One of the things many scientists find challenging is how to explain their research in an interesting manner.
It’s one thing preparing your research for academic publications – there is a recognised structure to follow, certain items to always include, and feedback from co-authors and reviewers to improve your writing. But presenting that same information to the general public is a whole other ball game. How do you keep a class of undergraduates interested for a whole 2hr lecture on underwater acoustics? How do you encourage community volunteers to develop scientific thinking skills? How do you explain your research to media personnel in a way that makes it exciting and worth sharing?
These are problems that I find really interesting. Obviously traditional science communication (academic publications and presenting at scientific conferences) is important. But I’ve spoken before of the importance of also becoming a virtual scientist, and learning new science communication techniques to promote your research. So I was pretty chuffed last week to find myself at a day-long workshop on “Science Communication and Presentation Skills” as part of FameLab Australia.
Bringing Science into the Spotlight
FameLab is one of the world’s leading science communication competitions. It aims to get people “talking science” by mentoring young scientists and engineers to turn them into awesome communicators. Similar to the 3-Minute-Thesis Competition (3MT), speakers are given only 3mins to explain their area of research – no powerpoint, no labcoats, no jargon! Organised by the British Council, there are over 45 countries participating in the event, having their own national finals to determine their competitors for the final FameLab International Competition in the UK.
I was encouraged by Curtin University to enter, so went along last Thursday to the workshop, which culminated in the WA State Finals that evening. The workshop was held by three local science communicators – Emma Donnelly (Science Outreach Coordinator; Curtin University), Sarah Lau (Communication Managed; ChemCentre), and Renae Sayers (Theatre and Events Coordinator; Scitech). We spent an amazing day bouncing around between flaming hands, personal brands, communication platforms, and vocal toolboxes. It was like a step back into my former Science Presenter life… If I could find a way to incorporate explosions, liquid nitrogen, and / or flaming limbs into my dolphin presentations, I would be complete!
Like Taking a Keyboard from a Baby
For my talk, I really wanted to get people thinking about underwater soundscapes. To do this, I wanted to use an example that people could relate to – and since I knew my audience would majorly consist of young to middle-aged adults, I figured comparing the underwater environment to a bar would be a pretty nifty metaphor! Almost everyone in the audience had probably experienced the masking effects of background noise in a pub at some point, so it nicely familiarised the problem faced by dolphins.
But how to illustrate this on stage? FameLab requires the use of a prop, which I struggled with for a while. I got a friend to record some bar sounds from his weekend exploits, but playing them on stage quickly became a logistical pain. The rules didn’t allow me to use the FameLab sound system, and bringing my own wasn’t feasible.
But a brainwave on the treadmill (I often problem-solve whilst walking) reminded me of the last time I was babysitting. Owen wandered over to the electric keyboard, switched it on, and pressed the ‘random filler’ option to churn out some beats before dancing around in circles for ten minutes.
Random cheesy filler music would make a great bar-sounds alternative – loud enough to make the point, whilst being tacky enough to be funny. Win!
Two Dolphins Walk into a Bar…
The resultant talk wasn’t filmed as part of FameLab, but Phil managed to catch the talk on his phone. The volume is a bit low, but still gives a pretty good video of my performance!
I was delighted to be awarded People’s Choice by audience vote, but unfortunately I didn’t make it through to the Australian Finals. The judges consoled me afterwards by saying that it was my lack of results rather than my performance which hindered my progression to the next round, and strongly encouraged me to come back next year. Although, as a friend kindly pointed out, it means I got the votes of 200 audience members as opposed to 3 judges!
Regardless, I still enjoyed the whole experience! I always enjoy the chance to talk about dolphins and get people excited in science! And it was a wonderful opportunity to meet some fellow science enthusiasts whilst flexing my science communication skills. Plus applause isn’t something you get often in research, so that was pretty appreciated!
A massive congrats go to Amber Beavis (WA Museum) and David Gozzard (UWA) who were the winner and runner-up for the WA competition. I can’t wait to see you guys at the Australian final down at Fremantle in May!
Any More Talks?
But looking at the birthday card I got from the department this week, perhaps I should be focusing more on my research for a while – I appear to be getting a bit of a reputation 😛