Hi, I’m Zara! I completed both my degree in Zoology and my PhD in Ecology here at the University of Glasgow (I’ve been here a long time!). My PhD explored the impact of a non-native crayfish species on Scottish ecosystems. After finishing in 2012, I moved to London for a Science Communication and Media internship at the Royal Society of Biology, before returning to Glasgow to work as a Public Engagement Coordinator with Glasgow Science Festival for over seven years. In 2019, I took up my current post as the University of Glasgow’s Public and Community Engagement Advisor.
Q: Public and Community Engagement Advisor sounds like a cool title, can you tell us a little more about the job?
A: Of course! In my current role, I facilitate public engagement by other people, rather than doing it myself. In public engagement (perhaps unlike science communication), the emphasis is on creating a two-way engagement between researchers and the public, for mutual benefit, rather than a one-way transmission of information. Essentially, I get to connect people inside and outside the university, which has led to new collaborations, shared learning, events and friendships. Sometimes I feel like a matchmaker!
The specific goal of engagement work will depend on the research. I help researchers to identify which groups they’d like to work with, and to develop plans that will maximize the impact of their engagement. Goals might include promoting new knowledge or understanding, challenging attitudes towards a particular topic, or enabling access to research by a marginalised group. It feels good to be part of a mission to make science accessible to as many people as possible.
Q: Listeners may remember your name from previous Naturally Speaking projects. What did you learn from your time here and are there any skills you have taken forward into your current job?
A: The idea for “Naturally Speaking” came from a conversation between myself and other PhD students and early career researchers in the department. We were all interested in communications and thought a podcast might be an effective (and fun!) way to share our work and experiences. After settling on a name, buying some equipment (thanks to Dan Haydon), recording the jingle (that’s my voice!) and building the website, we recorded our first episode. None of us had any previous podcasting experience, which meant we had to quickly develop and apply new skills, from recording and editing to web design and presenting. I’m sure this experience helped me secure my first science communication job. I also recently launched a podcast (The #UofGEngage Podcast) as part of my current job; the editing skills I learned nine years ago have come in handy for that!
Q: You often feature comedy in your work, how did this come about and what are the advantages of comedy as a tool for communicating scientific ideas?
A: I’ve always been a passionate consumer of comedy but didn’t think about trying it myself until an email arrived in my inbox in 2011, looking for scientists to take part in ‘Bright Club’, a public engagement project that involves academics sharing their research via stand up. Three weeks later I found myself on a stage in Edinburgh, performing crayfish-inspired material to a packed pub. ‘Bright Club’ originated at UCL in 2009 but was soon exported to cities across the UK; Edinburgh was the first Bright Club in Scotland. With funding from the University, I founded Bright Club in Glasgow, running training and events at The Admiral Bar and Stand Comedy Club. I’ve taken a step back from organising it now, but Bright Club remains a popular fixture in Glasgow’s comedy scene.
Comedy has enabled us to bring science to new audiences and unexpected places, from pubs to the Edinburgh Fringe. It also humanises us – scientists have a sense of humour too! It can help break down perceived barriers and create an informal, friendly environment that enables discussion.
Q: And finally, what do you think it takes to be a good science communicator? Do you have any advice for up-and-coming (or accomplished!) scientists when communicating their work?
A: Listening is just as important as talking. Good communicators know their audience, have listened to their interests and needs, and tailored their messaging accordingly. A genuine enthusiasm and passion for the topic also helps!