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Talking the Talk- The science of science communication

Tuesday 7 July 2020- Words by Hayley Krippner 2017 Alumnae



The 2020 Innovative Young Minds programme were excited to have the Embassy of Ireland to Aotearoa New Zealand and Samoa as a strategic partner for the programme. As part of this partnership, the embassy generously contributed to IYM through a panel of STEM women, making 2020 the first year IYM has been international.

The panel discussion was led by Laurie Winkless, a physicist-turned-writer and science communications consultant, who has collaborated with schools and universities, the Royal Society and The Naked Scientists, as well as contributed to Forbes Magazine. The panellists were Claire O’Connell, Laura Tobin, and Niamh Kavanagh.

Each of these inspiring speakers started as scientists and have transitioned into the science communication field. They each spoke about their journeys, pushing the boundaries of science and what they do now. They gave invaluable words of encouragement to the students. Students were thrilled to engage with such determined, passionate, and inspiring presenters. They asked meaningful and thought-provoking questions and received remarkable responses.

Claire O’Connell, a science journalist for the Silicon Republic and The Irish Times, talked about her passion for learning and how she uses science in her everyday life as a writer. Claire spoke of her studies at University College Dublin, specialising in botany. She completed a PhD in cell biology before working as a post-doc in Glasgow investigating the kidneys of fruit flies and then in Sydney, where she investigated how human brains age. Claire explained the importance of continuing to make scientific discoveries, regardless of their size, as each one has an impact on societies’ growing knowledge of science. A clear message from Claire was to “find what interests you”.

As a science writer, Claire communicates with multiple audiences. She explained that, regardless of what aspect of science you write about, readers will always learn something, and you must write in a way which makes difficult concepts understandable. She spoke of when she wrote a piece about a noble prize winner such that “no matter what you got from the story, you learned something about the process of science, even if the science itself was really, really complicated”.

Laura Tobin, a co-organiser of Dublin Maker Festival and a community-led STEM expert, emphasised the importance of being curious and finding the joy in things you learn every day. She studied experimental physics, computer science and optical engineering at University College Dublin and is now doing a PhD and working in virtual reality. Laura explained that one of the most enjoyable aspects of her career is that she is “embedded in the process of science”. She gets to challenge her understanding all the time and expressed that “science doesn’t box you in”.

She encouraged the students to find a job that allows you to be curious, “that’s what gets me up in the morning…the fact that I know I’m going to learn something that I didn’t know before”. She expanded on this by saying to find something you are passionate about and “believe in”. Laura also spoke of communication being a huge part of science. Science is “translating really complicated understandings into something that is understandable” by others.

Niamh Kavanagh, a science communicator, former Irish Famelab champion, equity, diversity and inclusion advocate, reinforced the idea of challenging stereotypes and being true to yourself. Niamh studied physics at the University College Cork as she loved learning about how the world worked and how we can use this knowledge to create new technologies. Niamh went on to do a PhD in optical communication systems, focusing on increasing the speed of the internet. She now works as a scientific product specialist, working with laser designers, laser sellers and customers, and discussed the different levels and styles of communication.

Some days Niamh is in the lab and work on her thesis, while on other days she speaks at schools or travels around the world to present at conferences, explaining how exciting and different every day is. Niamh spoke of the excitement of making a discovery and realising the opportunities it brings as they “can do so much” with it. She has also been involved in diversity initiatives and making science more inclusive, “changing the culture of science so it is more inclusive of different people”. They work with people from the LGBTQ+ community who are interested in science and help to increase their representation in the fields of science. Niamh reminded the students “don’t change yourself for science”.

Laurie focused on the ideas of collaboration and persevering. She applied her natural curiosity to her studies of materials science and investigated turning wasted heat into electricity. Despite her enjoyment of practical lab work, she moved into the science communication field as she was after a change and a challenge. She explained to the students that an important part of science is “deciding what question should be asked and then designing an experiment to help answer that question”. Scientists must communicate their work on paper and collaborate with people.

Laurie spoke of taking inspiration from the lotus leaf’s water repellent properties and applying it to design water repellent materials and investigating ways to alter materials such as steel to make them more water repellent. Throughout the process, she was learning— even when her hypotheses were wrong. She explained that “being wrong in science motivates you” to continue exploring. She encouraged the students to “find opportunities to do science and hang out with engineers”.

The students went away with an understanding of what is at the heart of communicating in science and that there is an enormous amount of direction in science. With the inspiring words from the presenters, the students felt motivated to persevere in science, challenge themselves and staying true to who they are. The panel discussion showed the diversity of what you can do with a science degree.

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