Note from the Editor Thank you for picking up this zine! we are microbes was born out of love for science communication. Not just my love, but the love shared by many others who have inspired me along the way. One day, many moons ago, I came across the science zines of Two Photon Art. I didn’t know what zines were before that and this opened a door to a whole new world. What strikes me as fantastic with zines is that anyone, whatever their background, can participate, collaborate and make them. And anyone can pick them up and be inspired by them. This seemed like a perfect medium for science communication and a great opportunity to engage and co-create with a new audience of makers. And so, we are microbes was born. Our aim is to create a two-way highway between the zine/diy communities and science communicators. We take science to zine makers and bring zines to the scientists & science communicators. In the past few months I looked far and wide in search of science zines but haven’t found many. You should definitely check the work of Christine and Tera of Two Photon Art who make science zines full of beautiful illustrations, and the cute, super accessible computer science zines of SailorHg - Bubble Sort Zines. I am sure there other great examples of science zines but I am afraid I am not yet aware of them (so, if you make scizines or are inspired to make some after reading this, please let me know).
â€œ #scicomm: a zinetroductionâ€? is the title of a series of zines that will introduce the reader to science communication, useful tools and resources and offer inspiration to both newcomers and those in search of new ideas via profiles of diverse science communicators who kindly collaborated with me on these zines. Without the contribution of other scientists and science communicators this zine would not be possible - thank you to all of them. I sincerely hope that after reading their testimonies you will feel inspired to go out there and talk about your science to anyone and everyone - because science exists to be communicated.Â Finally, I would like to thank the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, University of Liverpool for believing in this project and funding our work through the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund. I hope you enjoy reading issue #1, which will be mostly focused on writing as a scicomm tool, and come back for more.
what is science communication? Generally speaking, science communication (scicomm for friends) refers to the process of communicating scientific concepts/findings to an audience. Note that I didn’t use the word “presenting” - scicomm is a two-way road to which both parts (communicator/audience) contribute. Talking to a non-expert audience about science as part of a showcase or exhibit (public outreach) or presenting scientific findings in the form of a paper published in a scientific journal are two of many different forms of science communication.
But , I’m shy...
“I don’t like to speak in front of an audience” “I don’t like crowded spaces” “ Do I have to talk to people?”
Hey... I totally get that. Standing up and speaking in front of hundreds of people or chatting with dozens of impacient schoolchildren is not for everyone. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. Scicomm comes in many shapes and forms and I bet that one of them will appeal to you. If public speaking or active interaction is not your thing then you can explore many other scicomm tools and media. You could start a blog, engage with other scientists on Twitter or become a famous science podcaster. Who knows? The world is truly your oyster and never before have we had access to so many different ways of telling our science story to the world.
three useful scicomm tips 1. Think audience
As with any form of communication, thinking about your audience is the most important tip anyone could give you. Who are you talking to? What do they know? What interests them? If you know this you’ll be able to produce engaging content, appropriate to the level of knowledge of your target audience. As you can imagine, talking science to a 5 year-old is very different to debating evolution with an adult. Wired.com’s youtube channel presents this very clearly in two popular videos that I recommend you checking out (search for “Biologist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty - CRISPR” & “Neuroscientist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty” on youtube).
2. Kill the jargon
It may sound common sense but it’s always good to keep this at the very front of your mind when engaging in any form of scicomm. Leave all the science jargon at home. You don’t need it. And if you really want to use it, introduce the concept first or use a glossary. Period.
3. Patronise not
Again, common sense but I’ve seen people disregarding 2 & 3 so often that I’ve actually lost count. People are clever. Yes, your science may be really complicated, but don’t assume they won’t be able to get it. Instead, introduce concepts in the right order (basic necessary knowledge to understand your science) and build up on that.
zines and scicomm First, what is a zine? A zine (from magazine) is freedom. Freedom from an editor, freedom from judgment, freedom from format. It is usually a very personal, self-published, small-circulation numbers paper publication like the one you are currently reading. Through this media you can truly reclaim ownership of your material by being, at the same time, author, editor & distributor of the zine. Also, you donâ€™t have to be a professional artist/designer/writer/anything to make a zine. There are no rules except the ones you make. Through zines we can engage and collaborate with different communities that may not usually come together. We can candidly voice opinions and talk about matters that often donâ€™t have enough (or any) airtime on mainstream media. Zine makers usually sell or swap their zines online (in platforms like etsy, depop, social media platforms), via snail-mail or at many zine fests all around the world.
ANYONE CAN PARTICIPATE IN THE MAKING OF ZINES
s e n i z #sci Science zines (scizines) are still relatively uncommon but growing in popularity. Now is the perfect time to get in on the fun! Zines are not only a great way to engage with maker/creative communities but also offer a fabulous opportunity to collaborate in the making of science art. For inspiration, check out the science zines of Two Photon Art, created by a neurosciences PhD researcher and an environmental scientist & the cute teenage-aimed computer science zines of Bubble Sort Zines! And the best thing? You donâ€™t need much to make zines...
“GIVE YOURSELF SOME TIME, PATIENCE AND ROOM TO GROW”
Describe yourself in three words. Scientist, dog-lover, wannabe-writer
You are currently doing a PhD at the University of Georgia. What is your research about? I use patient stem cells to model neurological disorders. More specifically, I’m studying a rare disorder called Salt and Pepper Syndrome. The patients have skin pigment problems, hence the name, in addition to very severe neurological symptoms. I do my thesis work at my university’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center - one of the only carbohydrate research facilities in the country.
In general terms, we study how changes in cell surface sugars can result in diseases. For example, the Salt and Pepper patients that I study lack a specific enzyme, or protein, that puts one of these glycans on the cell surface. Without this, the patients have neurological problems, and we’re trying to figure out why.
clarity. Overall, I think SIMPLICITY is key!
Why did you start your blog, PhDing the balance, and what tips would you give to someone who wants to start their own scicomm blog? The idea for PhDing the Balance stemmed from a mental (and emotional) rut I found How has science communication myself in after having to retake changed your life? The decision to my qualifying exams for candiredirect my career path towards dacy into my PhD program. Even science communication has given though I eventually passed, I had me back the passion for science poured all of my energy into my that I had initially developed when efforts to succeed in graduate I first started working in a lab for school and found myself despera high school summer internship ate for some sort of balance bealmost 10 years ago. I love science! tween my research endeavors and I enjoy reading about science and the rest of my life. I remember a talking about it, and I love scientific conversation where I was talking research. However, over the years, to one of my close friends in my I just couldn’t picture myself doing PhD program and I mentioned research or even running a research this idea for a blog where I could lab for the rest of my career. After I share my ups and downs from got some exposure to various algrad school. My friend was really ternative career paths for PhDs, I encouraging, but I was too intimrealized that science communication idated. It wasn’t until later that appears to be a good fit for me and year, once I’d given more thought my passions. to the idea of pursuing science communication after graduate What is the most important skill for school, that I actually decided to a science communicator to have? It’s start the blog. I had the intentions so hard to narrow it down! Critof helping myself, and possibly ical-thinking and good listening others, manage the feelings of skills are pretty important in my being overwhelmed while in gradopinion, along with brevity and uate school.
I read that it’s important to post regularly, but I’ve found myself really busy this semester (both in lab and in life - I got married back in February!) and my posts have been sporadic. I have tons of ideas lined up, and I wish I’d written several posts ahead of time to publish consistently even when things got hectic. I hate knowing that my most recent post was weeks ago! But it is a learning experience, and I’m willing to give myself some slack! Which leads me to my second suggestion (and I wrote a post about this on the blog): go easy on yourself! It IS a learning process. If blogging/writing is new to you, then you probably won’t be perfect at it right away. Give yourself some time, patience and room to grow. Back to the first piece of advice though, write! Practice makes perfect after all!
Who has inspired you in your science & science communication journey so far? A former principal investigator (PI) and my dad. The PI ran a lab I worked in at the Yale Cancer Center, and I remember being very impressed with her ability to run a lab, see patients (she was a radiation oncologist) and raise a family. She inspired me on multiple levels of my science journey and really seems to have the whole “balance” thing down to a science, so to speak. Also, I think the fact that she ran a lab and saw patients really resonated with me as well. The ability to effectively share scientific research with patients and their families is a major aspiration for good science communication. My other source of inspiration for science is my dad. He used to conduct scientific research, but now primarily teaches.
“WRITE! PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT AFTER ALL!”
His passion for knowledge and discovery definitely ignited my interest in science at a young age. Both of my parents are professors, and they instilled in me an appreciation for education that I’ll always be grateful for. The support from my family and my husband, who happens to also be in my PhD program, really provides the day-to-day inspiration for me to continue on my science journey, especially as it has changed and evolved. Going forward, what are your scicomm plans? While I’m still in graduate school, I’m working on developing my writing portfolio. In addition to my blog, which still has plenty of room for improving and growth, I’m also hoping to submit some science communication pieces to a local blog called The Athens Science Observer. My university also has a new Science Policy, Education, and Advocacy group that I’d like to start writing for as well. I’m always on Twitter looking for new opportunities to share my passion with others and work on
my scicomm skills also, which is how I came across this zine! After graduate school, I’m a little less certain about my direct trajectory. I have an interest in science policy as well as communications, so I plan on pursuing post-doctoral fellowships in either of these avenues to help gain experience and insight into these career paths. The scicomm field is really growing, and it seems like there are more and more opportunities to share science with the general public. I plan to keep writing and seek out the right fit for me within the science communication community, so that I can share my passion for science with others!
About Michelle... Michelle is a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. She’s pretty passionate about science and science communication but also enjoys numerous other activities in her free time, including reading, listening to podcasts/audiobooks, hiking, baking, and obsessing over her labradoodle Goose! Blog: https://phdingthebalance.wordpress.com/ Twitter and Instagram: @mtdookwah
“PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT WILL NOT ONLY HELP TO IMPROVE YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS; IT WILL IMPROVE YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR OWN WORK TOO.”
ello, I’m Heidi. I’m a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Aberdeen where I spend a lot of time being shocked about the fact we don’t have very much evidence about how to conduct clinical trials – which is ironic because clinical trials are the thing we use to generate reliable evidence about healthcare. I’m pretty new to the world of public engagement and science communication but so far it’s been a really great addition to PhD life, and something I’d recommend all PhD students get involved in. Find out more about what I’m up to over on Twitter @heidirgardner, and on my blog heidirgardner.wordpress.com.
How and Why I Communicate Trials Methodology to the Public Public engagement and science communication was never something I thought about before I started my PhD, I thought that science communication was something that lab-based scientists did. I’d been to science communication events in the past, but they had all focussed on microscopes and topics that didn’t really align with where I wanted to go career-wise. So I guess we’ll start there… What do I do? My PhD research focusses on clinical trial efficiency, in particular the process of recruiting participants into clinical trials. Lots of people switch off at the word ‘efficiency’; their eyes glaze over and they assume it’s not a topic that’s going to interest them. Hopefully you won’t do that, and I can articulate why my field of interest is thought-provoking, and actually really important. In simple terms, clinical trials are seen as the gold standard – they’re at the top of the primary research evidence tree, and their results can change the way we manage, treat and diagnose diseases.
Millions of pounds are spent on trials every year, and some of that money comes from public taxes so that the government can ensure that the NHS is investing in drugs, surgical techniques and medical devices that benefit us. What’s weird then, is that the methodology behind clinical trials is largely not based on evidence. Recruiting participants into trials (notice I say participants, not patients – not everyone who takes part in clinical trials are patients, some are healthy volunteers) is super, super important. No participants means no trials. Why is communicating my research important Clinical trials get a bad rep. People think that taking part in clinical trials makes them some sort of guinea pig; they worry that they’ll be injected with dangerous drugs that’ll make their heads explode, that they’ll be prodded and poked and they’re being used in some way.
I’ll be clear here - clinical trials don’t give researchers and/or doctors a free reign to try stuff out on the first willing victim. Trials are regulated, a lot. It’s important that the public understand what trials are, why they’re important, and when taking part might be a good option for them. Communicating concepts like randomisation, blinding and bias, helps to demystify clinical trials. That can have a big impact on trials more generally. From inspiring enthusiastic medical students to recruit patients into trials later in their careers, to preventing taxi drivers from talking to their passengers about the clinical trial disaster they saw on the news last week. For me, it’s all about changing public perception of trials; of course trials carry risks, but the vast majority do not inflict harm such that it warrants a spot on the news. My experience with science communication and public engagement I’m very lucky that where I work, the Health Services Research Unit at Aberdeen University, is very supportive of public engagement activities. We have our own
‘Public Engagement with Research’ (PEWR) group, which is made up of staff from different parts of the Unit, and we meet frequently to come up with ideas for events and outreach activities that we can take part in as a team. My first event was Explorathon in September 2016, which is part of European Researchers’ Night – a day and night full of research communication that spans over 300 cities across Europe. We stayed close to home and set up a stand in Aberdeen’s Golden Zone, so-called for its high footfall, where we ran a chocolate trial we called ‘Explorachoc’.
“I’M VERY LUCKY THAT WHERE I WORK, THE HEALTH SERVICES RESEARCH UNIT AT ABERDEEN UNIVERSITY, IS VERY SUPPORTIVE OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT ACTIVITIES.”
Explorachoc involved using coloured balls and chocolates to demonstrate the randomisation process used in clinical trials, and engage members of the public in conversations about clinical trials and health services research. Since then I’ve made much more of an effort with science communication. I set up my blog in January this year, and I’ve contributed to a few other blogs too. I find that communication in the form of writing is much easier to fit around PhD work because I can sit down and write anywhere at any time. I have a few events planned for later on in the year that I’m really looking forward to as well: - Aberdeen University’s May Festival as part of our PEWR group, where we’re doing a treasure hunt to demonstrate publication bias and how that can impact how we interpret evidence about healthcare.
- Soapbox Science Edinburgh, where I’m going at it alone to get on my soapbox in Edinburgh City Centre to talk about the importance of taking part in clinical trials. Soapbox Science is a brilliant public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do – they have events all over the UK and a few overseas too. I’d definitely recommend getting involved with public outreach activities. Whether in the form of writing, drawing, embroidery (check out @embroidology on Instagram!) or face to face events, find something you enjoy that allows you to communicate your work. Public engagement will not only help to improve your communication skills; it will improve your understanding of your own work too.
“THOSE UNFAMILIAR WITH A SUBJECT CAN ASK THE MOST AMAZING QUESTIONS”
You recently finished your PhD in a really cool topic – how spiders adapt their movement after losing leg(s). Can you explain your research in a short paragraph? Well, spiders normally move in an alternating tetrapod gait, which is where their eight legs are grouped into two groups of four, diagonally spaced across the body - the front right leg, the second left leg, the third right leg and the hind left leg make one group, and the remaining legs the other. When spiders walk, these two groups of legs alternate: the first four legs step,
and then the other. Like a dog trotting, but with double the number of legs. This is simplified a bit but that’s the basics. So, there had been a piece of research in the sixties that suggested that when spiders lose a leg or two (oh yeah, they can autotomise legs - that is, voluntarily shed them), their gait alters to compensate. But since then, it hadn’t really been explored. It’s super interesting as it suggests that spiders are able to adapt their neural control system, but there was only this one piece of research. So I looked at wolf spiders, recorded high speed videos of them moving before and immediately after they autotomised two legs, and measured and compared gait. The results aren’t hugely conclusive, as is often the case with science, but they suggest that the spiders do change gait straight away after losing legs. Which not only is really cool, but is something that we could look to when building legged robots designing some that could adapt to damage in a similar way. What does science communication and public engagement mean to you? It is of course a brilliant way of sharing interesting work with the
public, but importantly I’ve found that it’s a great way of thinking about things differently. When you’re preparing material for the public, be that a talk, a stand at an outreach event, or a written piece, you’re forced to strip down the science to the basics, to make it both easy to understand for someone unfamiliar with it, and to make it interesting. I love that process - it’s a real test of whether you personally understand a subject, and a chance to get creative with how you communicate it. Also, during the engagement itself, you can have some real brain-opening conversations with people. Often, those unfamiliar with a subject can ask the most amazing questions which make you really think, and can encourage you to think about your research (or whatever you’re communicating) in a new way. I really enjoy that about science communication and public engagement - the unpredictability of it, and that you often go away learning something new, or about something related that you want to go find out more about. It’s a creative learning experience for both parties.
When did you know that you wanted to become a full-time science communicator? In the early stages of my PhD, I think. I started my PhD with the intention of staying in academia, but realised very early on that I didn’t want to do that. I’d had a bit of public engagement experience before, which I really enjoyed - I helped demonstrate a cockroach-inspired robot at the Science Museum - and I’d talked at university open days about my degree. I realised I enjoyed giving talks and talking to people about science, but I didn’t really think I’d be able to make it into a career. I still enjoyed it hugely though, I took on as much extra science communication work during my PhD as possible to gain experience and see if it was a viable career option. My PhD included a compulsory three month internship, so I managed to get in at The Royal Institution to work on the 2014 Christmas Lectures. Then I knew that I wanted to make this a fulltime thing. It was outrageously fun, the people were fantastic, and it was so exciting. It melded my passion for science, for talking to people, and getting creative with words and visuals. I was sold!
Your scicomm CV is pretty awesome – an internship at The Royal Institution, writing for the Journal of Experimental Biology, managing comms for Pint of Science London and running Errant Science’s blog Clutter. How did you get involved in all these cool things and do you have any tips for newcomers to scicomm looking for opportunities to improve their skills? Networking as much as possible, getting to know people, and generally making it known that you want to work in this area and letting your passion shine through. I ended up working for Pint of Science because I was a speaker at their 2016 festival, and when the end of my PhD was getting near and I was looking for work, I contacted them. And Clutter happened because I got to know the creator of ErrantScience through Twitter, and then in real life, and then through a series of pub trips Clutter was born. Actually yes, that’s another tip for scicomm newcomers - get on social media! And actively engage. Twitter is a real hub for science and comms, there’s tons of people to get to know and learn from. I ‘met’ lots of people that way, and found lots of scicomm opportunities to get involved with.
Speaking of Clutter – how did this project first begin and what is it exactly? Clutter is the sister blog of ErrantScience, which is a blog about life in academia and research, filled with cartoons and just a hint of sarcasm. I got to know the creator of ErrantScience, and after much scheming we decided to set up Clutter. Clutter is a blog which covers similar topics, but with a range of different voices. We have two posts a month, one from me and one from a guest. Posts are generally about academia or working in science, but authors don’t need to be scientists. It’s essentially a friendly, informal place to read and write about science!
Who is your scicomm role-model? Oo tricky. I think it would have to be Prof. Danielle George. She was the 2014 Christmas Lecturer so I worked quite closely with her. I think I’m right in saying that she’d not done any TV work before, and she took it all in her stride. Had really creative ideas, so much energy and enthusiasm, and was totally dedicated to making it a good experience for the audience. And then she gave the Lectures while 8 months pregnant! Amazing lady. She’s doing loads of science communication now, and rightly so. Also Matthew Partridge, who is the aforementioned creator of ErrantScience. He’s an active researcher, a science communicator, and I think secretly he’s created his own nuclear fusion plant - he has so much energy for every project he works on (and he has a LOT of them on the go!). It’s very inspiring. About Michelle... Michelle is the host of Clutter.errantscience.com, and a recovering spider scientist. She now does a whole bunch of science communication things, and still regularly wrangles arachnids. Find her on twitter: @michelleareeve
“READ THE PUBLICATIONS YOU WANT TO WRITE FOR THOROUGHLY, UNDERSTAND THEIR AUDIENCE, AND PITCH ACCORDINGLY.
Q&A In your own words, you’re a researcher-turned-science-writer. When did you realize you wanted to build a career in scicomm? I was always interested in learning about biology-related topics. My turning point was while writing my PhD thesis, a process that I really enjoyed. I realized that I actually enjoy learning and communicating the broader aspects of science, rather than getting into details of one topic. That’s when I decided to move into scicomm.
You have written for cool publications like the NatureJobs blog, what are your top tips for new science writers wanting to pitch stories to publications like this? For any successful pitch, I think the most important aspect is to know what the editor wants. This can only be possible if you have read the publication before. Even though everyone gets better with experience, my general advice to reduce the learning time would be to read the publication/magazines
you want to write for thoroughly, understand their audience, and pitch accordingly. You cannot expect a one size fits all approach to work.
that it is not irreversible yet. Through awareness, we can change the attitude of people to believe in data, even if it’s not comforting.
What obstacles have you encountered as a researcher moving into science writing? While moving from research into science writing, I had a tough time getting samples. Editors need samples to give you work, excluding thesis/technical documents. But how do you get these samples in the first place?I built up my profile by starting my own blog or guest writing for free in some publications. A technical issue in the actual process was to avoid too many details. As researchers, we are trained to include all the details in a publication. So finding that balance was a challenge in the beginning.
Can we change the world with science communication? We can educate the world through science communication, and that is the first step in bringing about a change.
Who are your science writing idols? I really like Ed Yong’ writing style. His storytelling is great. Also, Bethany Brookshire (@scicurious), who writes for Science News. Do you agree that we are living in a post-truth society? I do think this is alarmingly true. Although, I think, rather hope,
“THROUGH AWARENESS, WE CAN CHANGE THE ATTITUDE OF PEOPLE TO BELIEVE IN DATA”
About Meenakshi... I am a biology lover at heart. After dancing around various interdisciplinary topics like microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics, I ventured into science writing post-PhD. My blog (backpackfullofquestions.com) combines science and travel, simplifying science for a general audience. You can find a collection of my different publications in my portfolio: meenakshiprabhune.contently.com