By Rachel Burnett, Education and Public Engagement Officer, Biochemical Society
We have interviewed our panel of expert judges for the Science Communication Competition series, to find out more about their career paths into science communication, and tips for those just starting out in this area. This post is by Dr Barry Gibb, Science Multimedia Producer at The Wellcome Trust.
- What did you study at University? Why did you choose to study it?
For me, it was a degree in biochemistry – the only subject able to explain, at a fundamental level, how life somehow manages to organise itself from disorganised chemicals to organised thought. Mind blowing. Towards the end of the degree, I ended up working in a lab tasked with trying to understand more about a particular type of protein anchoring. The carrot dangled before me was – ‘if we can figure this out, we might be able to treat malaria!’ Alas, we still have malaria.
- How did you get into science communication?
Entirely by accident and, to this day, I still struggle with thinking of myself as a ‘science communicator’. Somehow, over time and by aggressively pursuing my fascination with people and science, I morphed into a filmmaker. The fact that most of the stories I try to tell contain science is simply a manifestation of how much I enjoy thinking about the machinations of life and the Universe.
- What type of science communication do you do?
Writing was how I started – driven by a desire to creatively and entertainingly tackle emerging areas of science. I never ‘dumbed it down’ (terrible phrase) and never wrote from a position of feeling that people ‘needed to know’ something; what I did do was try to write something my non-scientific parents would understand. After writing The Rough Guide to the Brain, I got deeper into film. In the early days, I used to present my own short films before quickly moving onto filming other people. There is no other activity I’ve found that matches the creative and intellectual rigor than planning, shooting and editing a film to tell a richly layered story.
- Who do you work with in your role as a science communicator?
The best thing about this job is that I’m able to work with people from all backgrounds – one minute I’m having a chat with a professor about his team’s ambitions and breakthroughs, the next I’m talking with a parent about the genetic condition their child has or working with artists, trying to tease out their creative process. The subjects and people are as limitless as life.
- What do you love about science communication?
I don’t love science communication so much as I love life. What I do is try to express the sense of awe I feel at this life via film. Life is a bizarre, poetic, complicated and beautiful thing – sharing that sense of wonder is deeply satisfying.
- What don’t you love about science communication?
If it’s not obvious by now, the term, ‘science communication’ and the baggage it seems to carry. The sense of worthiness that seems to follow it around. There’s a fine line between sharing great stories about what we call science and being patronising – coming from a position of feeling people ‘should’ know something or that they’ll be ‘better off’ if they only know more about some subject. It’s less about imparting information and more about telling stories we can all relate too.
- What has been your favourite science communication project?
Easy! Routes – this was an online fusion of documentary, comedy – featuring the brilliant Katherine Ryan – online gaming and drama. It was a remarkable learning experience and pushed me to be a better filmmaker.
- What are the potential next steps from your current role?
The thing about film is that you must be true to yourself. If you start trying to make films like someone else, you’re lost. By doing so, I think this is how one progresses. I’ve discovered I love making observational documentaries, often featuring science, so that’s my path. Whether my films end up on the internet or TV feels increasingly irrelevant – what matters is being able to make films you are proud of, that stand the test of time. If you do this, you’ll get noticed by the right people.
- Any tips for people wishing to enter your career area?
As ever, you need to actually do something, you need to find out whether you like making films and you need something to show people that you may be trying to convince to give you a job. So take the plunge, get a camera – do it! Learn if you prefer planning, shooting or editing. Maybe you like all three. There are so many online resources between Vimeo, nofilmschool, Philip Bloom, etc. that there is no excuse for not giving it a try. Your first work will be a bit rubbish but you will learn and improve.
More ‘Science communicators in the spotlight’ to follow soon, as part of our Science Communication Competition series!