Tag Archives: live events

Speaking to… Lewis Hou

“It culminates in all these children becoming my neurons and controlling me. So when the motor cortex, these kids, vibrate, then I will have to dance!”

Lewis HouThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Lewis Hou

Lewis Hou is a neuroscientist from Edinburgh, but when I spoke to him he was in London for a networking event at the Wellcome Trust. I managed to grab a few minutes of his time to explore how neuroscience and music go hand-in-hand.

The future Dr Hou is currently researching the asymmetric brain (not the creational vs rational) but how asymmetry in our brains could be linked to evolutionary traits that we see in animals, including humans. For example chimpanzees have similar asymmetries to humans, so can he explore that to understand how we evolved language? He’s also looking at how some people with psychiatric diseases don’t have these asymmetries, and how this might be a sign of developmental problems. Continue reading


Speaking to… Voice Of Researchers

VoR-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Suzanne Miller-Delaney about Voice of Researchers.

Why was Voice of Researchers set up?

Voice of the Researchers, or VoR, is a network bridging individual researchers and decision-makers, bringing together researchers and enabling them to take an active role in shaping the European Research Area.

In March 2012, the European Commission (through the EURAXESS portal) launched a call for expressions of interest to take part in a brainstorming session on research careers. Over 400 researchers residing in Europe answered the call and 25 were chosen to travel to Brussels and discuss their experiences. It was following this initial meeting that VoR was born. The 25 researchers went on to form the “multipliers group” of VoR and have spent the 18 months since, developing the network.

How has it grown since then?

VoR does not have a membership as such and is based on a network structure, in which all researchers in Europe can participate by sharing ideas, challenges and proposals, through online portals and social media. The ‘mulitpliers group’ act as enablers, promoting VoR and communicating outputs to decision-makers and other stakeholders.

Since their initial meeting in March 2012, the VoR network has grown substantially.

Members of the multipliers group have attended ESOF 2012 (July 2012, Dublin), Naturejobs (September 2012, London), EURAXESS Links 1st Global Conference (November 2012, Beijing), EU2013 IUA Researchers Careers & Mobility (May 2013, Dublin) and most recently, the Lithuanian Presidency Conference “Invest in Researchers” (Nov 2013, Vilnius).

VoR now has close to 1800 twitter followers (@research_voice) and reaches on average approximately 3400 researchers per month on Facebook.  The VoR website (voice.euraxess.org) was launched in March 2013 and includes an interactive discussion forum.

Why does the area between policy makers and researchers need your help?

EU policy-makers regularly involve European-level stakeholder organisations and individual experts in their work, but there currently exists no communication channel through which to directly engage with individual researchers on a systematic basis. VoR aims to fill this gap by acting as a direct communication channel between researchers, decision-makers and other relevant stakeholders, allowing researchers themselves to determine the most important issues to be addressed.  It is this ‘bottom-up’ ethos in addition to the promotion of direct communication with the policy-level which sets VoR aside.

You are about to host a conference in Brussels, what is it about?

“Raising Researchers’ Voices – Opinions on Jobs, Careers and Rights” will take place on 21-22 November 2013.

In keeping with the VoR’s bottom-up ethos, the conference promises a highly interactive and varied programme of events. Conference participants will include approximately 200 researchers of all ages, nationalities and disciplines, working within the 28 member states of the EU. Hosted by members of the VoR multipliers group, participants will be encouraged to give their opinion on the most contentious issues for research careers – including job instability and the challenges posed by new trends in open access and applied research agendas.

The format of the conference will be a break from the norm, relying heavily on social media and including elevator pitches and ‘ERA Slams’, in which researchers will take to the stage to present their views and ideas on career-related topics. Rather than many panel discussions or lectures, there will be small group discussions by all conference participants and live voting on topics of relevance to researchers. The idea is to identify the biggest issues affecting researchers and their careers in Europe, and to come up with changes the researchers themselves want, delivering them in person to the policy level.

Why is social media such a heavy part of the conference in Brussels?

Social media actively strengthens the connections of the VoR network every day and is a vital aspect of its continued growth.

During the upcoming conference, VoR will reach out beyond the 200 participants in Brussels by posting the discussion live to Twitter, Facebook and on the VoR forum.  Polls taken by conference participants will also be posted online and, at the venue in Brussels, a social wall will stream online comments live to the discussion groups, allowing researchers from all over Europe to take part and make their voice heard!

The “Raising Researchers’ Voices” conference will take place on 21-22 November 2013 in Brussels. Registration for the event is now closed, but readers can keep up to date with conference developments (#vor2013) on Facebook and on Twitter @Research_Voice.


Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

“Rather ironically, if the tools and software that are available now, if they had been available to me when i was making those decisions, then perhaps I would have, actually gone down a different path”

Laura-Wheeler-Science-CommunicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

Laura Wheeler is the new community manager at Digital Science, and is currently getting ready for the SpotOn Conference, which she co-organises with Lou Woodly and Martin Fenner.

In this episode, Laura and I discuss what a community manager really is, how she got into this role, and the dilemma she faced when deciding to leave the world of academia for one of science communication.

“If communicating about your science was what got you into science communication, why not stay as a scientist and communicate your own science?”

This dilemma seems to be a frequent one, and for Laura, it wasn’t easy. She looks back at her younger self and feels that if there had been more digital, software based support for scientists, she may have made a different decision…could this be why she has gone to work with Digital Science? To help those in her position make this decision easier?

For those interested in SpotOn, it starts on the evening of Thursday 7th with a Fringe Event – The Story Collider, hosted by Brian Wecht. The Conference is happening all weekend, and if you couldn’t get tickets no worries, you can watch all of the sessions live and the video archives will remain on the SpotOn site afterwards. You can also follow the Twitter hashtag #solo13 to join in the online conversation.

You can follow Laura on Twitter at @laurawheelers 

Speaking to… Brian Wecht about The Story Collider

“True stories about how science has affected peoples lives.”

Brian-Wecht-Science-CommunicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Brian Wecht

Stories. Wonderful Stories.

We’ve had a few different science communication interviews on Speaking of Science about science, science stories, and science and stories.

This podcast is going to add to that – this is an interview with Brian Wecht, one half of the founding team of The Story Collider, a live show and podcast that brings stories and science together.

In this podcast we talk about what The Story Collider is, how it started, and how it appears that the British scientists are more reluctant to talk about their emotions when it comes to science…

This Thursday (24th of October 2013), The Story Collider is hosting it’s third UK show in London.

You can get tickets (FREE) from here.

And I would love to recommend their podcast, which you can download and subscribe to via iTunes.


Speaking to… Sarah Bearchell

“We started with some Balloon-CD hovercraft were a huge hit until one child tested them to destruction!”

Sarah-Bearchall-Science-Communication This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Sarah Bearchell


Dr Sarah Bearchell

Where are you based? 


Who do you work for?

I work with different primary schools on a freelance basis

What type of science communication do you do?

I do workshops, science shows and longer projects designed for specific groups of children. I work with both mainstream pupils and children with Special Educational Needs. I also do some science writing for adults.

Who is your main audience?

Most of my work is with primary school children (age 4-11).

How did you get into it?

Small children are scientists. Even before they can move they are exploring the world by putting things into their mouths. Then, when they move, they poke their fingers into everything. Next a pointing finger appears and is accompanied by a grunt which is their way of asking ‘What is this?’. By the time they can speak they are accomplished Principal Investigators in their own world. The ‘why?’, ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions are just a natural progression. If the questions get answers, they will stay curious and keep asking them.  If we ignore them, the curiosity slowly dims.

These observations are based on my own children; Matilda (7), Joe (5) and Archie (4). When my daughter started school it seemed natural to offer the teachers some growing projects (my background is in botany). One year we grew sunflowers and then the class grew a loaf of bread from seed. The children loved the sense of achievement that both of these projects gave them. The school then asked me to become Associate Governor for Science and I also became a STEM Ambassador as a way of formalising this voluntary work.

Why do you do it?

It is just so fantastically rewarding.

In one of my first sessions I had a ten-year-old pupil who was initially unimpressed at having to make paper trees to withstand a ‘hurricane’. However, she listened to my introduction about what happens in nature, incorporated that into her paper tree and built one of the best trees in the whole session.  At the end she said ‘I love it when we don’t do work!’ and was beaming as she left the room.

I also work with a Special Needs school where the children have a huge range of abilities.  We have recently been doing Sensory Science. In one session I froze water into lots of different jelly moulds, bottles and bowls and we mixed these up with hot water bottles and buckets of warm water. Each child explored the activity in their own way. One child liked to stroke the ice as it melted, another liked to catch the ice cubes in a plant pot as the water drained away and a third child was delighted when she was allowed to smash the ice out of a plastic bottle.  We did counting and discussed temperature and sizes all as a natural part of conversation. The feedback from the school has been fantastic; apparently science has always been their worst subject but it is now climbing up the subject list.

How do you tailor science education to special needs children?

I start by going into one of their normal science classes so I can meet the children and teaching staff. It gives me a great insight into how they will react to what I have planned. I need to know how  they will react to things such as loud noises, music, furry objects and different light levels. I need to be sure I can engage them, not scare them! It also gives me clues to their dexterity and concentration spans so I can modify my plans accordingly.

My aim is to get them exploring an activity and using language or signs to describe what is happening. We use all our senses and talk about size, temperature, light and feel. We use numbers and countdowns at every opportunity.

How do you work with special needs children when all of them are so different in their needs?

My Key Stage 1 (age 5-7) SEN classes only have about six children and three or four adults depending on the specific needs of the children. The school staff know which aspect of an activity is most likely to engage each child and generally encourage the child to explore that first. I follow each child’s lead and expand with what I think they are likely to enjoy next.

My method is best explained with an example such as our session on air. We started with some Balloon-CD hovercraft were a huge hit until one child tested them to destruction! Then we moved to blowing up balloons and letting them go again, feeling the air rush out, listening to the sounds and watching them sail through the air. I had also made some sail powered cars which were disappointing because too few of the children had the dexterity to work them, so we just moved on. Next we blew lots of bubbles and chased them round the courtyard. The final activity was the biggest hit – an air rocket. The children were initially worried by it but as soon as their teachers had a go they joined in with the cheering and countdowns to launch. They were great at taking turns and collecting up the rockets. Some of them were able to relate stamping on the launch pad to the height the rocket achieved and even how to aim the rocket either high or far. One child in a wheelchair was delighted to have his carer stamp his front wheel on the launch pad and another child had to be lifted into the air to produce enough force for launch but they all cheered and came back for more. Some of the children were delighted to feel the air from the pump on their faces, but others were not. Each session is a learning opportunity for me too!

Is it sometimes very difficult to communicate with special needs children?

The teachers and support staff know how to communicate with each child. I take their lead and we generally use some basic signs, lots of facial expression and huge amounts of praise for all scientific observations. Their teachers spend part of the session observing the children and noting down their progress so they can monitor it over time.

Most of the children are so excited to have something so different to their normal day that they don’t need much encouragement. The teachers suggested I repeated some of the favourite exercises and we noticed that the children started by repeating what they had before and then expanded into new skills or words. It is so rewarding to watch their confidence and abilities grow.

What has been the most challenging lesson you’ve had with special needs children?

I haven’t really had any yet. The teaching staff have been great at helping each child to get the most from the sessions.

Why do you think science communication is important?

You interviewed one of my ex-tutors, Dr George McGavin, and he said ‘If you can get the fire going in an 8 year old, it will blaze away for the rest of their lives.’ He is so right!  I really want to keep that innate spark of curiosity alight.  It’s so easy to maintain it but so hard to re-ignite when it goes out.

I genuinely believe that we can turn around the decline in scientific subjects by working with younger children. It is hard to convince funders to invest because there is such a long lead-time before any measurable increase in uptake will be seen.  Primary school science is comparable to blue-skies research; there is no immediate profit. I’ve toyed with the expression ‘rainbow-skies funding’ for primary school science but however you describe it, it needs serious consideration.  We need to create a more scientifically literate society, better equipped to question research in a rational fashion. If this happens there should be fewer knee-jerk reactions to scientific reports, especially amongst politicians.

What do you love about science communication?

I get to share my love of science with a wonderfully receptive audience. One of the five-year-olds requested a labcoat in his letter to Father Christmas last year. How cool is that?

What has been your favourite project?

That is a hard question. I love them all!

My favourite project with the children is ‘Ask A Scientist’. They can ask me anything on any STEM+M subject. They write it down and put it in the question box (which looks like my head) where I have a think about it then design a demo to explain it. The questioner becomes The Scientist to explain the answer to their classmates. There are a huge range of questions but we have mixed bogeys, made intestines, used a whole class to demonstrate seismic waves and dressed up as Neanderthals and superheroes.  It can get quite silly but the children and their teachers love it. They remember lots of the information too. I use demonstrations which employ materials from around the home. It needs to be super-accessible so they realise how easy it is to be a scientist (and how much fun it can be). It’s a case of Do Try This At Home (albeit in the garden).

On a different note, I was quite surprised by my own reaction to taking part in Science ShowOff recently. It’s an ‘open mic for all communicators of science’ where you get nine minutes to talk about your subject. Most of my fellow Showoffs talked entertainingly about proper research, we had a song about Pluto (Phil Dooley), Sarah Cosgriff dressed as a sumo wrestler and Lucy Rogers describing what happens to your body in space. I stood up and put a mixture of porridge and coffee into a pair of tights to replicate the intestines and ended with defacation live on stage. It went down pretty well with a Friday night crowd and I was left buzzing for hours!

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

There are two great projects coming up in the autumn.

Harvest Loaf

I have been working with a class of children on a project called ‘Growing A Loaf’. The five and six-year-olds sowed wheat seed in a corner of the playground and watered, weeded and nurtured it to a beautiful crop of strong plants.  We got some interest from BBC Radio 4 Farming Today who came out and recorded with the children, Charlotte Smith was fantastic with them and they all chatted really confidently about their crop.

The story was then picked up by BBC Radio Oxford and BBC South Today television.  The children were recorded during the summer and again as they threshed and winnowed the crop by hand.  South Today also came to Mapledurham Watermill to see the grain being milled.  The children are going to work with Helen Hales, their fabulously talented teaching assistant, to create a wheatsheaf shaped loaf from their flour.  This will be presented to the vicar at the school harvest festival in the village church and South Today will be recording them do it all. The whole story will be broadcast in mid-late October and I can’t wait to see the results.  The children have worked so hard and have amazed everyone by confidently explaining their work to the journalists. It has been an enormous boost for the whole school.

I am also delighted that I have been asked to be a judge at the Stemettes Oxford Hackathon. It’s a free event for girls and women aged 7-21. They will learn how to code and create an infographic from scratch. Details are here.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Most people say you should stick with your research, become a STEM Ambassador and keep practicing your skills. They are absolutely right. It is possible to do it outside research but it is harder unless you network like crazy. My advice would be the same as for researchers; become a STEM Ambassador because you get some training, lots of fantastic support and even suggestions for activities until you get more confident. Remember to listen to feedback and don’t give up!

You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @SarahBearchell or see what she’s up to on her website.


Speaking to… Alison Atkin

“I had such a great time with the students, schools, and other ‘role models’ that I knew I had found something I wanted to continue to do for a long time.”

Alison Atkin

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


Alison Atkin

Where are you based?

On either side of the Pennines (depends on the day).

Who do you work for?

I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield; I also work at MOSI; the majority of my science communication is volunteer/freelance.

What type of science communication do you do?

I do lots of hands-on sessions and presentations, ranging from classroom settings to science festivals. I also run a website called Penny University, which interviews PhD students, post-docs, and early career researchers.

Who is your main audience?

I work with everyone – kids, schools, university students, families, special needs groups, retirees. It depends a lot on the event!

How did you get into it?

I actually got started in science communication during my undergraduate degree (in Canada). I got involved with a really great organisation called Techsploration, which aims to get young women to explore careers in science, trades, and technology. I had such a great time with the students, schools, and other ‘role models’ that I knew I had found something I wanted to continue to do for a long time.

Why do you do it?

I do it because I love it. I have always been hugely passionate about science – and learning in general – and I love to see people get excited about it too. It is an absolute privilege to share my experiences and education with other people and to bring them an opportunity they might not otherwise have (like getting hands-on with a human skeleton). I had some great science teachers in school (we built hovercrafts, trebuchets, dropped things off the roof… to, you know… learn about gravity) and it made me realise just how much fun science can be – and that it’s not necessarily that hard either. I think it’s important for everyone to have an experience like that in their life, whether they are six or 76!

Why do you think science communication is important?

I think that regardless of whether people pursue an education or career in the sciences, it is important to be exposed to it – and to understand how science works, because it is such a huge part of our everyday lives. I think a lot of people can be intimidated by science; science communication allows people to engage with science in new ways, making it less intimidating and more interesting. It also helps people to realise just how much variety there is when it comes to science – it’s everywhere!

What do you love about science communication?

The questions!  I have been absolutely floored by the questions people ask at events.  It confirms to me that everyone is a natural scientist – and I usually learn just as much from the people attending the events, as they learn from me.

What has been your favourite project?

It is quite difficult to pick a favourite, since I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some really great projects.  I should say that Penny University is my favourite, although it only exists thanks to I’m a Scientist, so maybe I should tip my hat to them (side note: I would recommend taking part in it to anyone).  Penny University has only just begun, but I’ve learned a lot already – especially as it’s an entirely new style of science communication for me (online and a bit more academic).

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Yes!  I am really excited to say that Penny University is working with Manchester Science Festival this year and we’re going to be running a live event: a 21st century coffee house where people can come, have some delicious science-themed coffees and learn about all kinds of incredible science research.  In addition to a couple of other events during Manchester Sci Fest that I’ll be taking part in, I am also attending some other festivals this summer with ScienceGrrl!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

It’ll be the best thing you ever do – so absolutely get involved if you’re interested.  There are lots of organisations and groups out there that are always welcoming new people – you will very quickly go from being a bit unsure, having never done science communication before, to filling up your calendar with outreach days, school visits, science festivals and more… I guarantee it.  It is also a very good idea to learn how other people communicate science: attend festivals, listen to podcasts, read science blogs, etc – you can learn a lot from other people!

You can follow Alison on Twitter at @alisonatkin or see what she’s up to on her blog.