October 24, 2020 · 5 min read
Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes
“Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes” is a series of articles born within ISA’s blog in collaboration with the Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei in Pavia, whose students community is marked by a strong presence of women in science. Science is research, long hours to carry out experiments in the laboratory or in the field, but science is also communication, grant writing, entrepreneurship, administration, teaching, project management, leadership and many other facets. We will post articles, interviews and short stories on these multiple aspects of the scientific endeavour. Should you like to contribute with your experience, do not hesitate to get in touch with Michela, ISA’s Head and Collegio Nuovo Alumna, here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spreading the Wonders of Science
Have you ever shared your scientific knowledge with non-experts in your field, or thought about a career in science communication (SciComm)? I would like to explain you the reasons why SciComm is more relevant today than ever, and tell the benefits and drawbacks of SciComm jobs.
I have heard some people switching from research to SciComm because they enjoyed writing their thesis more than working on the bench. For me, instead, it was all about science documentaries on TV. I love the way good documentaries explain difficult and technical concepts in an intuitive way, packing together an enjoyable sense of exploration, discovery and wonder. During my PhD in Cambridge (UK) I used to talk all the time about the latest science documentaries, until one of my colleagues told me: “Why don’t you consider doing that as a job?” All of a sudden, something clicked in my brain, but I was not sure if it was the right choice for me. I had followed a course in science journalism at Collegio Nuovo, but I had not considered SciComm for my career. To explore this sector a bit more, I began by volunteering at every SciComm activity I could find around me. In the UK, I was surrounded by a plethora of opportunities: an outstanding science festival in Cambridge, an engaging SciComm university society and a short internship at the BBC in London. Then, after my PhD, I received a scholarship to attend a master in SciComm at the Imperial College, London, and that’s how my career took a new and unexpected route.
Soon I realized that regardless of people’s age and background, human curiosity loves to be nurtured with well-explained science news and factual information about the mysteries of our Universe. I also found out that the SciComm field is really versatile, and it can be as creative as your imagination and funding allows. I met comedians who combine science with theatre, artists who produce science-themed jewellery, and YouTubers whose science-themed channels have millions of followers. Over the years, I experienced science writing, audio-visual production, science outreach and the CERN press office. Currently, I am working as science communicator for the Graphene Flagship, a consortium of more than 170 universities and companies in 21 countries, all studying and developing devices based on innovative materials for a variety of applications, including batteries, solar cells, water filters, photodetectors, biomedical tools, etc.
Exclusive access to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN during a special press visit.
In general, one of the main differences between research and SciComm is that now I have to grasp many different topics and to describe them at various levels of complexity. Motivated by a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you probably don’t understand it yourself,” I dedicate a lot of time to familiarise with the content of a new subject. This process fulfils my intellectual satisfaction and allows me to find interdisciplinary connections. On the other hand, I usually deal with short deadlines, which requires a good level of time management.
I have also been eager to promote diversity and inclusion in science, by encouraging young people to choose a scientific degree and fostering the career progression of underrepresented groups. Sadly, female researchers are affected by the so-called “leaky pipeline” – a metaphor for the lack of women at senior positions in science and innovation – thus, it is important to give voice to them and counteract this phenomenon. For instance, I was involved in the organisation of the Women in Graphene Career Development Day in March 2020, which took place on a virtual auditorium because of Covid-19 restrictions. Seventy participants from all over the world could meet and interact on the online platform, as if it was a real in-person conference.
Women in Graphene Career Development Day 2020. (Photo credit: Graphene Flagship).
In SciComm, I would say that jobs vary according to the audience, the source of funding and the size of the organisation you work for. SciComm experts act like bridges between scientists and other stakeholders, who include policy makers, other scientists, media, industry, investors, students and non-experts. For example, charities, government departments, non-governmental organisations and public sector organisations look for SciComm specialists to assist policy formulation and draft reports on scientific issues. If you have the vibe to spark interest in science among children, students and those who might not be involved in a technical sector, then you can aim for a job in outreach, science centres or museums. If you prefer presenting the scientific findings and products of a company, you could look into corporate public relations, for example.
Some careers in science publishing focus on the production, proofreading and editing of journals and books, whereas science writers and journalists translate technical papers into digestible research highlights and news articles. If you are good at arts, you could use your skills to draw medical and scientific illustrations, and if you are a social media buff, you can seek a role as social media manager. The list can continue, but what is important is that all these different jobs share a common passion for science and the desire to exchange information with others. If you end up in a small associations or team, you will probably have to juggle various tasks on a daily basis: articles, visual materials, social media, brochure design, event organisation, etc.
Like any career path, SciComm has its drawbacks. Compared to other scientific careers, the beginning can be very daunting: no matter how good your university degree is, prepare to send a lot of applications. This field is very competitive, and unfortunately, the salary varies widely. In some places, a PhD degree is appreciated and valued, but in other places a PhD-holder at his/her first work experience is treated and paid exactly the same as any intern who is several years younger. The career progress is not so linear, and long-term or permanent contracts are very rare especially in the public and academic sectors.
Some SciComm jobs are advertised on social media, for example via the Twitter #scicomm hashtag or via the Science Communications Job Facebook group. However, if you prefer to apply to a company, you should refer to companies’ websites and boost your LinkedIn profile. I also recommend registering to the PSI-COMM mailing list: it focuses mainly on the UK, but it’s gaining in popularity with the global SciComm community. Here you can ask any career questions and find job advertisements and other opportunities.
The best way to enter the field is by gaining some relevant experience, which could involve for instance building a portfolio, joining university science clubs, organising outreach events, volunteering at science museums and entering writing competitions. A master in SciComm is definitely not required, but it could help to build contacts.
Of course, you do not need to leave the lab and change career to enjoy the peaks of SciComm. You can participate in workshops aimed at refining and practicing your communications skills, and get in touch with scientists and communication officers who are already involved in SciComm initiatives. To bring your research out of your lab, you can write a blog, take part to a SciComm contest, such as FameLab, present at Pint of Science or in a secondary school, and collaborate in science-meets-art activities.
Furthermore, in times characterised by Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and easy diffusion of fake news, it is very important that scientists establish a conversation with the public, highlighting authoritative scientific studies and preventing any unjustified hype. Today communicating the truth about the scientific methodology, risks and uncertainty is critical for researchers as well as SciComm specialists. Overall, this is a very rewarding field: I believe I am making a little, but meaningful, contribution to society. And what is coming next in my career? My next challenge and dream will be to write science books for children.