Category Archives: Speaking to…

Speaking to… James Piercy

“I got a standing ovation from a group of people who I hugely respect. And afterwards I thought, I should do more of this because it’s really helped me. And I thought, maybe it could help other people, help understand.”

James-piercy-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… James Piercy.

James Piercy, from science made simple, has been doing science shows for more than an decade, and I was lucky enough to bump into him at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival.

James likes to explore everyday things that we come across all the time, but he tries to get his audiences to look at them. To see what they really are and why they are like that. His first ever science show did exactly this with bubbles – how do they form, why do they have pretty colours? His show at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013 takes this to the next level.

A few years ago, James was involved in a  car accident, and unfortunately suffered serious damage to his brain. After being off work for 6months, James plucked up the courage to face his colleauges at the BIG Conference of 2011, and told them all what happened to him.

This talk was emotional, tough, and yet somehow helped him in his recovery. By talking to people he respected, he found that he was able to deal with things better. Now, James talks about his accident to all sorts of audiences – from clinicians, to children, to other patients who have suffered similar things.

Finally, James and I talk about the science communication training he does with scientists and industry specialists. His favourite students are those that come with a sceptical view of science communication, and somehow, during his workshop, they realise that what he is teaching them is a valuable and important thing.

You can follow James Piercy on Twitter at @thepiercy


Speaking to… Joe Hanson

 “science becomes infinitely more entertaining and valuable to people when they see that it doesn’t exist on some deserted island only inhabited by socially-stunted misfits in ill-fitting clothing, but rather that it connects to other things that they like, and that they don’t have to feel awkward or excluded by being “into it”.”

Joe-Hanson-Science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Joe Hanson


Joe Hanson

Where are you based?

Austin, TX

Who do you work for?

PBS Digital Studios, and myself. And for that glow cloud, hovering outside of town, that no one is sure actually exists.

What type of science communication do you do?

I write and host (and sometimes film and edit) a YouTube series about science called It’s Okay To Be Smart, which is produced by PBS Digital Studios (our public broadcasting service here in the States). I try to uncover the amazing parts of everyday life as they relate to science. One week that might mean thinking about how much air there is around Earth, the next week it might be about superheroes and their animal counterparts. I also write an award-winning science-themed Tumblr, which is just like a normal blog, but with more animated GIFs and the occasional picture of Carl Sagan riding a dinosaur while holding a light saber. I also do the occasional bit of freelance science writing.

Who is your main audience?

I make stuff for curious non-scientists of all ages. But since I’m on Tumblr and YouTube, which are pretty young, most of my audience is 15-35. But I resonate with people from 8 to 80.

I try to reach out and grab people who might not think they want to read about science, and then politely trick them into doing so. That might mean using super-engaging photos and videos, or internet memes, or art as a hook. My driving principle is “science plus ____”. By that I mean that science becomes infinitely more entertaining and valuable to people when they see that it doesn’t exist on some deserted island only inhabited by socially-stunted misfits in ill-fitting clothing, but rather that it connects to other things that they like, and that they don’t have to feel awkward or excluded by being “into it”.

Of course it helps if I can do that while being funny, or poetic, or dropping in references to pop and internet culture, all while clearly explaining why things are awesome. Someone once said “Never underestimate their intelligence, and never overestimate their vocabulary.” That.

How did you get into it?

Circa 2009-2010, like many people in their late 20’s, I started a Tumblr blog, because our parents were getting on Facebook and we needed a place to be goofy and express ourselves without them judging us. I filled mine with my interests, which are science and art and humor and Neil deGrasse Tyson GIFs. I started adding little explanations and curating interesting science from around the web, and people really seemed to enjoy that.

All this time, I was finishing my PhD in biology, blogging while a gel was running, or researching a script instead of reading that paper that I brought home to read before bed. One day, I realized that I was a science communicator and that people were actually listening to me! So here I am, 9,000 posts later. PBS apparently liked what I was doing and asked me if I’d like to make a science show for them. I said yes approximately 1.3 seconds after they asked. It was only in my last few months of my PhD that this became something I could actually do for a living. It took a great deal of practice and commitment to get there, and I still look at myself as a new kid on the block, wide-eyed, occasionally tripping over my feet and wondering if I really belong. But everyone feels like that, of course.

I got a great amount of support, coaching and encouragement from the science online community, too. I owe my peers a lot.

Why do you do it?

Mostly because I can’t not do it. I was already the guy at parties saying “Hey, let me tell you about this cool article” or “Did you know that bees can see ultraviolet light? How cool is that?!” This usually ended with people giving me a funny look and excusing themselves from my presence. So I decided that I might as well do it on the internet, where I could reach even more people, and where I couldn’t see them walk away.

I genuinely enjoy teaching people how the world works, and I think that’s a large part of what any science writer does, even if they don’t think they do that. Mostly I’m just tired of hearing how “the general public”, whoever they are, don’t accept science. I think “science” needs to accept part of the blame there, because it hasn’t always done the best job of telling people why its likable. It sounds very lofty, but I really believe that by giving people a positive experience with science every day, I can help change how they view it, and how they experience it, even if it’s just a little bit. There are a lot of younger science communicators that feel this way, like many of my YouTube comrades, or even pages like IFLS. We are not afraid to cover the “wow beat”, as Ed Yong calls it. We understand that not everyone needs to understand the math behind quantum mechanics in order to understand that magnets work because of quantum mechanics. It’s a different kind of magic. Will we make a difference? Ask me in ten years when our audience has voted a few times.

Why do you think science communication is important?

We have less than two years until Marty McFly lands in his DeLorean (October 21, 2015). We officially live in the future. Quite frankly, a person can not be a fully engaged citizen of planet Earth today without some knowledge, awareness and interest in science. And it enriches our experiences in the world. As Richard Feynman said of flowers, “science knowledge only adds to the excitement.”

If we can break down the barriers of intimidation and education that contribute to some people’s distrust of science, then I think we’ll create a better future. Politics, policy, jobs, environment . . . all that dire stuff, but also happier humans, who enjoy simply knowing more today than they knew yesterday.

What do you love about science communication?

You remember the old cartoon scenes where a light bulb goes on above someone’s head when they have that “Eureka!” moment? Well, that happens in real life, only the light goes on in their eyes. Every teacher already knows this, but that moment is like the best drug, in that it’s addictive and makes you feel really good, but doesn’t ruin your life or take your money. I get to experience that every day, in so many ways, with so many people. It’s awesome. I really feel like I make a positive difference in people’s lives, through science.

What has been your favourite project?

Making YouTube videos has just been the most fun ever. There are no rules. I get to create exactly what I want to create, to tell the exact story I want to tell, in whatever way I want to tell it. Sometimes, other people even enjoy it! My favorite project just wrapped filming, and while I can’t say exactly what it is, it involves several famous scientists that have turned into bobblehead dolls and have been transported to modern times via a temporal wormhole.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I am amping up my YouTube series to a weekly show, which means lots and lots more science and lots and lots less free time for me. I have some pretty special episodes and projects in the works for that, but too early to say.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to start. Just start. Know that you will not be good when you start, and you will refuse to read your own writing a year later, on account of how much you hate it, because you were so bad. But that means you are getting better. Work every day, even if you’re just thinking about the project you’re working on. Reach out to our community and ask for tips and feedback. This has been the most welcoming and helpful professional community I’ve ever been a part of. Look for somewhere where no one is talking about science, or some subject that isn’t being covered in the right way, and do that. Write a lot. Read even more.

You can follow Joe on Twitter at @jtotheizzoe or see what he’s up to on YouTube or on his website.

NOTE: This interview happened before Joe’s A Very Special Thanksgiving video was issued, which proved to be both popular and controversial to many people. For those who thought it was controversial, Joe did write an apology and explanation behind this film. Because we’d already interviewed him we didn’t get the chance to discuss this with him, but hope to at a later date.


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… Julie Bellingham

“I’m really honoured to play a small part in some massive global endeavours and it’s fun to be able to share that excitement.”

Julie-Bellingham-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Julie Bellingham


Julie Bellingham

Where are you based?

Swindon, UK

Who do you work for?

Science and Technology Facilities Council

What type of science communication do you do?

I communicate the contract opportunities available to industry at a number of large science facilities like CERN. I don’t think it’s what people traditionally think of when they think of science communication, but I have to help industry understand what large science facilities are and get them interested, so there’s a large component of communicating science and hopefully inspiring people to be interested.

Who is your main audience?

Industry and businesses are my main audience, but this covers a huge range of people and knowledge levels. For instance, a company that makes magnets for particle accelerators will already have a good understanding of what particle accelerators do, but providers of language classes or IT manufacturers won’t necessarily have heard of CERN or other facilities.

I have to think about what will interest that individual and then focus on that. With CERN for example, most people are interested to hear that it has an annual procurement budget of around £325M but then I try to tailor my message. When we were trying to find patent lawyers to respond to a market survey, I focussed on the fact that people working at CERN have made a huge number of technology discoveries during their work. The biggest of these is the World Wide Web, but they have also made advances in touch screen technologies and developed particle beams which are used in cancer treatments. When contracts in civil engineering are released, I focus on the fact that CERN has a particle accelerator in a ring which is 27km diameter, straddling the border of France and Switzerland and 100m underground. In addition to its amazing science, CERN is also a major civil engineering accomplishment.

Once I’ve piqued their interest, I end with the ‘wow’ factor that CERN is a worldwide endeavour to understand the origins of the universe. I think that the companies who are working with CERN are genuinely proud and excited to be part of something so special.

How did you get into it?

I did a PhD in physics and joined STFC to work at the ISIS neutron source. I managed a project to coordinate the development of new instrumentation for neutron sources across Europe, so I always had a focus on technology for large facilities. I moved to Swindon to STFC’s head office and when a vacancy for the industry liaison role opened up, I thought it would be really interesting and so I applied.

Why do you do it?

I really enjoy developing new procedures and improving the way things are done. When I started my role, I looked at how to improve the way we communicated with industry and how to engage them and I think that’s shown a real increase in the number of companies who are interested in working with facilities. Over the last three years, the UK has won over £47M worth of contracts. These contracts have benefitted hundreds of companies and it’s great to have played a part in that.

Why do you think science communication is important?

As taxpayers fund science facilities, we have a duty to explain where that money goes and the work that the facilities are doing. Last week I met someone from industry who was quite cynical about why we should fund facilities. I spent a while explaining the benefits both to industry, technology and society as a whole and they left knowing why being involved in these global projects is worthwhile. We need to have that support for science and that only comes through understanding.

What do you love about science communication?

I love the variety of my work and enjoying speaking with a wide range of people. I’m really honoured to play a small part in some massive global endeavours and it’s fun to be able to share that excitement.

What has been your favourite project?

I needed to find companies who would be able to respond to heating and ventilation contracts coming up at CERN. I found a number of suitable companies and spent three days with a team from CERN travelling around the UK to visit industrial sites. One of the companies CERN met has gone on to win £1M worth of work and it’s satisfying to know that I helped to play a part in that.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I don’t have specific projects as such but this is a part of my daily work.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Science communication can be part of many different jobs. It doesn’t have to be public facing or to schools necessarily, which is what I think most people think of when they imagine science communication.

You can follow Julie on Twitter at @julie_bee


Speaking to… Corrinne Burns

“You have to learn to put yourself in visitor’s shoes – they have a whole museum at their disposal, so how am I going to persuade them to look at this object?”

Corrine-Burns-Science-CommunicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Corrinne Burns


Corrinne Burns

Where are you based?


Who do you work for?

Science Museum London

What type of science communication do you do?

I research and develop exhibitions about contemporary science and engineering. I also write for the Guardian’s “Notes and Theories” blog.

What does your role at the Museum involve?

It’s very much like a TV researcher role – we have to find science and engineering stories that are relevant to our visitors’ lives. Then, we need to identify a suitable expert to interview, and a cool object for display. Once all that is in place, we start the logistics of bringing the object in, arranging interviews and photoshoots, and writing all the labels and interpretative text for the gallery. We work with new media engineers to creative interactive displays, and with designers to ensure the physical layout of the exhibit is attractive. Then, once the exhibit is live on gallery, we liaise with our Press office to ensure as much publicity as possible. In between there is much coffee and swearing. Again, rather like TV.

Who is your main audience?

The Museum attracts a vast range of people: school groups, families, independent adults and retired people. My Guardian stuff has an audience of … well, Guardian readers. And friends who feels obliged (under pain of My Fake Disapproval) to read them.

How did you get into it?

In 2004 I entered the New Scientist essay competition, and won a runner up prize. That got me thinking that maybe I was quite good at this stuff, so I decided to enter all the writing and poster competitions that I could. I was pretty successful at that, and I loved doing it, so stared to think about scicomm as a career.

I was still doing my PhD at this point, but I started trying to do some freelance work. I write a few pieces for Mexicolore and Herbs magazine, and then, whilst doing my postdoc, I had an article accepted by the Guardian. Around this time – somewhat informed by my cack-handedness in delicate laboratory situations – I decide to go for a full-time science communication career. (I figured that by writing about science, rather than doing it, I was less likely to cause an environmental and or/diplomatic incident.) I did an internship at the BBC’s Science Development department, and after that I landed here at the Museum.

Why do you do it?

I think I’m fairly good at talking and writing about science in a friendly, accessible way. I like finding out what scientist and engineers are doing, and telling the wider world about it.

Apart form being good at writing, what is it about it that gives you pleasure?

I love language anyway, so I take pride in crafting a well-structured sentence.

Is there a specific format to the writing that you do?

That depends – Museum textual content does follow a specific format, and we have our excellent proof-reader, Lawrence, to ensure that we stick to Museum style.

The Guardian encourages an individual voice, so as long as I am accurate with the facts, I feel able to be quite free with my style.

How tricky is it to write about something you have no expertise in?

It’s not always easy, but the best thing to do is talk to the experts, and ask them to explain anything you don’t understand. No-one is expert in everything – it’s an ongoing learning process, for me as much as for our visitors. And what I like about the Guardian is that it encourages readers to contribute– going Below The Line can be a nerve-wracking experience, but also an educational one.

As some one who writes, what does content development at the Museum do for you? 

It forces us to distil a story down to its essence – we have to work to very strict word limits. I have to remember that what interests me is not necessarily what will interest the greater number of people. You have to learn to put yourself in visitor’s shoes – they have a whole museum at their disposal, so how am I going to persuade them to look at this object? Your text must grab their attention within the first sentence. Otherwise they’ll go next door, and look at the dinosaurs.

Why do you think science communication is important?

If we’re going to inspire young people to a career in science or engineering, then we need to ensure that they get to hear about the activities of scientists and engineers – we need to show that these careers are accessible, and that science isn’t an esoteric activity done in isolation from the rest of the world.

The same goes for an adult audience too, I think – I’d like to show that science belongs to everybody, whether they are an active part of the research process or not. All informed opinions on science are useful, so we need to ensure that as many people as possible have access to the information they need to develop an informed opinion.

What do you love about science communication?

I get to talk to some fascinating people. Honestly, I am never bored!

What has been your favourite project?

I can’t choose a favourite, but I did love the High Performancefestival that we held to mark International Women’s day 2013. HP was a festival of motorsport and aero engineering, and all of the engineers who took part were women. However, we put the emphasis firmly on the engineering and the science, rather than on the gender of the participants – we didn’t want to present the idea of “women engineers” as some kind of novelty – it’s totally normal for women to be engineers, even in the supposedly masculine world of motorsport. In that respect I think we were successful – visitors came to see the cool cars, and many people didn’t even notice that all the engineers were women.

You mention that many people didn’t notice the women were engineers at the HP festival, was that not a disappointment as you were trying to showcase Women in STEM? 

Not at all; I considered it a mark of success that people were unsurprised to see women doing engineering. One of the engineers told us that it was a pleasant change to finally be invited to talk about engineering, rather than being a “woman in engineering”. Personally I dislike being categorised as a “woman in STEM” – I am in STEM, and I just happen to be female.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Aye, ongoing exhibition development at the Museum, and any articles I can persuade James K at the Guardian to look over.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

I’d start with creating your own science blog, just to get practise at writing for a non-specialist audience. Find original research articles, and try to explain them in no more than 400 words, with a few pictures. Once your blog has a good few articles on it, start pitching to editors. Send a pitch of around 100 words, and link to your blog – that’s the best way for an editor to gauge your writing style. Don’t be disheartened if you get rejections – I spent a good year being rejected before I got my first acceptance.

My BBC internship was really useful, but unpaid. I could only afford to do it because I’d saved up a couple of grand during my postdoc. I certainly could not have afforded it whilst studying. I wasn’t living in London when I got the internship, so I had to pay two sets of rent for the time that I was there. In that respect Londoners (or the wealthy) have a huge advantage when it comes to getting experience, which isn’t really fair. I would advise non-Londoners to try their local radio station, or ask their local paper if they’re interested in a weekly science column.

I’d also consider whether you ant to be a full-time science communicator, or an academic who also does science communication. If you want to go into TV, for example, you may be better off remaining in research. You will have noticed that most of the BBC factual presenters arefull-time researchers.

Finally – and it’s a cliché – don’t give up. I was never the star pupil; I left school with only two GCSEs, and ended up washing dishes in a hotel kitchen. It took a few years of that before I considered going back to education; I never considered myself to be one of the clever people. I still don’t. I think if I’ve got this far, it’s more from a refusal to accept reality than from any great skill – but here I am, anyway!

You can follow Corrine on Twitter at @corrinneburns

Speaking to… Brian Glanz

“Open science is science by everybody for anybody.”

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

Brian Glanz works for the Open Science Federation, a group in the US that attempts to break down the barriers that stop everyone accessing science.

I met Brian at Mozfest 2013, and took the opportunity to find out how OSF facilitates science communication between scientists and non-scientists to make their work more transparent.

We talk about what open science is, how OSF facilitates it using science communication techniques, and whether it is possible or not.

You can follow Brian on Twitter at @brianglanz or see what he’s up to on his website.

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.