5 qualities of a great science communicator

18 Nov 2021

Image: © ink drop/Stock.adobe.com

Ahead of the international finals later this month, we asked Ireland’s 12 FameLab 2021 finalists for examples of excellence in science communication.

Ireland is well-renowned when it comes to the gift of the gab. Why should our scientists be any different? For a small country, Ireland really punches above its weight in producing talented scientists and many of these possess the aforementioned ‘gift’ when it comes to explaining their work.

From Prof Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin who is as comfortable in a lab as he is chatting to Newstalk’s Pat Kenny and listeners about science on the radio every week, to physicist-slash-comic performer Dr Jessamyn Fairfield’s BrightClub Ireland, scientists in Ireland are not short of a few words.

Future Human

With that in mind, we spoke to the 12 Irish finalists of FameLab 2021. The international competition challenges scientists to condense a complex scientific topic in an accessible manner within three minutes, in a bid to find the best science communicator.

This year, Tammy Strickland won the Irish competition and made it into the international FameLab semi-finals. While she hasn’t progressed to the final of FameLab, which takes place on 25 November, 10 other researchers from around the world will compete for the title.

Luckily, we haven’t heard the last of Strickland or the 11 other Irish finalists. Here are their thoughts on excellence in science communication.

Have a sense of wonder

According to Strickland, excellent science communicators must have a sense of wonder. “Good quality science communication should foster understanding but also, in my opinion, promote a sense of wonder.”

She singled out the late journalist and science communicator Mary Mulvihill as an example of this. “It is very clear from Mary’s large body of communications work that she appreciated the sheer beauty and complexity in the world, even at her own doorstep,” Strickland said, adding that Mulvihill’s “charisma, curiosity and passion shines through everything that she produced”.

“Science is often viewed as a boring and difficult subject reserved for an elitist few. Mary debunked this and made science and nature things that everyone can enjoy.”

Mulvihill’s radio series, books and tours were ideal mediums through which to engage audiences in her research. Strickland said that “excellent science communication involves encouraging the audience to use their multiple senses – including their sense of humour –and to use their imagination”.

No doubt, Strickland’s Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit FameLab talk, entitled The Curious Case of a Seizure at Night, leaned heavily on these principles. Her novel way of discussing the complexities of epilepsy impressed the judges.

Kyra Menai Hamilton, who used poetry to bust some dyslexia myths in her FameLab presentation, added that a great communicator is someone who can get their audience “excited about the subject matter”.

Encourage participation

Most FameLabbers would agree that they want the public to be able to appreciate their research, no matter how complicated it is, as science affects us all.

For Fernando Garrido Diaz, his experience participating in the FameLab competition was hugely rewarding. “For me, excellence in scientific/science communication is if you can make a person that doesn’t work in your field understand a complex scientific topic,” he said.

Diaz, who won the audience award in this year’s Irish finals, added that his fellow FameLab participants were “all great examples to follow”.

Unfortunately, this year’s edition of FameLab will be the last, but Diaz is cautiously optimistic. “I hope that something as good as FameLab will appear!

“This would give us a chance to continue learning from all those future great scientists who are yet to come. Hopefully, these words will reach someone with resources capable of creating a project like FameLab from scratch and I would love to participate in it,” he added.

According to materials scientist Reabetswe Zwane, a good science communicator also “gives a human voice and a face” to the science. “They are able to bring their personality authentically while engaging the audience in an entertaining and informing way.”

Be a role model

“The ultimate goal of science communication is not to teach people a concept, but to inspire them to teach themselves,” according to podcasting microbiologist Kevin Mercurio.

Mariana Hugo Silva of Limerick’s Bernal Institute is a fan of David Attenborough and Jane Goodall “mainly due to their passion about the natural world and the work they’re doing to help to preserve it”.

“I think it is impossible to watch the documentaries led by them and the books they’ve written, and not be moved to try and do better,” she said. “We should do better, we need to do better and David and Dr Jane are doing it,” she added referring to the climate crisis.

Silva also mentioned a lesser-known science communicator, albeit one that is dear to her. Carlos Fiolhais, a now retired physics professor from her home university, inspired Silva hugely. “It is impossible to hear him speak about space, stars, mathematical theorems and not fall in love with the subject,” she said.

Jack William Daly said he admired Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser in the US, who he said played a “blinder throughout the pandemic in the face of some unruly opposition”.

Meanwhile Strickland mentioned physicist Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin and geneticist Aoife McLysaght as excellent communicators in their respective fields.

Use pictures

As Dublin City University’s Adam Stapleton quipped, “What a large visual cortex you have, my dear. All the better to see you with.”

People have evolved to visualise complex ideas using images. In particular, Stapleton mentioned Hans Rosling’s demonstrations on the use of visual data to help people grasp ideas that are otherwise very complex.

And Walter Stanley reminded us of the popular maxim “a good picture or image can relate 1000 words”. Good graphics can indeed go a long way in making a concept “understandable and interesting”, he added.

Appeal to all ages

Many FameLab entrants this year spoke about how their interest in science was developed at a young age, usually thanks to good role models (see above).

Really good science communicators know that the true value of their work lies in how it is transferred on to the next generation. No matter how simple they are, our early experiments with vinegar and baking soda can be the most memorable and exciting.

Debismita Dutta fondly recalled a TV show called Backyard Science, which captured her imagination growing up.

“I am not sure if this was popular in Ireland, but when I was a kid back in India, we had a show called Backyard Science. It was one of my favourite shows growing up even though I’ll admit I didn’t understand a lot of the explanations as a kid,” she said.

“However, it did play a pivotal role in getting me interested in science and led me to study the subject in depth, and that is what I think the crux of excellent science communication is.”

For more mature scientists, genetics researcher Ifeolutembi Fashina recommended a science podcast called This Podcast Will Kill You, whose hosts talk about diseases and epidemiology in an engaging way.

And from Roshaida Abdul Wahab’s point of view, “excellence in science communication is when people learn something after listening to a science talk and they remember it for the rest of their lives”.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic