Naturejobs journalism competition winner Rachel Harris explains how engaging others in science has benefitted her in the lab
For the past four years I’ve been working in science communication (SciComm), and academia. I’m now mid-way through my PhD — I’m studying on Alzheimer’s disease and I know I would be finding research a lot tougher if I were not involved with science communication.
Public engagement is increasingly thought of as part of a scientist’s responsibility, but it shouldn’t feel like another duty, and can provide much needed inspiration when you’re back at the bench.
Here are my top five reasons for getting involved.
Spending weeks trying to optimise ELISAs (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays, if you were wondering) has driven me close to madness. After one of these periods, I visited the Cheltenham Science Festival to join a research charity stand. Being there reminded me why I pipette colourless liquids into various tubes for 20 hours a week — I spoke to members of the public who are affected by my research, heard about their concerns, and hopefully provided some answers. It’s rewarding to see others influenced by your work and to spend a day rediscovering your own passion for it.
A different way of thinking
Communicating with a variety of audiences has improved my presentation skills in the lab. Explaining your research to anyone from the age of 8 to 80 can improve the way you communicate your work. It’s also refreshing to be asked questions that don’t focus on the miniscule details of my methods (I get enough of that in the lab), but do still challenge my knowledge about the subject area and surrounding issues, in broad strokes and from a fresh perspective.
Broaden your skills
Communicating science comes in all manner of forms, from writing a blog, creating a display for a festival, speaking at a school or running your own event. All of these activities have helped me develop skills outside of the lab, and have given me more confidence that I can work in ‘the real world’! Getting involved with different activities can help you learn more about your strengths in other areas and will develop some experience working in another non-research role.
Expanding your network
I didn’t know anyone in Bristol (UK) when I moved here from London to start my PhD. Getting to know fellow science communicators helped me feel part of the local community. Talking to others in the sector has also given me perspective on working in academia and provided a window into careers outside of research. Initiatives such as STEM Ambassadors, Pint of Science festival and the British Science Association, as well as SciComm socials, can make it easy to get in touch with like-minded people and make new connections.
PhD’s are tough, academia is frustrating, and sometimes it is hard to see the point of the months and years of work I’ve put in at the lab. When I explained my job involves working with human brains and got a “that’s so cool” from a student, I couldn’t help but think, “you’re right, that is cool.” It’s beneficial to take time away from the bench to remember why you decided to work in science in the first place.
Science communication has kept me going through my career, and reminded me that I love science even if, at times, I don’t love research.
Rachel Harris is a PhD student at University of Bristol studying the role of blood flow in dementia. When not at the bench (or communicating science!) she enjoys watching documentaries and cycling. Find her on LinkedIn and tweet her @NeuroRach.
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