Can’t help falling in love with science communication

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Emer Maguire. Image: Carrie Davenport Photography

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Science communicator, speech and language therapist, and musician Emer Maguire is on a mission to make science more relatable and fun. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

It’s December, it’s party season and science can help you with the flirting, according to science communicator Emer Maguire, who has some top scientific tips based on sight and smell.

“People are quite attracted to the colour red; it is associated with reward and anticipation and excitement, so that is a colour you could wear if you want to inspire these things,” she explained.

It might also be a good idea not to douse yourself in the latest celebrity aftershave or perfume, because your natural scent could spark some chemistry, she added.

‘Science communication is meant to benefit you and the audience, so you need to talk in a language that is universal’
– EMER MAGUIRE

Everyday science

Maguire is well versed on the science of flirting, kissing and love thanks to her preparation a few years ago for FameLab, a competition where participants explain scientific concepts in an engaging way in just a few minutes.

For Maguire, who is a speech and language therapist, FameLab was her step into the world of science communication while she was studying for her master’s degree in clinical anatomy at Queen’s University Belfast.

“I saw an ad for FameLab on Twitter and I thought I could probably explain a scientific concept in three minutes, so I entered it for the craic,” she recalled.

She racked her brains and came up with 10 potential topics to cover, and then sought some feedback to whittle them down to one. “I was trying to think of something that someone who was not into science or who was like me in school would want to hear about. I wanted something about the science of everyday life, something people could relate to,” she said. “Then I showed the list of topics to my family and they all voted for one: the science of kissing.”

Feeling the love

Maguire decided to take an entertaining approach to the topic, on the basis that humour would make the science more engaging. “Think about it,” she said. “On a night out, would you rather sit and listen to a lecture about something you can’t relate to and is not applicable to your life, or would you prefer to go to a lecture where you can laugh and learn, and go to a party afterwards and tell your friends cool facts?”

As the deadline of New Year’s Eve approached for submitting her video entry, Maguire took the plunge and recorded it (aptly) at a party. She qualified and went on to win the Northern Ireland final of FameLab.

That in turn set her on a path to win FameLab UK in 2015, and propelled her further to win the international Science Stars competition in Kazakhstan in 2017. She also got the opportunity to present a radio programme on BBC called Science & Stuff, which has now run for two series.

It was while making the radio series that Maguire had a particularly surreal and memorable moment: singing a duet with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. “He was visiting Ireland and I said why not chance our arm and ask if we can interview him,” said Maguire. “We got a yes so we drove to Limerick to meet him, and I was very excited.”

Maguire is a musician, and her guitar had been stolen the previous week. On hearing this, Hadfield went and got his guitar and the two sang together for the radio show. “That was really a highlight for me,” said Maguire. “He is one of my science heroes.”

middle aged man with grey moustache and dark shirt with his arm around young woman with brown hair, glasses and a white shirt with black floral print.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield with science communicator Emer Maguire. Image: BBC.co.uk

Relate clearly

Maguire continues to perform as a musician and science communicator while also working as a speech and language therapist in Northern Ireland. She appreciates that researchers might be shy or lack confidence about communicating their research to the public, but she has some advice.

“If you have specialist knowledge in a certain area, that is such a gift, and for you to share that with others is such a benefit,” she said. “People will look to you as an expert and, even if you are nervous and you make mistakes on stage, audiences know that you are human and they generally will you to do well.”

Her tips for clear and engaging science communication are to make things relatable and fun, and to use everyday language. “I try to inject humour into talks; it is part of my personality and it puts people at ease,” she said.

“And, it’s important to be aware of language and how you present information. It won’t work if you stand up and talk numbers or jargon for an hour. Science communication is meant to benefit you and the audience, so you need to talk in a language that is universal.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication

editorial@siliconrepublic.com