By Miguel Ramírez
A survival guide for newbies into public awareness of science
Science outreach is a misleading title, because it is not a well-defined term like a scientific seminar or PhD viva. It involves everything that includes scientific communication to the general public. Some people love it; some people find it discouraging at best. It is not the purpose of this blog to shout loud “I want you to outreach”, but to heavily push you into giving it a try.
There are plenty of opportunities for outreaching. The easiest for you (and a recommended first try) will be the University Science and Engineering day (March), where many postgrad students will offer their time in order to convince the general public about the importance (and coolness) of science. But outreaching may also be visiting a school, arranging meeting talks in a café, or even guiding visitors during University Open Days.
Therefore, although each event is different, and each experience will be unique, some general advice is useful. Some people may jump into the deep end without exactly knowing what is going on. For those of you interested enough, here we go:
- It is easy to handle, difficult to master. Being a good communicator is an art, and sometimes a gift. But if you are willing to help and you like to talk to people, you are more than ready for your first outreach event! Finding a good outreacher may be hard, because there will rarely be a quantifiable way of measuring how different people are contributing to the event success. For your first steps, just follow the leader. Your first contact with outreach will probably be a fellow colleague asking for help with running an event. You will realize that veteran outreachers have a great passion for what they are doing, and also for dragging more people into it.
- Know your audience. Adapting how you present your work to different types of people is a must-have skill during your PhD, but it becomes even more critical for outreach. You may find it difficult to explain details of your specific gene coding that particular receptor to your department mates, but at least they know what a chloroplast is. And what a receptor is. You need to be ready to engage people that will find many of your daily words and terms closer to arcane sorcery than to English. You may have heard about the product “clarity*depth” being a constant. And it is true, the more you explain, the less clear it will be.
- Be enthusiastic. You are helped by the circumstances; people attending science exhibitions are truly interested in learning. They may find routine step-by-step protocols and experiments you are sick of performing incredibly exciting.
- Kids! Children are a huge wild card in the outreach game. Almost all of them will be there only because their parents wanted them to be, but they may react very differently. Little children will be attracted by colorful graphs, weird devices, and sometimes apparently edible stuff (watch out! Parents/guardians may be busy taking care of all the family to keep an eye on this). Teenagers may not be interested at all and may find it funny to openly express their existential anger to you. Do not feel bad; it is not your fault. Luckily, between these two extremes you will find plenty of kids old enough to understand the basics, and some of them may even be already considering being a scientist instead of a football player. You might feel you won’t ever get the Nobel Prize, but you may help plant the seed for the future ones…
- Get ready for popular assumptions. Some of them may be funny (“you are too young to be such a fruitful scientist!”), while others may not (”my homeopathic doctor told me that this will protect me from infarction”). You will be surprised about some questions people will ask you, because for them a plant researcher must be educated enough to help them with the diagnosis of that weird back pain they have. Please disregard any inner thoughts about popular ignorance: these people are coming into your domain, and out of your research bubble you may be humiliated by them also.
- Have a Plan B. I just said that people are entering into your field. That they are visiting your life. Actually, you will probably grab a bag with your stuff and will go to a place you are not used to. That means that there is a lot of factors out of your control, and that the more complicated your setup is, the easier it is for something to fail. If you are bringing microscopes for showing something, bring printed pictures too, as the generators may not work. If you are performing a live experiment, bring an already successful one just in case the protocol backfires. It’s not about being paranoid, your paper flyers will not spontaneously burst into flames, but a feeling of completion will make the audience happier.
Finally, once you have discovered how good you are at this, remember the perspective. You probably started doing outreach as a nice and entertaining complement to your career. You may end up enjoying outreach more than your current job. It’s perfectly fine, and we are not getting into the “academia or outreach” discussion. Just remember that, sadly or not, filling your CV with outreach events and forgetting about your PhD will not necessarily help you into getting a postdoc position, and many industry jobs. The good news is that researchers and employers are becoming increasingly more aware of the importance of outreach and benefits to your future career.
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