Becoming a climate change communicator

Working away in the clean laboratory at Imperial College London during my PhD days. Photo: MAGIC Group, Imperial College London

Working away in the clean laboratory at Imperial College London during my PhD days. Photo: MAGIC Group, Imperial College London

From lab coat to laptop: making the switch from academia to science journalism is no easy feat.

Science has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. At school, my days were occupied by projects on sustainable space food and golden ratios in nature; at university, remote sensing and seismology on Mars; as a PhD student, geochemistry and climate change. I have always done science because I enjoy learning and understanding the world around me. I never really thought of doing anything else.

By the time I finished my second postdoc in climate modelling, however, I started to experience a slight feeling of discomfort. The switch from PhD to academia had gone smoothly and I was working with amazing people but I suddenly felt that I was not quite where I was meant to be. One problem was that I had always been interested in too many areas of climate science and I just couldn’t figure out how I could ever commit to one particular research area… what about everything else?

The early years of an academic career are tough. No longer a PhD student, one is expected to get straight onto the academic cursus honorum and on the right track for tenure or lectureship. I found that my background was a bit too broad for most of the postdocs I was interested in: there was always somebody more specialised than me, with exactly the right publication record and set of skills. There seemed to be little room for a climate lover who enjoyed doing a little bit of everything.

So I returned to the UK after a great postdoc in Beijing and started to think about where to go from there. I was not cut out for straight academia, so what could I do? And more importantly, what did I want to do?

Well, I loved science. And I loved talking about it too. As a PhD student and postdoc, I was very involved in teaching and public activities and always found talking to students and the public an exhilarating experience. I remember feeling so elated when someone came up to me at the end of my first public lecture at the Natural History Museum. In the lecture, I talked about how geologists can dig up climate information from rocks, which is what I had done during my PhD. A few people came to tell me they had really enjoyed it and it had made them understand things they always thought too complicated, or too boring.

I have done more similar events since then and realised that what I loved doing above anything was talk about science and convey my excitement to others.

So I decided that science communication was where I would go. Surely, a strong science background would come in handy when applying for communication jobs? I started applying for science communication positions everywhere. The more I did, the more convinced I was that this was where I was meant to be.

But the switch proved more difficult than I thought. In 12 months I applied for dozens of science communication positions without success, without even an interview. What was I doing wrong? I had a strong academic background, had worked with brilliant scientists, had a good publication record and was a regular public speaker. So what was I missing?

I realised that I had plenty of new skills to learn. What potential employers want to see is not science awards and lengthy publication lists but concrete evidence that one can communicate science. Writing on a CV that I was giving talks was not enough, there are so many other things that need to be developed, so many facets of science communication.

So I took myself to the mysterious blogosphere. As soon as I started looking I realised that there was an entire world of brilliant science posts, discussions, interviews, tweet debates and much much more… all a mouse click away! I also realised the importance of social media in science communication. Many things go through Twitter and information is exchanged with an extraordinary rapidity. Following famous science communicators, scientists, journalists and policy-makers is a fantastic way to keep up to date with all the new science communication developments and debates.

So I am trying to keep up to date with the world of climate science and science communication and to practice writing things down. It seems that, as with everything, the more you practice, the better it gets. I met a journalist last month who told me ‘Write everyday. You should get to the point where you feel uncomfortable if you haven’t written’. So that’s just what I have been doing, writing things for myself to keep my fingers moving and getting others’ opinion. My friend and I have started a climate change and environmental policy blog and I tentatively send articles off to websites and student papers.

I have more to learn before I find a science communication job but I think I am quite a few steps closer now than when I started looking a year ago, fresh from my postdoc. I am starting the MSc in Science Communication course here at Imperial in just a few days. I just cannot wait to start, to learn, improve my writing and other communication skills and to get thinking even more about how to convey the amazement I feel when I think of climate science.

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