I've spent this week at a science communication course. I admit I signed up for it primarily for the CV points; some time in the next few weeks I have to stop running away from job-hunting. But it turned out to be surprisingly good! I learnt a lot, and enjoyed myself greatly.
The course was run by one of those interminable European Union acronyms, CASCADE, who basically do food safety but they have communication people based at KI and they were running the course. Being based on my campus has major advantages; I could live in my own home, and not waste time travelling, and even keep my cells alive so that I can get straight back to experiments next week.
We had 20 participants, really from all over Europe and all over the spectrum of scientific interest, everything from control engineering to nutrition education. They were a lovely group, too, all positively wanted to be there and get the most possible out of the course, turning up on time and giving their full attention to every exercise and lecture. I really appreciate not being one of only a small handful who have both the desire and the skills to learn, though part of that is maturity, of course. And really friendly and socially outgoing. At one point some of them decided I should be the group "mascot", since I wear bright colours and smile a lot and laugh loudly. An odd kind of compliment, but it clearly was one.
The first day looked as if it was going to meet my worst expectations; there were several variations on a theme of telling us that communication is important and that we should make sure to talk to the public as well as our peers. There were a couple of dud lectures over the course of the week, such as a woman who was supposed to talk about science and industry and ended up just giving us two-hour marketing pitch about how great the Swedish pharmaceutical industry is, even after we'd reminded her that we were an international group and wanted a more global perspective. And the lecture on Web 2.0 *sigh* was disorganized and poorly presented. The guy who was supposed to teach us public speaking had some quite interesting information, but it was very diluted with a long, boring lecture about Aristotle's theory of rhetoric. He also did the thing that I've seen before from Swedish communication experts, of trying to present a persona of a stereotypical upper-class Englishman, wearing a tweed jacket, bow-tie and old-fashioned glasses and using a speaking style that attempted to be donnish and came across as camp.
But from day two we got stuck in to the practical stuff and it was great. In one exercise, we had to interview eachother and then write it up as a popular article, 15 minutes to prepare, 15 to interview and 15 to write a couple of hundred words. We were randomly assigned different media organs; when I was playing "journalist" my subject was someone who is testing whether oranic food really has health benefits, and my magazine was Mother and baby. It was really interesting, even in pretend, trying to balance my desire to give an accurate account of my subject's research, with pleasing my imaginary editor and advertisers by slanting the article to make sure that women feel really guilty and spend lots of money on expensive products. Then I was interviewed by someone "from" Men's health (!!!) who did a fantastically realistic job of pretending to be interested only in muscle building food supplements and doing lots of exercise. So I had to keep saying that I wasn't studying what kinds of exercise were most effective in preventing cancer, I was studying how to cure cancer, but it was a very good exercise in trying to convey my story to a journal with a totally different agenda.
They also gave us the chance to repeat part of the interview with a TV camera running, and I was surprised that I came across reasonably well. I managed not to fidget or sit artificially still, and I spoke clearly and sounded sensible. But I grimaced a bit at the end, kind of "did I do alright?", because I thought the recording was over a couple of seconds before it actually was, so that drove home that lesson rather well.
We also had to rewrite our pop science account of our own research, incorporating all the lessons we'd learnt about popular writing. Again there was a fairly tight deadline, and it was really an effort to condense everything into a single page spread of a glossy magazine; in my first draft, I'd assumed some level of knowledge of cell biology and had to simplify right down. We worked in small groups and there was some really helpful constructive feedback. And then there was giving a 5 minute (!) oral presentation to the group, with no slides, pitched to a lay audience. By the end of the course I had a lot better idea what talking at that level really feels like, but I didn't quite manage a two-sentence summary of the relationship between genes and proteins. That's not actually the point of my research, if I had five minutes to explain molecular genetics I could probably do it, but as it was it was essential background for understanding what I do. Though I felt quite proud of myself because after we'd finished the role play part, the audience bombarded me with actual scientific questions and regretted that I couldn't give them a 15-minute presentation pitched for scientists, so at least I got people interested!
The best part was sprung on us; there was a section headed blandly "interview training", and it turned out that we had been made into a class assignment for the life sciences journalism students. They have this fantastic course, I'm totally jealous; they spend one semester following carefully selected modules from a fairly standard course in general biology (including medicine, ecology and public health as well as molecular stuff), and one semester pretending to be journalists, essentially. Their lecturers act like editors of a hypothetical newspaper, and give them two or three assignments a week which they have to research and write up, and the whole output is assessed, no exam at the end. We had an hour's interview, and it was a really great experience. My interviewer specializes in environmental science, a sensible career choice for a journalist in training, but it does mean her knowledge of molecular biology is really patchy. But she was so keen, and so genuinely interested in the complex technical details, she was like the ideal audience always mentioned in these exercises, very intelligent but totally ignorant. So in some ways the "interview" ended up with me giving her a kind of impromptu tutorial in cancer genetics. She'd ask a technical question, let me explain for a few minutes, and then check "let me see if I've got this right:" and give me an accurate one sentence summary of what I'd said. I'm really intrigued to see what sort of article she'll get out of it. But the disturbing part was that she expressed happy surprise that we were young and lively and mostly female; when given the assignment to interview researchers, she'd expected a bunch of boring old men. It's very worrying if even an undergraduate halfway through a degree in science journalism has such misconceptions about what scientists are like!
For the social part, we had a mingel on the first evening with wine and rather nice sandwiches (one of the course leaders made the veggie ones by hand, which was endearing). They took us out for a meal at Duvel, which is rather a grand gastro bar I'd been to once before, for a colleague's PhD celebration. I honestly think Duvel is overpriced for what it is, but ok, the EU were paying, and it is at least somewhat nice. The point of Duvel is that they have a 15-page menu of Belgian beer, but for some reason they offer wine with their set menu. Duh! They were happy to accommodate when I asked for a quarter litre of yummy Duchesse de Bourgogne instead. I had a really tasty, filling mushroom soup to start (Duvel tends to do the grand restaurant thing of offering rather small portions beautifully arranged, so I was glad to have something with actual calories in to start). Then fish with some kind of spiced mashed potatoes, very nice, but I still find it weird to have just protein with no vegetables! Dessert was a tiny little dish of not very good crème brûlée. But it was a very congenial evening, as the group were really getting on well by this, the midpoint of the course. And a guided visit to the Nobel Museum after hours. The museum itself is tiny, and there's not really a whole lot to see, but the guide was the sweetest. She had this fantastic old-fashioned school-marm persona, but her obvious enthusiasm overwhelmed her attempt to be brisk and gruff, and actually, well, she's probably nearer my mother's age than mine but she really grabbed my attention.
I really do feel I've improved my skills through these exercises. And ok, it's not that likely that I'm going to be interviewed on national TV any time soon, but a lot of it is much more generally applicable than that. I feel much more confident about making stuff accessible without over-simplifying. Would anyone be interested to see my stuff? The Mother and baby article is a bit of a parody, but there's also a "real" article and it might be fun to do my five minute spiel as a voice post. I think I've been a bit spoiled by you guys when I've tried to do bits of popular writing before, cos you're collectively much more knowledgeable and engaged than the audiences we were trying to target in this course.