Diary of a British Scientist, Part 2: Brushing up on Communication Skills


OK, so after deciding that I wanted to move from the lab into science communication (see my first diary article), I had some major route-planning to do. I usually travel fairly haphazardly, but perhaps a change of career required less of a "hope for the best" attitude.

The first thing to do was completely revamp that dated academic CV. The all-important list of publications in high-impact scientific journals suddenly seemed less important to me. It felt great to abandon the stifled format of an academic research CV and attempt to reinvent myself within a more punchy packaging. This was the first hurdle.

After removing my list of publications in not-so-high-impact journals and my ever-growing list of useful laboratory techniques, I was faced with the rather sad realization that I was left with very little in the way of skills or experience to document. Nevertheless, it still felt good to dust off the cobwebs.

So what communication skills had I developed in my time so far as a scientist? In general, scientists tend to acquire and develop communication skills only if and when they need to. From my experience, there appears to be little room in research to devote to either personal or staff development in a more formal training environment. I have already mentioned that writing a Ph.D. thesis, research manuscripts, and several grant proposals does not mean that I am a science writer of any description.

And although I have presented my work at many meeting and conferences, it would be naive and unrealistic of me to consider myself as an effective science communicator. The nature of the laboratory environment means that I often have to be able to communicate effectively in teams and disseminate my findings to wider specialist and nonspecialist audiences. But how could I prove this to potential employers, as on paper I have never left the lab? I found this a daunting task, to say the least.

I decided to take two approaches: one, to improve my general writing skills, and the other, to become more involved in issues such as "the public understanding of science." As a first step, I set up a meeting with the University Information Office, which produces many newsletters for university staff members and students as well as for wider audiences. I could almost see the editors rubbing their hands with glee--an innocent fool volunteering to do some of their hard graft for nothing. At very short notice, they have asked me to produce several articles on wide-ranging topics. Most of them have had a scientific slant, but I also found it very valuable to cover subjects I had no prior knowledge of. In addition, I found writing book reviews a simple way of exercising my writing skills and getting something to press quickly. At least now I am familiar with the whole writing, editing, and publishing process. The written word no longer seems like such a mystery.

If I want to be a successful science writer or journalist, it is obviously very important for me to think about the audiences I want to address. In the past I have always considered the public as being a huge unknown entity from which I am very far removed. The time had come to familiarize myself with the public and start to think about what science means to them and how they are affected by scientific issues. First, I have started to pay more attention to how science is reported in the media. In light of the genetically modified foods debate, it has actually been quite difficult to avoid analyzing how scientific issues can dominate the public domain. In addition, I have gotten involved with a few public understanding of science projects.

A few months ago I would have said it was impossible to conduct an immunology lesson in a class full of excitable 6-year-olds. That was the challenge I took on after getting involved with a local Teacher-Scientist Network. The aim of this project is to bring real-life science and scientists into the classroom, to enthuse children about the wonders of science, and generally to heighten their awareness of scientific issues.

I had envisaged talking to groups of sixth formers about the complexities of the immune system, but somewhere along the line I got partnered with an infant school. I thought it would be impossible for me to make an impact on a 6-year-old's understanding of science, but with A LOT of imagination I have managed to invent many games and a whole new language to explain the joys of the immune system to this impressionable audience. In comparison, organizing Science Engineering and Technology week events for GCSE [high school diploma] students has been a walkover!

So now I am at the stage where I have some solid experience and proof of my skills as a science communicator to include in my new smart CV and am living in the hope that all my hard UNPAID toil must soon pay off!

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