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.