Sharing the spark with science outreach
Postgraduate Research Student, Sapphire Lally, hypothesizes the significance of science outreach and shares her discoveries in quantum biology.
Since starting my PhD in quantum biology, I've taken many opportunities to get involved with outreach. The University of Surrey supports Pint of Science – an international festival that brings science to the pub, and Bright Club – a national scheme that sees academics use stand-up comedy to talk about research. There is always opportunity to talk to small community groups across the country – like Café Scientifique and University of the Third Age.
To justify all this time away from my desk to my supervisor, I have to make sure I can explain why outreach is a worthwhile activity. (Actually, I don't have to work too hard to justify myself – I'm lucky enough to work with Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Chair of Public Engagement.) The answer I give my supervisor is that outreach is a fantastic way to practice communication and improve understanding. The answer I give friends is that…it's really fun.
The flawed idea of science as the work of lone geniuses – Newton, Curie, Darwin – is giving way to international initiatives like CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the International Space Station bringing together scientists from different disciplines, cultures and backgrounds. Each discipline has its own language with grammar rules, idioms, and subtleties. In my own research group, quantum physicists collaborate with microbiologists and biochemists. I don't have time to get a degree in biochemistry, and my colleagues don't have time to get a degree in theoretical physics. Yet our problems won't be solved without all of us speaking the same language. In order to work together, we need to distil years of dedicated study and find the key pieces of information to create one picture from many.
Our problems won't be solved without all of us speaking the same language.
Outreach is the place where I can practice this distillation. I take a concept at the edge of my understanding, and I carefully examine it. I'm giving a talk about an abstract concept, perhaps some quirk of quantum mechanics? First, I internally wrestle with the material – a thought process that is often non-verbal but incorporates mathematical language. Next, I somehow translate that into words, taking abstraction and creating metaphors and analogies. Finally, I create a coherent story to tell: what’s the set-up, where’s the conflict – and when does the lightbulb moment happen? It's a challenge just as fulfilling as doing the research.
That's where the fun comes in, too. For me, it’s all about the lightbulb moment and sharing that spark. When I make small talk, I trade the question: "What do you do?" for a better one: "What excites you about what you do?" Outreach is asking yourself that question, and then inviting listeners to join you in your excitement. You have the privilege of experiencing that lightbulb moment again and again as you share every discovery you’ve ever made in your education and career. Did you know that there are exoplanets made of diamond? Did you know that chickens are the closest living relatives of the T-Rex? Did you know that quantum mechanics happens inside your body? Outreach helps us, as researchers, remember the joy and exhilaration of science – and that’s worth leaving your desk for.