My pandemic year in science communication

14th September 2021

Communicating science to the public is vitally important and never more so than during a pandemic. Bethany Hartley reflects on her undergraduate year in industry working as a science communicator at the Quadram Institute.

By Bethany Hartley

Over the 2020/21 academic year I worked with the science communication team from the Quadram Institute as part of my year in industry degree to gain skills in science communication and public engagement. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, most of the work was completed at home but nevertheless I have been able to learn so much about science communication and how to be successful at it.

Science communication in the broadest term is communicating science to a non-specialised audience, whether that be the public or other scientists from a different field. Science communicators are able to act as a bridge to facilitate this transfer of knowledge, by both supporting scientists and being involved themselves.

Aside from a few creative skills, I had no experience in science communication prior to working at the Quadram Institute. One of the great things about this field is how varied it is, which has enabled me to work with a variety of people and to develop many new skills. Many have come from training courses I attended throughout the year, including the Psychology of Campaign Design, Confident Public Speaking and using Hootsuite, a social media managing software.

I really enjoyed developing my skills in writing too; I have helped draft several press releases and even wrote my own blogs. The style is very different from standard academic pieces, which took a bit of time to get used to, but I feel with each piece of work I was able to improve. I also really enjoyed working on the #30gFibreChallenge Instagram takeover. It enabled me to get to grips with basics of Photoshop to produce graphics from drafts and briefs, many of which I was quite proud of.

I have done various pieces of research as well to help team members with their own projects. My favourite, and the hardest, was some social media research looking at similarities and differences, as well as trends, of Quadram’s social media accounts. I also looked at those of competitors in relation to the Quadram Institute’s so comparisons could be made. In total I reviewed nearly 1500 posts, but the results were very interesting which made it worth the time!

Year in Industry student Bethany Hartley

In addition to science communication skills, I feel my confidence in myself and in my skills has grown a lot, much of which is thanks to the science communication team being so supportive towards me and my work. I’m naturally quite a quiet and often nervous person but working this year at the Quadram has helped to change that.

Working from home was one of the biggest challenges, as it has been for many this year. There was never a time I didn’t enjoy the work itself but there were times I struggled with motivation, since I was always in the same room, working by myself. I had weekly meetings with the team and my supervisor which I always looked forward to and feel helped a lot. Looking back, it has helped improve my self-motivation, which I know will be very useful in the last year of my degree and beyond.

Finding the placement itself really tested my resilience. As a student on a Biochemistry degree, nearly all the advertised placements were based in a laboratory. Although I enjoy some lab work, I knew for a while I didn’t want to work in a lab for a career. I came across the concept of science communication careers whilst looking into alternative uses of my degree and felt it was something I would really enjoy. I voiced my idea to a few people who I thought could advise me on how to secure such a placement but was still heavily encouraged to just do a lab placement..

I knew what I wanted so after eventually seeking advice from the right person, I was able to start prospectively searching for a placement that would suit my interests. The Quadram Institute was my favourite out of the ones I contacted; I find the science fascinating and I’d already spoken with one of the team members about science communication. I met with Andrew Stronach (Head of External Relations and Engagement) to discuss the possibility of working with them and thankfully, we were able to arrange this year. I am glad I was able to remain unswayed in my pursuit otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to have such a rich and useful experience.

After this year I now know I want to pursue a career in science communication. I hope to further develop these skills throughout my last year at the University of East Anglia so I can (hopefully) get a job in something science communication related once I graduate.