With a personal interest in physics and a need to write some science articles, I went along to the Institute of Physics last week to attend an award for physics communicators. The event was free and open to all. After the event I wrote this, which I’ll repost here while looking for another outlet to send it to.
The IOP Very Early Career Physics Communicators Award award was set up to encourage and reward innovation in science communication in new physicists. Whittled down from an original group of 26 communicators, the four finalists presented their case for the award and prize money of £250 in energetic, ten-minute bursts of speech and slides. The finalists were Dr. Aude Alapini-Odulade of Exeter University, Martin Archer of Imperial College London, Rhys Phillips of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), and Dr. Suzie Sheehy of the Rutherford Apple Laboratory.
Alok Jha, science correspondent for The Guardian, opened the event by casting forth his own perspective on science communication in the media. He aspires for a world where science would be something people would miss hearing about, if science reporting should stop, and where the economic impact of science doesn’t need to be the most popular point of communicators and politicians. With increased non-scientist participation and discussion on cutting edge scientific discoveries in the blogosphere and The Guardian itself, he reflected that this is an “interesting time” for science communication.
The first finalist, Dr. Aude Alapini Odunlade, stepped up to the podium. Aude is a former Associate Research Fellow in Astrophysics at the University of Exeter, currently in training to become a teacher. In a dizzyingly fast talk, Aude whirled us from her past and present life as an enthusiastic astrophyicist and science communicator, to her work in Benin, West Africa. 2006 had been the year of a solar eclipse in Benin, an event which Aude, as a Masters student at the Paris Observatory, had seized as an excellent research project opportunity for her class. Along with a group of 25 people, Aude travelled to Africa to do her final project on the eclipse. Here she saw an opportunity to engage the local community and schools, by discussing the mythology and cultural beliefs of the solar eclipse, and then engaging them in the scientific explanations behind it. Aude returned to Benin for the 2007 lunar eclipse to continue her impact there, and has fundraised $3000 to buy scientific equipment for schools. Alongside engagement, inspiration, and friendship, Aude’s work has a further key concept- accessibility. She has spurred partnership and dialogue between schools in Benin, France, and the UK, opening up the chance to share research, communication, and scientific experiments between different countries. This work includes the development of a science and communication centre in the local town of Savalou, with internet links which not only provide communication and participation from students, but also provide training for Beninese teachers in how to use scientific equipment in their lessons.
Next up was Martin Archer, PhD student in space physics at Imperial College London. For the record, rock star physicists are out. DJ physicists are in. Martin leads a double life as a scientist who researches the magnetosphere, and as a DJ with regular weekday slots on Kiss FM. But this dual expertise has presented him with the perfect inspiration for his brand of science outreach. Martin has created DJ Physics, a live show that uses a virtual DJ booth as a platform to explain concepts in physics to school students, alongside dramatic demos. With an eye for appropriate but unusual analogies, Martin makes his science communication powerfully relevant and memorable. He has, for example, developed interactive exhibits such as the ‘elastic band’ magnetosphere experiment at this year’s Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition, and produced science videos featuring strange sights as himself throwing peanuts at a campfire to explain how scientists detect hidden planets. He has created Droppin’ Science podcasts to package physics and music, written articles, and appeared on news channels as a science consultant, riding on a wave of over 2000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. Martin is a tour de force of modern media, personality, and presentation power.
The third contender was Rhys Phillips, a research engineer for EADS who specialised in lightning strikes on planes. This modest-seeming man proceeded to reveal a string of science communication activities in the manner of an absentminded magician producing yet another scarf from the hat. Through voluntary work at local schools in Cardiff, Rhys had realised that many students had no idea what distinguished physics from the general field of ‘science’. Nor did they know what kinds of jobs a physics degree could lead to. In response, he developed a school workshop for the Monmouth Science Initiative. The Lego challenge is a hands-on workshop for schoolchildren that takes them through the steps of an engineering project, from planning, budgeting, building, testing, and to debriefing. Rhys is strongly involved in voluntary work as a STEM Ambassador for STEMNET, and presents physics communication at many schools, always tailoring his presentations to suit each audience. He regularly features STEM Ambassadors on his weekly science show for Radio Cardiff, Pythagoras’ Trousers, and these ambassadors are often requested for school appearances by teachers. This is in addition to taking part in an online science engagement competition, volunteering for the Big Bang Roadshow, science festivals, and setting up the Cardiff Science Festival. By the time Rhys has mentioned starting a live stage show, Pythagorean Cabaret, anything seems possible.
Wrapping up the event came finalist and particle physicist Dr. Suzie Sheehy, vowing to explain 10 years of her life in 10 minutes. Suzie was deviated from the path of structural engineering by a stimulating lecturer, Dr. Roger Rassool, whose philosophy she sums up in a memorable quote- “I’m not here to teach you. I’m here to entertain and inspire you.” While studying at the University of Melbourne, Suzie became a presenter for The Science and Laser Show, a travelling 45 minute show of physics and lasers for primary schoolchildren. The combination of performance, teamwork, and inspiration changed her forever. Alongside her PhD at Oxford University, Suzie developed Accelerate!, an interactive stage show about the science behind particle accelerators for students of 11 and up. The show was a powerful success in inspiring both schoolchildren and the scientists themselves in physics and physics communication, with glowing feedback, and had reached an audience of 5000 after two years. Accelerate! has featured at major science events such as the British Science Festival and Big Bang Fair, and continues to be an official fixture of Oxford University. Suzie is now developing her skills in presenting as a regional finalist for Famelab 2011, blogging, and has created her own new public lecture, ‘Accelerated Dreams’.
But there could be only one winner. Or could there? After a final discussion, the judges announced two winners, who would both receive the full cash prize from the IOP. The winners were Rhys Phillips, for his range of activities and initiative in starting new ones, and Aude Alapini Odunlade, for her high impact and far-reaching scheme to support budding scientists and teachers. By the end of the event, the IOP had presented its audience with two winners, four impressive finalists, a lot of energy, and a lot of fun in physics. We do indeed live in interesting times.