“I like showing people that science can be in the most unexpected places and that looking at a subject from a scientific point of view makes it more, not less, interesting.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dr Kathryn Harcup
Dr Kathryn Harkup
Where are you based?
Who do you work for?
I’m freelance so I work for a range of people from schools to museums or organisations running outreach projects.
What type of science communication do you do?
I do talks and workshops in schools as well as for adult audiences mostly on the gothic horror side of science. I have a weekly slot on Radio Cardiff talking about famous and not so famous scientists. I also run a branch of Cafe Scientifique.
Who is your main audience?
School students mostly but I’m happy to talk to anyone who’ll listen.
How did you get into it?
I got involved in science week activities whilst doing my PhD at Nottingham. I realised I enjoyed talking about science more than I enjoyed research so when I did my postdoc I made sure I worked for someone who would support me when I did talks and workshops for schools. I then looked for a role that would allow me to do outreach full time and I found it at the University of Surrey in their Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. This was a great experience as I got to learn about a huge range of science and engineering disciplines and they allowed me to try out new ideas. I now do pretty much the same job but for myself.
Why do you do it?
I get paid to do something I love – what’s not to like about that?
Why do you think science communication is important?
Science is a brilliant framework for understanding the world. It makes you question and think about things and not accept them at face value. Anything that makes you more engaged with life and the world you live in has to be a good thing. It is also huge fun.
What do you love about science communication?
I like showing people that science can be in the most unexpected places and that looking at a subject from a scientific point of view makes it more, not less, interesting. I particularly enjoy crossing over into different subjects to surprise my audience. Talking about light can lead to discussions about photography, fireworks, and artists from Picasso to Carravaggio. Discussing the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein can lead to how nerves work and the invention of pacemakers or developments in organ transplant. Everyone loves a good murder mystery but how does arsenic or strychnine kill you? Can you use science to explain the phenomenon of the undead? There really is very little that science can’t try and explain so communicating science is only limited by your imagination.
What has been your favourite project?
The Enlightenment Cafe – an immersive theatre event in tunnels under Waterloo Station. Visitors met actors and scientists in rooms like shops or consulting rooms all in Victorian dress and got to talk to them about science. There were specialists in subjects like Gin, fireworks, Bedlam hospital, mermaids and tempest prognosticators. I learned a huge amount and met some incredibly interesting people plus I got to talk about poisons and vampires.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I’m talking about Frankenstein at the Hunterian Museum on 30th October. The Hunterian is a fantastic museum with a collection formed of objects from dissection and some acquired by resurrectionists. It’s the perfect setting for a talk about dissection, resurrectionists and electrocuting corpses. It’s going to be lots of ghoulish fun.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Tell stories. Be enthusiastic. Students like anything that seems disgusting or dangerous but if you are interested in a subject and can tell a good story people will learn things without even realising it.