“As a neuroscientist my work focused on one or two tiny parts of the brain; since becoming a science communicator, I have been immersed in topics ranging from quantum biology to geology and from cosmology to engineering and everything in between.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Carinne Piekema
Where are you based?
In the UK.
Who do you work for?
I am a freelance science communicator, so have worked for quite a few different outlets – the BBC Radio Science Unit and FQXi (http://www.fqxi.org/ – a US-based physics funder) have been my most frequent. Being freelance makes my work really varied and interesting, though it is still sometimes hard to predict when I’ll have several jobs on the go at once or when I am a lady of leisure!
What type of science communication do you do?
I write, but my main passion is creating audio packages and radio documentaries. I love using different voices and trying to create soundscapes to help explain what are sometimes incredibly complicated topics – the nature of time, the workings of the brain, for instance – to allow them come to life for my audience. For me, the quickest and most enjoyable way of learning something new is by making it a good story. I am a devoted fan of the American radio programme Radiolab which manages to narrate the most amazing and engaging stories to create that sense of wonder and discovery that is at the centre of so much good science.
Who is your main audience?
That completely depends on which organisation I am working for. Sometimes it is the highly general, domestic UK audience of BBC Radio 4, sometimes the global, multicultural background of World Service listeners; on other occasions, my audiences are much more specialist and consist mainly of experts in fields I am reporting on. Having that spread of audiences makes every project an individual challenge and requires very different approaches. I love that variation.
How did you get into it?
For most of my adult life, I was a research scientist, studying how our brains fuse together the different aspects of our memories and how this might go wrong in different neuropsychiatric diseases. But even during my PhD, one of the things I enjoyed most was talking about the science and explaining it to my parents, friends, actually to pretty much anyone who wanted to listen! During my postdoctoral position, I started writing about different aspects of science for the first time and was fortunate enough to get some of my articles published.
While the discovery of science is exciting, the everyday life of a scientist can be quite strange – uncertain, lacking in routine, tedious at times – and I started to realise that I actually enjoyed explaining science more than producing it myself.
So, after a lot of thought, I decided to leave the relative safety of my 7-year scientific career behind to become a science communicator. Several months of work experience at the Science Media Centre in London set me up perfectly for a place on the Science Media Production course at Imperial College London and the course turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life. While it was initially hard going back to being a student after working life (I hadn’t written an essay or taken an exam for years!), I look back on the year with great pleasure as I had such fun learning the practical and theoretical mechanics of making science films and audio. Undoubtedly, it has been the pivotal point of my career as a science communicator. Being taught how to communicate my personal, hard-won understanding of the scientific process is invaluable to me every day in this job.
Why do you do it?
Being allowed – even expected – to digest and understand new ideas in wildly varying fields of science all the time is possibly one of the most rewarding experiences you can expect from a job. As a neuroscientist my work focused on one or two tiny parts of the brain; since becoming a science communicator, I have been immersed in topics ranging from quantum biology to geology and from cosmology to engineering and everything in between.
Why do you think science communication is important?
There are so many reasons why science communication – and not just science communication, but good science communication – is critical and, while all have their merits, probably the most important one for me is that there is an unparalleled beauty in understanding the world around you. Sure, you can enjoy a walk in the woods just for what it is, but isn’t it all the more incredible if you realise that every single living being in that forest, including the trees and the plants, are made up of the same basic building blocks as we are? And isn’t it fascinating to know that we are happily carrying at least 500 different species of bacteria in our guts and that without them we couldn’t exist? Science is not something separate to our everyday existence. If I can help bring a little bit of that wonder to my audience, I think it is a job worth doing.
What do you love about science communication?
One of the things I really love about my work is that whenever I report on a topic outside of my direct scientific expertise, I have to go through the same process as my listeners and readers will have to go through. Working for the Foundational Questions Institute, where I report on all matters physics and cosmology, has especially been fun as I have managed to get a much better grasp of how the physical world around us might actually work. It was so exciting to go from a state of complete ignorance about, say, quantum physics and string theory, by talking directly to scientists doing potentially ground-breaking research on this topic, to comprehend how the physics of black holes might actually reveal some of the secrets of what happened during the Big Bang. Understanding the world a little better makes life more fun – and sometimes more confusing too (I won’t get into the podcast I did on the birth of time and multiple universe hypotheses!).
What has been your favourite project?
I have enjoyed most of my projects because they have all been very different. If I had to pick one, I think I would have to say that the original ‘Music to Deaf Ears’ documentary I made during my Masters at Imperial College comes high on the list. It was my first long feature, has some wonderful characters in it and, with the help of one of the auditory neuroscientists I interviewed, I was able to create a representation of what deafness actually ‘sounds’ like. It was a wonderful learning experience, both in terms of the topic as well as in developing my skills as an interviewer and radio producer.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I have my ongoing collaborations, but on top of that I have a lot of recordings lying around – wonderful material collected in Iceland, a fabulous rambunctious interview with Brian Blessed on what it is like to be at high altitude, and a little personal project called ‘Sounds of the Everyday’ – all of which I am looking forward to editing and putting up on my audio blog as soon as time allows.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Practice, gain experience, think about different platforms (radio, print, online etc.). Ask people for help. I have found that the science communication world is very open to helping others out. Many of them will have gone through the same process as you are going through and people are more than happy to give you advice. And practice telling stories. One of my first courses on my MSc at Imperial was about how to read film and, while it might have felt initially incongruous on a science communication course, I came to see how it was just one of several ways we were being shown about the different tools that can be used to convey meaning.
You can follow Carinne on Twitter at @CarinneP