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GeoTalk: Bárbara Ferreira – reflections on a science communication career with EGU

GeoTalk: Bárbara Ferreira – reflections on a science communication career with EGU

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Bárbara Ferreira, EGU’s Media and Communications Manager. Bárbara has been an integral part of the EGU since September 2011, from coordinating science communication between the Union, journalists and the public at large, to overseeing many of EGU’s outreach activities, such as Planet Press, the EGU Public Lecture and the mentoring programme.

She’ll soon be starting an exciting opportunity at the European Southern Observatory, but before she goes, we’ve asked her to reflect on some of her most memorable times with EGU.  

Before we get stuck in, could you introduce yourself and tell us more about your career path? How did you first get into science communication and outreach?

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I had a natural sciences’ teacher at school (in Leiria, Portugal, where I’m from) who taught us astronomy and encouraged us to ask as many questions as we wanted in class. Even though I was one of those teenagers who are generally too shy to ask questions, I loved that we could query him about what we were learning to our hearts’ content. So that’s how I decided I wanted to be an astronomer.

That lasted until about halfway through my PhD (Mathematical Astrophysics, Cambridge, UK), when I learnt what it was actually like to work in astronomy. I found that what I enjoyed the most was writing papers – because they helped me put my research into a broad context, – and giving talks – because I got to present my work to others. I found that I liked to communicate science more than doing science, and I preferred to have a broad overview about many topics than to have deep knowledge about one small area of research.

I continued (and finished) my PhD, but since I was already pretty certain I did not want to stay in research, I started looking around for ways to get experience in science communication. I went to science writing and science communication workshops, I wrote for a couple of science magazines associated with the University of Cambridge, I did an internship at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology in London, I taught a summer science course to school students, I started a science blog, and I did some freelance work as a science editor. The experience I gained eventually helped me land an internship in science journalism at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), near Munich. These varied short-term stints helped me trial out different forms of science communication and outreach so that I could figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to do.

What motivated you to be a part of the EGU office? 

After a couple of months at my ESO internship, I knew I wanted to be an institutional science communicator and I knew I had the experience and skills to look for a longer-term position. And after having travelled to and lived in quite a few countries in the previous year, I also knew I wanted to stay put. So the opportunity to be a science communicator at the EGU office in Munich fitted like a glove. I have to say I had never heard about the EGU before, coming as I did from an astronomy rather than a geoscience background, but the more I read about the organisation, the more excited I got about the possibility of landing that job. I especially liked that the EGU covered so many different scientific subjects, which meant there was potential to learn about research in subjects from earthquakes and volcanoes to biogeosciences and climate science. The fact that EGU organises the largest geoscience conference in Europe and publishes so many open access journals were also motivating factors to apply.

The EGU Executive Office staff in 2012, celebrating the Union’s 10th anniversary at the Munich headquarters. From left to right: Edvard Glücksman (Science Communications Fellow), Karen Resenberger (Secretary), Philippe Courtial (Executive Secretary), Bárbara Ferreira (Media and Communications Officer).

In your eight years of working with EGU, in what ways have you seen the Union grow the most?

So many ways! Brace yourselves for a long answer!

I guess I should start by talking about how much more the EGU does in terms of communication and outreach now than when I started. There was one EGU blog back then, and a Twitter account, but they focused mostly on the General Assembly. There were press conferences at the meeting, but no press releases year-round nor much in terms of policy or public engagement activities. Now we have a very popular and successful EGU blog and some 20 division and network blogs, we have multiple active social media accounts (like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) with more than 60,000 followers combined, and many of our divisions and journals have a presence on a number of social networks. We now have a more modern logo and website, with new content every week/day, and a monthly newsletter that brings that content to EGU members at the end of each month. We have highlight articles and press releases that regularly bring research published in EGU journals to broader audiences. We have a dynamic press centre at the General Assembly with press conferences that highlight science presented at the meeting to a growing number of journalists and members of the public. In the new Imaggeo, we have a modern home for some of the most beautiful geoscience images around the web. We have public engagement events, in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe, we offer public engagement grants and science journalism fellowships, and organise a number of activities to bring scientists and policymakers together.  And so much more (really, check the various sections of the EGU website!), all thanks to the hard work of volunteer EGU officers, especially past and current members of the Outreach Committee, and staff at the EGU office, including past employees.

Growing our communication and engagement efforts was also possible because the EGU was growing in other ways (growth that is now supported by a long-term strategy).

The EGU General Assembly went from about 11,200 participants at my first meeting in 2012 to over 16,000 this year. And it became more engaged with society too, with more sessions, and a lot more interest from participants, in science for policy, science communication, and science education, not to mention an artists in residence programme.

The same can be said of EGU publications, five of which were launched after I started, including one on Geoscience Communication. The awards and medals the EGU gives out grew too, with the addition of the Katia and Maurice Krafft Award for geoscience outreach and engagement, and the Angela Croome Award, for Earth, space and planetary sciences journalism.

The EGU also gained a committee in the past eight years, the Topical Events Committee (which did not exist as a stand-alone committee before), and with it came new conference series, new training schools, and the Galileo Conferences. And we gained a working group, focused on the ever-more important issues of diversity and equality in (geo)science.

Last but not the least, the EGU grew immensely in the ways in which it represents and supports early career scientists who now have a permanent contact point at the EGU office, have representation in Council, and have representation at division level in nearly all divisions.

What’s something about the EGU that you wish more people knew about?

How much time, effort and dedication people who work voluntarily for the Union put into it. At present, there are only seven employees at the EGU office. And, yes, our long-term, symbiotic partners Copernicus, who have far more employees than we do, support us greatly, handling the EGU General Assembly logistics and publishing the EGU journals. But everything else, from defining the scientific programme of the EGU General Assembly to evaluating proposals to EGU conferences or grants and coordinating and managing improvements in EGU publications, is (mostly) done by volunteers. I wish more people knew how much time these volunteers, together with EGU and Copernicus staff, spend carefully examining and discussing feedback people provide on EGU activities, namely the EGU General Assembly, to make sure we can fix what’s wrong the following year and improve what’s right. How much enthusiasm is put into organising the GIFT programme for teachers, or discussing new and exciting education and outreach activities. How much effort is put into promoting open access and interactive public peer-review.

Aside from that, I wish more people knew that we are so much more than a conference and do so much outside of the EGU General Assembly: read my answer to the previous question if you haven’t yet!

As part of your role, you highlight new research published in EGU journals through press releases year-round and press conferences at the EGU General Assembly. What have been some of the most memorable releases and press conferences to you?

One of the most memorable press releases we’ve published was a story on hair ice. It was not groundbreaking science, but it was a curious piece of research about a type of ice you can see in some places under certain weather conditions, usually in winter. The paper happened to come out in the middle of summer, and I thought not many journalists would report on it, so I decided to post the release on Reddit, to give it an extra boost. I’d done it with other releases before, without much success, but that one took off. By the time I looked at the Redddit thread again, there were hundreds of comments about how cool the phenomenon was, how much hair ice resembled a certain US politician’s hair, and about Reddit’s “hug of death”. The release reached the Reddit frontpage and the EGU website crashed with so many visitors trying to access the page in a short time. We had another release reach the frontpage recently, but the hair ice story is still by far our most popular in terms of number of pageviews.

The EGU General Assembly 2017 Press Centre with (from left to right) Keri McNamara, Kai Boggild, Bárbara Ferreira, Hazel Gibson and Laura Roberts Artal.

At the General Assembly, there were many popular and memorable press conferences. I think two stories stand out in particular because they were sort of quirky and unique and I knew, as soon as I read the abstracts, that they would be hits with journalists. One was a presentation by Paul Williams back in 2013 about research done by him and Manoj Joshi on climate change increasing turbulence on transatlantic flights. Everyone knows that aviation contributes to climate change, but finding out that climate change could impact aviation was somewhat surprising, and I think that’s why the story was so popular. Another memorable story was ‘Screaming clouds’, a presentation given by Helene Muri on behalf of Svein Fikke, who lead research on how mother-of-pearl clouds may have inspired the iconic Scream by painter Edvard Munch. I randomly found that abstract in the 2017 General Assembly programme by searching for the word “painting”.

What has been some of your favorite parts of working with EGU? What will you be missing the most?

I will miss the people the most. I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with amazingly talented and dedicated individuals during the past 8 years, who also happen to be incredibly nice and good people. Having the chance to work together with EGU office and Copernicus staff, EGU past and present volunteers and the regulars at the General Assembly press centre has probably been the best part of working with EGU.

I will miss the science too. It could be depressing at times to write about yet another paper or feature yet another abstract highlighting all the different ways in which humans are affecting our planet, but it was also rewarding to have the opportunity to bring that ever-more important research to broader audiences. And I’ve loved having the chance to learn and write about topics as varied as glacial geoengineering, water’s role in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, or great-earthquake hotspots.

Now it’s time to go back to astronomy.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

GeoTalk: Creative communication for science education – meet scientific artist Kelly Stanford

GeoTalk: Creative communication for science education – meet scientific artist Kelly Stanford

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Kelly Stanford, an artist based in Manchester, UK who focuses on creating works of art that embody scientific concepts in an accessible and aesthetically pleasing manner which can be used to communicate science to the public. Here we talk to her about her career path into science art (SciArt) and science communication (SciComm), her recent projects, lessons learned as a science communicator, and more!

Hi Kelly, thanks for talking to me today! To start off, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I’m a scientific artist/illustrator based in Manchester, in the UK, who uses art as a form of science communication. My academic background was originally History of Art which I did as an undergrad at the University of Manchester (my dissertation was on Eduardo Paolozzi’s Turing Suite – a series of overlooked prints themed around the life of Alan Turing and technological progress), before I focused my career path exclusively to SciArt and SciComm after I graduated.

My practices have always been rooted in science and art, so I wanted to continue to develop these during my time at university.  During my time in Manchester, I started to network and collaborate with scientists from the university’s physics department in order to develop my work further. I was amazed at how accommodating the university was towards interdisciplinary work; I had access to labs so I could experiment with new materials and figure out how to incorporate them into my work. This eventually this led to me collaborating with the National Graphene Institute, which is currently in the process of hanging my art up around the building for permanent exhibition, plus some future projects with other departments too.

All my work is freelance so I get to work on a diverse range of stuff. Most of the time I will be commissioned by a scientist and then we will work closely together to realise their project ideas (like an educational card game) and other times I set my own personal projects to work on with companies (such as public art sculptures).

How did you first get interested in SciArt and SciComm?

I first got interested in SciArt during my college days. The SciComm element came later as I noticed that the pieces I made in the studio space led to numerous people asking me about their inspiration and general science questions.  A few fellow students pointed out that I was able to break topics down and simplify them so that even those from non-science backgrounds could understand the subject. I also noticed that they were taking note of science in the news more after our discussions and looking things up. Eventually this led to us projecting NASA live streams onto the studio wall during lessons, much to the dismay of our skeptical art professor. It really made me focus on SciArt’s inherent SciComm potential so it became a main focus during and after my university days to develop it further.

One of your most recent works is Science Pusheen: where you create illustrations of the cartoon cat Pusheen in various STEM roles. What was your inspiration and goal for this project, and what has been the response so far?

Originally, I made them as a bit of fun in between my main work and as a response to the lack of positive STEM representation in cartoon media. I was disappointed that there was no science-themed Pusheen’s (not even a simple lab technician) so I made my own! The project started as a set of four basic drawings I made on my iPad and uploaded to my Twitter (@TheLabArtist), I had no idea they’d blow up as much as they did. I let people use the illustrations so they’re now being incorporated into classrooms, labs, presentations and outreach events!

I now take requests for science fields to cover in the project – I’m aiming to cover most science fields so that everyone has their own Pusheen. Geoscientific fields gets requested a lot so I’ve already made a few covering this area. I’m currently working on a climate scientist and communicator Pusheen as we speak!

In your opinion, why is having STEM representation in media (such as your Pusheen cartoons) important?

STEM is a part of everyday life so I feel that people should be made more aware of it. I also think science has these cultural stereotypes where you have to be a certain type of person to be a scientist, which isn’t the case. I believe anyone can get involved with STEM, so the more representation in popular media these fields get hopefully the more normalized it will become.

Besides Science Pusheen, you have been involved in a number of other projects, from designing science education themed card games to creating science communication sculptures! What have been some of your favorite projects recently?

Well one of my favorites was the ‘STEM Bee’ science communication sculpture I made for the Bee in the City last year in Manchester. The STEM Bee was a 1.8 metre tall bee sculpture that was embellished with imagery from Manchester research papers, portraits of famous scientists, science facts, a list of the city’s scientific achievements and the signatures of roughly 80 local researchers (including a Nobel Prize winner!). The signatures were a nice touch as it represented current-day research being done in the city, rather than just focusing on the historical stuff. It also allowed me to meet and collaborate with a whole bunch of researchers from different backgrounds.

The bee was outside Manchester Oxford Road train station (one of the main ones in the city) for two months so loads of people got to see it. I worked with my sponsor, ARUP (engineering firm behind the Sydney Opera House) to promote the project through free posters/postcards and a free DIY Bee Hotel guide which was unlockable via a QR code on the bee’s base. Eventually my sculpture was auctioned off and raised an amazing £22,000 for local charities – SciComm and charity fundraising in one!

At the start of the year I collaborated with Chris Skinner a research fellow at the University of Hull, UK, to design a flood defense card game he created called ‘Resilience’ for the University of Hull’s SeriousGeoGames Lab. My job was to design all of the graphics (card layout, branding and the card artwork); it was a really fun project and was great seeing the test version shown at this year’s EGU conference. We want to work on the game some more, tweaking a few things to make it play better and even introduce some special cards ready for EGU2020!

More recently, I’ve just finished making two more SciComm sculptures, this time gorillas for the Jersey Zoo, on the island of Jersey in the English Channel.  The first is more of a fun one for children that’s themed around space and glows in the dark. The other is dedicated to Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo and the Durrell Conservation Trust. Gerald was crucial in influencing change in how zoos worldwide operate, shifting from a mere attraction to an ‘ark’ where endangered species are conserved for repopulation purposes. He was also a massive influence for future wildlife presenters such as David Attenborough. It’s an honor to be commissioned for such a piece and I hope my sculpture does a good job at communicating Durrell’s importance in species conservation!

You also have given workshops teaching different scientific topics through art and discussing how art can be used as an effective tool for science communication. What strategy do you use and impart to educators when it comes to teaching science through art?

I try to create a calm environment in the classroom and don’t exert too much pressure on the students during lessons. If you exert too much pressure (which is becoming a major problem in UK schools), they’ll be too stressed to take anything in. The main objective is for them to have fun, learn some interesting facts and come away with a physical object that they’ve made. In my recent workshop I got a school of 150 students to create their own illustrated ecology books focused on a creature of their choice and its habitat, complete with annotations. The workshop not only got them to do research ecology research, but it also produced something they can take home and look at. I find that visual learning such as the SciArt workshops is great in that the art helps reinforce the science subject its themed around and it can also be therapeutic and boost creativity.

What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned as a scientific artist? What advice would you impart to aspiring science communicators?

Just dive in head first – as science communicators our job is to find new, unthought of methods of science outreach. So, don’t be afraid of trying new things, even if it’s outside of your discipline. Sometimes starting as an outsider and working inward can give you a good insight on how to help others do the same.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

You can learn more about Kelly Stanford as well as her ongoing and past projects via her website: https://www.kellystanford.co.uk/. You can follow her work on twitter via @TheLabArtist.