Getting on my soapbox

At 12 noon exactly I stepped onto my soapbox and surveyed the vast expanse of unpopulated concrete between me and the River Thames. 3 boxes to my right, another female scientist had already pulled in an audience with her flagella balloons. With a deep breath I lifted my empty water bottle high and started “Who can tell me what’s in this bottle?” Some people drifted in my direction, and I was off on my SoapboxScience adventure.

SoapboxScience involves 12 female scientists taking shifts on soap boxes on public thoroughfares talking about their research and their love of science. Sort of science street theatre. WITH NO POWERPOINT. In fact no power either. The project aims to raise the profile of science and female scientists amongst the general public via the style of public debate and discussion. For the past 4 years there has been an event in London, but this year there were also sister events in Swansea, Dublin and Bristol.


My event was Sunday June 29th 2014. Our soapboxes were set up at Gabriel’s Wharf near the Southbank Centre in London. It was a beautiful sunny day, at least to start with! Sharing the first hour slot with me were experts on cheetahs, evolutionary biology and Mars exploration. My job was to spread excitement about particles in the atmosphere and their effects on weather and climate. We’d been told to prepare 10-15 minutes of “stand-up” material, with props if we wanted, and to expect people to stay listening to us for anywhere between 2 and 20 minutes. These are a few of the things I learnt from the experience:

  • Your opening pitch is really important to draw people to you.. asking a question that seems to have a simple answer but doesn’t worked well. As did a giant picture of jam donuts as a metaphor for coated soot particles (Thanks to @willtmorgan and his European Geophysical Union blog )
  • The prop that was the most useful was the one that I thought I would only use in an emergency – a set of 4 scanning electron microscope images of different aerosol particles. I got people to “pick a card” and asked the group to guess what it was. Then I spent 3 mins talking about that type of aerosol, making sure I included the main points (aerosols scatter sunlight and aerosols make clouds) in every case. However, this also meant people stayed to see all 4 pictures which meant the “dwell time” was at least 10 minutes.
  • Don’t make audience participation too contrived. I tried making an aerosol chains and balls out of humans to demonstrate the aging and coating process but it didn’t work so I dropped it after one attempt. I have an idea how to improve it for the future though so watch this space.
  • People will ask questions of all levels of sophistication – be prepared to tailor your answer appropriately
  • I prepared props that would work in the rain, but not in the wind – without my dedicated soapbox volunteer I’d have been in trouble

The scariest part was trying to stop people just walking past without stopping, but I think I talked to around 80 people in the hour I was on the box and there weren’t too many awkward gaps. The first time I looked at my watch was 45 minutes into my hour long slot, and then it was over way too soon. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could.


Sponsored in the past by L’Oreal UNESCO For Women in Science and ZSL, the two dedicated research biologists women who started it, Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli have been successful in securing government funding for Soapbox for the next few years, and plan to put on events in other cities. Possibly even Reading…

Communicating with the Communciators

Did you know that eating 135g of brazil nuts gives you the same dose of radiation as one dental x-ray?  Nope, me neither. Clearly this is an example of good science communication because it has stuck with me long after I heard it in a conference session this morning.

I have spent the day at the Science Communication Conference 2014 of the British Science Association. It’s my first time at this meeting, and I’m really enjoying thinking about this aspect of my role. The key note presentation by Mat Lock (@matlock) of  described the world of digital attention, and discussed the importance of trying to relax about transgression – the lack of control that you have when and how other people share your tweets or blog posts. He emphasised that in fact, we need transgression to get our stories told to a wide audience, and that what we need to do is to develop new skill akin to comedians dealing with hecklers. Relevant to my aspirations concerning science writing, he also emphasised that the only way to be successful in the digital world is to put lots of things out there.

The importance of getting on and doing it was also emphasised in the science writing workshop by Jon Tennant (@protohedgehog), who pointed out that the only way to learn is to write, and to see what feedback you get. In that workshop we got to consider which stories might be most attractive to different audiences, and to practice converting an article abstract to a summary for the general public. We also then critiqued someone else’s attempt and got feedback on our efforts. The session on “communicating risk” was full of examples directly relevant to my research – climate change, floods and even black carbon made an appearance.  I was reminded of the importance of understanding when framing is being used to present numbers ( the difference between saying “it could be as high as” compared to “it is very unlikely to be more than”. The difference between relative and absolute risk was brought home by Gerry Thomas in the context of radiation exposure. David Speigelhalter (@d_spiegel)  introduced me to the idea of using frequency trees to express risk and demonstrated the importance of using metaphors and analogies to relate outcomes to things people understand – normalising the risk. I finished the day hearing about Zombies and robot safaris and participating in a hive mind experiment where tens of us” independently worked together” to stabilise a tightrope walker being pelted by tomatoes via hand-held clicker devices. Although I don’t plan to be organising one myself anytime soon, I now know a lot more about science festivals, as well as psychology!

It’s also been an interesting experience to attend a conference where I know no-one. Most of the attendees are professional science communicators working on a variety of outreach  or engagement projects. There are only a few academic research scientists here (question: what is the difference between a researcher and a scientist? Answer: A scientist is a researcher with added importance). This has felt like a far more interactive experience than the usual conferences I go to. I think this is probably down to three things: 1) it’s a communication conference so people communicate for the love of communicating, 2) there is a “do it” strand of workshops including the science writing one I went to and a speed-networking event; 3) there is no comfort blanket of known collaborators to wrap myself up in. I have been motivated to talk to new people, and indeed been actively encouraged (i.e. forced)  to do so.  Not usually the most confident networker, I’ve felt curiously at ease here. Perhaps it is because I have nothing to lose – there are no expectations of me and my research reputation is not on the line. Tomorrow brings sessions on representing women, informal science education and working as a freelance science communicator. And maybe more about nuts – who knows!

Back at the EGU

Back at the EGU (European Geosciences Union) after a 6 year absence, it felt both reassuringly familiar, and strikingly different. The throng of scientists moving around the conference building, the vast stretches of poster boards and the queues for coffee were all recognisable. The temperatures in the darkened rooms tended towards Saharan rather than glacial, and there were definitely some questions about  indoor air quality. Oral science sessions and posters aplenty kept us occupied from 8.30 am until 7.00pm. For the really keen, short courses and specialist town meetings (such as the EGU Women in Geosciences network) continued further into dinner time.

But there were also hints of the way that the life of a research scientist is changing. Some of the poster sessions were replaced by “PICO” (Presenting Interactive Content) sessions on large touch sensitive screens. Tweets allowed those of us who would have liked to have been in two places at once to keep up with the goings on in parallel sessions. A session on the use of social media in science was well attended and lively, and I went to my first ever “tweetup”. These new ways of interacting with colleagues, and the wider world, were unheard of when I started my PhD. As a somewhat under-confident PhD student, it would have been so much easier to contact the awesome “experts” in my subject area had I been able to check out their blog before asking a question on twitter.

Thanks #EGU2013 for allowing me to connect with old friends, hear about the latest work in aerosols, Saharan climate, biomass burning and rainfall, make new contacts, and  for inspiring me to finally get around to blogging.