On 8th March, I hosted my company’s first International Women’s Day event. Here’s what inspired me to do it…
1. We need to talk about the lack of women in science
There are a lot of factors at play as to why women are underrepresented in science – it’s a complex issue and there’s been a rise in efforts to tackle it, which is great to see. We need to challenge the idea of what a ‘scientist’ looks like.
Simply by making people aware of stereotype threat and inherent bias, we can begin to break the rigid mould of what it means to be a ‘scientist’. We can’t face it if we never talk about it, and dedicated events are a way of opening up the conversation.
A ‘leaky pipeline’ has actually been coined in science – women ‘trickle out’ as they go up the career ladder. If we’re making an effort to encourage younger girls to study science subjects, we need to question why they’re not being retained at more senior levels. This effort needs to come from businesses.
WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) reports the science workforce gender split in 2018. Source: WISE
2. There’s a difference between diversity and inclusion
When we think about the ‘leaky pipeline’, we need to address the difference between diversity and inclusion.
Diversity is important, but it’s not enough. Diversity is the who and what; inclusion is the how. It’s not just about who’s being recruited, or who gets a seat at the table. It’s about creating behaviours that embrace the diverse voices of these people. Diversity without inclusion is just a box-ticking exercise. We need to acknowledge our differences and show a commitment to changing company culture to embrace them.
Hosting events like International Women’s Day is a good start to demonstrating this commitment and dedicating a day for women to be heard.
3. I want to celebrate my colleagues
I’m lucky to work with some amazing scientists, some of whom happen to be women. I wanted to take a day to celebrate their accomplishments and those of all the women who are breaking glass ceilings in science. When people feel seen and recognised for their work it creates a healthier work environment. By having this day in place, we can dedicate a day each year to celebrate and congratulate women on their achievements. Plenty of my female colleagues were keen to get involved and help, and I was inspired to hear all their stories and ideas.
4. It’s a win-win
I suggested this event because I thought it was a great fit for my company and could benefit us in many tangible ways. Workplace diversity can actually boost performance - a report found that when employees “think their organisation is committed to and supportive of diversity, and they feel included”, their ability to innovate increases by 83%. It also makes perfect sense to me that, by including all genders equally, we have access to a greater pool of talent and a wider range of mentors available for junior talent. Plus, it’s a brand-booster to show that we are bringing ourselves into the future and being socially conscious.
5. It’s just the beginning
We’re starting to talk more about gender issues in the workplace, but women are not the only people who are affected by discrimination. We need inclusion for everyone.
For example, most people are aware of the gender pay gap and companies are now obliged to publish their data on this, but in the UK, black male graduates earn almost £4 less per hour than their white peers. Another study found that almost a third of LGBT+ physical scientists had considered leaving their workplace because of discrimination. These are issues that need to be openly talked about and acknowledged before we can even think about solving them. Science should be for everyone and I’m really excited to host more events to encourage this.
Image: Tiffany Pollard
Nowhere on earth has the power to inspire awe and wonder in the endless outcomes of evolution than a natural history museum. It’s a bold claim, but where else can you find over 500m years of biodiversity?
In a good museum, visitors can literally walk around open mouthed in astonishment at seeing the biggest animals that ever lived – whales and dinosaurs – and specimens showing extraordinary biological processes, like how a two-metre tall kangaroo is born the size of a jelly bean.
But lurking within these wondrous collections are chemical legacies of the ways they were prepared and preserved that can make museums a risky place to work. Here are four of them…
One of the main challenges of caring for a biological collection is that everything is edible, and we have to work hard to ensure that insect pests like clothes moths, carpet beetles and silverfish don’t nibble our specimens out of existence. Unchecked, they can turn invaluable objects into dust. When it comes to taxidermy and skins, the practice until recently was to coat the inside of the skins with arsenic soap or other poisons such as heavy metals or even strychnine and cyanide.
A taxidermy ocelot at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
While these are extremely effective at killing pests, they have the potential to make us very ill. If a specimen is old but looks in good condition, it’s likely to have been treated in this way. Short story: don’t stroke a museum skin unless you know for sure it’s poison-free.
Another mainstay of museum collections is animals preserved in jars of fluid. The first step in preparing these specimens is called ‘fixation’, which keeps the animal in suspended animation by halting the decomposition process at a cellular level, causing cross-links between molecules (including DNA). Formalin is a solution of the toxic and carcinogenic gas formaldehyde.
Preserved fish collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
3. Alcohol preservative
The second step in preparing fluid specimens is to store them permanently in a preservative, and the most common is a solution of ethanol. Vodka, gin, rum, brandy etc. are all solutions of alcohol, and indeed sailors on historic voyages of discovery would find that the naturalist on board had commandeered their booze rations to preserve an important specimen.
Today, we tend to use stronger solutions of ethanol – at 70% – as it is more effective. Ethanol is obviously consumable, so why is this in a list of dangers? The ethanol museums use is called industrial methylated spirits, or denatured alcohol: it has a tiny bit of methanol added.
The toxic methanol has no beneficial properties for preservation – it’s there simply to stop museum workers from drinking it (and means that it isn’t subject to the high tax rates of alcoholic drinks).
Geological collections come with a whole different suite of hazards. Many minerals are inherently poisonous, or can break down in museum conditions to release toxic gasses. Others are naturally radioactive. If you’ve got a lump of uranium ore in your collection, that’s a pretty obvious risk, but there are also certain locations that a lot of fossils come from that have relatively high levels of radiation.
Museums have to be careful about how these are stored as once we lock these fossils up in a museum drawer or cabinet, the concentration of radioactivity in that sealed environment builds up over time, releasing a dangerous cloud once the drawer is eventually opened.
I should say that museums are pretty clued up on managing these risks, and there is no danger to the visiting public. Just don’t lick anything.
Jenny Gracie was awarded a Messel Travel Bursary for an internship with the Naked Scientists based at the University of Cambridge. Here she describes how her internship has helped her to develop her skills and confidence in science communication, which she can now use to help shape her future career.
Jenny in The Naked Scientists studio.
I am currently in the final year of a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde. My project seeks to better treat cardiovascular disease, which is still the world’s leading cause of death. I am working towards a drug delivery system which utilises hollow gold nanoparticles as a ‘vehicle’ for delivering statins to the fatty plaques that block the arteries. Although I’m still interested in my research project, I’ve developed a real enthusiasm for science communication over the last few years and would like pursue a career in this field.
As a STEM ambassador I have attended fairs, festivals and schools to help spark a curiosity in science among children. During my PhD, the opportunity of an eight-week internship with The Naked Scientists came up, and I simply couldn’t let it pass. Without the funding support from SCI I could not have taken the internship, and so I am extremely grateful for the Messel Travel Bursary, and I know that this contribution helped make this transformative career experience a reality.
The Naked Scientists are an award-winning science production group based at the University of Cambridge. They create one of the world’s most popular science shows, achieving over 50m downloads in the last five years. They broadcast weekly on BBC Cambridgeshire, BBC 5Live, ABC National Radio in Australia and also publish a podcast of the show. Podcasts are free, available on-demand and are a widely accessible source of science information to the general public. The Naked Scientist internship programme develops the skill set of early career communicators and provides first-hand experience in the world of science media communication.
Podcast production has grown exponentially in the last few years, however chemistry still remains underrepresented compared to the other traditional physical sciences, like physics and biology. As a chemist who is interested in a career in science communication, this role has allowed me to gain the necessary skills to make my own podcasts in the future.
As an intern I was part of the production team from the first day! It was a catapult into the world of radio broadcast and podcast production, but perfect for understanding how a show is produced from scratch. Our weekly show consisted of two parts – one half would cover the news and recently published articles, and the second half would cover a specific topic within science.
Media privileges gave me access to all the journals to be published that week, with them sealed under embargo until publication. We tended to pick articles that have a global impact and capture the interest of the listener. Each team member would be assigned an article, and we would then have to contact the authors to scope the story and arrange a recorded interview. The skills I required to organise and execute a good interview improved over the course of the eight weeks. I could see a real development in both my style and confidence.
During the internship I also learned how to use software to edit audio, and stitch together multiple tracks to create build pieces with music and sound effects. To accompany the interview, each week we also wrote a short article on the research. This required converting high-level science into a form that could be understood by the general public… something that is much harder than it sounds!
To celebrate World Poetry Day, today we look at how poetry and science interlink, and how poetry can be a unique medium for science communication.
Poetry and science have an interesting history – John Keats once said that Isaac Newton, one of the most prominent scientists of the time, had ‘destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism’. However, poetry can be a powerful tool to disseminate scientific research to a wider audience.
In 1984, J. W. V. Storey published his works on ‘The Detection of Shocked CO Emission’ in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia as a lengthy poem. He even noted on the paper that his colleagues may wish to dissociate themselves from the presentation style.
A note from J. M. V. Storey’s paper dissociating his colleagues from the poetry style. Source: The Detection of Shocked CO Emission
Modern Science Poetry
Notable British poet Ruth Gabel, also the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, has written a plethora of poetry about science, including works on Darwin’s writings. She has written a multitude of poems, mainly on zoology and genetics.
In 2015, Professor Stephen Hawking, world-renowned physicist, collaborated with poet Sarah Howe to write a poem about relativity for National Poetry Day in the UK.
Stephen Hawking reads “Relativity” By Sarah Howe Film Bridget Smith. Source: National Poetry Day
Poetry can also be utilised for outreach, especially for younger audiences. The SAW Trust is a charity that uses art and poetry to engage school children in science. SAW Trust was founded by Professor Anne Osbourne, Associate Research Director and Institute Strategic Programme Leader, Plant and Microbial Metabolism at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK. The charity inspires children to find a love for science through the arts.
Science and poetry, or more generally art have always been interlinked, and by using poetry we can spread science to a wider audience.
Cassie Sims is a PhD student and SCI early career member, sitting on the committees of SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Agrifood Early Career Committee. Read more of Cassie’s work at soci.org/news and soci.org/blog.
Undertaking an internship in digital media has exposed me to a completely new part of science. As a young scientist, we are regularly taught the value of communicating our work, but often we are not taught how to best do this.
There are many nuances and tricks to getting digital media to be the most engaging it can be, and here are a few that I have learnt over the last couple of months.
Know your audience
Before you start producing any kind of content, you need to know your audience. Are they scientists or the general public, early- or late-career, students or professionals? Understanding your target demographic can help you make informed decisions about the media or topic you choose, and how you write the piece.
It is crucial to know who your audience is!
It is important to keep your audience in mind at every stage of the process, from conception of the idea, to writing, presentation and marketing. By targeting your piece, you will produce a higher quality piece of content and have much more engagement overall.
Image is important
When presenting a piece of work to the world, be in a long-read article or just a Tweet, image is crucial. Choosing images or photographs to best display your message takes time and careful curation.
Images can be obtained from a wide variety of sources, from stock photo websites, such as Shutterstock or Pixabay, to original images you may have designed or photographed. Remember to always give credit where appropriate.
At SCI we are big fans of gifs and emojis. When targeting a younger audience, or using more informal media like out blog, these can engage and draw the eye much more than a standard image. This again requires meticulous decision-making skills, and it can be crucial to know the meanings behind each emoji.
Trust your gut
A large part of science communication is choosing which science to communicate. This involves selecting topics and editing to the most critical and interesting information.
At SCI, we release innovation news pieces on a regular basis, where we choose the most exciting science news from the week. This involves looking through press releases, and sometimes selecting one piece from hundreds can be a daunting task.
One thing I have learnt during my time at SCI is to trust that I can select something that people will want to read. When pitching ideas for articles and blog pieces, I have learnt to value my own opinion in what is engaging and relevant science that our members and the broader public might want to read about.
One of the many commitments I have as part of my PhD training is in public engagement. This means that I get to attend events and talk about my research and other areas of science to kids, teenagers, mums, dads, grandparents… everyone!
I used to be terrified of this, as I thought that people wouldn’t understand or care. Any time friends or relatives asked what I was doing in the lab, I was never able to give a proper and comprehensive answer, and moving to England from Italy made this even worse, as I had to talk about my research in another language.
But my idea that people wouldn’t care about or understand my research was very wrong. In fact, if people ask what you are doing in the lab, it’s because they are interested. It is true that they might not grasp complicated scientific theories, equations, and laws, but it is a scientist’s duty to make science accessible to everyone, especially when they show an interest.
I have been receiving a lot of training on how to communicate and entertain the general public with science, and here are a few ways I have found to make communication easier…
Make it simple
Talking to the public is very different to talking to a panel of academics. Many of the people you engage with will not have much prior scientific knowledge, so try to be as simple as possible – use examples, and substitute specialised terms with more common ones. Rather than saying you synthesised a molecule, say that you made a material or compound – there is no need to be specific from the very beginning. Talk clearly and carefully, and ask if what you said was clear enough.
Relate your research to everyday life
Everything happening around us is science. All natural events can be explained by physical, chemical, and mathematical rules. Telling your story will be a lot easier if you make a comparison with everyday life events. If someone complains about messy housemates, you can tell them that the state of disorder of the universe is constantly increased according to the second law of thermodynamics, so their housemates are behaving naturally!
Talk about why your research matters
Don’t forget that what you are doing is the lab isn’t only important to you – remind people that everybody benefits from research, whether that is through delivering useful new innovations to the market through industry, or lessening our impact on the planet. Science and innovation means progress, and, directly or indirectly, every new scientific discovery has the potential to provide benefit to society. If you can make this clear, people will relate to you more easily.
Communicate with enthusiasm
When you talk about science and your research, talk about what interests you to as many people as possible, and make it fun – use drawings, props, Lego – use whatever you can to help communicate the science in an engaging way.