Tag Archives: interview

Speaking to… Courtney Williams

“It’s such a wide field that a huge range of people can find their niche and bring something unique.”

courtney-williams-science-communication
Courtney Williams

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

Name?

Courtney Williams

Where are you based?

Harrow

Who do you work for?

I’m a full-time undergraduate student with the Open University, having left Imperial College London earlier this year (a combination of mental health issues and disliking the course and environment), but I recently started working as a mentor for Exscitec. I also do assorted voluntary work.

How did you get into science communication?

Back in 2008 I did a Nuffield Bursary placement at the University of Sheffield, working on a neutrino detection experiment. I really enjoyed working on the task I was set and it really increased my confidence and understanding of what a career in research entails. As soon as I returned to school I started giving talks, then I eventually went on to the Big Bang Fair and EU Contest for Young Scientists and communicated my experiences there via talks, writing and even tweeting. I was also given an Ignition Creative Spark award, which really helped me get going and explore lots of options.

What type of science communication do you do?

Mostly going into schools, though I’m getting back into writing and am exploring other areas too. I also recently started New To Sci Comm, an online resource for those who are new to the field like me.

Why do you do it?

Partly for selfish reasons – I enjoy it and it’s a way for me to connect with people – but really it just never occurred to me not to communicate. I started as soon as I returned to school after my Nuffield Bursary placement in summer 2008 and have been doing it on and off ever since. I almost gave it up completely last year, but I’m glad to be involved again.

Why do you think science communication is important?

There are so many young people out there who don’t even realise science is an option for them, which I think is often a confidence issue, particularly among under-represented students. There’s also the issue of science capital – I know that I’d never even met a scientist before I did my Nuffield placement! I think that’s where science communicators should come in; not everyone has to or will love science, but everyone should be given the chance to in good enough time that they can get on the right qualification path. I also think it’s important that people know how science works and how to think critically about it so they can make informed decisions.

What is New To Sci Comm?

It’s a directory of opportunities – paid internships, competitions, jobs and more – for people just starting out in science communication. Currently it’s a WordPress.com site, but hopefully when it’s more developed I’ll be able to apply for some grants to get a domain and expand it further.

Why did you start it?

It followed a discussion on the PSCI-COM mailing list that I felt was going around in circles and not achieving much. I wanted to do something a bit more active and New To Sci Comm seemed the most achievable idea. Usually I am very cautious, often to the point where, by the time I feel “ready” to start a project, someone else will have done it already. With this, though, I started immediately because it seemed important and I wanted to follow up on what I’d said.

Who is it for?

As the name suggests, people who are new to science communication! I’m aiming to make it as diverse as possible, including international links and covering a wide range of types of science communication, not just science writing.

What information will people find there?

Right now it’s a directory of links, each with a small amount of description that I aim to make as neutral as possible. In the future there may be room for people to write reviews. I try to stay as up to date as possible with time-sensitive opportunities like job listings as well as finding (or being sent) links that are more generally informative. The one thing you won’t find on the site is unpaid internships.

What do you love about science communication?

There are some things I don’t love about it, but the things I do love are enough to keep me going. It’s such a wide field that a huge range of people can find their niche and bring something unique. (Also, if there’s one aspect you don’t like you can avoid it!) You can also try out different things without necessarily making a huge commitment. I personally really like getting a chance to spend time with young people as well – every age group is fun, interesting and challenging in its own way. I’m not sure if I’ll go into science communication as a career or if I’m even capable of doing so, but for now I’m enjoying it.

What has been your favourite project?

As a STEM Ambassador, I recently went into a school to take part in a Year 5 space-themed morning. It was the first time I’ve designed an activity on my own from scratch and I really enjoyed delivering my “Planet Guess Who” sessions, as well as learning a lot. I only wish I’d had more time to just chat with the pupils because they had some brilliant questions and observations.

What don’t you love about science communication?

I feel like sometimes there’s a bit too much talk and not enough action, which is probably evident from what I’ve said already. I’ve had some people be rude to me, which happens everywhere, but it’s still off-putting, particularly in a field that’s all about communicating. Sci comm can feel a bit cliquey at times, which is not great for people just starting out. Even Twitter, which is meant to be a leveller of sorts, can easily turn into an echo chamber.

A couple more things: I think there is an overemphasis on getting girls into science to the detriment of other under-represented groups. I also think we need to redirect some efforts into making science less hostile to these groups, because if we don’t do that all the work further down the age groups will be wasted. Finally, I think some science communicators talk about science as if it were the only worthwhile thing to do, which isn’t true and might even backfire.

Overall though, there are enough positives to more than balance these negatives out, and some of the negatives can be avoided to an extent.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

I’m fairly new to it myself, but here are some tips I might give to someone who is at the stage of considering whether sci comm is right for them.

1) Network: it can feel like a chore, particularly if you’re an introvert, but networking can be really valuable. I’ve had a load of opportunities come my way because I talked to the right person, plus I’ve just had lots of really interesting conversations.

2) Don’t be afraid to speak your mind: as long as you’re polite about it, get your facts straight and judge the situation accordingly. People may not listen to you, but it’s better than bottling up your frustrations, even if you just write something on your blog. If you can turn that frustration into action, even better.

3) Don’t let it totally take over: there are certain jobs that can easily take over your life if you let them and it seems that sci comm is one of them. Overworking yourself will just prove counter-productive, particularly if you give up other activities. It’s good to aim high, but take time to recognise when you’ve done something well and when you’ve done enough work.

4) Do your research before plunging in: it’s always annoying to commit to one thing, then find out something else that was more appropriate for you is also out there and you can’t do both. At the same time, don’t just wait for that perfect opportunity to come along.

5) Don’t worry if your trajectory changes: I originally wanted to be a research physicist who did sci comm on the side, but have since realised I’m not capable of that. Having to give up that ambition still makes me feel sad, but the great thing about sci comm is that there are many different routes into it. None of them are necessarily superior and no one has to stick to just one fixed route.

You can follow Courtney and her New To Sci Comm project on Twitter at @newtoscicomm

Alexander Brown

Speaking to… Alexander Brown

“What I really love is seeing people’s lightbulbs above their heads go off.”

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

Alexander-Brown-science-communication
Alexander Brown

Name? 

Alex Brown

Who do you work for? 

At the moment, I’ve got a student contract in the Knowledge Transfer Group at CERN. That job doesn’t involve much public-facing science communication. I guess you could call me a freelancer for now – it’s all stuff that I do in my spare time, but no-one pays me for it yet.

What type of science communication do you do?

Overall, I’m keen to give pretty much anything a try.

These days, my main output is writing on my blog, although that tends to be a lot of “meta” science communication. I write about topics around science, rather than in it, as it were.

I cover more about science content itself when I do  “in-person” communication, which I really enjoy. I’ve given a few talks at open mic nights like Science Showoff and Skeptics in the Pub. What I really love is seeing people’s lightbulbs above their heads go off. That’s not something you get a lot of from an audience where you can’t make eye contact. So, where I really thrive is getting people to try little hands-on demos at festivals and science centres like @-Bristol. Then there’s volunteer street charity fundraising, which is something I did a lot of at university. Standing on a street in fancy dress asking people for money to fund medical research can lead to some really interesting conversations and it gives an insight into what the general public is really like (clue: it’s like nothing in particular, there really is no such thing as the “general public”). I was also a STEM Ambassador for a while, as well as a teaching assistant – it’s really fascinating to see the difference between formal (school) and informal (everything else) learning environments.

I haven’t done much of that stuff in a while, but I recently signed up to be a tour guide at CERN and I’m really looking forward to getting back into it!

Who is your main audience?

I suppose it’s anyone who will listen! It also depends on they type of science communication I’m doing.

For my blog, I don’t think I have a particularly steady readership. I write about lots of different things, and I don’t think there’s much overlap in people interested in all of them. On the whole, I think it’s mostly other science communicators, my friends, plus a few people who follow me on Twitter. A lot of the latter turned up because of one particular post that went a bit viral.

In At-Bristol, it’s typically families with kids, or school groups. That’s about as predictable as it gets, because you never know who is going to turn up next!

Street collections vary a lot depending on when and where I do them. The people turning up on a Saturday afternoon outside M&S in Bath are very different to those in Bank tube station at rush hour on a weekday morning.

How did you get into it?

Like with lots of things, there were a number of factors.

First at school and then at uni, I have always been a generalist. I don’t see why any one bit of science is more interesting or worthy of my attention than any other.

I grew up and went to school in France, so I did a baccalauréat. Unlike UK A-levels, a Bac includes about 10 different subjects. Although mine had a science weighting, I still had to pass exams like philosophy and literature. Then at uni I did a Natural Sciences degree, which was quite pick’n’mix – halfway through, I switched from studying mostly pharmacology and chemistry, to biology and psychology! I never liked the idea of going into years of research to become the world expert one a very niche subject, and then having no-one to talk to about it. So instead I did an MSc in science communication and I haven’t looked back since. I can be writing or talking about physics one day, and biology the next – it keeps me on my toes. On my blog I even go into linguistics from time to time.

I found out about both the MSc at UWE and volunteering in At-Bristol through word of mouth – my housemate during my final year of uni did both and recommended them to me.

In the case of collecting, someone at the Freshers’ Fair during my first week at uni said “hey you, would you like to do a bungee jump, for free?!”. I went along to the information meeting, then that weekend I was dressed as a pirate, collecting change for meningitis research, and I was hooked!

Why do you do it?

Fundamentally, I believe that being switched on and engaging with knowledge and curiosity about how the world works makes people’s lives more worth living. We only have a short amount of time to glimpse the wonder of existence, so we should make the most of it. If I can help in any way, I will. I should.

What do you love about your job?

Feeding people’s curiosity, and my own, is a great feeling. I also love it when someone asks a question I hadn’t thought of before, especially when I don’t know the answer. It’s also fun to find out something I wrote is being read on the other side of the world.

What has been your favourite project?

There have been so many fun and interesting things around, and they’re all good for different reasons! But if I had to pick just one, it would have to be a competition I ran on my blog. It was loosely based on the “Friday Phenomenon” challenge on BIG-chat (an email list for science centre types). Normally, the challenge is to explain a phenomenon in 50 words, with a particular audience in mind. I gave readers a choice of pictures and the question “What’s this?” The sheer variety of answers really made me smile.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Well, I’m only just starting out in the field of science communication so I’m still getting my bearings. Someone with more experience might tell you something different. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve been able to make out so far…

Overall, I think it really depends on what your background is, and what part of science communication you want to get into. Ideally, each case would have its own route neatly mapped out. But of course it doesn’t work like that. There are a huge number of ways into the sector. Some people may already be “science communicators” without realising it (but that also depends on your definition, which is a whole separate debate…)

You could start with an MSc, although that’s a big commitment – both in terms of money and time. UWE also do a 1-week masterclass, which is a condensed version of the MSc and gives a good introduction.

A few things cost practically nothing – read books, blogs and mailing lists, listen to podcasts and radio, attend events, watch TV and films. That should give you a flavour of what’s out there and what you might like to get involved with. Talk to people who are already doing that and ask them for tips. Once you’ve worked out what you want to do, do it! You’ll probably not be brilliant at first, but you will get better. As long as you look after your determination, then practise and feedback will take care of improvement.