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‘Make science communication more work and less hobby’

Young researchers met this month for the fifth Science Communication Summer School. ‘This is the first time some participants get to meet other researchers who also enjoy science communication. It’s great to see’, says Julia Cramer, one of the coordinators.

For a moment it seemed as though the fifth edition of the summer school would have to be a hybrid version, just like the years before. ‘In 2022 we got to meet in person for the first time in two years. It ended up being a hybrid edition when two participants tested positive at the end of the first day’, says Julia Cramer. This year it’s Storm Poly that hits, causing chaos to public transport services. In the end only a small number of the participants have to follow the day online, and most of the speakers and participants are able to reach the Van Steenis building after all.

Cramer has been involved with the summer school from the start. ‘My colleague Anne Land and I had the idea of helping young researchers with good science communication.’ The summer school was initially only for STEM researchers. ‘But the course proved to be a resounding success and we had more and more non-STEM researchers asking if they couldn’t join in.’ This is the first year that the summer school has been open to young researchers from all disciplines.

Snowball effect

What is most important, the participants are told, is to have a clear goal. ‘What do you want to achieve with your communication?’ says Cramer. ‘Who is your target group? Only then do you start thinking about what resources you want to use. Researchers often come along saying: “I want to make a YouTube film about quantum physics.” But what do you want to achieve by people watching your video?’

Various guest speakers have come to the summer school to talk about their work, such as science journalists, press officers and researchers who do science communication. One of them is researcher and entrepreneur Dan Jing Wu. She took part in the very first edition of the summer school and went on to become one of the Faces of Science, where she gives some idea of what her work as a young researcher entails through blogs, vlogs and public appearances. She now regularly features on the radio, the TV and in the newspapers. ‘Once the media have found you, it’s a kind of snowball effect’, she says.

But you do have to make a lot of sacrifices if you want to do science communication, she says. ‘It takes a lot of free time. Speaking on a radio show at the weekend or spending a whole day at a science festival for children in Friesland. But once you are there, it’s amazing to get school students interested in science. That’s something I missed out on when I was young. For me science had a stuffy image. I didn’t know it could also be fun.’

Dan Jing Wu on Universiteit van Nederland

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Wu did her PhD research into responsive materials that can be made with a 3D printer. These are smart materials that can communicate with human cells to get them to grow into healthy tissue. With this kind of research it’s important to have a clear story for the outside world, says Wu. ‘Take the resistance to the Covid vaccination. Imagine what will happen if we suddenly implant an artificial organ. That could be really shocking for people if they are not aware of what kind of studies are being done. We have to communicate clearly now so that people will grow with the scientific developments that will be used in hospitals in ten years’ time.

‘You have to try different forms to see what suits you best.’

Wu’s main message to the participants of the summer school? ‘Just do it! Many young researchers are afraid of taking centre stage. But you just have to start and experiment a lot to find your own way and concept.’ Each researcher has their own way of communicating, says Wu. ‘Take John Chase, who has become a science rapper. And Liza Cornet, who turns PhD dissertations into magazines. Or Sisters in Science, who use humour on social media to give an idea of life as a chemist. You have to try out different forms to find out what suits you best.’

Despite the importance of science communication, many researchers still have to do this in their free time. ‘Researchers are often on their own little islands when it comes to outreach’, says Cramer. ‘They meet like-minded people at the summer school and learn to explain why they do things in a certain way. And we discuss theories about the background of science communication. They then bring this knowledge to their work, which helps them justify what they do. We want to help make science communication more work and less hobby.’

Aftermovie Summer School Science Communication

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The annual Science Communication Summer School is organised by the Science Communication and Society department. The school was set up by Anne Land and Julia Cramer and is co-organised by Sanne Romp and Julie Schoorl.

Text: Tom Janssen
Banner photo: Science Communication Summer School participants 2023

Aftermovie: Paul Maarten Vis

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