Communicating physics is an art, said Dr. Martyn Bull, scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and chair of the inaugural Institute of Physics Early Career Communicator Awards, which took place on the 8th of November at the London Institute of Physics (IOP). If that’s true, then the four finalists were modern masters with very different styles.
Alok Jha, science correspondent for The Guardian, opened the event by casting forth his own perspective on science communication in the media. He aspires for a world where science would be something people would miss hearing about, should science reporting stop, and where the economic impact of science doesn’t need to be the most popular point of communicators and politicians.
In a dizzyingly fast talk, the first finalist, Dr. Aude Alapini Odunlade whirled us from her past and present life as an enthusiastic astrophysicist and science communicator. 2006 had been the year of a solar eclipse in Benin, an event which Aude had seized as an excellent research project opportunity for her class. Here she saw an opportunity to engage the local community, by discussing the mythology and cultural beliefs of the solar eclipse, and then engaging them in the scientific explanations behind it. Alongside engagement, inspiration, and friendship, Aude’s work has a further key concept – accessibility. She has spurred partnership between schools in Benin, France, and the UK, opening up the chance to share research, communication, and scientific experiments.
Next up was Martin Archer, PhD student in space physics at Imperial College London. Martin leads a double life as a scientist who researches the magnetosphere, and as a DJ with regular slots on Kiss FM. This dual expertise has presented him with the perfect inspiration for his brand of science outreach: DJPhysics, a live show that uses a virtual DJ booth as a platform to explain concepts in physics to school students, alongside dramatic demonstrations. With an eye for appropriate but unusual analogies, Martin makes his science communication powerfully relevant and memorable. He has, for example, developed interactive exhibits such as the ‘elasticband’ magnetosphere experiment at this year’s Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition, and produced science videos featuring strange sights such as throwing peanuts at a campfire to explain how scientists detect hidden planets. He has created Droppin’ Science podcasts to package physics and music, written articles and appeared on news channels as a science consultant. Martin is a tour de force of modern media, personality, and presentation power.
The third contender was Rhys Phillips, a research engineer for EADS who specialises in lightning strikes on aeroplanes. Through voluntary work at local schools in Cardiff, Rhys had realised that many students had no idea what distinguished physics from the general field of ‘science’. In response, he developed a school workshop for the Monmouth Science Initiative. The Lego challenge is a hands-on workshop for schoolchildren that takes them through the steps of an engineering project, from planning, budgeting, building, testing, and to debriefing. Rhys is strongly involved in voluntary work as a STEM Ambassador for STEMNET, and presents physics communication at many schools, always tailoring presentations to suit each audience. He regularly features STEM Ambassadors on his weekly science show for Radio Cardiff, Pythagoras’ Trousers. This is in addition to taking part in an online science engagement competition, volunteering for the Big Bang Roadshow, science festivals, and setting up the Cardiff Science Festival. By the time Rhys has mentioned starting a live stage show, Pythagorean Cabaret, anything seems possible.
Wrapping up the event came particle physicist Dr. Suzie Sheehy, vowing to explain 10 years of her life in 10 minutes. Suzie was deviated from the path of structural engineering by a stimulating lecturer, Dr. Roger Rassool, whose philosophy she sums up in a memorable quote- “I’m not here to teach you. I’m here to entertain and inspire you.” While studying at the University of Melbourne, Suzie became a presenter for The Science and Laser Show, a travelling show of physics for schoolchildren. The combination of performance, teamwork, and inspiration changed her forever. Alongside her PhD at Oxford University, Suzie developed Accelerate!, an interactive show about the science behind particle accelerators. The show was a powerful success and has featured at major science events such as the British Science Festival and Big Bang Fair, and continues to be an official fixture of Oxford University. Suzie is now developing her skills in presenting as a regional finalist for Famelab 2011, blogging, and has created her new public lecture, ‘Accelerated Dreams’.
But there could be only one winner. Or could there? After discussion, the judges announced two winners: Rhys Phillips, for his range of activities and initiative in starting new ones, and Aude Alapini Odunlade, for her high impact and far-reaching scheme to support budding scientists and teachers. By the end of the event, the IOP had presented its audience with two winners, four impressive finalists, a lot of energy, and a lot of fun.
Annabel Slater graduated from the MSc in Science Media Production in 2009