Archive for the ‘March 2016’ Category

Where could science take you?

In March 2016 on March 30, 2016 at 9:11 pm


Sarah: Research science can be the perfect platform from which to launch a new career. Perhaps you’re interested in marketing, intellectual property, teaching, business management or pharmaceutical sales? After graduating with a biomedical PhD in 2000, now I am a freelance science writer.

Here are my top 6 tips for transitioning from research into another career:

  1. Know yourself. Keep your options broad. Be open to change.
  2. Before you make a move, get extra training if possible.
  3. Offer yourself up for volunteer roles – you’ll learn new skills you didn’t know you didn’t have. And you might love them.
  4. Don’t expect a new career to take off overnight. Aim for a slow transition.
  5. Find great mentors, and work collaboratively and humbly with them.
  6. Be bold enough to design and transition to a career that fits with other responsibilities and loves – whether these are family, an existing job, or a passion such as marathon running or speaking French.

It’s hard to see how each of these points is relevant without a case study. So here’s little more detail of my career history:

I was always the kind of person who was interested in lots of…well…stuff. As a kid and teenager, I read many kinds of books. I played lots of sport. I listened to the radio and loved documentaries. After school finished, I signed up to study Medicine.

But it didn’t work out. Fundamentally, I was unhappy (looking back, I think it was lack of emotional maturity). After switching to a Bachelor of Medical Science, I was lucky enough to conduct an Honours year and subsequently my PhD under the supervision of Sarah Robertson (now Director at the Robinson Research Institute). Sarah R was – and still is – an adept communicator, both in the written and oral forms. She taught me that to cut it as a researcher in reproductive immunology I needed to be able to explain reproduction to immunologists, and conversely to share immunology with reproductive scientists and obstetricians/gynaecologists. This awareness of audience needs was an excellent start to a career in science communication.

Sarah also advised me to join the ASMR, and I subsequently became active with the South Australian branch – including as media officer, my first foray into the world of press releases, briefs and talking to journalists. It was a pleasure working with ASMR stalwarts Moira Clay and Peter O’Loughlin during the mid-late 1990s. And Cath West was a great support from head office.

I became so interested in talking about science to a general audience, that I signed up to study a Graduate Diploma in Sciences Communication (Central Queensland University). Of course this was a crazy move, given that I was mid-PhD. But once started, it was easy to defer it many times and I finally completed the diploma over 10 years later. This gave me an important theoretical foundation in media and communications. And it showed people that mattered I was investing in my communications career – this fact alone was enough for a well-known media identity (Keith Conlon) to give me a brief spot on his local TV show.

Post PhD, I stuck with research for about 4 more years, working in Australia and Indonesia. A post-doc with American military scientists in Jakarta was an eye-opener to say the least. Here, I developed better skills fending for myself, and was fortunate to work with a fantastic epidemiologist in Dr Kevin Baird.

But that communication bug kept biting, and so I left the academic sector and started working for an Adelaide science and futures consultancy Bridge8. In this company, business owner Kristin Alford focused on digital and novel strategies to tackle big problems related to science and technology. She encouraged me to take up social media and to embrace new challenges I never would have dared confront previously. With my two and then three young children to work around, she was also highly supportive of my need to work odd hours and from home on many occasions. If you provide new parents with flexibility and options, it’s my experience that they will work hard for you.

It became clear that the thing that made me happiest was writing. So I used a blogging project (ScienceforLife365) to announce to the world that I was a freelance science writer. This blog (now in its 5th year) was crucial in refining my writing skills, reaching new audiences, understanding social media better, and formed a great marketing tool as well. I undertook further training in writing, marketing and social media through SA Writers Centre, the Walkley Foundation and Australian Science Communicators. Now I work with a range of clients in academia, publishing, government, social media and digital news services. Many find me through word of mouth; others I meet through networking and introductions from existing clients.

And the crazy thing is, I’m actually a little bit tempted to look into Medicine again. I guess I just like to keep things fresh.

Have you worked out what stuff keeps you motivated? It just might lead you to a new career.

This post was first published in the March 2016 newsletter of the Australian Society for Medical Research

[Image thanks to Chase Elliot Clark, Creative Commons license]



World Science Festival Brisbane was not science worship, and it worked

In March 2016 on March 22, 2016 at 10:49 am
WSF Brisbane

Image thanks to @WSFBrisbane 

Sarah: I realised World Science Festival Brisbane was a big deal at 30,000 feet above ground level — the flight attendants were discussing how to catch a few events (science-loving airhostesses equals stereotype-breaking at its best).

Co-founded eight years prior by Tracy Day and Brian Greene, in March 2016 the World Science Festival left New York City for the very first time and set up a second home in Brisbane, Australia. In that city to attend the National Conference of the Australian Science Communicators, I was fortunate enough to hang around, catch the vibe, and attend four World Science Festival events over Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March.

Known affectionately amongst Australians as ‘BrisVegas’, Queensland’s capitol was a fantastic host city. The co-location of numerous cultural buildings – The Queensland Museum, The Queensland Art Gallery, The Queensland Performing Arts Centre and The State Library of Queensland – with open grassy areas along the front of the Brisbane River made the entire experience easy. Families and passersby on the water-front were treated to ‘Smart Science’ – pop-up activities and demonstrations encouraging people to ‘explore the fun of science in a hands-on, action packed program.’ More formal activities with ticketed sales took place in the nearby buildings.


For its emotional punch, I adored Alan Alda’s Dear Albert. Presented by three actors dressed in black and perched on plain wooden chairs, the readings consisted of excerpts from letters between Albert Einstein and his loved ones. It sounds dull but it was most assuredly not so. I was captivated: laughing, gasping and occasionally in tears. Einstein may have been the world’s most remarkable physicist, but his use of language was also breathtaking. His love letters were simple and yet detailed, sweet but occasionally racy (by implication, not directly) and revealing of a passionate and loving man. When his marriage began to fail and professional pressures increased, he did equally well in conveying anger, stress and bitterness. In essence the audience was given a taste of Einstein’s many passions; the selected paragraphs traced ‘an intimate and unfamiliar line across his life and work.’ We also had a glimpse of what expectations were on women in the early-mid 20th century. A young girl pregnant and unmarried certainly had very little choice in how her life played out – the mystery of what happened to Einstein’s first, illegitimate child still remains – and similarly, a divorcee often endured a powerless existence.

Still on physics, but much drier, was Breakfast with the Brians. Science superstars Brian Greene and Brian Schmidt chatted with host Robyn Williams about string theory, dark matter, the processes of science, science communication and magic. The celebrity geek factor was very high – and the audience lapped it up. But for me, again it was the insights into personalities that were the most interesting part of this event. For example, we learned that Brian Greene grew up in a family of vaudeville entertainers—maybe this is why he’s so adept at holding an audience captive? Interestingly, I later learnt that Alan Alda grew up surrounded by his family’s vaudeville/burlesque business as well – this podcast has more on that.


Similarly, I loved Greene’s insights into how science makes you feel. “Emotion is critical,” he said. “When you’re doing science the ideas tickle the brain, but the real moments come when you feel like you’re staring at eternity, at something that on-one else has seen before.”

And on the subject of releasing a new paper or a novel theory, he admitted it can be terrifying. “There is a great deal of fear, of going out into the world and having egg on your face,” said Brian Greene. Even the big guys have imposter syndrome at times, I guess.

Panel events can be somewhat risky: either they crash and burn into an hour of tedious agreements and confirmation of stuff we already know, or they ignite fantastic conversations and inoculate the audience with lingering ideas. Which way it goes usually depends on the moderator. Luckily the two World Science Festival panel events I attended had excellent hosts – each knew the participants well, was aware of the audience and was motivated to get the conversations kicking.


Radio National’s Natasha Mitchell chaired a session Where Worlds Collide: Science Values and Ethics. Natasha involved her audience from the get-go – she ran a quick poll, challenging us to make decisions on a series of ethical dilemmas – and then asked her panel to consider the same scenarios. The best thing about the session was that Rob Sparrow, Margaret Somerville, Rob Lamberts, Wayne Hall and Dimity Dornan didn’t speak of science like something that was to be revered, respected and kept apart from the rest of society. Quite the opposite. The overriding message was that science is a living, breathing cultural construct that must sit within a broad human context. And as you might expect in a discussion about values, we witnessed some strong disagreement – check out my tweets if you want a bit more detail.

Natasha Mitchell is a very experienced radio journalist, and it showed. The same is true for John Hockenberry, who chaired the final session I attended – Science and Story: Getting it Write. John lead his panel – James Bradley, Simon Groth, Ashley Hay, George Musser and Niamh Shaw – in rare discussion that explored how writing (or more specifically, narrative) and science work together to help people understand their world. John told us that Earth in 2016 is an uncertain place, perhaps the most uncertain it’s been since World War II. This he attributed mostly to the existence of climate change and rapid technological advances. “Interest in science is a sign people see that the world is in a kind of motion,” said John. “Our understanding of the world is in transition right now.”


Panelist Ashley Hay agreed, describing writing about science as ‘a means to understand what our future might be,’ and suggesting that ‘we need to be literate about what is unknown.’ (See a few more tweets on this here).

Having worked with futurist Dr Kristin Alford, the need to formally consider and prepare ourselves for diverse future scenarios is something I’m reasonably familiar with. However crazily enough it’s not a subject that comes up often in public discussions about science. This panel was a rare exception.

Science is a funny old thing. All of us who work in science think we have a grip on what it means, how it’s important and why the general public should actually care. Sometimes we put science on a pedestal, and expect others to gather around and worship from afar. But science does not exist in isolation. It cannot function on its own. Science is a human activity that is shaped by human desires and needs, and it is interpreted in a broader cultural context. It’s rare that public science events manage to capture all of these complexities. I’d like to congratulate World Science Festival Brisbane on their achievements in putting together a broad program of events that reflected the many different layers and components of science. I hope future events can push audiences of scientists and non-scientists into new ways of thinking even further.

This post was first published at Real Scientists

Psst! Pay attention. I’m communicating

In March 2016 on March 17, 2016 at 9:29 pm


Sarah: Hey! You. Yes, you. Yup, I’m talking to you.

Come over here….I want to tell you some science. And you will listen. And you will learn. And you will walk away wiser. And the world will be a better place.

Does this sound familiar? Does this approach work? How do we best transfer or teach scientific information to an audience? It’s a question I’ve been mulling over since I attended the Australian Science Communicators 2016 National Meeting held in Brisbane last week.

Whilst the full program consisted of many interesting presentations, the final session of the day came from Christine O’Connell, Associate Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. When she began, it was past 5pm. You can imagine the crowd that sat in front of her. We were all tired. We were all thinking about the drinks coming up. We didn’t really want to see more Powerpoint slides. Fortunately, she had us up and out of our chairs straight away. I’ll tell you about two exercises that were incredibly valuable.


How Christine O’Connell got us thinking about audience

First, Christine set us up in pairs, and we labeled ourselves Person A and Person B.

Activity 1
Person A was asked to imagine that Person B had travelled from 300 years ago in a time travel machine. Person A was asked to grab her mobile phone, place it in her hand and explain what it was without making to Person B think she was a witch. It was really hard! Explanations went like this:

This is technology —> WITCH!
You can receive messages from other people —-> WITCH!
You can speak to people who are a long way away —-> WITCH
You can read daily newspapers on it —-> WITCH!

How would you explain what a mobile phone is? The best answers came from people who thought about what knowledge base a person from 300 years ago might have. The effective communicators mentioned smoke signals, carrier pigeons….familiar ways that information might be transferred from one person to another. To communicate you must work within the audience’s existing world.

Activity 2
This was a mirroring activity. Standing upright, Person A was asked to ad lib a series of movements that Person B was expected to copy, or mirror. For example, left arm up, down, up, down followed by right arm in, out, out, in. It was fun! It was hilarious doing fast movements, and watching Person B try to keep up.

But then Charlotte told us that Person B was the audience. It’s not ideal to try and trick him. You’re supposed to create a series of slow, repetitive, familiar movements that allow him to follow along, not get frustrated, not get left behind. As Person A you must work with Person B to ensure you’re on the same page. Think about his needs. Think about what he’s expecting. Think about what came before. Think about whether he’s tired, or confused, or angry. This is communication – working together to transfer knowledge.


Although I always like to imagine myself as being pretty good at thinking about audience needs, these activities really blew my mind. In essence, Christine was asking us to stop thinking of ourselves as smart-arse experts. To stop assuming the audience can keep up. To stop creating a distance between ourselves and the audience (for professional or whatever other reasons).

Instead, we should meet the science-interested audience on their home turf and play ball together. That’s communication.

[image thanks to]


On International Women’s Day, free me from ‘should’

In March 2016 on March 8, 2016 at 1:03 pm


Sarah: ‘Should’. What a terrible word, huh.

You should be eating more greens.

You should get more sleep.

You should exercise more.

All these ‘shoulds’ haunt me! And maybe you as well. Many of us aim to live a life shaped by evidence and best practise.

Research tells us that a healthy body needs regular exercise, plenty of vegetables and fruit, minimal processed carbohydrates and 8 hours sleep a night.

Psychological and pedagogical studies report on best approaches for guiding literacy, optimal amounts of exercise and screen time for children, improving resilience, and managing homework and chores.

Mental health resources compile evidence on juggling the demands of family, work and other commitments, and the need for downtime.

All up, sometimes life feels like a constant battle between all the shoulds.

It would actually be a hell of a lot easier to eat fish and chips every night. To have the TV on from sun-up ’til sun-down. To dump gym memberships and early morning sports practises. To let the kids order their lunch every day.

We all know that’s not ideal. But for goodness sake, let’s also feel OK about offloading a few ‘shoulds’ every now and again.

So today is International Woman’s Day. To celebrate, I’m having a break from a few ‘shoulds’.

You should too.

[image thanks to]