And you may ask yourself…well, how did I get here?

Sarah: I’ve always been interested in how people end up in the jobs they currently inhabit. I’m sure I’ve been considered nosey, or worse, in my probing questions regarding career choices, subjects studied at university, how to balance family and other commitments with work, and the role of chance. Recently I’ve been involved in interesting discussions with fellow members of the Australian Science Communicators and others regarding the job title of ‘science communicator’: what does it mean? How do you know when you are one? Given that my role here at Bridge8 is ‘Science Communications Manager’, and just in case you were feeling a little nosey yourselves, I thought I’d give you a brief and slightly self-indulgent history of how I ‘got’ here.

If you want the short version, here it is: I had interesting and relaxed parents. I got lucky. I love science and its processes. I found great mentors. I love writing.

If you’d like more detail, please read on…..

After a childhood filled with turning over stones to find the critters underneath, examining rock formations on camping trips and holed up doing homework in the study with Mum as she completed her 3rd degree, I finished school way back in 1989. Following a year of earning money and traveling, I ended up studying medicine. Just because I kind of liked science and I kind of thought I’d like to help people. In the 1990s, studying medicine didn’t require achieving near 100% in the final year of school, and neither did it require a grueling entry exam and interview. Which is a shame in a way, because I actually didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for. This point was finally hammered home in 3rd year, when we spent 1 day a week in the Royal Adelaide Hospital. The dismal, grey, feudal RAH. Full of sick, old, dying people. That’s full on when you’re 20 with no emotional resilience.

Crisis! Another year off.

Eventually I came back, and stepped nervously sideways into a Bachelor of Medical Science, which involves completing the equivalent of an honours science year and adding it to the 3 years of the medical program to complete the bachelors degree. Making this change was aided in no small part by some fantastic advice from an experienced doctor and mentor in Professor Jane Vernon-Roberts. And guidance from my parents, who maintained a relaxed attitude and knew I’d find my niche in the end.

It turns out switching to the B Med Sci was a really good decision. By some sort of weird luck, I ended up in the laboratory of Professor Sarah Robertson, then a relatively new PhD awardee in the cross-over field of reproductive biology and immunology. Sarah would become the central figure in my life as a researcher, guiding me through both my honours year and a PhD. Sarah also was instrumental in setting me on my way as a communicator. Being immunologists in an obstetric and gynaecology department was a blessing in disguise. Whenever we presented our work to members of our own department, we had to clearly explain all the immunology ‘stuff’ so they could follow the story. Likewise, whilst describing our projects at immunology conferences we needed to provide clear and simple information on the reproductive system, assuming that most of the audience would have no background in this area. Good communication was critical.

Sarah also ensured I was an active member of the South Australian Branch of the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR), where I performed several roles (including a year as media officer) and came into contact with additional mentors in researcher and manager Dr Moira Clay and local media identity Keith Conlon. With their advice in my ears, and keen to develop my communication skills more formally, I decided to take on a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication (by correspondence) at Central Queensland University, which I’ve juggled part-time with other commitments ever since (2 subjects to go! – will I ever get there?).

So, at that stage I had lots of mentors, a PhD and had commenced studies in science communication. Good. I was on track for a great research career in Adelaide, with some communication and PR on the side.

What happened next? Well, I got married and moved to Jakarta. Naturally.

In Jakarta I quickly tired of cheap foot massages, playing tennis and sleeping in (no hate mail please!). Before the brain rot set in permanently,  I sent a desperate email to the Australian Embassy doctor begging him, ‘please, don’t you know anyone who would employ a researcher?’. He suggested I try Navy Medical Research Center #2 (NAMRU-2). I did, and by some weird tropical chance, they needed an immunologist. Thus by pure serendipity I entered the fascinating world of malaria biology and assisted in studies addressing how the human immune system attempts to counter this amazing parasite. In doing do, I found another great mentor in Dr J. Kevin Baird, a highly experienced epidemiologist and stickler for the scientific process.  NAMRU-2 employed me for nearly 3 years, during which time I also did some writing for Trends in Immunology and Trends in Parasitology to keep my communication skills ticking over.

Babies were on the agenda when we returned to Adelaide, and I’ve been lucky enough to have 3 gorgeous kids, for whom we do our best to expose to critter-hunting, rock formations and mutual homework sessions in amongst studying marine life at Yorke Peninsula and discussions about whether God (or indeed anyone) made the dinosaurs. My current mentor Dr Kristin Alford has employed me at Bridge8 since 2007, where I have been lucky enough to work on many diverse and interesting science and technology-related projects, including AccessNano, TEDxAdelaide, scicommunity and Big Ideas in Science. During this time it’s become clearer to me that’s its the writing about science that I love. All science, any science, just let me write about it!

And so here I am. I think I can be described as a science communicator because I love to write and I love science.

So, that’s me. But what’s your story? What do you think defines the role of science communicator, and how did you become one? Give us a brief summary in the comments below, or link us up with a more detailed description on your own blog or website.

Comments

  1. David Bicknell says:

    Mine was a similar story in some ways, and diverged later. I was very interested in ‘natural science’ as a child, collecting snakes, scorpions, insects, wandering the bush and wading through swamps. I wanted to study something ‘outside’, and marine science was my first choice, but it wasn’t available in Western Australia, so I went into agriculture (which fortuitously provided a cadetship and employment.

    That job was in the country and straight into dealing with farmers under stress at the time. Good personal communication and developing credibility was needed, and I worked at it. Having long hair (once upon a time!), an earing and a beard made it harder. I studied communication for a year after graduating and working for six years, and that has stayed with me too.

    I get a lot of enjoyment from sharing information, and helping people to write clearly and with purpose, so I end up doing a lot of editing and collating and organising information (mainly for the web). So, I am a member of the ASC and APEN (Australasian Pacific Extension Network) and have been in and out of other similar groups.

    I get more absorbed in reading books like ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’, ‘Death sentence’ and ‘Weasel words’ than most fiction stories. So it will be no surprise that most writing and speaking I see and hear in my work is very good at ‘keeping my disgust fresh’.

    Why stay in the science communication field? Because I like the work, I believe there are important changes that need to happen, and good communication is part of the way to get it happening. By the way, I am not a ‘science communicator’ in the usual sense: I am more an extension person, that will use any of the change management options to achieve a planned change. Science communication is one part of that, and also includes social communication, education, incentives, legislation and so-on.

    • Kate Haggman says:

      It’s amusing to hear about the books you all like reading. It’s precisely because I am a communicator that I CANNOT read non-fiction outside the office. I feel like I’m still working. Science fiction provides me with a distraction from ‘the grind’ and my science fix at the same time.

      • David Bicknell says:

        We could get into book stories. I read probably two science fiction stories a week, several who-dunnits, at least one photography magazine, browse Tin Tin or Asterix, watch several science fiction or drama videos and so-on. And listen to one or more audio books on long work trips. And…browse and read books on writing, editing, professional effectiveness, critical thinking, web design. and then again, there are the blogs, web sites, emails (private ones), forums, reviews etc. To blast allof that out, I go cycling at least three times a week for an hour or more.

        I guess my combination of work and home is just ‘life’! and by the way, I try not to separate that too much when communicating with people.

      • sarahkeenihan says:

        Hi Kate,
        Strangely enough, I steer clear of science fiction! I find myself being too critical of the science aspects of it eg ‘as if THAT would ever happen’ and other non-helpful critiques.
        I do enjoy non-science fiction, if that makes sense.
        Thanks for the comment.
        Cheers,
        Sarah

  2. sarahkeenihan says:

    Hi David,
    Thank-you for your story: so I guess we both followed out scientific interests, realised along the way that we wanted to formally learn about communication, and then were able to apply it in the fields we knew already.

    In terms of what I like to read: I love fiction and non-fiction which has both scientific and human elements. Recently I read Rebecca Skloot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ and loved it. Also a favourite is Nicholas Drayson’s ‘Love and the Platypus’.

    One of my main motivations in making science more digestible for the general public is that I get really frustrated when people I meet have so little understanding about their own bodies, their own world, their own backyards. Not because they deliberately avoid info, it’s just that science can be so scary for them. I want it to be easier. Not quite sure about the best way to do that, but I’m sure we need more science knowledge to be incorporated into daily life somehow.

    Anyway, thanks again and bye for now!
    Sarah

  3. David Bicknell says:

    Hi Sarah

    In some things, I am trying to share the sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and complexity of the way things work. On the other hand, it is debunking the muck and magic explanations that so many people have. Unfortunately, a belief in scientific explanations and a belief in fanatastical explanations seem able to live in the one person quite comfortably.

    Read the Roots of Astrology (http://www.astrosociety.org/pubs/mercury/9405/astrology.html) article to see the evidence of how these two systems seem to independent of education level; independent of a science or arts background; although, not independent of the culture.

  4. sarahkeenihan says:

    Will add this one to my reading list!

  5. As a child I loved science, and I did very well in school up until year 11 Chemistry. Looking back, I realise my teacher was probably better suited to being a PE teacher than a science teacher (and I stand by that Mr Cook, if you’re reading this). At the time, I thought I was just really bad at science and couldn’t understand it. So I walked away believing for many years that science was too hard for me. I went to uni and studied communications instead.
    Many, many, many years later I applied for a job with the Qld Museum. History, apparently, was not too hard for me. The museum also runs the Qld Sciencentre, and gave me the fabulous opportunity of learning to present science theatre shows. This was a breakthrough moment for me and made 2 things very clear – 1. I really did understand this stuff, and 2. I was pretty good at helping other people understand it, at least on a fairly basic level.
    I started studying environmental science part time while still working and falling more and more in love with science communication all the time. I’m still studying, but scored a new job before I’d finished my degree. I’m now an environmental communications specialist and loving it!

    • sarahkeenihan says:

      Hi Ellie,
      Wow, that’s so interesting that you started on the communication side of things and then drifted back to science later. I’m convinced that having experienced that “oh no, I really don’t get what they’re taking about’ feeling would make you a very effective communicator in addition to the influence of your formal training.
      Thanks for your comment, I’m really enjoying everyone’s feedback.
      Cheers,
      Sarah

  6. Kate Haggman says:

    I slowly muscled my way into science communication. Since my mid teens I’ve been a space geek – staring for hours into the night sky and reading almost nothing but science fiction. My forte in school was wordsmithing so I chose journalism as my career. I had grand plans about being a Beyond 2000 presenter.

    There wasn’t much scope for covering science in my journalism years – regional TV and online finacial journalism. Because I’ve always had a strong interest in science, I developed the ability to translate it into layman’s terms whenever the opportuntiy to cover science/technology arose.

    I jumped ship to government communications for reasons unrelated to science communication, but I happened to take a job the Queensland department tasked with promoting the Smart State agenda, and the knowledge-intensive industries that feed into it. As the resident science geek, I ended up writing all the speeches and media releases relating to science/technology. I developed a strong relationship with the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist and eventually got the job as the office’s media and comms specialist.

    I see science communication as a subset of general communications; that’s probably due to my non-science background. I feel the overarching principles are the same, it’s just the stakeholders and projects that change. I still grapple with the fact that science education gets wrapped into science communication – STEM awareness is an important part of it, but science communication is so much more than that. I’m particularly passionate about arming the public with evidence-based information so we can have rational, informed debates about important issues affecting society. It’s why I have enormous respect for the AusSMC.

    • sarahkeenihan says:

      Hi Kate,
      It’s a nice story. I like the fact that you became known as the resident science geek within the Qu government departments!

      I agree with you in that science communication is really just a subset of general communications. Sometimes I think it would work better if we didn’t try and label things as ‘science’ or otherwise, because it immediately conjures up a set of assumptions and barriers that can get in the way of good communication. When I say ‘I work in science communication’ to parents at my kids’ school, I can see their eyes glaze over almost straight away, whereas I’m sure if I just said “I work in communications’ they’d be cool with that. If they wanted to know WHAT I communicate, they could just ask.

      I’m interested also in your passion to provide evidence-based information to inform rational, informed debates. I’m not sure how best to measure that though? Does the Qu or any other government, or other bodies collect stats on the impact of science engagement/information campaigns or programs? I don’t know. Hmmm. Something else to research for next blog post…

      Anyway, thanks for your input, it’s been really interesting to read everyone’s stories.

      Bye for now
      Sarah

    • David Bicknell says:

      I am interested in the ‘evidence-based science’ communication approach too. This became particularly important to me recently when working on a new website for grains production in WA: information to help overcome production constraints. Tracking down the evidence base for information provided was harder than expected.

      I had a home-made aphorism of “If you have to say ‘surely someone knows about…’ then the answer is always ‘not likely'”! Unearthing primary sources is like unravelling Chinese whispers. And this is where I am finding the power of crowd-sourcing and web 2.0. It is getting easier to do the searches to find sources these days.

  7. My mother was a teacher and my father a physicist, and I remember being told at school that the real test of whether you understand something is explaining it to someone else.

    An excellent biology teacher introduced me to genetics and prompted me to study biochemistry at Imperial College London. I then applied for PhD positions, being the default option for science graduates who want to stay involved with science, and was accepted into a genetics lab at Oxford.

    Unfortunately, the lab didn’t work out for me. While my supervisors agreed I had a fine grasp of the theory behind the lab’s work, I couldn’t produce any useful results from the experiments that were assigned to me.

    I was still determined to put my biochemistry degree to work, and I heard at a careers event that the place for scientists who didn’t want to get their hands dirty in a lab was the intellectual property industry. However, IP firms prefer applicants with PhDs: Apparently if you stay in the lab for three or four years, prove you can do practical research and *then* decide you don’t want to be in a lab any more, you can be a patent attorney; but if you discover much earlier that you’re better suited to writing about science than making it happen in the lab, you’re at a disadvantage.

    Attorneys aren’t the only people who work with patents, though. I landed a job with a small company that monitored patent applications and reported interesting developments to stakeholders in the pharmaceutical industry. The company was later acquired by Thomson Scientific, a global commercial information group chock-full of “lab refugees”.

    For four years I was the biotechnology specialist in Thomson’s patent analysis team. When I moved to Melbourne for personal reasons, Thomson provided me with contract work for a while, but eventually redirected all of its patent reporting to a new office in Chennai.

    To find out how scientists make a living outside of the lab here in Australia, I took myself along to National Science Week. At Laurence Krauss’ talk in Melbourne’s Redback Pub, I met James Hutson of the PR firm Science in Public, who recruited me into the Australian Science Communicators and put me in touch with his boss Niall Byrne. Niall in turn recommended me, without even seeing my CV, to Tony Wright of December Films.

    Tony was looking for a genetics expert to help out with his latest documentary, ‘Immortal’. As the only scientist on the team, I researched the field of telomere biology and its pioneers (e.g. Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn, who later won a Nobel prize for discovering telomerase), and summarised the key points for Tony and our writer/director Sonya Pemberton. Discovering how science is communicated on TV and how scientists are selected for inclusion in films was a steep learning curve, but I enjoyed the work immensely.

    ‘Immortal’ screened on SBS in December 2010, and is now being sold to overseas broadcasters by National Geographic. I have since contributed to a second television project, on how common gene variations affect human personality traits, but I have yet to make a steady income from mass media projects alone. In between, I’m working on reports about the biopharmaceutical industry for a London company named Business Insights. It pays the bills, but it pays them in UK pounds, and they don’t go as far here as they used to…

    If anyone knows of opportunities for a biotechnology analyst/communicator in Melbourne, be they part-time or full-time, do let me know.

    James Shirvill
    shirvill@gmail.com

    • sarahkeenihan says:

      Hi James,
      It’s really interesting to read your story; it just emphasises the fact that I still am learning about all the niches that exist in the science and related industries. It’s a good point for all potential scientists/science graduates to keep in mind I think – that if you follow your nose (like you did, and like me, and Kate and Ellie and David, who also commented), you can find work around science which is not based in a lab.

      Funny you should mention James Hutson – he’s been working with us a Bridge8 on a few projects! His broad science and communications expertise (and sense of humour) is outstanding.

      Good luck on the work front! Best wishes,
      Sarah

  8. Glenn Conroy says:

    I have a few professional communicator hats but like to think of myself as a science communicator (who isn’t currently working in that field) but who hopes to do so again. After my first communications degree, I worked as a State Government agricultural journalist for a decade or so. Later I came to Canberra to work as a communications manager for an R&D corporation for another decade or so and that’s where I became a science communicator facilitating the ‘plain English’ communication on research outcomes. My next step (hopefully) will be as a science communicator for a Cooperative Rseearch centre – wish me luck for the next decade or so.

    • Kate Haggman says:

      Hi Glenn,

      Would you mind giving me a call on 07 3224 4504? I may have an opportunity for you.

  9. sarahkeenihan says:

    Hi Glen,
    So, you’re another one who came from the communication side of things into science as a secondary step. I’d be interested to know how you managed to advance your knowledge in science and its language(s): self-taught I’m guessing? Or did you receive science training from the R&D company, or somewhere else?
    Look forward to hearing back from you again if possible,
    Sarah

  10. Hi Sarah

    I did my first degree in communications majoring in public relations, advertising and journalism. Then I learned agricultural jargon over a decade for Queensland Department of Primary Industries as an agricultural journalist ending up as MEdia Secretary to the Minister. Then I learned natural resources R&D jargon over a decade with the agency that became Land & Water Australia (since discontinued by the government). Along the way I completed almost all of a law degree and gained a graduate diploma in natural resources law. I want to get back into science communication (like Land & Water Australia) and am being considered for a communications position currently for a CRC. I like many people have a pet interest in climate change so I’m monitoring that science closely – I’m an advocate for action on climate change. I attened the ASC conference on climate change communication was my most recent professional development training.

  11. Hey Sarah, thanks for sharing your story!

    Perhaps we should have an ASCSA event on how crazy travel adventures can be good for your career (Adam Barclay could speak as well)!

    I shared (a version of) my story last year when Ed Yong started an epic outpouring of science writer career paths over on his Discover blog: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/07/29/on-the-origin-of-science-writers/comment-page-3/#comment-13072

    • sarahkeenihan says:

      Hi Cobi
      Thanks for the comment; knowing you in person, it’s nice to read your story too. I had no idea you had such a background in journalism. Cool!

      Thanks also for directing me to Ed Yong’s collection of ‘On the origin of science writers’. Wow, does he have some big names on there. I’ll work my way through the list…..

      See you soon,
      Sarah

  12. Jane Lewis says:

    Hiya. I think we’re all interested in how other people got to where they are, aren’t we? So thanks for bringing it up, Sarah! I’m about to cook dinner, so won’t go too long.

    Basically I studied a Life Science degree (straight out of school) because I was interested in living things (and still am).
    I worked as a Lab Tech for a while for CSIRO and a couple of Uni’s, before realising I was BORED OUT OF MY MIND …then did a Grad Dip Sci Comm (ANU 1994) with a great bunch of people, some of whom are still my friends today.

    Went from there to become a Medical Writer, then worked as the Comms Manager for a medical research organisation… so kind of ended up in the health side of things. Got sick of sitting in front of a computer all day so then did a Dip Ed and became a Science teacher for a few years!

    Next I went into Environmental Education, and have since worked for a couple of local councils, outdoor ed companies, NPWS, etc. Now??? I still do some freelance Sci Comms from home part time (writing, editing, project managing) and am very happy to keep doing this. If you know of any Bio/Enviro/Health related work, let me know!

    Cheers, Jane
    PS Hi to Circus ’94 if you’re reading this!

  13. sarahkeenihan says:

    Hi Jane,
    Wow, you’ve really done it all. One of the things I love about science communication is its flexibility: can take on small or large projects, work from home/office, over the web…there are lots of options.
    Do you have a website or a blog that we can check you out on? Feel free to post any links here.
    Cheers,
    Sarah

  14. Em Blamey says:

    I did a joint honours degree in science at University of Bristol in the UK, then took a gap year, doing aid work in Africa. Had an epiphany on a mountain in Uganda (as you do) that I should learn sci comm and save the planet (I was young!).
    So when I got home I looked up some courses and ended up shifting to Australia to do the graduate diploma in sci comm. at the Australian National University (I chose that one as I would get to travel all over Aus as part of the course). Had an awesome time and discovered an interest and aptitude for communicating science though interactive exhibitions – a job I didn’t knew existed while on the mountain in Africa. (One of the great things about the grad dip at ANU is it exposes you to a wide variety of different forms of sci comm.)
    So, worked for 10+ years developing exhibitions for Questacon – the National Science & Technology Centre in Canberra, and have just moved on to the Australian Museum in Sydney, developing exhibitions for them.
    Haven’t saved the planet yet.
    Cheers
    Em

  15. sarahkeenihan says:

    Hi Em,
    Your career development was quite deliberate then – you knew what you wanted and went for it. The ANU course is unique I understand in that it provides people with a chance to see so much of Australia, including the ‘outback’ – which most Aussies let alone internationals spend little time to explore.

    Exhibition development sounds so cool. I just love museums. Went to the big one in Washington DC a long time ago, and Natural History Museum in London, and they literally sent shivers up and down my spine, so enjoyable. Must go back!

    Thanks for your contribution,
    Cheers,
    Sarah

  16. Because of the Talking Heads ‘Stop Making Sense’ movie I had to sit a supplementary exam (should have been home studying, not at the movie!)
    It took me 3 years just to complete the first year of my science degree, because I interrupted it with a year living in Indonesia as an exchange student, and also exploring lots of non-science subjects (like philosophy) at uni – these were the days before you had to pay per subject, so there was a lot of freedom to explore which I am very appreciative of now.
    I was a very mediocre student until my final year when (a) I decided to study full time to get the degree out the way, and (b) I finally found subjects that ‘clicked’ with me. Unfortunately, the good marks led to offers of Honours scholarships. My Honours year was torture, reinforcing that I wasn’t really cut out for research; but after all the years of study what was I to do?
    I was lucky that various science jobs came my way. It was one particular supervisor, probably weary of the coloured pencil scribbles (and skulls and cross bones) in my lab books who put the ad for the GradDipSciComm in front of me and told me he would be my referee.
    I have never looked back. I have designed exhibitions and programs for interactive science centres, been a science consultant for a children’s TV show, and been a science communicator/communications manager for various parts of CSIRO, a private biotechnology company, and a couple of CRCs. There hasn’t always been much job security, and the money might not have been brilliant, but it was enough to finance plenty of OS travel between contracts.
    My latest adventure is launching my own business – Pear Communication, specialising in ‘Practical and Effective Adoption and Risk’ communication. My biggest challenge is keeping all the balls in the air with two small children. Life is never dull!

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