Yesterday I participated as facilitator in the Science Communication Training Day 2012 for doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, which was organised by the Biochemical Society, Society of Experimental Biology and British Ecological Society. It was a brilliant day and Antonia Desmond wrote a lovely summary about the day for the BiochemSoc Blog. I won’t repeat this but rather comment on some of the key points and questions we discussed and add my own thoughts.
So you want to do a science communication project?
1) ) “If you want to do something, just do it!”
This was one of the main points made by Alun Anderson in his talk: Do what you want to do, then things will fall into place and you will find help and support.
I fully agree with this. The essential step is to turn your idea into actions. If you want to become a science writer, just start to write about science. Write for the newsletter of your department, university or institute. Start a blog. Everybody can get a free blog at WordPress.com, Blogger.com or Tumblr.com. Alun mentioned that having a portfolio in place before applying for certain jobs is extremely important. If you want to do something but don’t know how, ask someone (alternatively, Google is a good starting point). If you want to do something but never seem to get around to actually doing it, sit down and think it through. Is it because you don’t know how? See above. Maybe you don’t want to do it at all? I always thought that I wanted to learn how to paint but I realised over time that I don’t really want to. So I dropped it and instead focussed on things I did enjoy doing.
2) ”Start small!”
I think that one of the main reasons of getting stuck is thinking too big. It’s good to be ambitious, but you also need to be realistic. One of your main limiting factors besides money is most likely to be time. Don’t set yourself as aim to write the next popular science book if you have limited writing experience. Don’t plan to develop a huge website if you have limited computer skills. Start with small goals which you can achieve in a reasonably short time frame. This will give you experience and a better understanding of time scales and resources involved for tasks. Once you have done this, think one step further. Make your project a tiny bit bigger. Work together with other people. Before you know it, you’ll have considerable experience and practice, which means you will be able to do things faster – time to re-evaluate your time scales! :D
3) “Be specific!”
Before you start, think about who your audience is going to be. “The general public” is a very ambitious goal and there is probably not even such a thing as “the public”. Rather, there are different “publics” which need to be engaged in very different ways. What interests an adult might bore a child to death. Most resources and materials will need to be designed very specifically to catch attention of their target audience.
This brings me directly to my next point: Be specific about the science you want to communicate. “Science” is HUGE and includes a lot of different disciplines and fields. A famous quote for budding writers is “write what you know” and I think this easily transfer to science communication: “Communicate what you know” – at least in the beginning. This ties in with the achievable goals in a realistic time frame mentioned above, as you will need to spend less time to research a topic and will have more confidence in what you do.
Good and achievable aims could be something like “I want to create a website with profiles of the thirty most important plants” or “I want to create a cell cycle “Snakes and Ladders” board game on an A4 sheet that people can print out and play” (I made both of these up, so feel free to grab them and DO THEM :D).
4) “Make an action plan!”
Put together a list of as many steps as you can think of between the start and the end of your project. What material will you need, who will you need to contact, what will you need to buy, what skills do you need? Write everything down – buy a nice notebook for your ideas, use a Mind Map software, write a project plan…whatever works best for you. Try to put basic timescales to every step. Again, be realistic and be as specific as you can. Instead of “learn web design” for example, put down “find a web design course, “buy a book” and “research free web hosters”. In a way this reminds me of the tips for how to make good New Year’s resolutions and stick to them. :D
One of my highlights of the day was a hashtag which emerged on Twitter inspired through the tweets from the talks: #scicommjedi. Are you one?
I am your father Use the force!
“Do or do not. There is no try.”