Stage fright and communicating science

Working in the laboratory, analysing data with complicated software or writing a publication is mostly done in peace and silence, in other words: in isolation (except for frequent coffee breaks with other fellow freaks). However, there are some moments in my life as a biologist, during which I enter the stage and face the public, in the name of Science Communication.

One of my colleagues recently joined a cinema event during which she was asked by a surprised person if scientists really watch movies. The picture of scientists experimenting in their dark little chambers, completely detached from reality seems to prevail in society. Why do not more scientists speak to the public about their findings, share their results with everybody? People crave for information, are curious about exciting topics, listen concentrated when we speak. It isn’t the public’s fault that science communication is so limited. The public IS READY. So, are researchers simply too lazy or careless about science communication? Do they prefer to nerd around within the scientific community instead of informing the world about important scientific findings in an easily understandable language? The simple answer is: no! It’s more complex than that.

One fact to name in this context is that we scientists are trained for problem solving, analytical skills, critical thinking but certainly not for being on stage! Many biologists (likely also true for other disciplines) are getting seriously nervous about giving talks in seminars or at conferences. Some of us barely sleep and eat before such an event because it is very different from our usual tasks. Conference talks are however still much more related to our work than being on a real stage, talking to a broad audience and perhaps being recorded for later presentation on YouTube. Whoever tried these formats of science communication knows how stressful and mentally strenuous such an outreach talk can be.

Since I love the idea of science communication, I took part several times in outreach formats that serve both purposes: inform and entertain. The latest event is only few weeks ago and took place in a theatre in Basel. All eight researchers were given the possibility to have a stage rehearsal under real sound and light conditions. When I entered the stage, found my little cross on the floor of the stage to indicate my position and lifted my head to face the audience (empty chairs of course, it was just a rehearsal), I found myself being blinded so much by the lights, which are also damn hot (sweat running!) that I lost orientation, focus and my text. “Well done Cari, I could be sitting on the sofa watching Netflix and be cozy and without worries. Why did I do this to myself? Agaaaaiiin?”

Professional setup at the outreach event diss:kurs organised by the Graduate Center University of Basel.

In the end all of us managed to calm down our nerves and to give a (hopefully) inspiring presentation. It was a fantastic experience overall, much appreciated by everyone involved. But one thing is for sure, it was not as easy as spending my free time in front of Netflix!

The word free time is crucial to get to the core problem of science communication. It is in most cases ABSOLUTELY UNPAID. Imagine, spending lots of time in preparing a thoughtful and impactful presentation, joining workshops on presentation practices and take the time to join the whole day event. This takes time away from our working hours. Most of us cannot afford this and thus use their free time to do science communication or do over hours to compensate for the absence in the office. This is not okay! And the fact that science communication is not financially appreciated must change. It’s not only the public who is ready. We are ready for it as well. States, universities, industry…let’s spend some money to develop this important communication between scientists and the public. Let’s pull science communication out of the shadow and bring it back into the spotlight!

I don’t know who chose this picture to represent my video. I look like I drank several glasses of Prosecco too much. Which I did after but I swear not before the talk. Enjoy and learn about how curiosity affects our beautiful biodiversity.

Published by caribiologist

Postdoc at the University of Basel, Switzerland

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