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 radio.
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.
My 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.