As a fresh-faced 21 yr old, I did a one-year placement at a pharmaceutical company as a synthetic chemist – a position that involves a lot of what is remarkably like cooking but with ‘reagents’ (fancy word for chemicals) instead of ingredients, making potential drugs instead of cakes. I loved the placement, I loved the work and I loved the people so I set about on the pathway to getting back in to the industry. It’s eight years on, I have the qualifications to do the role, I’m applying for jobs and I’m starting to wonder ‘Is this what I want to do? and 'Can I use all the skills I've learnt elsewhere?’

This blog is going to cover my research into what scientists like me are qualified to do that’s not in the laboratory. I’ll do my best to reference websites and people that actually do these jobs and hopefully I can help some people out by sharing what I’m learning. It’ll probably be interspersed with anecdotes and rants from the lab so you can see why I'm leaving this ‘unique’ environment! If you read this, think it’s useful/funny/worth reading, pass on the link – I’d love to know if I’m any good at this writing lark.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The kindness of strangers

I wanted to write this post as a kick up the bum to anyone who is stuck in a rut and a thank-you to all the lovely people* who helped me try something completely different last week.

A few weeks before Christmas I tweeted that I was applying for lots of public facing science-based stuff…
Out of the blue, @Science_Grrl got in touch and said they’d happily put me in touch with someone in London who might be able to give me some careers advice/tips. I’ve never had anything to do with Science_Grrl. They’re an organisation that is fundamentally focused on fairness in society and this is manifested around the encouragement and promotion of girls and women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sectors. Of course, my situation fits the bill but I didn’t expect help from complete strangers in this way.

After work, on a Tuesday in the new year, I met up with their contact. Again, this person* had no obligation to help me out and yet they were spending extra hours after their working day to listen to me and give really helpful advice and words of support. It turned out that I’d met this person at a conference and that helped break the ice (I’d inadvertently stolen her friend's phone and she helped me give it back). She was really knowledgable about the area and very friendly. Apart from encouraging some of my ideas, she also suggested that I get in touch with all the departments at my institution that deal with public engagement. Her recommendation was that whilst internships and jobs are competitive, a good way to get some insight into new careers is to simply go and see what people do for a day.

The next morning I had a meeting with the Head of Department about setting up a blog and Twitter account for the department (something I’d not had the courage to bring up before) and sent out emails to Outreach, Public Engagment, Widening Participation and our Marketting department. I basically set out my interests, who I was and asked if I could perhaps spend a day shadowing them. Most got back to me pretty quickly with suggestions of who else I should speak to or explanations that watching them work would not be that exciting. However, our (lovely) public engagement department informed me that although watching them read and send hundreds of emails would be quite dull, I could potentially sit in on their following day of meetings with the Francis Crick Institute (aka 'The Crick') the next day. The Crick is a consortium of research organisations that will investigate cutting edge medical research as a partnership. Eventually they'll be based in King's Cross, London, but before they've built the institute itself they are running the Science Museum Lates in February and, as one of the Crick’s partners, some KCL research groups are presenting their work to the public. After checking with all the involved participants, I was allowed to ‘lurk’ at these meetings. This was quite exciting for me as the Science Museum has featured rather heavily in some recent life choices! I won’t spoil the surprises but there’s going to be some really exciting and entertaining work demonstrated at the event and I’d urge you all to go. It will be focussed on the future of biomedical discovery and will therefore be relevant to everyone as new advances and developments in medicine will effect us all, scientist or not.

During my public-engagement-sponsored loitering, not only did I get an insight into some of the varied work going on at my institution, something that is often surprisingly rare, but I also got to understand more about the logistics of such big public engagement projects.

The KCL public engagement department representative* wasn’t just there as a mediator but asked insightful questions to ensure that the real scientific messages weren’t lost in attention grabbing (but scientifically dubious) titles and experiments. Fundamentally, their experience lies in these events and they made sure that the researchers kept ‘on-message’ for the event and didn’t just present their research how they wanted to. This is a key point: If we want to discuss our reseach with the public, which I think we should, then we need to come at it from their point of view – What do they want to know about it? What are the key messages for them? This will probably not be them same as the key messages you want to get across for a journal but more general, although more concise and more about, dare I use the word, the impact of your research – i.e. Who cares?

A lot of question at the meetings focussed on logistics – Will I be on a stage looking down towards an audience or on one level? What equipment do you need? How many electrical sockets can I have? These questions were all tied up in how they could best present their ideas tailored to the event. It’s all very well to have an elaborate set-up but, if you have 45 minutes to prepare and it all needs to come home with you on the tube, you might rethink your plan to erect an intricate version of the large hadron collider made entirely out of cheese…. (BTW:I would fund this and would recommend halloumi - sculptable yet with some 'give')

With less than 90 minutes between meetings, the representatives from the Crick hotfooted it back to their offices in Euston on the bus and then all the way back to Waterloo. I got the impression that they’re really busy and commited to pouring their efforts into making this a very exciting event (see previous comment about 'You should definitely go').

In one meeting, I finally met a member of staff* who is heavily involved in all things public engagement/outreach-y in my wider department. She was exhausted from her involvement in getting an experiment sent into space the night before but was full of energy and enthusiasm for her next project. Before I’d left, she’d offered to let me get involved in another outreach event in March – timed to ensure that I could still be involved if my contract doesn’t get extended. Yet again, someone was going out of their way to help me and give me some advice. I was really touched.

I spent my lunch break meeting a Twitter-friend* (in person!) who gave up their lunch break to talk about our similar situations. Eye-opening and  helpful for both of us, I had planned to not be in the lab but everyone I spoke to that day had not expected to have me drop in unannounced and uninvited and yet had still made time for me.

Throughout the day I did my best to interfere as little as possible. It was difficult not to ask questions and comment and I did give in and interject here and there, when I thought it was appropriate.  I was really pleased to see the enthusiasm from some corners regarding public engagement within the university and it’s great to see that King’s is doing it’s bit to make sure that people know who we are and what we do. It was quite obvious that there are some people who do an awful lot of public engagement activities. And then there are the others. That seems to be a recurrent issue and there’s no point in making people do public facing activities that aren’t interested in doing it. This attitude will come across when they speak to people and won’t help anyone. However, what I’d like to see, in my department and university, and at others, is more awareness internally of what is going on. I had no idea that we were involved in experiments in space or that we’d been at Pint of Science. Our public engagement team do a great job in connecting those who can do public engagement with the event organisers but they’ve said themselves that they have to use their contacts in departments to get things done. This means that the same people end up doing the events time and time again. If students and staff realised what was going on both department and university wide, and supervisors realised the power of public engagement as a way of re-energising and training their students/staff (and not as a favour for ‘letting them out of the lab’) I think this would benefit everyone. The usual suspects would be able to turn things down and get some sleep, the rest of us could pick up the slack and learn something new, and even the university benefits from getting its ‘face’ out there. I’d also hope that some of us might remember why we started in these careers - We actually like science!

My 'take home message' today is that if your interested in doing some work with the public, be that at schools, museums or festivals, tell your public engagment department, tell your Head of Department and pretty soon you'll probably find an exhausted (but fulfilled) member of staff who's more than happy to let you help.

Anyway, I've got to go, I've got an event to plan...

N.B. If you're already doing something with the public, make sure your institution knows about it as well, a big problem for co-ordinating this sort of work is that we tend to keep things 'extra-curricular' under our hats. By doing this, you make it seem like it's unusual and not worthy of promotion.

*I haven't named the kindly folk who helped me out this week as I don't want them to be inundated with requests for help that they will be too nice to turn down. Also, they're my friendly strangers - get your own!

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