Science outreach and public engagement

I’ve posted before about being involved with Science Grrl, working in the lab, doing stuff for my school’s Project Juno and Athena SWAN committees and, I guess, generally being an all round nerd. I sort of got into this properly early on in my PhD but before that I’d been involved with running the student physics society so it was a pretty natural thing to do. A lot of what I’ve been able to be involved with is because I’ve volunteered regularly to do outreach/engagement work.

Me, talking about gravitational waves in Cottier’s Theatre, Glasgow

The first thing I did was to take a few courses run by the university that were relevant to science outreach and public engagement (I’m just going to refer to both as outreach from here on so I don’t have to keep typing that – I recognise they aren’t quite the same). I did Introduction to Public Engagement, Presenting with Impact and Scientific Writing. Then I entered the 3 Minute Thesis competition (summarise your thesis in 3 minutes and if you do it better than anyone else you can have a prize).

I did ok, but I didn’t win. However, I did get some great feedback and a bit of a taste for talking about my work. A few months later I entered the first UK Science Slam (talk about your work in a fun/exciting way for 10 minutes, possibly using props and if you do it better than anyone else you can have a prize). I came runner up, collecting a mini iPad. That was fun. That had me fully hooked.

Meanwhile I’d been doing bits of lab demonstrating for undergraduate students and I’d been helping out at university open days. Talking about science was fun. Sharing science was fun. Encouraging people to do science was fun.

There were no more events like that coming up in the near future so I started Googling for other outreach opportunities. I joined The GIST, a Glasgow student-run science magazine and started writing articles for them, that was fun too. I discovered that someone was trying to set up a chapter of Science Grrl in Glasgow and I went along to their next meeting – soon I had volunteered to run an even for Ada Lovelace Day. Not long after that I was officially one of the two co-leads for the group.

Around that time I got a call from the graduate school asking if I could represent Glasgow at the 2nd UK Science Slam – an event in London. I said yes. This time I won (a case of beer and a pair of boxing gloves… weird but still nice to win). Then I got involved with organising the Pint of Science Festival in Glasgow, finding venues and organising speakers.

Once people know that you do this stuff you get more and more requests to do it. I gave talks for the GIST to encourage people to join. Talks for the graduate school about public engagement opportunities in Glasgow, I helped to organise more Science Grrl events (from talks to kids events to a science-themed ceilidh) and I gave talks to the Glasgow Skeptics group and to the student physics and astronomy societies. I went into schools to talk to kids about science and to run fun experiments. I wrote articles for the GIST and was invited to write a film review of The Theory of Everything by The Conversation Magazine. I ran events at both Explorathon’s (European Researcher’s Night) in Glasgow.

I met Major Tim Peak, Maggie Aderin Pocock and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. I organised the first Scottish Soapbox Science event as part of the Glasgow Science Festival. I spoke at the second Glasgow Pint of Science Festival. One of the oddest things I’ve done is Lady Scientists Stitch and Bitch – a spoken word theatre event written by a group in Edinburgh which is about historical women in science. There’s a chance I’ll get to do that one again soon. A little while ago I heard that I am to be officially awarded (jointly with two others) the first Hunter Cumming Prize for Public Engagement (I already have it but the official bit hasn’t happened yet). That was nice. That’s going on the CV.

I’ve had a lot of fun, although these days I need to turn a lot of things down because I simply don’t have time. I’m considering whether I’d like a job in this but most of the job listings I see want candidates with qualifications in management or strategic planning to apply – I don’t have that. I do have a lot of experience in events planning and management and in science communication but that doesn’t seem to matter.

It’s ok. I didn’t do this stuff so I could get a job in it – I did it because it was fun and because I thought it was important. My CV is shiny and I have plenty of stuff to talk about in interviews. Maybe I’ll do it professionally one day, maybe not, I’ve never been one for planning my career out in much detail.

However, if you’re in science, I can’t recommend science outreach and public engagement enough. I’ve met a lot of brilliant people and I’ve learned a huge amount. Plus it’s a lot of fun. You kind of owe it to the taxpayers who fund your grant and you owe it to yourself too – you’ll understand your own work better if you force yourself to explain it to others. Go out there and share your knowledge.

Originally posted here:


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