘shiny things’ produced, but the public still need a human face to help relate to that shiny thing.

Has anyone ever studied the characteristics of engineers vs scientists? Are scientists more extrovert or likely to be exhibitionists? Could that explain why more brilliant engineers have not yet made it onto the prime time TV slots occupied by Al-KhaliliMiodownikRoberts and Cox? Why have we not seen more explicit engineering on the pinnacle of STEM TV; The RI Christmas lectures? (1974 was the last time by my research).

My other theory is that many scientists might wander into the world of communication seeking a more immediate social reward than their research alone can give them. Most engineers tell me they are driven by the desire to improve lives, and the world more generally, so perhaps they get their social reward fix every day? After all most engineering has public engagement firmly built in with public consultation a critical part of the job. Not to mention of course that careers in engineering are lucrative, and it would take a dedicated person to sacrifice that financial lifestyle to become a poverty-stricken communicator full time.

So, do we need to dig harder to find the engineering presenting talent of the future? Or do we need to develop a support network of engineering communication professionals who can help get their message out for them? As Steve Cross put it, if you take away all the plethora of professional science communicators, perhaps scientists themselves haven’t greatly increased the amount of engagement they do directly, but we’ve just evolved a huge team of supporters who go out there speaking on their behalf.

When we tried to recruit an Engineering Communicator for our Engineering Explained project some years ago we received less applicants than for any other job we have advertised in 10 years. But if there are plenty of well paid, socially rewarding alternatives out there for engineers, why would they want to do it?

And Steve Jobs and Apple? Well possibly the biggest engineering company in the world, but you never hear the word engineering. Engineers are referred to as designers but we know engineering is what makes the product a success. Oh, and a lone genius, on a stage, performing and giving the product a human face. And all the time reinforcing the misleading message that engineering is conducted by single genius figures and not done by huge diverse teams.

So we need to see a range of engineering faces out there giving the public someone to emotionally engage with whilst understanding that engineering doesn’t progress on the back of one lone genius. It is going to be my mission now to talk to all the engineers I can find to dig out the extroverts and find out why they aren’t motivated to become the new face of engineering. FameLab Engineering could be a good first step.

Yes, E is for engineering and engagement, but we need to see a bit more extroversion and exhibitionism too (within the realms of decency of course!)  And for any engineers who are already out there in TV land, please stand your ground and tell people you are an engineer and not a scientist. Come out of the closet and let society see you!