During my undergraduate degree in biochemistry I spent a year studying abroad in Grenoble in the French Alps. I studied in the university for some of the time, and also did a 5 month placement in a research lab. Although interesting, it was enough to show me that a career in research was perhaps not for me, so I spent much of time gazing dreamily at the mountains wondering what else I could do.
I liked working in the laboratory, but I realised I really
wanted to be on the outside, telling people about all of the exciting things
that were going on inside. So when I came back for my final year I persuaded my
supervisors to let me do a science communication project for my final project,
rather than a bench research project, and I was hooked!
The UWE Bristol MSc Science Communication programme gave me an opportunity to work part time at Science Oxford – a small but influential charity that works to encourage the pursuit of science and enterprise. I was delivering workshops and shows to schools and the public, and also ran the regional STEM Ambassador programme, finding and training scientists and engineers across the region to work with schools too.
I always wanted to work in a museum or a science centre, so when
I took the MSc I was keen to focus on the modules relating to delivering
science communication face to face. I remember being inspired by people from
the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Royal Society, at-Bristol (as it was then known)
who we met during the course, and they all motivated me to use my wide range of
interests – art, music, family learning as well as science – to tell stories
and create conversations.
I also loved the Science on Air and Screen module, some of
which took place at the BBC. At the time I would listen to a lot of radio
(before the days of podcasts which now feature heavily in my down time!) and I
loved working in a small team to produce both a short radio show about
‘progress’, including a poet as a live guest, and a short TV piece about
Healthy Living Day. Although I haven’t gone on to work in broadcast media the
lessons on how to sum up coherently yet colloquially have come in handy when I’ve
been interviewed for radio or TV, including for BBC Stargazing Live and local
My Masters project was an evaluation of a set of touchable exhibits at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Finally a chance to do some work in a museum setting! I devised and piloted a series of protocols to help the museum evaluate how families were using their new exhibition. I now use these skills every day in my job as Public Engagement Development Manager for the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC), one of the UK research councils. A key component of my job has involved producing an evaluation framework for a complex programme of work. As STFC is a funder as well as a delivery body, we aim to measure and evaluate events and activities run by around 40 partners a year reaching in excess of 500,000 people face to face, and a further 2.5 million via online and broadcast media to better report, improve and celebrate what we do.
favourite part of the job has got to be working with scientists and engineers
who love what they do and who are really keen to share their enthusiasm with
others. I work with them to help them to do so in a way that is engaging, will
genuinely appeal to the audience they are wishing to engage – ensuring they
have thought about who that is! – and then hear all their brilliant creative
ideas for how to communicate their area of research to others!
I’ll also be using all of these skills in a new large project coming up called Wonder. The launch of Wonder marks a long-term commitment by STFC public engagement to move our focus towards audience-driven public engagement with under-served communities in the most socioeconomically-deprived areas of the UK. We want more working with people, and less delivering to people. The project is still in early days, but it means that I’ve been able to feed in ideas right from the start and use many of the skills I learned on the MSc – from reading lots of publications and reports that others have written to be sure we are using current good practice, to writing a brief for an external evaluation consultant.
Jo Lewis, MSc Science Communication student at UWE Bristol.
Studying part-time and working full-time is challenging to say the least. But now that I’ve finished, I can honestly say it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. The blood (tonsillectomy a few months before project deadline), sweat (hobbling around UWE on crutches is exhausting) and tears (both happy and stress induced) were all worth it now that I can see the findings of my MSc project being used in the real world.
Over the past (nearly) five years, I have worked at the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA) – a data centre and supercomputer facility geared towards supporting the UK’s atmospheric and earth observation science communities. We are a small team that provides services for over 50,000 users (including scientists/students/private companies/general science enthusiasts/etc.). In the past year alone, users have downloaded over 775 Terabytes of data – that’s equivalent to more than 175 million photos! We increasingly need to justify our role in funding applications in order to continue providing these services. However, providing evidence of what users are using our services for is not easy information to collate – which is where my MSc project comes in.
My project entitled ‘Community-led ideas for collecting impact stories from CEDA service users’ sprung from this funder requirement of evidencing our services impact and was supervised by Dr Clare Wilkinson. The term ‘impact’ has many different meanings depending on who you ask about it. For my project, we defined impact as: ‘‘Beneficial changes that occur in the real world (beyond the world of researchers) as a result of research that relied upon CEDA services for its success’. This is the information we need to provide as evidence to our funders; but if it’s tricky to define impact, it’s even more difficult trying to measure and collect it – especially when the impact is ‘once removed’ as with our situation.
The project was undertaken in Summer 2018 with an online survey (520 responses) and a series of focus groups (26 attendees) at conferences and meetings that our key user communities were attending. The findings were generally positive and constructive – our users were keen to help us! However, there were disagreements as to how the impact information should be collected. Key recommendations from the research included;
Be transparent about why collecting impact information is necessary
Emphasise why it is beneficial to the user personally and for the service provider
One process will not fit all users. Think about the purpose of collecting the impact stories, and tailor the process accordingly
Provide a simple process that avoids wasting users’ time by;
Not asking for information too frequently
Collecting information via existing processes where possible
Asking for basic information first, later followed up (for more details) if the information is relevant and the user is willing
Providing support when writing impact stories
As these findings were ‘the answers’ to how we could collect impact information, it has meant we have been able to implement and act upon them. In January 2019, we targeted a section of our user community with a short survey asking them for basic information about the impactful science our services have enabled them to carry out. Over 50 responses were submitted, of which approximately 80% were suitable for use as a more detailed impact story – meaning we now have access to ~40 stories that CEDA can use as evidence when applying for funding.
We are hoping to share some of the stories with our user communities soon, however as we received more stories than we expected it’s taking some time… it’s just me working on this!
The MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol has allowed me to steer my career path where I want it to be, and I am now CEDA’s (first) Communications Manager. I don’t believe this would have been possible without studying at UWE.
At the height of the
recession in 2008, deciding what to study at university took me a lot longer
than expected. I was torn between English or pursuing a career in conservation.
Science inevitably won, so I packed my bags and moved 250 miles down the road
to study for my undergraduate degree in Cornwall. Due to personal factors I
struggled with the curriculum at times, but soon realised that the work I enjoyed
most involved communication.
When I finished my degree, applying for an MSc in Science Communication was a no brainer. Bristol is a lovely city and the course at UWE had great reviews. Being able to put learning into practice is key for me, so I took hands-on modules in writing and broadcasting science – which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I had finished my dissertation in 2012, I found myself interviewing for my
first job in science communication. I joined a tiny team at a sustainability
organisation, where I worked on communications and events. Being part of such a
small team proved a rapid learning experience and equipped me with the skills
needed to move to the next level.
liked living in Bristol so much when studying for the MSc that I decided to go
back a few years later. I managed to secure a role at the Biotechnology
and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), about an hour away from
Bristol. The daily commute wasn’t fun, but I had job satisfaction. As a media
officer, I was tasked with processing complex journal articles into digestible press releases, pitching science stories
to the media and working in tandem with other teams.
at BBSRC I met many interesting people, forging connections with academics
and media colleagues. After nearly 3 years, I decided to go it alone as a freelancer.
I was petrified as I didn’t know whether being my own boss would be sustainable
in the long run. Nearly 5 years after completing my MSc, I found myself opening a business and began contracting for
charities and science organisations. I worked for Autistica,
the UK’s leading autism research charity, developing communications to secure
donations for autistic people and their families during World Autism Awareness
Week. The Science
Council were another client, as well as the Gatsby Foundation based in
London. For nearly two years I worked on their Technicians
Make it Happen campaign, challenging stereotypes and raising the
profile of our technical workforce.
it alone brought some life-changing opportunities. I was lucky enough to tour
Scandinavia and moved to Iceland in 2017. I decided to take a mini career break
but ended up doing something entirely different. In the summer I started an
internship at the Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s no.1 English-speaking
newspaper. Working as a reporter,
I did some really weird but amazing things. I met a ‘real-life Viking’, chased
birds across the country and got trippy in a Native American sweat lodge (a
tradition brought to Iceland by Björk’s mother no less). My favourite moment
a night alone in a yurt on an island in
Fast forward to 2019 and I’m, you guessed it, back in Bristol. I now work as a Senior Communications Officer for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), highlighting threats to the nation’s trees. I get to design communications campaigns and lead on delivery. It’s an ideal job. Who would have thought 10 years after ‘choosing’ between science and communications, I’d have the best of both worlds.
I knew Science Communications was for me when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and preferred talking about my dissertation research, rather than being in the lab doing it. After that, I did some research and found the UWE MSc in Science Communication. I applied immediately.
The module options on the programme at
UWE drew me in as there were a variety on offer, and they each offered
practical skills to help me step into a job right away. I knew that I wanted to
work while completing my MSc, building up my experience in London, so the 3-day
blocks worked perfectly for me. I held a number of internships during my time
on the programme, and picked up my first part-time job when our lectures
During the programme, as well as the compulsory
modules, I studied Writing Science and Hands-On Science Communication. These
modules taught me how to tell compelling stories about science that capture
people’s imaginations – on page and in person. While the latter might not seem
directly related to my role, it taught me a lot about how to explain something
complex verbally. Often I’m speaking to journalists over the phone and have to
be able to communicate clearly. It also built my confidence in presenting (it’s
something you can’t avoid in this career!) and the modules gave me strong
foundations by teaching me how to structure a presentation and deliver it with
impact. I was also able to build a strong portfolio of work to take into
interviews, which is hugely helpful when you’re starting out.
Armed with the academic and work experience I
accrued during the MSc, I knew that I wanted to work in communicating science
within a charity when I graduated, so I chose to focus my dissertation on how
cancer charities communicate online. The project module is very open, so you
can choose whatever you’d like to learn about. I picked something I was really
interested in, and it also helped show my awareness in the area in job
Straight out of the MSc, I worked a part-time job in general
communications for a medical membership organisation, alongside which I
later worked another part-time role with a research laboratory, with a
couple of freelance jobs on the side too.
Those times were pretty hectic, but I learnt a lot very quickly and
had a wealth of experience after a year, including in time management. I then
moved to Cancer Research UK
working as a Science Press Officer, which was an incredibly busy, fun and
meaningful job to me.
Now, as the Media Relations Manager for The Lancet, I manage our media output –
deciding which of our many research papers to promote in the media, and how, to
help achieve high profile, quality, international media coverage of the
journals. I work in a wider communications team, and manage a Press Officer and
freelance writers. While my undergraduate degree is key to help me understand
the complex health research, my MSc is crucial in helping me recognise how to
tell those stories to journalists and the wider public. The Lancet is strongly
driven to use our research to benefit people’s lives, and the stories I help to
tell focus on changing people’s perception, changing policy, or changing
A recent example of this is the so-called ‘planetary health diet’ –
a huge report which was
originally published in The Lancet and gave the first scientific targets for a
healthy diet that was environmentally sustainable too. Working with the
research funders’ media teams, we devised a comprehensive media strategy to
ensure that the story hit the news globally, opening people’s eyes to the
impact of food production on the climate and what we can each do to reduce
this. The report made a huge public impact, making the ‘planetary health diet’
a globally recognised term, and changing food policy in some countries
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the training I had at UWE, and I must mention the teaching staff on the MSc, who were always exceptional and give up a lot of time to support us and train us so well. Throughout my MSc, they gave me detailed, honest advice on what to expect from various careers, and linked me up to people working in that area when possible so that I could get on-the-ground insights too. They were very nurturing and their advice on those career paths is absolutely accurate. If you’re looking for an MSc in Science Communications, you’re in the right place and their training will be a vital cornerstone that you reflect on frequently in your career.
Emily Head, MSc Science Communication student at UWE, Bristol
When deciding where to study a Master’s degree, employability was a huge factor for me. I was keen to study somewhere that would teach me how to get stuck straight into the world of Science Communication. From day one in the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol, we were treated like professionals and encouraged to present ourselves as so to the rest of the sci-comm community.
Since graduating, I have taken on regular freelance writing projects which have been a great way to practice the skills I learned at UWE Bristol. I have also recently started a full time job as a Science Writer for a small company in mid Wales who specialise in Cellular Pathology. My day job now includes writing articles for pathologists about new research and developing ideas to create multimedia content for our website.
I was already interested in Science Writing when I started the course so was grateful to learn a lot about this topic whilst studying and to meet several industry professionals. One of the key skills I am now using on a daily basis is learning how to filter through academic papers- as a communicator you may need to sort through huge quantities of research to fully understand an issue. I’ve also learned how to write more concisely. This really helps with sticking to word counts. My interview skills also developed very quickly on the course, something I’d never done before. I now use these skills to interview customers, researchers and colleagues both face to face and over the phone. Unsurprisingly, one of my favourite modules on the course was Writing Science and I still have the “Top Tips” we were given during the course and refer to them regularly for a refresher.
As much as I loved gaining the practical writing skills I now use in my full time job, I am also really glad I had the opportunity to learn more about the theory and history of the field as well. It has definitely broadened my horizons about more types of communication and how different media can be used to encourage science communication in a format accessible to everyone. Some of the other practical skills I gained through the course served to be valuable life lessons in team work, compromise and self-confidence. For example, I can proudly say I was part of a team to record an “as-live” radio show at the BBC- that’s a pretty memorable experience!
Finally, the teaching staff and my course mates from UWE Bristol have become invaluable sources of professional advice and encouragement as we all continue to support each other and celebrate our successes. Amongst my course mates we have shared a whole range of achievements including further study, international travel for fieldwork, BBC credits, conference attending and journal publication.
You hear a lot of advice from people when you are thinking of setting up a podcast. People have all sorts of opinions about how long episodes should be, what you should talk about, how you should talk, how often you should release episodes. I’m not sure any of them are right. Think about the podcasts you listen to. Are they all the same length as each other? All the same format? All series or all regular? I doubt it.
I’m the host of The Cosmic Shed podcast which was recently named as one of the Guardian’s favourite podcasts of 2018. It’s recorded in the crumbling garden shed at the bottom of my garden, somewhere in suburban Bristol. It really is an awful shed but guests on the podcast include Tim Peake, Alice Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nichelle Nichols and Chris Hadfield. We discuss science fact, science fiction and everything in between. Occasionally we take the podcast on the road for live events, like our takeover of Bristol’s planetarium with Andy Weir, the author of The Martian.
Podcasts are what the hosts make them to be. If you’re
thinking of setting one up, think about what your favourite podcast are and why
you like them. The thing that the best all have in common is that the people
hosting and presenting them have a huge passion for their topics. That passion
is infectious and vital for the listener but it takes many forms. My favourite
podcasts are a mixture of scripted, well researched shows like Caliphate and
RadioLab and the more relaxed, informal formats like Spooktator and The Adam
The idea for The Cosmic Shed came to me while I was studying
for the MSc in Science Communication at UWE. I had recently moved to Bristol
and bought a house which needed a lot of work. A lot of work. Water came up through
the floor and down through the ceiling. The waste pipe from the toilet went out
onto the roof. That’s the end of that sentence but I would add that this part
of the roof did not leak. In the garden stood a shed. A truly awful, rotting
shed with more holes than the house and half the floor missing. “That looks
like a great place to record a podcast”, I thought.
Several years later, The Cosmic Shed podcast has over 100
episodes, won awards and, yet, the shed still looks awful from the outside.
There are a cohort of co-hosts for the Cosmic Shed. We have a nanoscientist Dr Maddy Nichols, an aerospace engineer Dr Steve Bullock, a film nerd (understatement) Timon Singh and more regular guest/hosts like Tushna Commisariat (Physics World) and Achintya Rao (CERN). We all have our own expertise and our own loves of science fiction.
We get a fair amount of correspondence from people who tell
us that we are like friends to them. They look forward to our episodes and feel
like they are sitting in the shed with us as they listen. If you think of your
favourite podcasts, I suspect you’ll find most of them have regular hosts who
you get to know and like. It’s one of the main reasons why people like
podcasts. Not that that is deliberate from our point of view. I believe that
it’s just a natural consequence of the way we record the podcast.
The Guardian newspaper described us as a “light-hearted, curious and nerdy listen” and I think that’s what you get if you put a group of friends in a terrible shed, watch a bit of science fiction and record the conversation.
Your podcast should be as long as you want it to be, as often as you want it to be and about what you want to it be about. That way, you’ll enjoy doing it as much as your listeners love listening to it.
If you are a podcaster or you are thinking of becoming one,
do feel free to get in touch. I’d be delighted to have a chat with you but
beware. The first question anyone asks me is how we get such brilliant guests.
I never answer it.
As 2018 draws to a close, it’s over 15 years since we launched our first postgraduate programme in Science Communication. Today, we’re delighted to be launching our latest offering, designed to meet the needs of students wherever they are based. As our MSc Science Communication and Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication grow in numbers year on year, we’ve become more and more conscious that science communication is a growing field, both in the UK and internationally, but not everyone who would like to develop their expertise is able to travel to Bristol to study with us.
Over the last three years we’ve provided two, entirely online, CPD courses in science communication, which have provided training to over 100 students around the globe. Drawing on the learning we’ve gained from delivering these courses, we are pleased to offer the next generation of science communication students the chance to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Science Communication, without ever visiting our campus here in Bristol.
The programme has been designed to provide students with an applied and practical introduction to the science communication field, alongside the opportunity to develop their understanding of science communication research and techniques. The programme is intended to appeal to students with interests in face-to-face science communication (such as festivals and museums), science communication in digital environments, as well as the written form. A final research skills and project module will also equip students with key skills in science communication research and evaluation techniques. Students will leave the programme with all of the skills necessary to both convey and communicate scientific concepts, and assess the impact of that communication. Thus, the programme will appeal to recent graduates and those already working in the field alike.
One unique aspect of this programme, for UWE Bristol, is its entirely online delivery format. This will allow students, wherever they are based, and alongside other commitments, to undertake a UK science communication qualification. Students will also be able to direct their learning towards topics and examples of relevance to them, in their home and working environments, as well as cultural contexts, and even though it’s online, we’ll be using the latest techniques to help them to network with our staff, as well as each other.
In developing this new programme we’ve worked with staff throughout our team, as well as having input and insights from our current postgraduate students and stakeholders who are working in the field. The stakeholders we spoke to, many of whom are already employing some of our past graduate students, commented on the contemporary relevance of the programme, the connection of assessments to real situations students will face in their employment contexts, and the opportunities for students to build portfolios and practice in a varied way.
We’re now recruiting students who would like to start this programme in January 2019, you can contact Jane.Wooster@uwe.ac.uk for further information and find out more on the programme here. We are also able to offer discounts to students who have previously studied an online CPD course with us.
Emma Weitkamp & Clare Wilkinson, Co-Directors of the Science Communication Unit
When it comes to food, music and fashion, the interesting stuff often emerges at the interfaces between styles and cultures. When sounds, flavours and cultures collide, the results can be fresh and thought-provoking. Science is no different.
From my experience, it’s often the spaces where academic research blends with politics and culture that provide the most interesting stories. As journalists, we should always be on the lookout for these stories, as they can be the gift that keeps on giving.
One area that undoubtedly falls into this category is the transition to low-carbon energy technologies. Or to put it a more human way: the quest for sources of energy that let us live fulfilling lives without destroying the planet in the process. These stories are multi-faceted, so I would advise you to collaborate with others, then think beyond the single piece of content. If the story has lots of angles, you can share it in many ways in many places.
I’ll give you an example.
I’m a multimedia journalist working for Physics World, the magazine of the Institute of Physics (IOP). At the start of 2018, we decided to launch a new film series that explores how science and technology can help us to tackle global environmental challenges. I was on the hunt for stories.
For one of the films, our environmental editor, Liz Kalaugher , pointed me towards an interesting academic paper published in one of IOP’s academic journals, Environmental Research Letters. The paper documented an interesting ecology case involving a North Sea wind farm built off the Dutch coast.
Scientists, led by Meike Scheidat from Wageningen University, had observed that the local population of harbour porpoise appeared to have grown since the wind park was built – a surprising result given so much infrastructure had just been plonked in a natural marine habitat.
So far, so straightforward. But I had also learned that since the wind farm was installed, fishing vessels had been banned in this patch of sea 10–18 km from the coastal town of Egmond aan Zee. So was it simply that the porpoises had more food now because of the absence of fishing, while those same ships were depriving porpoises of their dinner elsewhere? Another theory suggested that the base of the wind turbines had created an artificial reef environment, attracting more fish thus creating more foraging opportunities for the porpoises.
However, some unrelated studies of other offshore wind farms in the North Sea had found the opposite result – a decline in harbour porpoise in the vicinity of new offshore wind farms. So we cannot generalise and say all offshore windfarms are positive for porpoises. Was there something unique with the ecosystem by the Egmond aan Zee windfarm? Meanwhile, we had also learned that some in the fishing community were said to be unhappy with the shipping ban, especially the lack of meaningful consultation over a decision that affects their livelihoods.
So we had conflicting science on a timely issue, given the recent boom in offshore wind projects in the North Sea. We also had a human conflict. It was quickly shaping into a great story.
The simple option would have been for me to rock up in the Netherlands with my camera, interview a couple of scientists from the study, publish the film and then put my feet up. However, that would have undersold an intriguing and complex story. Instead, I did the following:
Identified a Dutch-based science filmmaker Saskia Madlener , who could help shape the story with her expertise and local knowledge.
To approach the issue from different angles we interviewed Meike (the scientist behind the original study), Henk Kouwenhoven an engineer involved in the wind farm design, and Rems Cramer a member of the local fishing community.
Having shot the film over a couple of days, I wrote a blog article about the trip on my way home. In horrible business speak, publishing that article helped improved the return-on-investment. More importantly, it helped me to highlight the issues and to shape the narrative of the film.
May and June saw staff and students from the Science Communication Unit prepare for the Bristol and Bath Festival of Nature, run by the Bristol Natural History Consortium, of which UWE Bristol is a consortium member. For many years now, research and teaching from the Department of Applied Sciences and the Science Communication Unit have been an important part of UWE’s contribution to the Festival, alongside contributions from a variety of research projects from across the university. This year, the Department of Applied Sciences showcased research by Stephanie Sargeant and team (eDNA and eel conservation), Ruth Morse and team (genetics research on chemotherapy), and by Saliha Saad and team (oral microbiology research on oral malodour), with activities that were developed by MSc Science Communication students. An EU funded project on air pollution, ClairCity, also showcased work that had been produced by a Postgraduate Certificate student as part of the Science in Public Spacesmodule.
The activities on eDNA and genetics were developed by students of the MSc in Science communication Jake Campton and Sophie Smith and supported by postgraduate students as part of the public engagement element of their portfolio. The activity on oral malodour was supported by CRIB through the BoxEd project, led by Debbie Lewis. MSc in Science Communication student Jennie French ran the final vote of a photography competition on Nature in and around Bristol and Bath, entirely organised from her own initiative. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences ran a stall for the Our City Our Health project, which included a board game which engaged people in weighing up the costs to health of our built environment, and a 3-metre sculpture of a diesel soot particle, created by local artist Luke Jerram entitled Inhale, that featured prominently outside UWE’s tent and attracted significant attention from visitors and press. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Engineering and Technology showcased the ClairCity project, which communicated about citizen-led air pollution reduction, and also allowed people to view real diesel soot particles through microscopes – thee million times smaller than the Our City Our Health sculpture outside.
Our presence at the Festival reached well beyond the space of the UWE tent. Many Science Communication MSc students of the current cohort were helping as volunteers for the Festival as a whole, or representing their workplace in the corresponding tents. Films made by many of the MSc students were being shown several times a day on the Big Screen presiding over Millennium Square, and Dr Hannah Little was helping at the stall of the British Science Association.
Good weather, a festive atmosphere and the enthusiasm and hard work of all involved made the event a success, with more than 15000 visitors, most of which (it felt like all of them, really) engaged with the activities of UWE Bristol’s tent. It will not be long before preparations for the 2019 edition of the Festival begin, providing a new opportunity for HAS to celebrate its commitment to research, teaching and public engagement at this fantastic event.
This time last year during our MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, we were buried under a mountain of coursework deadlines, research proposals and that creeping question of ‘what next’? We never thought that so soon after that joyous dissertation hand-in day we would be off on a sci-comm adventure to Hong Kong, to make a documentary and inspire 10,000 local school children to study science!
We teamed up with Anturus Education – a Welsh organisation that uses expedition, media and adventure to inspire kids to learn about the natural world. Our mission was to use film and public speaking to demonstrate that Hong Kong is far more than just an urban hotspot – it is in fact, a thriving wildlife hotspot with many nature-filled surprises!
Science communication is all about getting the public involved in scientific concepts and research findings — engaging them to take notice of the things that matter and spark curiosity.
Whilst we were there, we quickly became aware of the value of being creative in how we communicate science. Here are our thoughts on how filmmaking and different styles of presenting can reap meaningful rewards among your target audience.
Science Communication through filmmaking – Tay Aziz
As well as delivering 30 school shows across Hong Kong, the Anturus team also filmed and produced a fifteen-minute documentary and a few shorter one-minute clips for YouTube. These videos were disseminated to schools and the public through the Anturus website and provided useful resources that teachers could access after the team had left, helping the team achieve a legacy once the project was complete.
As a science communicator, film and video is an incredibly useful tool – it can provide a sense of escapism, a new way to visualise information with animations, or an immersive experience in interactive 3D. Film can provide a platform for scientists to share their work and promote themselves as experts in a field, and it also has the potential to reach vast audiences and can impact an audience’s emotions as well as their knowledge on a topic. I first became interested in using film to communicate science whilst taking part in the Science on Air and on Screen module, as part of the MSc in Science Communication; since then I’ve created documentaries on plastic pollution, drought research and most recently, filmed presenter-pieces in Hong Kong.
Storytelling is an integral part of film and science communication films are no different. How we perceive the world is heavily influenced by forms of entertainment media, such as sci-fi novels, fictional films and documentaries. These depictions of science encompass more than just facts, but they include other elements of science such as its methods and allow non-scientists to ‘see’ where science happens, who does it, and how it works. When choosing a problem or focus for a film, it makes sense to consider the issues and themes and anchor those ideas in contextual evidence to create emotional appeal and build interesting discourse. World-class natural history documentaries, such as Blue Planet II, have gathered popularity as they follow key principles to engage interest in their audience.
‘If something is unusual it will be interesting. Where it comes to be dangerous is when you introduce an element of it being strange without relating it to the central idea of the topic you are talking about without a solid theoretical structure present.’
Sir David Attenborough
Choosing a subject which an audience can relate to (living creatures), they showcase surprising beauty and hidden stories in the real world, and they have substance to reinforce that initial generic interest.
Top Tips from Tay for getting into Science Communication filmmaking:
Don’t underestimate the value of your academic qualifications. Science production companies are always looking for people who are highly qualified in an academic area and are good writers.
You don’t need to go to film school. A qualification like the MSc can teach you most of the basics, and there are millions of excellent (and free) tutorials on YouTube. Try searching ‘documentary filmmaking’.
Practice makes perfect. Make your own stuff, even if it’s a small project about something down the road from where you live.
All the gear…no idea. Don’t spend tonnes of money on expensive equipment that you don’t need. Learn with what you have first – Sophie created a 22-part vlog series using just her iPhone!
Keep it simple. Make sure you don’t cram huge amounts of information into a film – there should be a main idea or two, with a sequence of ideas to hold the viewer’s attention and lead them to the end.
Science Communication through Presenting – Sophie Pavelle
Science can be communicated in many different ways, but I have enjoyed communicating my adventures in the natural world using contemporary media and online platforms. Since my rather quirky trek around Cornwall for my MSc project, I’ve been surprised with how much I have enjoyed presenting as a route into science communication – especially as I’m not the most confident of people! By talking through a topic out loud – I find that I not only offer information to others, but I have learnt so much through the process of film production and presentation. The research that goes into a script, the hours spent modifying it before delivery, help you to think about an environment, a process, a species of wildlife, much more creatively. Your ultimate goal is to leave the audience with more knowledge of a subject or an enlightened view on an issue than before – and so by dissecting information and identifying the key points to present, in a way that is interesting and understandable, well, you end up learning a huge amount!
Pieces to camera
Our presenting experience during Hong Kong was two-fold: pieces to camera and live presentation across 30 schools – both completely different methods of communication and new experiences for me! The documentary sought to uncover the wilder parts of the city and reveal the complex relationship the locals have with its wildlife. My job was to research what wildlife was in store for us during our visit. Learning about the natural history of Chinese white dolphins, black kites, Rhesus and Long-tailed macaques, was a refreshing change from the garden birds and local kittiwake colony back home! Being part of a small, inter-dependent production crew was also a valuable opportunity; making a welcome change from being a one-woman filming team as I am for my online content. Learning from our trip leader Huw James about shot composition, different presenting angles and even things such as stance, breathing techniques, voice cadences and body language; offered invaluable on-location hints and tips as to how to boost your chances of gaining and maintaining the attention of your audience. If there’s one thing I remember from the MSc Science Communication, it’s that knowing your audience is EVERYTHING.
Live Science Shows
Following the first few days of filming in some impressive national parks such as Sai KunGreatand secondary schools. Here was our chance to now personally interact with our audience, to initiate that all-important dialogue that is integral to effective science communication. Our tour formed part of the Hong Kong Science Festival, coinciding with Science Week back in the UK. Organised by the Croucher Foundation which aims to promote science communication and teaching over Hong Kong, we had quite the schedule! 10 days. 30 different schools. 30 shows. Travelling in-between. I arrived having never done a live science show before – it was safe to say my last stage performance may well have been Villager Number 5 in the school nativity!! Many of the schools required translation into Cantonese – adding an extra hurdle to the learning curve.
Being a team of three co-presenters worked well; while two presenters steered the show, the other became the stage hand. It also meant that I could spend the first few shows nursing a lost voice and learning from Huw and Tay, both of whom are far more experienced with delivering science content on stage. The shows were largely based around ‘Our Wild World’, covering everything from deep-sea adaptations of the blobfish, how to be more ‘plastic-smart’, to exploring how volcanoes and glaciers interact. The Hong Kong students were a dream to present to – polite, attentive and practically bursting with enthusiasm to volunteer for on-stage activities and ask questions; it was an opportunity I relished as someone so fresh from education myself, to interact with such eager students and try and inspire them to further their curiosity in science and the natural world.
It was wonderful to see the children’s reactions to seeing photos and film of awesome nature – my favourite being their reaction to seeing clips from our documentary of the azure waters of the Geopark and its dramatic coastline, as many of them were not aware of its proximity to their home. We soon realised the apparent disconnect Hong Kong has with its natural land, particularly during one bizarre moment with a teacher, who was asking us for recommendations on which national park to visit!
Top Tips from Sophie for getting going with Presenting
Just go for it. Nothing is harder but more important than just getting over those first few hurdles of getting your content out there. Experiment with different styles – but just practise, practise, practise. Take every opportunity you can to speak publicly, grow in confidence and learn your style.
Do your research. As a science communicator its so important to do your research and be sure you’re conveying the correct facts to your audience. Keep your facts accurate – but keep them snappy and interesting.
Be creative. This industry is competitive. Try to think of stories or angles to present that are different and innovative – give your audience something remember and your cameraman/woman something fun to film.
Network. The MSc Science Communication has been amazing for meeting likeminded individuals who are passionate about the same ultimate goal. If you want to try out presenting, see if you can find someone who wants to practise their filming and plan some fun filming trips together.
Overall, as newbies into the science communication world, Hong Kong offered a vibrant, challenging and fascinating experience to develop technique and learn an invaluable amount about the various elements that form a documentary and a science show.
Tay Aziz is a passionate science communicator, physiologist and filmmaker. She is currently working as a researcher for the BBC’s Natural History Unit and is the curator of STEMinist, an online community to empower women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
Sophie is an adventurous zoologist with a passion for using expedition to learn about the natural world. Sophie regularly explores the UK and overseas, sharing fun stories about wildlife and conservation through social media, writing, public speaking and workshops.
Sophie’s next project will involve working alongside The Wildlife Trust’s, making some online content for their 30 Days Wild Campaign in June. She’ll also be running digital content workshops for the City Nature Challenge in Bristol and speaking at the Festival of Nature.