“it really boils down to three things: People, Stories, Science!”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Hazel Gibson
Where are you based?
University of Plymouth
Who do you work for?
I’m currently doing a NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) funded PhD at Plymouth University, so most of my outreach is done through the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science here. I also do some of my own outreach stuff, for example I volunteer up the the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter on their Local Finds handling station and talk on the Skeptics in the Pub circuit.
What type of science communication do you do?
I love all kinds of science communication! My background is in person to person, object based communication, which I learned at the Natural History Museum in London. I have done science shows (Rocks the House, all about plate tectonics and volcanoes is my all time favourite) and workshops with school groups. I really enjoy science stand up, which I have had the privilege to do a couple of times, and talking to the Skeptics in the Pub folks. I also do events for the University like the Dino Runway (where we get children to walk like a dinosaur!) and the Mount Merapi volcano hazard workshop. I blog on my own website and use twitter when I find something geologically, scientifically or communication-ally interesting.
Who is your main audience?
Anyone who wants to know about geology. Basically my audience has always been broad, from pre-school age children, right up to their great grandparents, I am willing to talk to anyone and everyone about the wonders of geology. At the moment for University we focus most of our interactions on people who are 16 and older, but doing activities like the Dino Runway means I also get to speak to children under 16 about rocks as well. And lets face it, an 8 year old can quite often know more about dinosaurs than me, so often I count myself as audience and not the person I’m speaking to!
How did you get into it?
I started doing science communication formally when I began work as a Ranger at Mount St Helens in Washington State. Talking to the public, doing shows and using specimens to interact with ideas about the volcano are very much a part of the role out there and I really caught a bug for public engagement that I haven’t lost since. But I suppose if you want to know when I really first got started, I used to tell my sister about the pebbles on the beach when I was 7 or 8, so I guess that is when I REALLY began!
Why do you do it?
I do science communication for two main reasons. The first is that I absolutely love it. Not only the chance to talk about my favourite subject in the world, but all the different people that I get to talk to all have such interesting ideas and stories. I really find it exciting when I’m talking to someone about, say a lump of granite (think kitchen counters if you are unsure what that is), and they have this moment of realization that they knew more than they thought they did about it – and that actually science isn’t that scary after all. I think it’s great when you see a kid teaching their parents something, as well as when a parent teaches a child. I like it when you can share something funny or silly about science to show that it isn’t just labcoats and headlines. I like that science communication can be simple or complicated and that everyone can engage with science, no matter what their experience or abilities. Which leads me to the second reason I do it – I think it’s really important…
Why do you think science communication is important?
Science communication is important for a whole host of reasons. It’s important because science is fun and not everyone will have had the opportunity to realise this. Science gives you the chance to question your world and indulge your natural curiosity. It’s reliable and debatable at the same time. I think science communication is also important because I think everyone should be able to critically question evidence that is put in front of them as ‘fact’. No-one should be afraid of getting into a debate about something they think is valuable, be it the pH of the soil in your garden making the hydrangeas grow in different colours or the use of genetic modification in food crops. This leads me to the other reason science communication is vitally important. Science is a part of our lives – all of us, whether we realise it or not – and being able to engage with big issues like: natural hazards, energy resources, pharmaceutical developments, food resources, physical and mental illness and many other topics, is really essential. If EVERYONE doesn’t feel confident with challenging concepts in science then we are all worse off, as decisions that affect all of us are made by a few people who ‘understand’. Science communication is the first hand up that ladder; by making science accessible and interesting, it makes people more able to ask questions about things they are less certain of and makes them better able to join important discussions.
What do you love about science communication?
I kind of spoke about this before, but it really boils down to three things: People, Stories, Science! I love the people that I meet doing science communication, both my fellow practitioners and the people I am speaking to. I adore the stories you get to tell – the rock the size of an oven that a six year old can pick up because it’s full of gas bubbles (pumice), the pond creatures that build a shell out of whatever is in their environment and once used gold flakes and pearls (caddis flies) and the stories that you get to hear, about the time that someone’s little boy discovered a new species of beetle or when a grandmother and her granddaughter found their first fossil. But my favourite thing is the science itself – it’s so cool and so much fun and every question you get answered sparks thirteen more!
What has been your favourite project?
My favorite project that I have been involved with is the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival – mainly because it encompasses so many kinds of science communication – I have been an air steward on a virtual flight back through time along the Jurassic Coast, taught a 14 year old how to use a portable scanning electron microscope to look at micro-fossils, panned for iron pyrite and other minerals, taken fossil walks and identified beach discoveries all over the May bank holiday weekend. Its also a good place to geek-out about geology as you are surrounded by people who feel the same! But if I had to pick one activity to be my favourite it would be the part of Rocks the House show at the Natural History Museum where we used cold custard to demonstrate how the mantle can be a solid and still flow – it’s a bit messy and a bit gooey, but a really great demonstration of a complicated idea – and everyone who tries it really enjoys it!
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I have just joined STEMNET in the South West and am hoping to start doing some more activities with them, I am in the middle of developing a new outreach project for older students to go with the Dino Runway at Plymouth and I am very nervous, but excited, to be going to the Fringe in Edinburgh with Skeptics in August! I’m also really looking forward to Ada Lovelace Day on October the 15th where I’ll be doing a bit (set, gig?) about women in geology.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
I think the first thing to try is to volunteer – it’s tricky and can be difficult if you are working as well, but even one day a month can be valuable and you learn so much from it. Try and keep up with science communication activities in your area and again, ask if they need help (check the British Science Association for things in your neighbourhood). Be enthusiastic about your skills – if you love your subject and you have something unique to offer then tell everyone about it. Use your networks and if someone offers you an opportunity – go for it! Better to try it and learn from any mistakes than to never give yourself the chance. Above all, believe in yourself – if you want it and work hard enough, you can get there.