My academic journey started at the University of Glasgow, when I arrived to study for an undergraduate degree in Zoology. During this time, I got to know the staff, went on expeditions, and joined a lot of societies. I then ventured down to London to join the National History Museum/Imperial Collage London to study for an MSc in Taxonomy and Biodiversity, before returning to Glasgow to do a PhD with Kathryn Elmer and Barbara Mable on the evolutionary genomics of salamander colouration.
Post academia, my work has been a bit eclectic: I’ve worked at a couple of science festivals, produced podcasts, consulted on creative works like short movies, and, mostly, I’ve worked as a science writer at the National Physical Laboratory, creating learning materials for a range of topics in measurement science.
Right now, most of my outreach work is focused on podcasting: I host and produce a podcast for the Springer-Nature journal Heredity, where I mostly interview authors about their work, and I help Dr Saeeda Bhatti and children from Glasgow schools create science podcasts with the school-based project STEM in the Gorbals. The latter is the brain-child of Saeeda, who does a fantastic job of bringing the science happening in Glasgow’s universities into low-income communities around the city, and beyond.
Q: What did you learn from your time at Naturally Speaking?
A: A lot – they were fun, creative, collaborative times. We basically just had to learn on the fly: we learnt how to create scripts, approach people for blogs and podcasts, edit written and audio content. We had to figure out the technical, creative and political stuff together. We stumbled a lot, but it was a good low-pressure space to develop these skills, which is good, as I think it took me a year to redesign that logo. It also helped that our PhD supervisors supported us, as well as Institute Head Dan Haydon, who was always in our corner and really made us feel like we were doing something of value for the Institute.
For most of my jobs and outreach now I need to contact people out of the blue, arrange interviews, edit audio and written content, write blurbs, deal with creative licences and create social media posts and artwork. I need to make sure the science I am communicating is accurate and accessible outside of academia. Naturally Speaking is where I learnt to do all that. At the risk of hyperbole, I’m not sure I would be doing any of what I am today without that space to grow.
Q: What’s your approach to science communication?
A: All communication is storytelling, but it’s really important that you approach science communication as crafting a story. You need to know your audience: other researchers may want more details, kids mostly want fun facts, politicians and industry want the impact and applications… you need to use the right words and the right structure to engage these different audiences. You also need to get comfortable with the idea of ‘accurate enough’: if you can cut complicated ideas from the story, cut them, if not, simplify them or try to think of a good metaphor. I recorded a really interesting interview on scientific storytelling with Prof. Enrico Coen for the Heredity Podcast, and he explains the art of scientific storytelling brilliantly. You can listen in to the full episode here.
Q: You cover quite a diverse array of audiences, any advice for how to manage this?
A: Learning how to communicate in different styles to different audiences requires a lot of different influences. I needed the formal education to penetrate the technical stuff and develop a core ethic for accuracy and robustness. I needed extracurriculars and work experience to expose myself to new styles and audiences. And I needed the personal interest to explore different fields and mediums: you probably won’t just stumble into podcasting or video creation, but the opportunities are there, and as the interests have emerged, I’ve perused them. But none of it is hard: expose yourself to a lot of content and be stubborn and you will get there. It just takes time.
That said, you also want some harsh critics. You want your work to come back a sea of corrections: if you don’t get a little mad and defensive at people’s comments at first, they aren’t going to hammer home the parts of your work you really need to develop. I’ve been blessed with a lot of brutally honest supervisors, collaborators and editors who’ve really cared about seeing my work improve.
Q: How do you think about the goals of science communication for different audiences?
A: For STEM in the Gorbals, it’s getting children in low-income parts of Glasgow interested in science and bridging the ‘ivory tower’-community divide. If we can get researchers into local communities and connect their work to peoples’ lived experience, and hopefully open some opportunities for the kids, job done. An added bonus is that we give the pupils ownership over their projects: we help and guide, but they are embedded in the entire process and have creative control throughout. If you are working with 5-year-olds at a science festival though, anything that shows joy and wonder on their faces is more than enough.
For the Heredity Podcast, it’s largely about raising the journal’s profile, but for me it is also about giving the authors the opportunity to informally talk about their work and experiences. That said, the best part is when someone reaches out having enjoyed an episode: I remember one Twitter interaction with a Portuguese arts student where we talked about oxidative stress and physiological constraints on the evolution of biological sex after she listened to an episode. It was pretty cool seeing someone discover a whole new world of ideas from something you helped create (however small that part may be).