“I will say that science communication can be a very emotional experience. Not the actual communication itself, but seeing the outcome of the efforts… can be very powerful”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Chad Atkins
Where are you based?
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Who do you work for?
I’m currently a PhD student in the Chemistry Department at the University of British Columbia, but that information doesn’t define who I work for as well as it reveals who I work with. The majority of graduate programs in Canada require the completion of an independent research project which is often combined with annual teaching responsibilities; on the research side of things, I work with my two co-supervisors, Michael Blades and Robin Turner. The nature of my research is collaborative and allows me to work with a research center in close association with Canadian Blood Services, the organization responsible for managing Canada’s blood bank supplies. Who do I work for? The students I teach on a weekly basis, the people that could benefit from knowledge acquired through my research, the foundations that have financially invested in me, and most importantly – anyone interested in understanding science.
What type of science communication do you do?
My impression of this term is that it’s often associated with media; in the online world, there’s the blogs, videos, podcasts, etc., while radio and paper articles include some of the more traditional outlets.
There are excellent examples of science communication in all of these media forms, but my personal involvement in the scicomm world has been more focused on activities that include engagement and outreach. Let’s Talk Science (LTS) is a Canadian organization that seeks to take scientists out of the lab and bring them into the classroom. UBC’s LTS team runs a program that pairs a graduate student with a small group of high school students who are in the process of developing an original science fair project. Over the course of a few months, the group is led through stages of the scientific method, from creating a hypothesis to identifying controls and ultimately carrying out the experiment.
Another project near to my heart is the Science 101 program funded by the UBC Faculty of Science. This is a summer long initiative, where 20-25 adult students – none of which have any formal science background – come to campus twice a week and listen to lectures given by professors and researchers from a wide range of scientific disciplines. My role is to interact with the students over the course of the summer and ensure that they are challenging themselves to understand the material and apply some of the ideas to their everyday lives.
I also tend to find myself doing lab tours and interviews as part of a first-year science seminar class for non-science majors, but those activities may not fall under any official umbrella of science communication.
Who is your main audience?
My audience depends on the time of year, as it ranges from high school students to undergrad students during school semesters and then to adults in the summer. Realistically, my audience is anyone and everyone willing to participate or listen.
How did you get into it?
I’ve been immersed in science education and research for more than a decade, and one day it dawned on me that I had a desire to spread some of that knowledge around. As opportunities presented themselves, I jumped in head first instead of worrying about the time I would lose in the lab. Being a graduate student does come with some perks – schedule flexibility is perhaps the one I take advantage of most. I’m thankful my supervisors over the years have been very supportive of the things I do outside of research.
Why do you do it?
I think my biggest motivation is to show the public that scientists are regular people too. Behind the lab coats and lasers and test tubes are your neighbors and your friends. I pride myself on being able to connect with people on a level that ignores careers and education. At the start of the Let’s Talk Science mentorship program, the students are often hesitant talking about science or sharing their ideas; by the end of the program, they want to know everything about my life and university background and research.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Whether it’s being done online, through traditional media, or as community outreach, science communication is critical for informing the public about the world we live in. I don’t have any facts to emphasize, but science often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to public policy and government programs. I place part of the blame on the shoulders of scientists; it’s our job to inform the public about important issues they might not understand but will directly affect them moving forward.
What do you love about science communication?
The pursuit of knowledge is a special endeavour and I think deep down we all appreciate some aspect of science – whether we know it or not. The challenge of translating an idea from scientific jargon into a message that can be understood is a very gratifying experience.
What has been your favourite project?
I’m not going to pick out any one project, but I will say that science communication can be a very emotional experience. Not the actual communication itself, but seeing the outcome of the efforts (whether it be a young student winning a prize at a science fair, or an adult sincerely thanking a group of volunteers for changing his perspective on life) can be very powerful. Basically I’m saying science communication has shown me what it’s like to be a parent.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I’m hoping to expand upon the Let’s Talk Science mentorship project and dedicate some time talking about careers in science, a subject that’s often overlooked in high schools.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Figure out what options are available for you and your skills, think about which of those options you like, and then start doing it. If you want to get into writing, find the people who are writing and decide what it is that makes them good; if you want to get into podcasting, interact with the people that are doing it, etc. Don’t hesitate to be original and use some creativity – because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.