Friday, 31 January 2014

#SciComm: at a tangent?

I no longer feel the need to justify using Twitter, despite continuing ‘ribbing’ from some colleagues and others: I’ve benefitted from it professionally and have some fun along the way.  I can also cite many other scientists – including leaders in their field – who have already written cogently on the topic.  Prof. Athene Donald, who gave an Open Lecture at my university last year, offers a good example (spread-the-word); also worth reading are blog posts by Emily Darling (science-seeks-to-make-a-social-impact) and by a group from the University of New South Wales (science-in-140-characters).  What has surprised me a little is the way in which my use of Twitter has so clearly mirrored the relatively rapid evolution in my perspectives on Public Engagement. 

Q&A at University of Kent's Public
Engagement Strategy launch event, June 2013.
In my department we exhibit what I consider to be a leading example of outreach into regional schools; my colleague Vicky Mason – a former research student of mine I’m delighted to be able to say – and her team reaches thousands upon thousands of school students each year, and this is augmented at University level by Gaby Roch (another physicist I note).  However, Public Engagement (PE) is a far broader term: indeed, to my mind, it goes wider even than the description orovided within my university’s new, and entirely laudable, PE Strategy (which I helped to launch last year). The image shown here comes from the launch event's web pages: Sarah Dance, me and Tracy Kivell, each of us part of the panel for a discussion and subsequent Q&A session.  It was covered through Twitter, naturally.

Workshop in a drama studio as part of the
'experiment': not the natural habitat of or
usual haunt for a physicist. 
During the last couple of years I have found myself moving from a near-exclusive focus on schools work and talks to fellow scientists towards talking to adult lay audiences.  This was not by design, but via the serendipidy of ‘random’ invitations (e.g. from the local Café Scientifique, the National Womens Register, the Beaney Museum, …).  The big change came when, with colleague Jorge Quintanilla, I took part in an ‘experiment’ (their term, not mine) under the umbrella of the excellent Canterbury Festival and led by Margate’s awesome Turner Contemporary gallery.  Again, Twitter played a significant role in the broader sweep of publicity.

Panel discussion and Q&A at Turner
Contemporary, Spring 2013.
The image to the right was taken at the launch of the 5-minute animated cartoon derived from an extended discussion between scientists and artists focusing the statement by sculptor Carl André: “The periodic table of elements is for me what the colour spectrum is for a painter. . . Copper is more profoundly different from aluminium than green is from red.”  Since then I’ve been involved with another project with Turner Contemporary (and have been contacted about yet another) and a wonderful local film company, and I’m also providing science input into the libretto for a new opera by Frank Burnet, ‘Butterfly’, which is inspired by Chaos Theory.  In all cases, and others I'll not regale you with here, Twitter has been invaluable in the context of publicising events, building a network of contacts and enhancing relationships.

So, back to Twitter.  The account was set up in the context of a particular PE project, which never really took off, but with the fairly benign longer-term objective of providing a channel through which I might attempt to communicate my research and my professional life as a scientist.  What it’s developed into is a tool for my learning and one I can use in building bridges across science, the arts and life in general.  I think it’s important that scientists try to communicate effectively; for me, Twitter offers a fun way to do just that. 


Two things only are needed for Public Engagement in science ...

The following is, in essence, the 'Guest Post' written in early June 2013 for the excellent Julie Gould's Speaking of Science web site. Indeed, this was my first 'proper' blog post and so I owe Julie thanks for, so to speak, getting the ball rolling. It's a little dated already, but arguably worth including for the sake of completeness.

To begin at the beginning [1]: my name is Bob Newport, and I’m a sixty-something Professor of Materials Physics at the University of Kent.  This post arises from one of my tweets [@Bob_MatPhys] – “It's slowly dawning on me that two things only are needed for Public Engagement in science: love of subject and love of people” – and picked up by Julie Gould; the rest, as they say, is history.  What follows is a personal ramble through my developing interest and activity in the area: I offer it only as an individual ‘case study’ and in the hope that the story will prove encouraging in some way.
I’d never really thought of myself as a ‘science communicator’ as such, but I have come to realise that I have been working towards that goal for a long time.  A significant part of what my university has paid me for throughout the years of my academic career is the teaching of students; but although it ought to be intrinsic to teaching, communication is not necessarily evident in the absence of focused effort.  Genuine communication comes out of the desire to move beyond the mere transfer of information into the realms of motivation, enthusiasm and passion, and that is what so many of us in my profession strive to achieve.  In my case, the process was accelerated when I found myself teaching within our Physics Foundation Year and needing to move my unsure and uncertain students to a place where they could begin actively to engage with their learning.  In that situation I discovered the potential of using movie clips and media articles as accessible entry points for what often became extraordinarily lively discussions; these, in their turn, helped to add context to the more formal syllabus we needed to progress through.  The approach was later picked up by a writer with Science News, a popular weekly magazine in the USA, and led to an extended telephone interview for their article.
A uranium-doped glass - fluorescing under UV illumination
Generically, it’s this same approach I adopted within my efforts to reach out to regional schools.  We have a phenomenally successful Outreach team now, led by a wonderful former research student in my group, Vicky FitzGerald, who re-trained as a school teacher (i.e. she is fluent in the languages of both ‘school’ and ‘science’ – hugely important for the role in my opinion) [2].  However, 15 years or so ago we had no such setup: it was all down to the voluntary work of a few individuals.  The principal starting point for me has been my area of research: I am immensely fortunate to have been able to work on materials that offer both intellectual challenge – my aim is to explain their behaviour and attributes via a detailed understanding of their atomic-scale structure – and a relatively easy link to contemporary ‘real-world’ issues.  These materials have included photovoltaics, ultra-hard coatings, non-linear optical glasses and most recently bioactive glasses (which, for example, can be used to promote the regeneration of bone).  Moreover, the very nature of the research has meant that my research group and choice of collaborators has of necessity been inter-disciplinary, giving me access to chemistry, materials science and biomedical science as enhancements to my beloved physics.  I also had an in-built link I could utilise to the impressive ‘big toys’ that my group used in order to gain our core data: facilities like the ISIS and ILL neutron sources and the Diamond and ESRF synchrotron X-ray sources.  Taken together, this combination of factors made it relatively easy to talk about science.  I love doing this, and have had the pleasure of interacting with school groups from Year 5 to Years 12/13, and in the context of formalised talks, class visits to the Science Museum and open classroom discussions.  Thanks from school students and teachers is always welcome – I’m only human – but it’s some of the questions that form the most memorable feedback: like the Year 8 student who wanted to know whether bioactive glass could be used in order to grow a Klingon skull.  The reason I still remember that question comes from the fact that it spoke volumes to me about the depth of this young student’s newly gained understanding of these materials.  Thankfully, I was geek enough to know what a Klingon is.
However, we all change as time passes and in my case this has been associated with a migration from Outreach into the wider realms of Public Engagement, and from a relatively young audience to one comprising adults.  Outreach has, for me, involved talking about my research to a well-defined cohort of people – but this is only a part of public engagement, albeit an important one for a university: public engagement encompasses so much more.  Leaving aside the area of ‘crowd-sourced science’, in which I have had no involvement, there are outstanding high-profile examples of scientists engaging wonderfully well with the wider public via TV/Radio (Alice Roberts, Mark Miodownik, Jim Al-Khalili, Brian Cox etc.) and in newspapers/online (e.g. Athene Donald, Jon Butterworth).  I am not amongst their number.  No, mine is a more modest, ‘amateur’ and regional effort which has grown in a rather ad hoc fashion, and which is squeezed into and around an already full ‘Day Job’.  Having said that, there are common elements between us.  We have all developed the confidence (or is it foolhardiness?) to engage with non-experts from a variety of backgrounds in such a way that, whilst our science expertise is intrinsic to the exchange, the overall ‘agenda’ is theirs.  As an example, I have in the past couple of years given three talks on glass at one or other of the Canterbury Museums.  At the Museums’ request these have each been in different formats (an extended talk followed by afternoon tea – filmed by one of our students should you be interested, one in the evening and another as a 15-minute ‘bitesize’ talk at lunchtime) but all of them used my expertise in the context of their exhibits and artefacts.  Naturally, I was able to weave a lot of science into the talk, including bioglasses and synchrotron X-rays, but I did so primarily in the context of the audience’s desire to learn more about what was in the Canterbury Museums’ collection.
One also has to be flexible in terms of venue and facilities.  I recently spoke to a group from the National Womens Register: from a dining room chair, I chatted to a group of about 20 in someone’s packed living room with only a tool box of ‘show & tell’ items by my side.  Unusual and challenging certainly – but what a great environment for uncluttered free-form discussion about contemporary science; again, to their agenda.  Can such a low-key event have an impact?  Judging from the message I got from one participant’s husband via Twitter, I must conclude that it can – at least at the level of the individual: “My wife [is] an NWR groupee. I've never known her be so interested in science”.  Not only is positive feedback like this encouraging per se but, let’s face it, in a busy week there’s only so far one can reasonably go in terms of trying to meet the challenge of criticism before deciding that ones time is better spent elsewhere.  That’s not to say that constructive criticism isn’t valuable and welcome, far from it, but merely a reflection of the fact that public engagement of this kind often remains a time-pressured ‘hobby’ in the eyes of managers trying to assign limited academic resources.
Perhaps the most involving, and boundary-extending experiment for me in recent months has been my on-going work with the Turner Contemporary gallery.  Their visionary Head of Learning, Karen Eslea, contacted me as part of her search for scientists prepared to engage in conversation with artists.  The particular focus at the time was to complement their exhibition of work by the renowned American sculptor Carl Andre, and to use the discipline of Philosophical Inquiry in order, hopefully, to derive something special from the exchange.  We jointly sought and obtained modest funding for the project from Canterbury Festival’s Prosper project, which also entailed a commitment to a series of whole-day workshops in local drama venues.  Workshops in drama studios can be rather scary for a physicist, intimidating even, and clearing entire days for what were decidedly off-piste activities was no mean feat.  However, these became prized events in my diary as I realised the value of working and conversing with such a broad range of energetic and passionate people; I learnt so much!  The pinnacle of our experiment was an extended exhibition-focused conversation between about 30 artists and scientists, led by philosophical inquiry guru Ayisha de Lanerolle.  This was recorded and ‘mapped’ by folk from an award-winning local company, Cognitive Media, who generated a four-minute animation from their 70-minute audio file.  The film became part of the exhibition (and has moved with the exhibition to its new venue) and provided a vehicle through which gallery staff have been able to gauge public perception of the sculptures.  Never before has my name appeared in the credits of a film, any film [3], let alone one associated with an excellent arts gallery; I’m taking this as a good thing.
'Turneresque' sky, taken from Turner Contemporary gallery
My perspective on this is necessarily limited, so I’ve taken the liberty of asking Karen to provide comments on this from her perspective; she has kindly written something for this post: “Working with a scientist is a huge privilege and has helped me to experiment with new ways of working. During the Philosophical Inquiry (an event which enabled deep thinking and listening between artists and scientists) I had a moment of revelation when listening to a description of nickel. I realised that my engagement with art works is based mostly on their appearance, references, ideas and context. When a scientist looks at things, whether they are artworks or materials in a laboratory, it is as if they can experience them under their surface. Their connection with things extends far beyond the visual, with their mind able to imagine temperature, structure, the behaviour of atoms in different conditions. In terms of creativity, and the ability to make vast conceptual leaps, artists indeed have much to learn from scientists.
Where next?  Well, I’ve already tried to brief a librettist about the basics of Chaos Theory (after mugging up on it myself) in preparation for a musical item he’s working on and have volunteered to join a panel to address questions on public engagement.  In truth, my heart currently resides with the desire to take the positive outcomes of the ‘Turner Contemporary Project’ further by rolling out the generic approach to a more widely drawn range of participants.  It’s encouraging that we already have offers of help, for example from Kent’s new science and technology park at the ex-Pfizer site at Sandwich.  It would also be great to see Canterbury Festival weave science more overtly into its already excellent portfolio, and with enough time I’d love to do some more writing and perhaps to interact with writers.  Time will tell; I am content to look out for opening doors and see what emerges. 
To return to the tweet which sparked off this post for Speaking of Science, the lesson I have learned over and over again is that for the public, people, to be engaged with and by science they need to see scientists who care about what they do and who care equally as much that others understand where this is coming from. The first of these attributes is easy to supply; what’s needed thereafter is a commitment primarily to listen, and then to be open to learn and to change.

[1] Dylan Thomas’ opening phrase for Under Milk Wood.  Listening to the classic BBC performance, with Richard Burton as the narrator, is one of my all-time favourite calm-down aids on the train home after a troublesome meeting somewhere.
[2] There is also support at the Faculty level via another talented ex-school teacher physicist, Dr Gaby Roch; schools outreach is taken really seriously I’m glad to say. 
[3] Actually, that’s not entirely true: I did a voice-over for an animation designed, scripted and put together by children at a local primary school (where my son was teaching): they wanted an ‘old’ voice!

Monday, 20 January 2014

INTP; really?

Sometimes I surprise myself, which is, on the whole, a somewhat better state of affairs than being continually disappointed in oneself. The latter sits alongside manifestations of 'Imposter Syndrome' and a whole slew of other self-image issues which seems to me to be almost endemic within the 'bubble' of people I know (or try to know through their work or their writing or ...).  Apart from psychopaths and sociopaths, and of course all the mature and well-adjusted people out there, I imagine that a great many of us are troubled with the condition, such as it is. I also suppose that those who are willing to spend a bit of time and effort reflecting on their life will be able to put it into some sort of perspective, but that has to be tempered with the fact that we're often, to one degree or another, opaque to our own gaze. That's where family, friends, colleagues, counsellors and confidantes come in: as a potential source of a more objective insight. Not that I'd advise taking everything they say as meaningful or accurate - indeed, it'll sometimes be quite misleading - but experience, which is not necessarily synonymous with age, tends to allow one to sift out those who truly see and understand from those who don't.

One of the things my students learn about me very early on in their careers is that I am relatively easily diverted: all it takes is an interesting question for five or ten minutes of a lecture to disappear in a tangential discussion around some topic or other. Is this a problem? I don't think so, and judging by student feedback they don't either. We cover the required syllabus, but along the way we'll have indulged in a bit of fun within our chosen subject, and I'll hopefully have ignited not only a passion for its pursuit but also a confidence in their ability to contribute to the endeavour. Of course, what I've just done is illustrate the fact: I opened this post intending to write a brief note on my take on Imposter Syndrome in the context of my evolving week ...

There seemed to be a flurry of people writing on the topic during the past few months, but this may be another example of the distorting effect of Twitter. (I've become a bit of a Twitter addict since I set my account up a year or so ago - originally at the request of freelance journalist Carole Jahme in order to support her project defined by @shakesphere1 as "Pop-up street theatre for the #CulturalOlympiad and beyond. A synthesis of science from Shakespeare's realm and @STFC_Matters frontier science.Needless to say, I was there to cover the contemporary science, hence the reference to the Science & Technology Facilities Council. Herewith the second diversion; spot the pattern?) Notable contributors to the exploration of Imposter Syndrome have included Athene Donald, in two posts, and Hugh Kearnes. Beyond the fact that the concept resonated with me, and from a great many conversations I can be pretty sure that it's an umbrella heading that also has meaning to a significant proportion of the people I know, it caused me to ponder on its meaning and on its consequences. During this time I happened to stumble across a web site - by which I mean I read a tweet which included the URL - which claimed to analyze any given blog and return a Meyers-Briggs personality profile. Despite the fact that I regard this sort of profiling as being only marginally less useless than graphology or phrenology, it was too tempting to resist. 

Into the 'analysis' code went my blogs, and out came a profile declaring me to be of type INTP, which was associated with a graphic purporting to reveal the way my mind works. It'll take only a small amount of time on the internet to find well-argued cases against the claims made for 
Meyers-Briggs profiles, and to elaborate on its limitations here would be to get into a larger-than-average diversion. However, the picture summary and the text that went with it did serve a purpose of sorts. Rather like the input from friends etc. mentioned above, it promoted some reflection on how I might come over to those who read my various written bits-and-pieces. I've always loved reading, and came also to love writing from quite a young age. Indeed, one of the positive reasons for taking 'Flexible Retirement' was so that I'd have more time to write, especially in the context of being a scientist. Thus, almost irrespective of the ultimate value of the profile in terms of an assay of personality, it might, or so I thought, prove useful as a tool in the re-examination of my writing style in light of what it is I'm trying to convey to people. It's one thing to be described as logical and "attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges" and to be compared with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Yoda, which the web site's analysis offered, but quite another to be told that I may come over as "arrogant, impatient and insensitive". These are serious accusations, if taken that way. In truth, I may have forgotten the whole thing after that initial scan-read were it not for the fact that my wife read the profile, over my shoulder as it were, and then laughed - I mean really laughed, a lot. Oh dear. In fairness, the bit that caught her fancy was the phrase "Their ability to grasp complexity may also lead them to provide overly detailed explanations of simple ideas, and listeners may judge that the INTP makes things more difficult than they need to be", which pandered to a long-running source of amusement (for us both). However, despite the caveats, her reaction raised the analysis' profile sufficiently to pose some pertinent questions that I'll do well to hold on to as I try to explore what I can do in terms of written work: both in the area of public engagement with science and otherwise. It may be, for instance, that three decades of writing research papers and the like as a professional physicist has narrowed my vision and that, as a consequence, I need to exercise a few creative muscles that have atrophied. Time will tell.

What of the 'surprise' with which I opened this blog? Well, it's simply that having consciously planned to use my new part-time status in order to step up my levels of writing via local news media, maybe a bit of creative short-story fiction but initially through the blog purposefully set up for the purpose, I've found myself actually doing less than in many periods when I was working full-time. This has been for the best of reasons - some far more exciting, challenging and immediate opportunities presented themselves - but it's surprised me nonetheless. Add to that the effect of 'Imposter Syndrome' and some less-than-flattering descriptions of my writing and it's apparent that the real surprise is that I've actually returned to write another post after a two-month gap! Who knows, maybe now is the time to step up the pace; certainly there's a long list of topics scribbled onto scraps of paper awaiting my attention ...