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Building a Career in Science Communication

When I'm asked what sort of qualifications are needed for a job in science communication, it's often difficult to pinpoint which qualities are most important from the wide range that are required. At Techniquest in Cardiff Bay, the U.K.'s leading science discovery centre, some of our best presenters are those who have no formal science background but are gifted communicators. And yet, if you apply for a job as an education officer in a science centre, not surprisingly, most centres will ask that you have a teaching qualification and experience.

I first became interested in communicating science while studying biochemistry. During my Christmas holiday in 1984, I worked at the Science Museum on a test gallery, called Test Bed, that was a forerunner for Launch Pad, which opened in 1986. I worked there again for 6 months in 1985-86 before the gallery opened, testing exhibits with children. It was an exciting time, particularly for the children and their parents who were asked to test the prototype exhibits behind the scenes; it was a big change from the Children's Gallery where they had been previously, just pressing buttons.

I left the Science Museum at the end of my contract and eventually started a Ph.D. in neuroscience. I had enjoyed my earlier degree and felt that I wanted to learn more. During the Ph.D. years, I continued to be involved in education through private maths tuition. Then, while I was writing my thesis, a friend told me that a colleague at his school was leaving unexpectedly and that they had no cover. I expressed an interest in the job (it sounded better than the filing job I had started) and was surprised to be invited to an interview by the headmaster. Because I had no formal teaching qualification, I was taken on as a teaching assistant.

From the first day, I went solo and taught a full schedule. (I was asked if I wanted someone to sit in the back of the class, but I decided to bite the bullet from day 1--I think it was memories of student teachers and the merciless treatment they sometimes got when I was at school that spurred me on!) I had an enormous amount of support from members of the science department, who had lesson plans for every single lesson I had to teach, and who also sat in on detention for me so that I could go home each day at 3.30 to slave over my thesis. I worked in the school for 9 months before I finished my doctorate and escaped to my first postdoc, in Sydney, where I changed fields to medical genetics. I also worked one Friday per week in the university, teaching analytical biochemistry. When I returned to Britain I was keen to do another postdoc, having enjoyed my time in Sydney so much (not surprisingly!), and got a 3-year postdoc in Cardiff.

Despite enjoying lab work, I knew that I did not want to stay in research forever and was keen to work in science communication; although I really enjoyed tutoring, my stint as a teacher convinced me that I couldn't teach full-time! I approached the education director at Techniquest about getting involved with its education programme. He was so completely enthusiastic that I wrote an interactive talk on genetics for primary school children and offered to present it to local primary schools. I can remember just how excited I was when I did my first presentation. The children were so keen that I smiled all the way back to work and decided that that was what I really wanted to do full-time!

I enrolled in a Diploma in Science Communication course at Birkbeck College. Having spent so many years as a student, I was determined not to give up my job to study again, so the diploma was perfect--it was a correspondence course over 2 years with regular Friday and Saturday meetings and two summer school sessions. The course was an excellent introduction to science communication, and it was refreshing to study something completely different. For so many years I had been used to doing or writing up experiments, yet now I was writing essays about the philosophy of science, taking part in debates, writing articles about current research, or looking at the political issues surrounding the communication of science. Added to that, the other 15 students were from a wide range of backgrounds, which made for some interesting discussions.

Six months before my contract was due to expire in Cardiff, I started to look for jobs in science communication. Luckily, not long after that Techniquest advertised a post as Healthquest project manager, funded jointly by Techniquest and Health Promotion Wales. I got the job and was responsible for introducing health themes into all areas of Techniquest's educational programme, such as the science theatre, laboratory, discovery room, exhibit area, and outreach programme. When that contract ran out 2 years later, I was taken on permanently (my first permanent job!) as education projects manager, responsible for introducing new initiatives into education programmes, seeking funding, developing shows, and delivering and evaluating shows and workshops.

I now work as education and public programmes director at Techniquest. Eleven people work in the department, including those responsible for schools programmes, public programmes, technical assistance, and administration. Together with other departments such as operations and marketing, we are responsible for all the activities held in the science theatre, discovery room, planetarium, laboratory, and cyber library for our 240,000 annual visitors, as well as for our outreach activities in and around Wales.

So what should you aim for if you would like to move into a career in science communication? It probably goes without saying that a wide range of experiences is helpful. If you can't leave your job current job, you may be able to help with a BAYS (British Association Youth Section) club or run a National Science Week activity. An increasing number of people are completing master's courses in science communication. But don't forget, some of our best science communicators start as helpers on our exhibition floor; maybe there is an opportunity in your local centre. As a helper who started in the field 15 years ago, I have no doubt that it's a great grounding for a future career in science communication. Good luck!

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