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.