Tag Archives: research


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. 


Speaking to… Becky Brooks

“people always ask interesting questions that make me think about the research in a different way. Sometimes scientists get tunnel vision with their research and I think it’s good to talk to the public about it.”

Becky Brooks

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Becky Brooks


Becky Brooks

Where are you based?

Bristol, UK

Who do you work for?

I’m a final year PhD student in Biochemistry at the University of Bristol. I work on wound healing at the cell level.

What type of science communication do you do?

I do a mixture. I’ve organised and helped with science workshops in schools, given talks at events, volunteered at festivals, and more recently I’ve been writing for a science blog I set up with a fellow scientist, Emily Coyte.

Who is your main audience?

Everyone and anyone – it depends what I’m doing, and I like to present to a variety of audiences. The blog is aimed at the general public, at those with an interest in science. This year I gave a talk on my research at an event called Skirting Science which was aimed at girls aged 13-14.

How did you get into it?

It all started with becoming a STEM Ambassador through STEMNET – this is a volunteering scheme that links teachers to scientists, which has provided me with endless opportunities to go and speak to children and adults alike about my research. From there it just snowballed – I started out by helping at local science festivals on stalls, and before long I was volunteering for more and more school events and national festivals. Now science communication is a real passion of mine.

Why do you do it?

Because I get excited by science and science communication is a great outlet for that. I just want to tell everyone about it.

Why do you think science communication is important?

I think that science in the real world can be very different to how you learn it at school – I want to show people the relevance of what they learn, and also tell them what it’s actually like to be in science. It’s also important for my work, as people always ask interesting questions that make me think about the research in a different way. Sometimes scientists get tunnel vision with their research and I think it’s good to talk to the public about it.

What do you love about science communication?

That genuine look of fascination that people get, even if you’ve only managed to get it out of one person. A couple of years ago I was volunteering on a stall at a science festival held in one of the shopping centres here in Bristol. I was showing some movies of human cells moving around, and someone who was just passing by with shopping bags suddenly did a double take and came over to talk to me about it. We ended up talking for half an hour about cells!

What has been your favourite project?

That’s a tricky one to answer – I’ve enjoyed all of them for different reasons. I really loved helping out with a workshop myself and some colleagues took to the British Science Festival last year. The theme of it straddled science and art. Secondary school children had some microscope slides of human organs to look at under the microscope, and we asked them to draw what they saw using whatever they wanted – crayons, paint, and collage, whatever. The idea was to do something creative while learning about the body, which in the end seemed to work really well.

I’ve also really enjoyed writing for the blog – whenever I get inspired by something I can just sit down and research and write about it for hours.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Other than the blog, nothing solid at the moment (very open to suggestions though!).

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Grab every opportunity, and network as much as you can, as you’ll learn so much from those that already do it. It’s a continuous learning process; I don’t think anyone is good at it straight away and it takes practise.

Don’t underestimate how useful it is helping out behind the scenes of events too. I probably learned the most from spending a week helping out at Cheltenham Science Festival as a general volunteer. I got to do a bit of everything, from moving furniture to helping out with the tech for events, but I also really got a feel for how those types of events are run and got to meet a lot of the speakers, who were willing to chat about their experiences. Above all, it was a lot of fun.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone – one of the most useful things I did recently was performing at Science Showoff – an open-mic night for science communicators that you can sign up to do. It was frightening just putting myself out there like that, but it gave me a real confidence boost.

Also, think about using social media such as Twitter to network. A lot of opportunities for me recently have come from there.

You can follow Becky on Twitter at @Becky_Brooks6 or see what she’s up to on her website.


Speaking to… Dr Marieke Navin

“We need to give people confidence to question what they read about or hear in the media and empower them to make informed decisions about important matters that affect them.”

Dr Marieke Navin
Credit: Jay Williams

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dr Marieke Navin


Dr Marieke Navin

Where are you based?


Who do you work for?

I work at the Museum of Science and Industry as the Manchester Science Festival Director

What type of science communication do you do?

I am involved in informal learning, that is everything outside of the classroom. This includes festivals, weekend and evening events, science in unusual spaces, science across all art forms…anything that is science outside of a formal or classroom setting

Who is your main audience?

Families are a core audience, but so are young independent adults who are looking for an alternative night out and older adults are a real growth audience for us.

How did you get into it?

It all started for me when I was doing my PhD. The Institute of Physics sent a box of simple, everyday kit called “Physics in a box” to the physics department at Sheffield university and one of the lecturers talked us through all the demos you could do. I was hooked! I went on to get a grant to make 20 more boxes and trained undergraduate students to take them out into schools.  Subsequently I came runner up in the Famelab competition, a national competition whereby you have 3 minutes to wow an audience about science. I won the heat in York (talking about my area of research, a type of particle called neutrinos as well as the Big Bang).  I competed in the grand final at Cheltenham science festival which opened my eyes to the world of science communication and that was the first time I realized you could enter this field professionally. This lead me to landing my dream a job as a science communicator at MOSI, which I did for 6 years before being promoted to the Manchester Science Festival Director earlier this year.

Why do you do it?

I have an absolute passion in disseminating science to a wide audience. I love the challenge of breaking complicated subjects down to the core ideas, finding the relevance and interest to people who might not consider that science is for them, or that they are able to understand it.

why do you think science communication is important?

Apart from the need to inspire the next generation of scientists, we need to give people confidence to question what they read about or hear in the media and empower them to make informed decisions about important matters that affect them.  It’s also vital to spread the word of the joy of science!

What do you love about science communication?

I love the challenge of it; finding the hook or the angle with which you’ll engage the audience and looking at different creative ways to bring science to life.  I love the variety of it; physics will always be my first love but this year for example I’m involved in a lot of neuroscience communication which is fascinating and not something I would have the opportunity to work on normally. I love the community of science communicators; there is always a pool of talented people with which to collaborate with, bounce ideas off, commission for projects and even go out for a beer with.  Finally I learn something new everyday and coming to work is a pleasure rather than a chore.

What has been your favourite project?

One of my favourite projects was called Super K Sonic Booom and was the first large-scale art meets science installation for the Manchester Science Festival, back in 2010.  An artist designed a recreation of a huge particle detector called Super Kamiokande in Japan, which was the experiment that I worked on during my PhD. It was amazing to be able to share this with a wide audience and bring to life this otherwise quite abstract detector in a visual and extremely loud way.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Yes, the Manchester Science Festival 2013 (24th October – 3rd November).   This will be the seventh Manchester Science Festival but my first as the director (although I am the only person who has worked on all the Festivals since its inaugration in 2007).   I am so excited to share the programme which I’ll be launching at the end of August.  I can’t wait.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

My number one tip is to stay in science and communicate as part of your job as a researcher.

 You can follow Marieke on Twitter at @lisamarieke


Speaking to… Dr George McGavin

George McGavin
Credit BBC

“I’m 59 now, and I’ve been a full-time TV presenter for 5 years. I hope I can an extra 5, or 10 years more. Come on, Attenborough is in his 80’s, so if he can do it, then I can! I think I’ve got a few more years in me!”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dr George McGavin

So lets go back a few years – what was it that sparked your imagination and lead you onto the career path you are on now?
Several reasons. One, I was always interested in the outside world, the world of animals and plants. As a young boy growing up in Edinburgh I had a pretty bad stammer, so the thought of doing something in languages was really not a good idea! I did enjoy english and art, but biology seemed to be what I was good at, so it seemed obvious that I would do a zoology degree at Edinburgh. I didn’t really think of any other career path.

So what happened after Edinburgh?
After finishing my undergrad at Edinburgh I went to the Natural History Museum and Imperial College to do a PhD. I had a very happy 3 years there, although it was hard work! In those days you didn’t do much in your first year, which you then regret as you only had 2 years to finish the PhD. I woke up a bit and started working like mad!

As you were at NHM, were you doing outreach too?
The outreach work really began when I was at Edinburgh during my final year. We had a scheme whereby all the final year students were attached to a primary school in Edinburgh. I thought that was really great; we would head out to the schools and I used to do all kinds of things with them as we had access to things that they didn’t – heads of animals, skulls etc. I remember I once did a rat dissection for a primary school and it caused huge alarm amongst the parents! They thought I shouldn’t show a dissection of a rat to young children (who were about 8 or 9). But the children loved it, they thought it was fantastic! There was one boy I remember, and I hope he’s now a surgeon, because he was fascinated, but kept fainting! He fainted the first time and the teachers took him out and said “oh no this is terrible we can’t have this!” but he was fighting to get back in saying “No I wan to be a Dr I want to be a surgeon let me back in!” and then he fainted again! So I hope he did become a surgeon in the end.

What is it about outreach that you like so much?
The reason I like outreach, and the reason I did it during my job at Oxford, is that outreach is incredibly useful to everybody. I think you owe it to your science and the people who funded you to share it! I certainly get a great joy form sharing my excitement for animals and ecology with as wide an audience as I can. I don’t care whether its 5 or 80 year olds, its the same deal. And it was because of this that actually resigned from my post at Oxford after 30 years in the world of academia!

What happened after you resigned?

Really I had been doing a bit if TV for about three or four years at the some time as my academic job and I began to realise that I could not do both at the same time – I need to direct my energy to one thing. The experience of what I had done gave me the push to take it on full time

I (never really) wanted to become a TV presenter. Some people thought I was absolutely mad to be giving up a tenure position at Oxford University, but it all happened quite quickly.

It was December 2007, and I was on the way home from a Friday of tutorials. At one point I realised that what was important to me was to share my excitement and my interest in the natural world with an audience. My thought process went something like this: in a tutorial class I would have an audience of 4. If I was on a cruise ship, which I would occasionally do, I would have an audience of maybe 400. But if I did this on TV I would have an audience of 4million. So, I went home that night and wrote my resignation letter. I didn’t even have a beer, just typed it out! And that was it. It was a little bit scary for a couple of weeks…

How did this transition go?

Yes you do learn as you go along and you get better at it but you need to have the ability to communicate in the first place  –

Being on TV is not something that you know how to do instinctively, you learn as you go along. I get tonnes of emails from individuals asking “how do I get on TV? What do I need to do to get on TV?” And I rarely, if ever, answer these questions because I think you need to become an expert in something, and then go onto TV.

When I was younger I would never have considered for a minute that I would ever be on the box. If you had said to me at 15 (when my stammer was rather bad), “George, you are going to be a university lecturer for 30 years, and then become a TV presenter.” I would have laughed in your face and thought the idea absurd!

I think these things just happen. Whilst being at Oxford I became known as someone with an expertise in bugs, arthropods etc. So when there were news items I would get calls for a sound bite. At first was very scary, but I eased into it. Then it grew bigger and I started doing local BBC radio things a lot. After that it escalated again: I was asked to be a scientific advisor to Sir David Attenboroughs’ Undergrowth series. I was simply blown away. The following year they asked me “Would you like to go to Borneo?” I thought it was the same deal, to be a scientific advisor for the programme. But this time it was to be ON the programme! So I said yes, of course. And the next years we did The Lost Land of the Jaguar, and The Lost Land of the Volcano, both of which were successful. After that, I decided I could make a career out of it!

Which TV programme has been your favourite to work on so far?
Well I hope it hasn’t happened yet; I hope I still have great things ahead of me! But they’ve all been interesting in their own different ways. I thought The Lost land of the Volcano was very very good. And The Dark, which we did last year, was also excellent.

George McGavin
BBC: Strange Science of Decay

There was a programme I did in a glass box in Edinburgh which we just filled with food, and watched it decay over 8 weeks. That was called Afterlife: the Strange Science of Decay and that won 5 awards, it was a huge programme!

What was the scariest programme you’ve ever worked on?
Oh, thats easy. The scariest one I’ve ever had to do was last year when we made a programme with Dr Alice Roberts called Prehistoric Autopsy. It was scary because it was filmed “as live”, it’s been the biggest piece of TV I’ve ever done.

So we had three studio days with an 8 camera shoot and talk-back in our ears, as well as auto-cue on the camera. So even though it wasn’t actually live, it was filmed as live, so you were on camera the whole time. I had voices in my ears going “Right George, in 5-4-3-2-1 camera 2″ so then I’d turn to camera two and say my line. It was an adrenaline rush; I may have looked calm but beneath the surface it was pandemonium! That was a steep learning curve.

Had you had any training?
No, I hadn’t. I’m glad I got through it though, because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Anything from now on has definitely got to be easier.

What is one of the best things about working in TV?
One of the great things about this job is that you get to go and see some great things, areas of the world and animals that you would otherwise never see. If I had stayed in Oxford I would have maybe had one trip a year, I would have had to apply for grants to get funding which can be nightmare.

When working with TV they’d say “Right George, we’re filming Orang-Utans in Sumatra. Could you be at the airport tomorrow morning  at 5am?” And off I go! I don’t have to organise anything, I just turn up.

I used to think it was glamorous, going off to Guyana, or Venezuela. But the reality is that the airports are hellish and flying is hellish. I look forward to the days that we can be virtually transported.

On top of that, I hate long haul flying, especially in economy: 8/10 hours in economy is not conducive to you feeling great the next day.

What’s it like to film in places like the jungle?

George McGavin
BBC: The Lost Land of the Tiger

We’re not living it up in a hotel.

Filming  The Dark we spent a weeks in the jungle, and for one sequence we abseiled 150/160 feet into a crevasse in a Venezuelan tepui. We then spend 5 days in total darkness filming. It wasn’t comfortable: we were wet, cold, hungry etc, but the rewards! We filmed a new species of fish in the cave and a new species of cave cricket. It was an amazing experience.

I think audiences aren’t fooled by what they see. They want the real thing- the whole experience. They want to see you uncomfortable, cold, wet tired, hungry, bitten alive etc. That makes good TV.

So the perfect job for you then?
I think it is. I actually thought the museum job at Oxford was perfect for me: I’m doing teaching, research, going on the occasional trip, working in a fabulous museum. And then suddenly, at the age of 55 to get a second most amazing ob in the world doing TV presenting is amazing! I know that there are many people out there rather jealous. They thought “why should he get 2 brilliant jobs in his life?” I’m very lucky!

So, you’ve done live, TV, and writing! You’ve done a bit of everything!

I guess so. I think now I’ve written about 14 books, not all as sole author, some as a contributor or an editor. I’ve written a couple of kids books too. In fact, my new kids book comes out in October. Its a Bugs book, published by Walker Books. And it’s a beautiful pop-up book: as you open the pages scorpions and cockroaches appears out of the pages! So that’s aimed at young kids.

Which medium do you find the best at bringing across your ideas?

They’re very different animals. A text book I wrote called Essential Entomology took me a year to write, and it’s a very solitary existence. And even though I have a stammer, I’m a fair extrovert – I like being out there doing stuff! And I love a big audience, so my favourite is actually live talks.

The trouble with TV is you don’t have an audience. You have a camera man who is interested in the shots: is it over exposed? Then you have a director who is interested in other things, you’ve got a sound man whose merely there to make sure the words are intelligible, and there are no helicopters or dogs in the background.

But you do have to remember that you have a virtual one, which you can’t see. It’s very difficult to engage emotionally with an unseen audience. That’s why live stuff is so much more enjoyable because you can work the audience. It’s really a performance art: the best speakers you’ve ever heard are the ones that regard it as a performance.

It’s impossible to tell your audience, whether students or not, what they need to know in an hour. That’s what books, libraries and personal study time is for. What you’ve got to do in that hour is to fire them up, to inspire them, to make them excited and make them want to go and find out more! The best people on their back legs in front of an audience are the ones that make it fun, entertaining and exciting. There is no excuse for a dull lecturer who stands up and drones: you put people off.

Well we’ve all had one or two of those…
We’ve all had them, and it’s a great shame. Lots of universities tend to put that sort of person in front of the 1st years, and the inspirational ones in front of the older students. And that’s just the wrong way around! They should be putting the inspirational ones in front of the first years. By the time you reached your third year you should be self-motivated enough!

So that’s what you’re doing: you’re simply getting that fire going, which will hopefully blaze away for the rest of their lives. If you can get the fire going in an 8 year old, it will blaze away for the rest of their lives.

Do you think educating young kids in science is important?

I think education for young kids is very very important, as the name implies “Primary education” should be the most important education. I think between the years of 5 and 8 you’ll learn more than you’ll ever learn.

I think that the most inspirational teachers should be put in front of young kids, not the older ones; you need to catch them early. If you wait until they’re 14 or 15 then girls and boys and iPods become important and you might lose them.

So what else is next for you?
So there’s the children’s book in October.

I’m just finishing filming for a BBC 1 documentary on swarming animals which will be out this autumn . We filmed honey bees in California: I had about 80 thousand bees all over me. We filmed Bats in Austin, Texas where I was hanging at the top of a cave entrance with thousands of free-tail bats flying around my head and peeing in my face (great stuff!). We filmed reindeer, red crabs and much more.

I’m also working on a three part series coming out next spring which is called Planet Primate (or something like that). For this show we’ve been around the world filming lemurs, aye-ayes, chimps, orang-utans, macaques. We even got some behaviour that has never been filmed before, which is unbelievable. So that’s going to be a big series, and I’m hopeful that will be the biggest thing I’ve done yet.

Then, in three weeks time I’m off to film infant orang-utans which will be super cute, obviously! But that’s the bit that I’ll do the final part of the series, talking about the fact that although there are more than  600 primate species in the world, more than half of them are endangered. And there is only one species of primate that is doing well, and that’s us.

So it will be an eye-opener.
I think it will be quite amazing. Some of the behaviours we filmed won’t be able to go on the show as they are quite extreme. As the show will be an 8pm airing, on BBC1 when there will be young children watching it. So unfortunately some of it will have to become archive material, most of all the bit where a group of male chimpanzees rip a live monkey apart. Remove the heart and eat it whilst it was still beating.

That must have been quite frightening to watch?

I often get asked this. One instance people remember is when I crawl into a hollow log in a forest and it was about 80ft long, and full of scorpions, spiders, bits and pieces. And I wasn’t scared. The excitement of being there, the drama of being there and finding out what was in there was so high that you forget completely that there might be something in there that might kill you. So on the principle that great TV often involves the presenter being bitten or stung by something, it’s usually fine!

For those of us who would like to go into TV presenting, what golden nuggets of advice do you have?
I think someone like that is born rather than made, but you have to have  passion for what ever it is you are doing, whether its geology or particle physics. You need to be thinking you would rather be doing this than anything else in the world. And if you don’t have that I don’t think you can really start out in TV.

Anything else?

I’m 59 now, and I’ve been a full-time TV presenter for 5 years. I hope I can an extra 5, or 10 years more. Come on, Attenborough is in his 80’s, so if he can do it, then I can! I think I’ve got a few more years in me!

Speaking to… Caren Cooper about citizen science

Caren Cooper

This feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Caren Cooper

One type of science communication is getting big. Citizen science is getting big: volunteer computing, volunteer thinking, volunteer data collection.

Caren Cooper, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithica, New York, is part of a lab that is taking citizen science very seriously, and there are some great reasons why.

In this podcast I speak to Caren about her research, and how citizen science has helped her set up new initiatives. We also talk about what the citizens get out of it, and how they give Caren a new perspective on her research.

In the podcast we also talk about Caren’s new venture: a book about citizen science, so if you know any citizen scientists, or someone who is using citizen science as part of their research, then please do get in touch with Caren either via Twitter at @CoopSciScoop or via the Ornithology Lab at Cornell.

Speaking to…Lizzie Crouch

Lizzie Crouch

This feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Lizzie Crouch

Lizzie Crouch is a freelance science communicator working on a myriad of projects ranging from project managing Robert Winston’s website, to working to get designers and scientists to collaborate with the Design Science project.

In this podcast Lizzie tells of her experience in science communication as a freelancer, and that even though she has an absolute ball doing it, it’s not always easy.

You can follow Lizzie on Twitter at @Lizzie_Crouch or check out her latest projects on her website