Live-Blogging The #ASC2012 – Science Communication Is What I Want To Do… Now What?

This is a session where people’s attendance has been building slowly throughout the morning… which is a shame, as a few people have missed seeing Bec Crew’s presentation at the very start, which is the one I’ve taken more notes on than any other speaker.

What follows are some post-panel observations as the internet was dodgy and I cracked open a Word document to keep track of my thoughts. By the way – I’ve noticed that today’s fashion trends are jellyfish and galaxy leggings from Black Milk.

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I will say this though about the panel overall - they’re young and have a flexible lifestyle. What about people who come into science communication recently in their post-twenties, or PhDs or postgrads who have come into this later into their careers? I also noticed that video blogging and podcasting wasn’t mentioned – but since Daniel Keogh wasn’t available, perhaps he would have brought that to the table if he were here (we missed you, Dan!).

There was an implication of a certain lassitude to be able to say “I’m going to the Solomon Islands, I can be there in two weeks,” or not double-take or pack up the family at a whim if you’re asked “Can you be here in Melbourne this week?” – or even take part a international talent competition that has them doing something that’s almost the equivalent of John Safran’s initial career-starting Race Around The World documentary series without wondering how to pay the mortgage. All of this… AND have a publication record in your portfolio to show off when you just happen to pop in to check out the Large Hadron Collider and have a cheese dinner with other science luminaries?

Clearly I’m exaggerating a little there, but there was a lot to take on, and although an audience member said, it’s clearly about passion, attitude and evidence for everyone who is starting out… but I would say that this panel’s discussion is very much biased towards the (as said by one of the panellists) being “in your twenties…” rather than a late-stage career science communicator (say, one who might not be able to “take a year off” so easily). Working in different public or private organisations does take networking to achieve – and have “itchy feet” to travel and use those experiences as conversation starters when networking.

The advantages of volunteer work was mentioned… and I question how they can manage to make a living with this, before possibly lucking out for part time jobs before finding full time employment. I’m mindful about the current issues in the UK with abuse of internships and work experience and whether there’s similar cases in Australia.

A few days ago I went to the Singapore Science Centre…” – how many of us can say this offhand? Or even “I’d like to be a trophy husband and take on opportunities wherever I want!” They don’t say that they’d like to be the next Dr Karl, or next Brian Cox, interestingly enough.

A lot of big goals about “I’d like to be paid to go into space in my lifetime!” (well, wouldn’t anyone? I would!) and I’d be interested to know how many equivalents (can there be?) of these young people from five, or even two years ago in the audience… and what happened to their careers. Maybe they’re being paid to go to space already.

Bec Crew - A love for dinosaurs and an award-winning blog!

She’s an example of how you can do science communication without the usual foundations. No professional experience, in science writing or science. She says that it can be difficult – interning is expensive. She just knew what she wanted to write about – animals and dinosaurs. Blogging is a way of backing yourself up – build a network, friends, all over the world and she suggests starting it with a friend. By brainstorming a name, something fun to do with it, it became a creative outlet.

The best way is not to expect it to be perfect. Name is ridiculous, no idea about what the overall writing would be on – “we wrote about what we love”. For her it was animals in the news, et al. What changed for her blogging style came through observing different kinds of blogs; she looked at animal news stories and led organically to new discoveries, palentology / bio blogs. She credits All sauropod vertepbra picture of the week – ahead by a tail.

She was initially inspired by a blog-post that featured dinosaur vertebra that was bizarre, fused weirdly.  What if a dinosaur had two heads? It leads her to check out papers, theories, something different, unusual. Give something to your audience isn’t getting – working hard to be accurate and a sense of humour helps. The blog has a focus on weird animals and behaviours, new species – she gives some ‘Friends of Running Ponies’. She’s passionate about it and if starting a career she says you should head this way; you run out of motivation otherwise.

“I would rarely put up a story before 3am – the posts take a lot of time to research. I don’t want to put up things that are wrong.” Be careful and put in a lot of hours and be prepared to wait for a long time before popularity! Also need to build a network; super important if you want to be encouraged and particularly in science communication from a non-science background and you have no professional network. She suggests linking to other blogs, conversing with them. She says her site has made a difference, built up organically and gets her respect – don’t have to be asking for people’s good will – you’ll find kinship with other professionals. Encourages you a lot and builds confidence in your writing over time.

Starting out blogging is handy – it’s not a traditional way, but is a great way of finding your voice and writing an original blog helps find your voice, especially if you haven’t forged it before. Put your personality out there – she’s become involved in radio, and is writing a book based on the blog. She has something different to say and blogging helped developed that voice.

Catherine Beehag - Works as science communicator for the Australian Museum.

She’s sitting with a sun bear! Inspired by a liquid nitrogen show when young! Recommends getting involved a lot – different opportunies that are available and taking on travel opportunities. Volunteered as a media officer and helps with networking. She suggests getting into Science radio and it encourages connections with people and a part of putting yourself out there.

David Murray - At the moment he’s a floating radio producer with three months on Adam Spencer’s radio show. News, politics, bit of science – not exactly a sci comm role. Loved science and talking and presenting and being in front of an audience, from the beginning. He found that the jobs he sought required more specific skills [journalism IS a trade, by the way...]

He’s volunteered at radio stations, taken part in competitions – Kontiki holidays to do travel videos; Hewlett Packard-sponsored competition behind the scenes at rock concerts to do interviews with artists. He’s taken part in these as they’re more like talent quests. Not unlike John Safran’s original appearance on Race Around The World, quite frankly.

He wanted a range of experiences in documentaries, radio, being a science writer; mentions the AYAD program, youth ambassadors program. It’s interesting that he wanted everything now and it’s not really taking a year off without working in some way. Skill up overseas is what he suggests – opportunities such as his time in the Solomon Islands.

He points out that there’s places with conflict and issues, as in the case with the Solomon Islands. Building up essential services, working with the island broadcasting corporation – training in basic aspects of radio presenting. His experiences in community radio in Australia was enough to have experience to bring to the SI organisation. As a result he has freelanced with radio Australia and current affairs programs for Radio Australia. Did cover some big stories; working as a journalist and media and communications professional.

Alexander Epstein - grew up on Flinders Island, working on sheepfarm, now works for Cosmos magazine. Finished his degree and knew that he wasn’t doing as much as he could. “Apply yourself 100% and love it, so you learn, retain and develop.” Began with an  internship with Cosmos magazine to stuff envelopes. “Really need an internship for degree, and travel – I’ll do travelling when I want.”

A lot of what he’s saying is serendipity, I think – bit of advertising, publishing and writing stories online and discovered that he wasn’t as good a writer as he hoped – thus know your limitations. Marketing on the other hand, was a strength – event management was his field. He has a friend who was working for science in public and he used that networking to do project managing and run conferences, although it’s still a big learning process. His biggest piece of advice is work out what you want to do via trial and error. Might be lucky and find like it and good at it, or bad at it. But important to find what you love and thus keep at it. He credits Sarah Wood with her networking skills and how that helps people connect.

Andrew Wight - Learned more in first two weeks in Brisbane journalism than any other time while studying. Satisfying curiosity is vital for scientists and journalists - but the time scales for scientists is longer than a journalists’ deadline that they have to meet.

Andrew started out five years ago and had no idea that sci comm was an industry. Did both science and journalism at uni and picked it off a list of dual degrees. At uni he did a research project more fun to talk about science then do eight hours with the wrong reagent! He didn’t think he had have experience to write for Cosmos, so he sought community newspapers, a big newspaper in Brisbane, ABC online, every media outlet he could. He got a Brisbane Times job and was very lucky with a general news job – that way, he could get science stories in on the Sunday papers when there was nothing else going on.

He wanted to connect with other science journalists – but connected with freelancers as it was difficult to find science journalists. Went to London to a science conference and had very nice business cards with wrong email address on them! Ended up going to the Large Hadron Collider and spent a day at a French nuclear reactor and did freelance work on that. Worked for a startup doing online news and was interested in business models –  happened to be in Melbourne, and saw an ad for sci communication.

Where do they get these travel funds from? So, he’s not working full time? Print publications – open to startup culture, programmers. Points out that there’s other careers and roles not invented yet and being open to that.

Bec Crew says she got a media degree after doing arts – knowing the industry and having a journalism rather than science perspective is useful, as you as know the layperson’s perspective and can communication can be done without the science degree after all.

One audience member says that in his opinion, you have to go down the grad diploma in journalism path – otherwise takes you longer to get the skills. If sci comm, then in many ways it’s much easier. Passion, attitude and evidence that is being demonstrated.

There’s a few jokes about young pups and old dogs (or young fawns and stags) at the conclusion of this panel – but it does have some relevance for what it means to be starting out and questions as to whether must one be a member of a younger generation to be part of the trends of science communication in the future (clearly not).

After this panel, there’s presenters pointing out that there’ll be more panels and lecture today and tomorrow that will touch on what the next-big-things will be. I’m looking forward to those too and hope it gets me thinking as much as this panel did!

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • http://processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

    An area I am increasingly becoming more interested in. It’s my impression that there may be a market for a good PR firm to liase directly with scientific institutions and write their press releases. These releases can then be shopped around to award-winning blogs, videographers and those with an interest in getting the facts out there to the general public. Perhaps that’s already happening; perhaps it’s an area which needs more attention? My wife works in PR. I’ve observed her promote everything from pharmaceuticals to charities to local government. It is a full-time job getting journalists to not only take your press releases, but also keep them in line and make sure they don’t skew the facts (as some are wont to do; apologising later, citing “well this is what our audience wants to hear, I’m sure you understand”).

    Maybe there isn’t the budget, I don’t know, but it is certainly something which can involve those who are good at fact-checking, have a passion for getting accurate information out there, but who can also connect with a wider, more general audience.

    First rule of PR: If you are not getting your message/information out there, your opponents are. There are far too many well-funded anti-science voices in the public arena which need to be counted.

  • Pingback: SoT Special – ASC2012 – Science On Top


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