Vanessa Fuchs ASC Science Communicator Scope Interview

Why did you choose to study science?

I am completing a Master of Environmental Science at the University of Sydney and I only have one subject to finish in semester 1, 2020. The countdown is on! It’s been over four years of juggling part-time studies with full-time work but it has complimented not only my professional career, but also fulfilled my curiosity for learning on a personal level. I should clarify that I didn’t start my academic studies with science. I completed a dual Bachelor of Journalism and Business degree with a major in Advertising at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane in 2010. I chose these areas of study because I’ve always loved storytelling and influencing people to change the way they think. I grew up in an area which Google Maps calls a ‘rural village’ on the east coast of North Queensland called Alligator Creek. Needless to say, apart from the bush and the beach, there wasn’t a whole lot to do there. So my passion for nature and science began very early on as I loved to use my parent’s home video camera to create my own nature documentaries. Unfortunately, these embarrassing videos have resurfaced at my 18th and 21st birthday parties. Cringe! I always knew very early on that I only wanted to use my storytelling skills to create positive change – particularly in the environment space. That’s why I decided to compliment my communication studies and skill set with a Master of Environmental Science later on. I wanted to improve my scientific literacy and critical thinking and delve deeper into some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time on a technical level.

 

Looking back now, what has been the best part of your career in SciComm?

The best part of my career in SciComm has been launching, producing and presenting the science podcast at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney called Branch Out, which encourages people to discover the surprising world of plants. I started at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney as a Science Communicator in March 2018 and two months later I launched episode 1 ‘No Plants No Medicine’ which landed at #5 in the Apple Podcast Top Charts in the Science & Medicine category. I received amazing hands-on training with one of Australia’s best podcast producers, Miles Martignoni, for the first five episodes and now over 1.5 years later, I’ve made 25 episodes with over 68,000 downloads (and counting). Being presented with the opportunity to create this podcast has allowed me to interview all sorts of fascinating people both inside and outside of the organisation, including a NASA astronaut. I have been able to learn an entirely new skill set in podcast producing, interviewing and audio editing. Being able to get out of the office and immerse myself in all sorts of fascinating topics that I am interested in on both a professional and personal level is so rewarding.

Where has your career led you?

As I explained above, I knew very early on in my undergraduate studies that I only wanted to use my storytelling skills to change people’s attitudes, perceptions and behaviours to create positive change. I have predominantly worked for not for profit and government organisations that align with my own values throughout my career. I have only recently officially started my career in a Science Communication role but every career step I took throughout my professional journey brought me closer and closer to it. In 2016 and 2017 I was working at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage in a Public Affairs Officer role and I worked closely with the National Parks & Wildlife Service and the Science Division to create stories to highlight their projects. It wasn’t until I met a Science Communicator in the organisation that it clicked that this is the role I wanted and was always working towards. So, I became a member of the Australian Science Communicators, set up SciComm job alerts, kept working on my science stories and enrolled in the Master of Environmental Science at the University of Sydney. In March 2018, I landed the Science Communicator role at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney!

What excites you most about your work?

I have a particularly unique SciComm role at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, which allows me to present and produce podcasts, host Facebook live shows and set up amazing stories with media that receive national and international coverage. I really enjoy the challenge of bringing plant science to life as plants are often the runner up when it comes to stories about animals. So finding the story or the angle in new research that is going to captivate people is really fun. One of the most exciting stories I recently did was about a plant known commonly as ‘dog’s balls’ because it produces two red berries covered in soft hairs that hang from a short stalk – you get the picture! It was finally given a correct scientific name after almost 250 years but I used the hook of the cheeky name to capture people’s attention. Ladbible, Pedestrian and Brown Cardigan featured the story as well as a variety of other mainstream media across Australia. I really struggle with repetitive tasks so being able to have so much variety in not only the type of work I do but the content I get to unpack is so exciting.

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in SciComm?

I think it’s important to remember that while having a degree in communications and science is extremely helpful, I don’t think it is completely necessary to have both. For example, I work with so many scientists that are naturally amazing communicators and they just need to refine or learn a few new comms skills. Secondly, even though science communication is a niche field, it can still seem quite broad when you’re first starting out. There are so many different fields of communication you can specialise in and there are so many different areas of science to focus on too. For example, at the moment my main focus is plant science and using the podcast to tell those stories. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and you’re not sure what direction to go in, think about what you are good at and what you enjoy on both the communication and science side to help narrow your direction down.

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your SciComm career?  

As a media and communications professional, stepping into the science world can often be a little bit challenging when it comes to developing the trust and respect from scientists. This is where having the Master of Environmental Science has really helped. It has given me a little bit of what I always describe as ‘street cred’. Some scientists can be particularly challenging to work with because they either don’t see the value of media and communications or they are scared of it. I organised professional media training for science staff which helped to alleviate some of these issues. It also demonstrated to them the power of great communication to create awareness of their research. It’s also important to build up the scientists media skills for interviews slowly. For example, starting with written questions they can answer in their own time and building up to radio and television interviews. Being able to break down complex concepts without watering them down too much is another challenge but the Branch Out podcast engages everyone from the 7 year old to the scientist. I have overcome this by keeping a fun and curious approach to the sort of questions I ask and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the podcast RadioLab.