ASC SCOPE Interview: Paul Holper, Co-Director of Scientell

Why did you choose to study science?

I liked the precision of science and the logic that underpins everything. At university I discovered that chemistry was particularly enjoyable, so that’s what I majored in.

I naively decided that as I liked demonstrating to university students, I should become a teacher. I spent 10 years in the classroom; teaching can be a brilliant profession when students are motivated but, sadly, too few students are.

I anguished about what other career options might be available, so I started looking at job advertisements. The then CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research in Melbourne needed an ‘Information Officer’. I applied, was interviewed and they offered me the position, which I nervously accepted. Apart from leaving the security of teaching, we were about to have our first child, and here I was foregoing 16 – yes, 16 – weeks of paid annual leave for just 4.

But I soon realised that, without the high stress of teaching, for the first time I loved my job. I was working with brilliant, world-renowned researchers in an organisation that was trying to better understand and preserve the environment.

A huge advantage of working for CSIRO was the camaraderie and teamwork among the communication staff. I learnt so much from communication luminaries like Wendy Parsons, Marg Bryant, Niall Byrne, Toss Gascoigne and Jenni Metcalfe. A few years later, one of Australia’s leading science journalists, Julian Cribb, joined CSIRO. He was a passionate, powerful advocate for communication.

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

The very best part of scicomm is the process of exploring and coming to grips with particular scientific concepts and then trying to solve the problem of how best to communicate them in a logical and compelling way. Every day, scicomm brings another puzzle to be solved.

The part of scicomm that gave me the greatest pleasure was when I was able to identify and promote a research story and ultimately see it in the newspaper or on TV.

Where has your career led you?

Looking back, there were skills that I developed at uni and in teaching that I was able to apply further in a research environment.

I spent 25 years at CSIRO, becoming a communication manager and then moving into business development and ultimately managing a large national climate change science research program. With an astute CSIRO colleague, Mandy Hopkins, I re-established the national ‘GREENHOUSE’ climate change conferences, convening five biennial events across Australia.

What excites you most about your work?

Society is founded on the effective application of scientific advances. Helping to convey the value and implementation of science is extraordinarily rewarding.

Scicomm has had many successes, but we’ve had major failures. I thought that we had successfully convinced society of the need to address climate change early in my CSIRO days. Hah! I’m still bemused that people who refuse to believe in the straightforward science of climate change will happily entrust their lives to the far more complex science of flight and gravity every time they board a plane.

 

The scicomm experience told us long ago that far more than communication of facts is needed to effect change.

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

Scicomm offers a rewarding combination of science and communication, where the latter can take so many different forms. There will always be challenges to be overcome, problems to be solved and new ways of encouraging the application of science in ways that help.

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

There are two that stand out. One is escaping from teaching; the second, which gives me much satisfaction, has been establishing Scientell with Simon Torok, a business that has now completed more than 150 fascinating scicomm projects.

 

Lisa Bailey: President’s Update September

I hope you are all doing ok, especially thinking of all our Victorian members who’ve been going through lockdown round 2 over the last month.  If you’ve not been able to catch our live members Q&A series so far, you can now access them online via the ASC members area.

This month, there are a few new things to check out – you’ll soon be able to grab a copy (and the e-version is free!) of the new book ‘Communicating Science. A global perspective’ which has been made possible by the work of several ASC members.

Debbie Devis shares with us the experience of creating whole new types of museum experiences online during COVID-19 including running an exhibit in Minecraft and designing a new role-playing game.   If you’ve found yourself jumping into a whole new way of working in 2020, we’d love to share your reflections with the wider community.  Members are able to log in and post to the ASC blog, or feel free to send through blog ideas to me at president@asc.asn.au

President’s Update July

President’s Update

I hope that you’re all travelling well, and are heartened by the recent national committee meeting we’ve had last week where we shared information about how ASC members around the country are adapting their events and programs. We’re continuing our members Q&A series this week featuring Jonathan Webb, ABC Science Editor so make sure you’ve registered for that session coming up on Friday. I’d also like to shout out and congratulate Linden Ashcroft, Mia Cobb and the rest of the Research Program team from ASC2020 for their work pulling together a special issue commentary for the Journal of Science Communication, featuring five papers from the conference.

As most of the country starts moving about more and restrictions for the most part start easing, it feels like we’re moving from one kind of weirdness into another. How do things start up again?  It’s easy to keep your distance when you’re home on your own, but once people start getting out and about, the threat of complacency kicks in.

We know that the longer restrictions are in, the harder it is for people to stick to them. This has led to a range of new campaigns reminding people of the need for physical distancing and hygiene. It really comes down to human behaviour, and as the latest editorial in Science states, while good science communication is essential, persuasive words are not enough when it comes to changing minds, attitudes and behaviour.

President’s Update, June

 

Reconciliation Week 2020 started with the destruction of two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cultural sites in the Pilbara by Rio Tinto.  The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last week and the pain and anguish of so many protesters in the US was another call for Australians to take a long look at our own history, and the lasting impacts for First Nations people here.

So much hurt and pain and anger. What to do? Where to start? Pause, reflect and start by doing what we know are some of the key principles of good science communication; start by listening. Learning. There are some great lists of suggestions of books to read and social media accounts to follow out there for where you can start.

Support those in local communities already taking action. The following are some of the First Nations led organisations that I have donated to.  I would welcome recommendations from ASC members as to who we can add to this list.  This list reflects organisations relevant to science communicators with a particular focus on equity and excellence in STEM, and action on climate and sustainability.

Deadly Science – led by the incredible Corey Tutt, this organisation provides science books and early reading material to remote schools across Australia.
Seed – Australia’s first Indigenous youth ­led climate network.
INDIGI LAB – whose mission is to create a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are leading in science, technology and digital innovation.
Firesticks Alliance – providing Indigenous leadership, advocacy and action to protect country through cultural fire and land management practices.

State Branch Support

On top of regular capitation funds for this year, there is a post-conference grant of up to $300 available to each state and territory to organise a follow up ASC event or activity or purchase any necessary equipment (eg new banners or marketing materials) for their local members.  To apply for this, please email exec@asc.asn.au with the following information:

  • A title and a short description of your planned event/activity/equipment purchase
  • Names of all ASC members involved in the application
  • Date and location (if funds are requested for an event)
  • Requested amount
  • A budget outlining where funds will be spent
  • How you intend to let members in your state know (we can also assist with this through inclusion in SCOPE for example)

Thank you Lisa Bailey for this info.

ASC SCOPE Interview: Michael Mills

Michael Mill’s alter ego: Prof Flint and a Thylacaleo:

Why did you choose to study science?

As it happens, studying science isn’t a formal thing that I’ve ever done. All of the things I’ve learnt that have led me to do all of the things I do as a writer, producer, performer and SciCommer, have come through being self-taught. I’ve learned to write songs by writing songs. I learned to perform by putting on shows and performing. In the science space, learning about/studying science has very much come by hanging out with the scientists who do the stuff. In particular… long story, written short; through a series of events early on, including Palaeontology Week at the South Australian Museum, and doing a radio show for young people, I was introduced to the work of key scientists, and to the scientists themselves. Across time, the relationships have become such that in creating a performance, or a song, for example, I’ll seek advice and the science from whoever is relevant. Indeed, the songs on the second Professor Flint album “Dinosaurs Amongst Us!” were effectively peer-reviewed to ensure content accuracy. A couple of the songs were co-written by the scientists who do the work. Professor John Long, and Dr Gilbert Price. This, I think, is a key lesson in all of SciComm for other SiCommers. If you’re not the scientist, make sure you engage with the scientist in order to ensure you get the science right. Even if you think you’re ready to publish… double-check with them. It’s their work you’re sharing. They are the finders of the story. We SciCommers are the tellers of that story.

Getting back to the original sense of the question, though… studying science, even though not in a formal way, kind of snuck up on me. As it has, I have come to better understand the delightful nature of the Universe, the unlikeliness of us, and have come to be so very grateful that I have these few years of consciousness to exist, see some of what’s out there, and do some things as part of it all.

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

The best parts will always and forever be the individual reactions from people. Much of what I do is in working with young people. In that space, there are times when you can see that you’re at a moment when a light has been switched on. The creation of that moment is not just mine. It is all of the things that others have done to lead up to then, and whatever thing it is that I’ve done, has just helped flick the switch. But of all the things, that is the thing that is by far the best. A couple of years ago, a parent sent me a photo of their 7-year-old son who had dressed up as my alter ego, Professor Flint, for Book Week. Just on a month ago, another parent sent me a photo of a LEGO professor Flint her 6-year-old had proudly made and had insisted that this was a forever model, unlike all the rest of his usual LEGO craft. We must never, ever stop understanding the importance of what we do as SciCommers, especially for young people. We must also never forget the responsibility for authenticity that goes along with it.

I guess there are plenty of other best bits too. I’ve been able to work with and help develop the skills of dozens of young performers. I’ve been able to go on real palaeontology digs and do actual digging. I’ve been able to see fossils and work that is as yet unpublished. I even got to perform at last years Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology international conference in Brisbane, to the world’s leading Palaeos. All of it remains a humbling and extraordinary set of experiences.

 

Where has your career led you?

The most correct answer is that it’s led me on a most delightful, occasionally extraordinary, regularly challenging, and most marvellous adventure! There was never a career plan, and there still isn’t. Choices have often been on a whim, of thinking… Oooh… I might do that… let’s see what happens if I do this… and various other random meanderings. Looking back, it looks to be a quite well-planned and thought-through career. The reality is nothing of the sort. As for what those places this adventure has led me? I guess some of those places are touched on in my previous answers. There are some quite lovely and humbling things that I’ve been able to do through writing, performing and producing, that I’d never have envisaged. As a child who wrote poems, and then started singing them, I’d hopes of music becoming my career. The idea that I’d write and perform shows at cultural institutions, and other locations… that I’d both speak and perform at conferences on science communication, storytelling, and on interpretive tours … that I’d hang out with some of Australia’s and the world’s leading palaeontologists and create songs with their help… none of this was ever close to where I thought it might lead.

As with many in the arts space, I worked in hospitality for many years. I left that just over 9 years ago, and have managed to survive in that time, largely through doing gigs of various kinds. As an unfunded sole-trader, it is the clients that have kept me going, and allowed Mexico to operate in this space full time. It is the audiences that have allowed me to keep doing this thing for all this time, and I’m always cognisant and grateful that I get to do this because of them.

Through the character Professor Flint, I’ve created a presence in Dinosaurs Down Under. 

And in response to COVID19, did some rapid adapting, and have been doing a series of live sessions through Dinosaur University.

All of the things, they are done under the banner of me as Heaps Good Productions.

Prof Flint is also on Spotify.   And the music is also available on iTunes and all the rest of it! All of which seems a little surreal, at times. As do those delightful moments when you see the light go on, or you’re sent something by a parent, or hear an unsolicited comment from a child of how much what you do has meant to them. It is in this latter world, though, that no matter where a journey might take you, the importance of what we do is revealed.

 

What excites you most about your work?

The things that excite me most are the various moments of creation… Be it the idea for a song, the instant drawing together of a disparate set of ideas into a concept, or the live moments of creation during a performance. This is different to the idea of what delights me most. As noted above, it’s the interactions with individuals that do this. What is important, though, is that in creating the work, it is never about seeking that out. In creating the work, it is about seeking to create the best piece of work it can be, and the rest will be whatever it is.

 

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

Here’s my list of essential things:

Always remember that you are working with scientists who are passionate about the things that they do. Respect them, and their work. Good science communication begins with good science, and respect and understanding that you’re telling the stories that someone else has revealed.

Take the time to understand cognitive bias, and learning. Understand how we think and interpret the world, and how we learn. Humans do not engage with facts or data. We engage with stories. We are not the wise ape. We are the storytelling ape.

Accept that if someone isn’t getting a message you’re wanting to deliver, it’s not their problem. It’s yours! If someone doesn’t get what I’m trying to get them to understand, it’s on me, and not them, to find another way. It turns out, anti-vaxxers actually love their children. A lot! In fact, I’d suggest as much as the rest of us. They’ve been sold a dangerous narrative, and charlatans like Andrew Wakefield ought to be in prison for the deaths they have caused. And I don’t have a problem in attacking those who deliberately weave a narrative of deceit. But if you monster the parents, and dismiss them as idiots, they’ll never engage, and you’ll lose them forever. It seems to me at times that there are folk who’d rather be right than effective. Good SciComm needs to be effective. The moment Hillary Clinton referred to Trump supporters as “deplorables” is the moment I said to my friends that she would lose.

Be authentic, and if you get it wrong, fess up. Be brave and put your work out there, see how it fares in the universe, and learn from it. If something goes wrong, your first response needs to be “Challenge accepted!” It ought not be, How do I cover this up? What spin do I put on it? Keep it real, and take note of those who disagree with you. Your job is to make the final choices, but part of the way of overcoming cognitive bias is having outsiders challenge us.

Oh yeah… and don’t do it for the money! Very few projects I’ve worked on or decisions I’ve made in the last 20 years of doing this art/science/SciComm thing have had anything to do in the pursuit of dollars, as my accountant will tell you. Pick the projects that you think are going to delight you. Make the choices you believe you’ll enjoy the most. To date, it seems to have worked out okay.

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

Of course, with COVID19, everything changed. Within a space of a few hours, I went from a year of planned performances, including interstate tours, to nothing. A place with zero income, and no idea of what to do. At least for the first few hours, and then it was about dancing between moments of despair on the sofa, and getting into some crazy zone of finding ways to adapt, and see what I could do with the skills I have.

As of now, I reckon I’ll be okay. I’ve raided some of my Super, because, well… what do you do when you have no prospect of any income? $10k now, is worth far more to me than $10k in 10 years time. I’m also now on Job Keeper, and my view is that of course, I should be. While I understand the decisions that have been made to keep the community safe, those decisions put a halt to my income. We are at a time when we need to ensure that we don’t replace one pandemic, with another… that of mental health. I’m principally seen as a member of the arts community, though much of my work is in the science space. While not the only industry to suffer dramatically, the arts have been hugely affected.  It is in the arts where the storytellers dwell. It is in the arts that people have found solace and connection thought this difficult time. It is in the arts, where we will find those best able to make sense of what we’ve been through.

So when I look at what the greatest challenges have been for me, nothing compares to what’s happening right now. Through Dinosaur University in particular though, I have been able to do some awesome things I’d not have thought of doing. I’ve done Facebook live sessions from the South Australian Museum, the Flinders University Palaeo Lab, and the Adelaide Botanic Garden. I’ve also created a Patron account for additional subscriber services. To honour the 221st birthday of palaeo pioneer, I’ve recently interviewed a dozen significant women in palaeo from Australia and around the world. So, in revisiting the questions about what excites me most, what advice to give, and where this has taken me… these last few weeks are a microcosm of all of that. Of accepting the challenge and being brave… of being adaptable… and of going wherever the adventure might take me.

 

Lego Flint in his Dinosaur University Office

 

Prof Flint and the Flintettes

 

President’s Update, May

How has your science engagement activity adapted in the last couple of months?

 

For me personally it’s been quite an experience, moving from working in a hands-on, interactive museum which closed to the public two months ago to pulling together and launching our first online exhibition LIFE INTERRUPTED, in the space of a week.  We’re now running a new streamed TV show 4 days a week through Twitch, and looking at launching our second online exhibition in September as the rest of our physical gallery schedule has been shuffled about to accommodate change; things that I would have never dreamed of a few months ago.  It’s meant thinking about how we can still apply the design principles that guide the work we do at MOD. to an online space, still being focussed on the experience of the visitor.  One of the great things about this time is the creativity I’ve seen from other institutions and organisations (as well as the great team I get to work with daily).

 

Some things that I’ve seen and enjoyed:

  • Guided tours of museums – loads are offering this and while the peak of searching for online tours may have already passed us, I’ve really enjoyed getting inside to see some places I’ve never been to.
  • Zoo live streams (always great, now even more so).
  • Pint of Science Australia is running an online quiz night (will tune in for this later, as its happening on the day that I’m writing this)

 

Also, I’m looking forward to taking note of other interesting ways that there is engagement happening across different sectors and platforms, things like:

 

We’re also thinking about how we can adapt ASC activity to support members during this time.  We ran our first online Q&A with Norman Swan at the start of May, and are in the process of organising some more of these sessions – so please get in touch if there are people you want to hear from and pick their brains as to how they and their organisations are adapting to COVID-19.

 

Lisa Bailey,

ASC President

President’s Update, April

President’s Update

I hope everyone is going ok.  It’s a hectic time, and I am certainly finding the mix of trying to simultaneously work, parent and school from home, not the most relaxing experience, although I realise I’m very lucky to be in the position to be employed and able to work from home.  Everyone is facing their own challenges.  I don’t know who to attribute this quote to but I heard it the other day and was struck by it –  “we’re not all in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm”.   I hope that you are able to find your own moments of respite during it.

In some happier news, we had our first National Committee meeting last week, which we’ve opened up to any current ASC members to drop into to learn what’s happening across the ASC network.   Of course, people around the country are seeing how they can adapt their programs to online – whether this be quiz nights, journal clubs or science in the pubs.  ASC NSW also have their new #FromTheLab series to look out for.  I will be looking into whether there are some national online professional development opportunities we might be able to run during this time, so if you have suggestions of things you’d like to see please drop me a line at president@asc.asn.au.

Dr Belinda Liddell, (UNSW) Scope Interview

 

Dr Belinda Liddell is a psychologist who’s working to understand why some refugees recover from trauma and displacement more quickly than others. She is also looking at how different cultures perceive and respond to emotions, and how this might affect the experience of trauma and stress. 

 

Why did you choose to study science?

I chose to study psychology because I was initially interested in becoming a neuropsychologist. As my degree unfolded, I realised how much I enjoyed research and I decided to do a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. That led me to a career in research, with a few twists and turns along the way.

 

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

The best part for me has been that engaging purposefully in SciComm has given me the opportunity to talk with people outside of my direct area of research, who hold different perspectives, life experiences and opinions. I find these discussions inspiring and sometimes challenging. They often spark new ideas too!

 

Where has your career led you?

I’m currently a Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at UNSW Sydney and the Deputy Director of the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program. I’m currently working on understanding how refugee experiences – including trauma and family separation – shape how the brain functions, including in terms of emotional experiences and social interactions.

 

What excites you most about your work?

I’m excited about trying to merge using a scientific lens to study important human rights and political issue – that is forcible displacement and refugee health.  I believe that science can play an important role in informing the debate on these critical issues and deliver the evidence base needed to make informed policy and practised decisions.

 

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

For researchers who might like to develop their SciComm skills, I’d suggest taking any opportunity you can to practice communicating outside of your immediate academic field. Write for different forums, for your society newsletters, for a blog, do a radio interview, e.t.c. Consider more formal training – including the ABC Top 5 program – and most universities have media and communications training for scientists if they seek it.

 

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

I’d say my greatest challenge is my nerves, and I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome them! I still get pretty nervous when communicating science, but I have learned to manage this much better through practice (and making lots of mistakes!).

Tara Roberson, Queensland ASC branch President Scope Interview

Why did you choose to study science communication?

When I was still in high school, I was pretty convinced I was going to become an archaeologist or veterinarian. But, during grade 12 – in that pivotal year of university degree selection – I happened to take a communications course at the University of Queensland (UQ). I was completed diverted from my intended field and ended up studying all things communication for the next four years.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I realised that I wanted to specialise in an area that I thought was pretty central to the way we live our lives. UQ offered a Masters in Science Communication and the rest is history.

 

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

The best part of my career in science communication (so far) has been running communications for quantum physicists while completing my PhD at the Centre for Public Awareness of Science. It’s been an intense way to work virtually two jobs at once. It’s also helped me keep connected to the practitioner and researcher aspects of the field. Incidentally, that’s one of the best parts of science communication – the way we share information between research and practice!

Where has your career led you?

Working with the quantum physicists has been pretty interesting to say the least! One fascinating project was an international citizen science experiment called the Big Bell Test. We worked with research groups around the world to coordinate more than 100,000 citizen scientists in the world’s first global quantum physics experiment!

What excites you most about your work?

There’s an incredible amount of variety in my work, both in terms of the content you deliver and the people you work with. I enjoy working with scientists at all career stages on how they communicate their work. Working with the research centre has also been a great way to pursue something I’m passionate about which is improving diversity and inclusion in STEM (and STEM-related) fields.

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

Familiarise yourself with the different career options available in science communication! You might be a TV presenter, a researcher, a communications manager… you might run a consultancy or work in a museum. There are a lot of options, so you need to tailor your education and growing portfolio to suit what you are interested in pursuing.

Also (as Rachel Vorwerk said in her January 2020 SCOPE interview), be open to opportunities! You never know where they might take you.