Posts Tagged ‘science’

From shadow, into the sun

In March 2017 on March 6, 2017 at 5:30 pm

Photo thanks to thomasrousing/flickr

Anna: As a researcher, one could complain about a number of things. Grant season in is full flight and there are more and more applications for less and less funding, fake news and hyperbole seems to rule over facts and figures and …did I mention lack of job security?!

As a researcher and woman, one could feel even more pessimistic about the future. As far as dollars go,  NHMRC 2016 funding outcomes highlight the divide between women and men*, there are reduced travel and networking opportunities if you have family commitments and then there is the all-pervasive unconscious bias knocking you back, without you or your colleagues even noticing.

Hidden Figures”, nominated for Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards and based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, reveals the challenges that faced 3 mathematicians working for NASA in the 1950’s and 60’s. They were women and they were African American. The bias wasn’t unconscious or hidden or casual. At this time – in the state of Virginia, and thus NASA’s Langley headquarters –  segregation laws were enforced. The bias was out there in the open, all day, every day. These women had constant social and professional roadblocks just because of the colour of their skin (and gender).

When I saw the film, I immediately thought of someone else who worked away in the shadows and described as “The Dark Lady of DNA” – Rosalind Franklin. She too was a researcher. She too was a woman. She too was a minority (Jewish in an anti-Semitic Britain in the early 1900’s). She too was an inspirational ‘hidden figure’. Here, in discovery of the structure of DNA (for which Watson and Crick won a noble prize).

So as I finalise my 2017 fellowship application in between breastfeeds and childcare pick-ups, I hope I, and many other (probably more deserved) women can step out of the shadows, get funded, do inspirational research and continue to break down the roadblocks.

*Across all funding schemes, applications with a male CIA received almost double the budget as applications with a female CIA 


One in four is not OK (#1in4)

In April 2016 on April 29, 2016 at 3:14 pm

Original plate (1836) of a Western Ground Parrot spotted by Bowie in London this week. This bird is now critically endangered, with only 140 individuals left. 

*Bowie: I was riding a bicycle through the hail and rain of cold Cardiff when I heard the news – budget cuts at CSIRO mean one in four jobs specialising in biodiversity conservation research will be axed.

Yes, one in four jobs (#1in4).

Now, I should confess at this point a vested interest: I am Australian and jobless, with my degree majoring in environmental science (botany and ecology), and my Honours essentially focused on…yep you guessed it…biodiversity conservation research. Be that as it may, learning about these changes to CSIRO forced me to pull over, find shelter at a Cardiff Bay servo and write a rant on Facebook. What follows is a refined version of that rant one day on.

How can Australia – the land of plenty – be letting something like this happen? When travelling as an Aussie the first things people say is ‘oooh kangaroooos and koalaaaaas’, ‘beautiful beaches’, ‘I love the Great Barrier Reef!’ We are home to some of the world’s most loved, unique, and sadly most threatened creatures and landscapes.

Now, about those cuts: here’s a brief summary of how the current situation evolved. The CSIRO – Australia’s leading science agency and headed by Larry Marshall – announced plans to slash around 350 jobs in an email to staff back in February. This included 110 climate research positions, and approximately 100 from the agency’s Land and Water division. In their submission to a Senate inquiry hearing on the impacts of these cuts, The Royal Zoological Society of NSW calculated this to equate to approximately a quarter of ecologists within the division. At a time when the world is experiencing a mass coral bleaching event (in which only 7% the Great Barrier Reef is reported to have escaped unscathed) these job cuts will hurt Australia’s unique and threatened ecosystems for much longer than the short-term funding cycle they were based on. The environmental juggernaut Sir David Attenborough himself essentially criticised the Australian Government for not doing enough, leaving us a laughing stock on international stages.

At this point you might be expecting a plea to save jobs for those poor old ecologists who just want to help the planet. Well, as heart-shattering as this news would’ve been for the individuals and families affected (or fledgling biologists trying to get their foot in the door), there are many more opportunities overseas. I recently visited an old mate who’s moved to Oxford University for this exact reason. We were discussing how Australia’s politics on science have become laughable within the international community, despite a strong reputation among the world’s oldest and top universities that the research going on in Australia is still top notch. It should come as no surprise then that Australian ecologists are world leaders (to use the words of our politicians) and being headhunted by overseas and international organisations like Panthera. So no, I wouldn’t feel too bad for those who can’t find a job in Australia – did someone say London calling?

Even if job prospects rebound in the next three-five years, the knowledge and people lost will be felt for much, much, much longer.

I am proud to be a part of the community focused on our environment, and not just from a scientific perspective (because it’s not about that). I studied environmental science at university because I love the great outdoors, despite being told I’d be better off in one of the ‘harder sciences’ like physics or chemistry, or even engineering. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s all fascinating and necessary stuff, as we require the fundamental understanding gained from those more traditional sciences to develop cures to new diseases or new sources of energy, and inevitably help the environment we live in.

With the federal government’s own State of the Environment Report (2011) highlighting a decline and ongoing loss of biodiversity, why are biodiversity staff within the CSIRO seemingly suffering targeted cuts within the broader staff/budget cuts? Compound this with similar bare-bones operations of most state agencies, independent organisations, and even NGO’s and you realise how big a hit Australia’s environmental sector is copping.

My honours research focused on managing biodiversity conservation within Arid Recovery Reserve. This reserve is world renowned for its successful activities in reintroducing critically endangered and locally extinct species, such as the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur) and greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis). This could not have been achieved without support from many sectors, but especially funding from what was then Western Mining Corporation’s Olympic Dam. Since then, money has become tighter with new owners BHP Billiton. Even mining is suffering – due to reduced demand for coal and ores – which can actually have negative environmental impacts, with companies cutting support for environmental projects like Arid Recovery. As funds dry up, this once-great feral-free reserve is suffering intrusions from rascally-rabbits because of the simple fact that fences can no longer be maintained.

I fear for the Australia we are leaving behind. I do not wish to be a part of the movement currently swirling out of Australia to a land not down under, but up in the air and over to Europe, Asia, or the Americas. I do not wish to be a part of this brain-drain – even if it is better for my career. I would love it if Australian science had half the public support seen in countries like Denmark. I say public support because the time when policy listened to reason has passed, but the popularity contest means we as a public can steer Australia into a smarter future. With another election looming, leaders will be looking to sweeten their parties’ pie with deals like the new submarine deal.

ritchie copy 2

Source: Twitter @EuanRitchie1 New subs = $AU50 billion,
initiate Gonski reform = $AU6.5 billion, entire ARC budget 2015-16 = $AU0.83 billion. 

So I’ll leave you with this point: it’s not the jobs losses you should cry out about, nor the fantastic (and often fanatic) people who once loved those jobs. What you should tell your friends is that Australians don’t seem care for what is quintessentially Australia. It is no longer ‘what kind of world do you want to leave for your grandchildren?’ but ‘what kind of world do you want to live in?’

Because this is happening now and each of us can make that decision. #1in4 is not ok – so please spread the word and keep this in mind when you vote in Australia’s Federal election in July.

*Guest post from ecologist and science communicator Matthew Bowie. Learn a bit more about Bowie in his first Science for Life.365 blog post 

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]


Science writing: what, how, why, when and huh?

In February 2016 on February 22, 2016 at 11:17 am


Sarah: What does a science writer even do? It’s a question I am regularly asked as I meet new people day-to-day. Some scientists are also intrigued about my work, and interested to know how I made the switch from a research career into a communications role.

Recently I was interviewed by Adrian Carter, Deputy Chair at the Early-Mid Career Researcher Forum at the Australian Academy of Science, as a way to provide careers information to members. Originally published here, I’ve reproduced it below in case you too are interested.

What is your current occupation or position?
I’m a freelance science writer, and live in Adelaide, South Australia. I have an office in my home, and travel to meet with clients as required. Occasionally I work in-house with a client if that suits their needs. My work typically includes a mix of: writing news and feature articles for online and printed publications, putting together or editing grants and prize applications for scientists, copywriting and crafting content and case studies for client websites and documents, writing blog posts and other social media outputs, conducting workshops for scientists looking to improve their writing skills, and more. Previously I worked in immunology research in Australia and Indonesia, and in a number of writing and communication type roles.

How did you get into science writing?
It was a field I had been interested in for a long time, although it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally made the decision to become a dedicated freelance writer. At the time, I was employed by Dr Kristin Alford at futures consultancy Bridge8 Pty Ltd ( We worked on a range of different science, technology and futures projects, and it became clear to me that it was always the writing work that I loved the most amongst the mix of skills I was applying. I’d been cultivating my science writing capability for many years prior to that, having started a Graduate Diploma in Sciences Communication during my PhD in the late 1990s (I finally completed it over 10 years later!). I did a reasonable amount of volunteer writing work for associations and publications over the years as well, and started a daily blogging project ( to improve my writing volume and speed.

What do you enjoy most about working in science writing?
I love that I’m working at the cutting edge of science, across many different specialty fields and that every week is different. Obviously I’m not doing laboratory research anymore (and I do miss it a little), but I have the opportunity to chat with some fantastic people and hear about what they’re doing and what they hope the impact of their research will be. As well as being thrilled by the science, I have a real love of language. I find it very satisfying to craft words, sentences, paragraphs and indeed whole pages that are enjoyable and easy to read, but still accurate. I love the stories of science, and helping new audiences to come into contact with complex subject matter that they may not have encountered before.

What are the most challenging aspects about being a science writer?
Although working alone is a good fit with my slightly introverted personality, at times it can be quite isolating. To counter that, I make sure I mix up my time: I schedule a combination of flat-out writing binges interwoven with in-person and phone interviews, coffee dates with pals and colleagues, and chats about life and work matters with friends and colleagues via Twitter and Facebook. I attend professional events in Adelaide—I’m a member of the Australia Science Communicators and the SA Writers Centre—and travel to conferences or training once or twice a year.

It can also be quite challenging to keep the right balance of jobs on the go. Sometimes offers of work come all at once, and it’s important I make sure I don’t over-commit myself when that happens. However it’s incredibly hard to say ‘no’ to fantastic opportunities, especially when a new client comes knocking. Other periods are quieter, which is useful for administration tasks. Working at home, I do need to make sure I don’t procrastinate in the form of household distractions.

Describe a typical day in your job?
I am an early riser, often before 6am. Some mornings I exercise, others I sit straight down at the computer and get an hour of writing done straight up. From 7am-8am it’s bedlam! My husband and I grapple with breakfast, lunches, uniforms and miscellaneous emotional turmoil for three kids aged 6-12. Once that mob is packed off out the door, I have the house to myself and start on more work. I write best in the mornings, so make sure I use that time wisely to crank out serious words. I aim to schedule phone calls and meetings in the early afternoon when my brain has come off the boil a little. If I have a full day at home, I break it up with exercise (running or swimming) and physical chores around the house. Working from an in-house office is a great way to keep a household ticking over. I recommend it to any working parent. But again, look out for the procrasti-cleaning/cooking/washing!

Between 3.30 and 6pm is taken up with the kids’ after-school activities, although I do pull in help to cover this during busy times when I need to squeeze more hours from each day. If I’m in a particularly crazy patch, I work evenings as well.

Any advice for early-mid career researchers wishing to pursue a career in science writing?
Science writing is not for everyone, and is not necessarily a natural jump from a career in research. The best approach is to take a long run-up and make a slow transition. You’ve really got to know yourself: work out what you’re good at, what conditions you like to work under. You need to be familiar with what makes writing work for different platforms: news, social media, long-form, grants, prizes, website copy and more. You must be able to work fast and to tight deadlines at times. You need great networks in science and media circles, which can be built up over time in other employment and through real life and social media interactions. You should take the opportunity to get extra training if possible, such as through writing courses, science outreach training or media internships. You can also take on volunteer roles to learn new skills: for example, do media or outreach for a science association. Whilst doing that, try and hook up with a mentor or two in the field you’re interested in. Even if you just meet for coffee, it’s valuable. If you have the chance and a bit of spare time, work collaboratively and humbly with them (yes, this usually means not paid!) – it will be worthwhile, as you’ll learn new skills and define your strengths and weaknesses outside of the research environment.

What’s exciting you about science writing?
It’s so exciting living at the intersection of two fascinating disciplines: science and media. Science is so interesting, so diverse and of course incredibly valuable to our society. Through writing, I love feeling that I can help change peoples’ minds about the importance and relevance of science, for example guiding readers to feel less intimidated by climate change, or helping them understand how cancer treatment works. I also feel very lucky to apply my science knowledge at the cutting edge of digital news and communications—the way information is presented and consumed is so fascinating, and changing constantly. Late in 2015 I attended the Storyology conference, hosted by The Walkley Foundation. It was absolutely wonderful to hear from some of the world’s leading media experts, and to be part of such a dynamic field.

How did your PhD or postdoctoral research assist you with a career in science writing?
My PhD training was a fantastic launch pad for a career in science writing. Through many years working with Sarah Robertson—herself a fantastic communicator—and other colleagues, I learnt how to write specifically and concisely, how to organise information, how to tell a story through verbal and written communication, how to reach long-term goals through creating reasonable short-term deadlines, how to manage my time effectively, how to never give up, how to walk into a conference and chat with people I’d never met before…the list goes on! All these skills are so valuable and transferable to many careers outside of research science.

[image thanks to]

Best job advice: think about the people

In February 2016 on February 15, 2016 at 2:32 pm


Sarah: The other day I think I heard the best ever piece of advice for students trying to work out what their future careers might be.

It was delivered in the context of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), but could apply equally to any field:

“Think about the types of people who will be in the industry you’re be aiming to be in, and shape your decisions according to that.”

Brilliant. Brilliant!

So, for example: If you love rocks and Earth history then you could consider studying geology. However it’s the decision you make next which will be the big one. If you want to work with miners and engineers and business heads looking to make money from the resources sector, you could think about being a minerals exploration expert. If instead you’d rather work with people at museums and University academics learning about the history of Earth and outdoor adventurers, then you could aim towards a research career with lots of field trips. Same educational background, completely different people to hang out with.

In my case, I loved biology and the scientific method, and did well enough at school to get into medicine. But then 3 years later I worked out I actually didn’t enjoy being in the hospital environment — lots of sick people, a hierarchical system of doctors, and not much time to sit down and think through problems. So I switched over to biomedical research, and was much happier.

What kinds of people do you like? What are the characteristics and value sets of friends who make you feel happy and comfortable? What’s your best operating environment?

Head for that, and you’ll be right. Mate.

[image thanks to Jirka Matousek]


The ingredients of life

In September 2015 on September 2, 2015 at 2:38 pm


Sarah: There’s a cemetery near my house.

The kids and I walk past it often. We’re prone to wandering amongst the gravestones as well, sometimes to pick dandelions and other times trying to find a geocache that someone has sneakily tucked away somewhere very secret.

My little one is aged 6. He asked me recently:

“Where the people are whose headstones are shown above the ground?”

I said they were buried underneath.

Large pause.

“But what happens to their bodies, they’re in the dirt!”

I paused too.

Eventually I came up with something.

“People’s bodies are made from the same ingredients that make dirt.

So the bodies just break down and make new dirt.

So then it helps new flowers and tress to grow.”

Damn I was happy with that explanation! I think he was too – as he leapt on his scooter and raced away.


Being human

In July 2015 on July 21, 2015 at 2:38 pm

orange human

Sarah: For many of us who live in so-called ‘civilised’ Western societies, life is very different from that of our ancestors a mere thousand or so years ago.

Thanks to vaccination and drug development, acute infectious diseases rarely kill us.

With good obstetric care, nutrition and housing, our children and new mothers survive the days, weeks, months and years immediately following birth.

Thanks to organised agriculture and government amenities, most of us are freed from the bonds of constantly sourcing food and water for ourselves and our families.

Living in cities, towns and on cleared land, we rarely need to face the challenges of the wild – whether that be in the form of extreme weather, or the large and sometimes carnivorous animals that live in many parts of the world.

When the footage of surfer Mick Fanning being confronted by a very large shark surfaced this week, we all gasped. Because most of us will never ever face such a danger. That doesn’t mean it’s not natural. That doesn’t mean we have a right to kill sharks in the name of protection (paywall).

It just means we’re damned lucky.

And so is Mick.

[image thanks to Kumar’s Edit]

Science and social media: don’t be shy, just start!

In July 2015 on July 16, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Sarah: Today I was delighted to talk to science students as part of The University of Adelaide’s Winter Courses in Science Communication (undergrad and postgrad).

I summarised how I’ve used social media to market my blog, to build my brand as a science writer and to connect with fantastic people across the world.

Number one tip for new users of social media? Don’t be shy, just start!