A new era in my scientific career after the British Science Festival (BSF)

Beltane fellow Dr. Yolanda Fernandez Diez shares how public engagement has changed her career.

Yolanda at The Big Bang 2013 in June

Yolanda at The Big Bang in Glasgow, June 2013

Welcome. In the next lines you will discover my experiences at the British Science Festival (BSF) held in Aberdeen 4-9 September 2012. I will also tell you what happened next and how it has changed my career within Academia. Hope my story is found interesting and useful for the professional development of others.

Everything started in July 2012 when I was working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham. My research is in the area of Chemical Engineering, and more precisely I work on a new energy system based on “recycling” carbon dioxide emissions into fuels. This is an exciting process but tricky sometimes. The fact is that I received an email advertising the BSF in the city of Aberdeen. I had no idea what the BSF was, although considering my short period in UK at that time that may be understandable. My curiosity was aroused with the bursary packets offered by the Graduate School of Nottingham University to attend the event. The funding was competitive, based on the applicants CV and a short film of no more than 3 minutes duration answering three questions. After having a look at the BSF program, filled with such a variety of activities and so different from what I was used to doing, I said to myself: why don´t I go for a bursary? – I am happy I tried….and got it!

I attributed this [lack of interest] to either little understanding or experience of my field or a higher interest in other topics. However, in retrospect I can say now that, perhaps, they have never been correctly engaged on the subject.

I travelled to Aberdeen with a positive sense of anticipation and the hope of a new challenge and interest. The welcome reception was my first contact with the other bursary winners. I suddenly found myself surrounded by PhD students so excited about the event and talking with such an enthusiasm about things, that I felt like a student again. It was a great opportunity to chat about our personal reasons to attend the BSF, and discover different scientific backgrounds. During our conversations, some of the students showed an interest about my field of research. Depending on their reactions, I felt differences between them. Some asked me more questions because they wanted to know more, some struggled to understand my explanations, and others showed a lack of interest in field. In the last case, I attributed this to either a little understanding or experience of my field or a higher interest in other topics. However, in retrospect I can say now that, perhaps, they have never been correctly engaged on the subject.

The following day I started my BSF journey with a detailed schedule highlighted in the BSF program. The activities I picked were varied in terms of topic and nature. In terms of topic, I was quite interested in energy and engineering related activities given that is my research area. However, I was also keen to explore new research areas, mainly related to life sciences, education, psychology and communication. I ascribe this choice to my lifelong interest in how the human mind functions. In terms of nature, the program was full of different activities including workshops, talks, debates, drop-in activities, exhibitions, trips, tours, evening events, performances and monologues. I had organized my time in such a way that I would be able to attend all types of these activities during the week. The reasons for this were to improve;

  1. my personal communication skills
  2. my understanding of different ways to deliver information.
Could I be able to exhibit my research to the general public? Would it be understood? Would it be fun?

My first activity was a workshop called “Meet the Expert Training”. It is here where I understand for the first time the meaning of Public Engagement (PE) and am given tips on how to engage the public with my research. To be honest, it was the first time I heard about this term, since in my country of origin (Spain) “Divulgación Científica” (in English it could be ´Scientific Disclosure”) is the term that comes closest to PE, but I understand it has different connotations. Other activities such as talks, debates and evening events were an excellent opportunity to approach experts and observe their behavior and skills when talking to different publics about their respective research fields. In most cases, I appreciate a high level of creativity in their presentations, an efficient use of body language and/or even unexpected effects/aids both visually or sound effects. This was definitively better than the research conferences that I am used to attending! In the same way, I found the exhibitions and drop-in activities very inspiring and entertaining. As a result, I have started thinking about my research in the same way. The information/lessons/advice provided by the exhibition works! Could I be able to exhibit my research to the general public? Would it be understood? Would it be fun?

Apart from these activities I also had the opportunity to meet people during the festival. Mostly undergraduate and PhD students, although I also had the chance to talk to artists, musicians and people from industrial sectors on active service and retired. Our conversations were very educational and made me think about their level of understanding about scientific issues. As a consequence, I have learnt the importance of adapting my explanations to the individuals needs according to what they already know about my subject.

What happened next it is that I get closer to the British Science Association and find out more about the nature of PE activities, associations and funding opportunities around UK. My interest on PE increases exponentially and I start taking some training courses on any aspect that I consider of help to develop my own PE activities. These include courses about social media, storytelling, non-fiction scientific writing, cultural dialogue, communication toolkit, knowledge exchange (KE), learning and teaching, leadership, and of course, several courses about public engagement. During this learning process I have realized about the benefits of undertaking PE for both the scientific community and society. On one hand, PE stimulates a higher level of understanding of scientific issues which is essential to inform society and inspire new generations. On the other hand, I firmly believe that PE is also the key to improve learning and teaching practices within Academia and promote knowledge exchange between scientific disciplines. All these factors are essential to accelerate impact and reach research excellence.

Yolanda at Firhill High School, May 2013

Yolanda at Firhill High School, May 2013

Regarding how has PE changed my career in Academia? I am still working in the same research process, but now I have a wider overview of how to improve it. As a result, I spend part of my time working on innovative proposals to improve PE practices. One of my efforts has been recently rewarded with the prestigious Beltane PE Fellowship. This will allow me to develop an observational study of the reactions of general public with an interactive mural about carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS), increasing understanding of how research ideas propagate into society. As a part of the Fellowship I will also organize a focus group on CCS to gather opinions and feedback on the CCS mural, and participate in Bright Club to improve further my communication skills. Other proposals in mind are “Advertific” and “Childtific”. The first one aims to identify spaces for marketing of research within Universities and cities, while the second one seeks to develop children books on CCS issues with the aim of inspiring new generations. In addition, I am currently a STEM Ambassador collaborating in different PE events involving high schools and The Big Bang in Glasgow. Other PE memberships include NCCPE, RCUK, ASCUS, the Voice of Young Science and ProScience.

I have a strong faith that all these activities will help me to break barriers to new collaborations, expand research opportunities within my research field and increase the satisfaction of researchers, and who knows…it could mark a new era in the career of other researchers as it did in mine!


For more information on The Big Bang in Glasgow and work with local high schools: