Kathryn Harkup, science communicator and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition gives her advice for entering the competition.

I am very excited to see the entries for the Chemistry World competition. This year’s fantastic theme of public attitudes is a really good opportunity to show how we can get the general public enthusiastic about chemistry. So what am I looking for from the entrants?

© Courtesy of Kathryn Harkup

There is no set way of being a good science communicator. You can be funny or serious, spectacular or straightforward but the most important thing me is be interesting. Tell people nuggets of information they will want to share with their friends. Tell stories with a clear beginning, middle and end so an audience or reader can follow your train of thought and relate it back to others later. Keep it simple. Don’t get bogged down in details. If it isn’t relevant to your topic, ditch it. Think of some science communicators who inspire you and try to figure out what it is that makes you read their books or watch their TV shows.

Think carefully about who your audience is. Chemistry sometimes sounds like a foreign language to those who don’t speak it every day. Avoid using technical terms and describe things in everyday language. Chemistry can be complex, but you don’t need to dumb it down for your audience, you just need to explain it well. Use analogies to explain tricky concepts.

Get non-chemists to read your work and hear your presentations and watch and listen to them carefully for feedback. Learn from your audience. If something you do doesn’t get the reaction you wanted, think about what you can do to change it. And most important of all, emotions can be contagious, so enjoy yourself.

Kathryn Harkup is a trained chemist and freelance science communicator who swapped the fume hood to deliver talks and workshops on the quirky side of science. Kathryn’s book A is for arsenic: the poisons of Agatha Christie was published by Bloomsbury in September 2015.

If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Sue Nelson, science journalist and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition gives her tips for communicating science effectively.

Science communication combines a number of skills. In print it’s a potent mix of good writing with a key understanding of the science involved and the ability to explain a story or concept in language that makes the reader wish they’d thought of that phrase.

Sue Nelson

© Courtesy of Sue Nelson

An article must be written for the appropriate audience and so even when not aimed at scientists, the science must always be correct. Simplifying something often involves understanding the concepts to a much higher level in order to get it right.

A good headline and introduction is your sales pitch. Make them memorable and interesting. This is not the place to give the names of whoever funded any research.  Ensure that whoever reads that opening paragraph will want to keep on reading to the end of the piece. So structure it well. Know where you are starting and ending before you begin writing.

The choice of quotes is essential. Quotes provided on press releases are often written by committee and most journalists – including myself – can tell. The words don’t always read right because it’s unlikely anyone would talk that way in real life. The solution? Don’t make quotes up. Interview a scientist, researcher or as many as you think are needed for your story and encourage them to expand upon their work. Get the facts and the colour. How scientists feel about research, or the lengths they’ve gone to get some data, keeps people reading and maintains a reader’s interest. If there’s a human interest aspect, get that too.

When making a film for the competition, have fun with it. We want to see who you are and what you’ve got to say, not who think you ought to be presenting like. There’s only one Brian Cox or Alice Roberts so be yourself. When addressing the camera directly, imagine you are talking to someone you know and like (we will hear it in your voice and see it in your face). This will help with a natural delivery.

We walk and talk all the time but doing so on camera is surprisingly difficult and can look stilted and unnatural. If you find it difficult, don’t do it. But if you want to include any walking and talking, or a demonstration, rehearse it until it’s second nature. And choreograph your movements. Check the angles on camera – sometimes you need to hold your hand differently if fingers are covering something you want us to see. It might not feel natural but it will look better on screen.

From a technical point of view, do the same as what you’d do with a camera on a smartphone. Don’t film yourself in front of a window or we will only see your silhouette. Make sure you are well lit and we can hear you clearly. Get the basics right and then concentrate on what you’d like to say. There’s no need to memorise everything. Just remember key points and keep it natural and free flowing.

I can’t wait to read your entries and see your videos. Good luck!

Sue Nelson is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster and a director of Boffin Media. She makes short films for the European Space Agency, produces and presents podcasts and radio programmes, and is former BBC science and environment correspondent. Sue has also written on science for most of the UK’s national newspapers.

If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Steve Cross, science stand-up and workshop leader for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about what he looks for in a great communicator.

I’ve been in science communication full-time for 14 years, and I’ve seen hundreds of science performances at Science Showoff and Bright Club over the last few years. The ones that have really impressed me have always had some things in common.

Steve Cross

© Courtesy of Steve Cross

I’m really interested in honest science. Don’t just tell us something’s great and expect us to go along with you. Don’t just say this research might make all of our lives amazing (without telling us how likely that is!). Instead take us underneath the surface. Help us to see people and stories and places and where this science has come from. Bring it to life so that it has the kind of powerful narrative and great characters of our favourite TV shows, instead of creating something that just sounds like the exhortations to buy stuff that go between them. Don’t tell us how interesting this science is, because we’re savvy 21st-century media consumers and we won’t believe you. Instead show us things that make us decide for ourselves that what you care about really matters.

When it comes to seeing you talk about science in person or on tape I really want to connect with you. You can get along with hiding a lot of emotion when writing but as soon as I’m seeing you talk I need to feel like this is something you’ve chosen to talk about, and something you’ve decided that I personally need to hear. Don’t forget who your audience is (I for one don’t have a PhD in high-energy physics, so please don’t assume that I do!), and even more importantly don’t forget who you are. You could have talked about any one of millions of pieces of research. So why did you choose this?

Steve Cross is a public engagement consultant, stand-up comedian and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow. He runs Science Showoff and travels around the world making experts funny.

If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Ljiljana Fruk, researching light-activated nanodevices, writes about molecular aesthetics and how a copper nanoparticle became an alien mothership. Ljiljana will speak at this year’s Chemistry World science communication competition prize-giving event in March 2015 about Seeing the invisible.

A few years ago I thought about starting something enjoyable that would inspire the students and researchers in my group to look at the molecules they make and materials they design in a different, more playful way. I wanted them to rethink what they considered failed experiments: batches of irregular nanoparticles, weird looking oils (that should be crystals) or fluorescent cells (that shouldn’t be there).

We started collecting microscopic images and strangely coloured samples, and organised a little internal competition to see who was going to come up with the strangest or most unusual image. Playing and having fun was the key – doing transmission electron microscopy now did not only mean spending some late hours in the lab but also finding that next cool image. (more…)

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Tessa Fiorini won last year’s Chemistry World science communication competition. Here, she writes about the inspiration for her article by a holiday in Prague, about her time at the prize-giving event and her winner’s trip.

Tessa Fiorini CohenWhen I heard about Chemistry World’s science communication competition last year, I had just come back from a holiday in Prague. The city is a historical hot spot for all things alchemy-related, and it immersed me in a time when chemistry was dark and murky, poorly understood and carried out in secretive underground labs. With this trip still on my mind and the competition’s theme of openness, I knew I had to write about the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry. (more…)

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Chris Sinclair, whose piece on lasers won the 2012 Chemistry World science communication competition, writes about science and performing arts.

In 2012, I won the first Chemistry World science communication competition for my piece about using lasers to remotely detect methane gas in mines, reducing the risk of disastrous explosions. Having previously worked with lasers for my research, I was aware that 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the invention of the diode laser. Choosing this topic gave me the chance to learn about interesting contemporary applications of lasers in physical chemistry. Emily Stephens, the 2012 runner-up, wrote about gene doping – a topic that was linked to the London Olympic Games, which were of course one of that year’s major events. For both of us, writing about a topical subject with a human angle turned out well. (more…)

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Quentin Cooper, science journalist and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about how in every scientist there is a bit of an artist.

I’ve been asked to write 300 words on the topic of science and art. No problem. Although I can sum it up in one: scientists.

The term ‘scientist’ was only coined about 180 years ago to overcome a problem caused by the then newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science, more recently known as the BA and more recently still as the British Science Association. These days it is celebrated as one of the oldest and most prestigious public-facing scientific bodies in the world, making science more comprehensible and accountable, and encouraging engagement across society and between disciplines. But back in the early 1830s, their meetings attracted a ragtag group of biologists, geologists, naturalists and others across the sciences, and nobody knew quite what to collectively call them. (more…)

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Emily Stephens writes about the how and why of her piece on gene doping, which was selected for the runner-up prize in the 2012 Chemistry World science communication competition.

I started writing my article for the 2012 competition just after the London Olympics had finished. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the legitimacy of some of the competing athletes’ achievements, in particular Nadzeya Ostapchuk, who was stripped of her gold medal following a drug test. While doping has been prevalent in competitive sport since the 1960s, I found the relatively new concept of gene doping fascinating.

Gene doping is extremely hard to detect, so future sporting events could potentially be won based on which country is most advanced in genetic medicine rather than the athletes’ natural sporting ability.

(more…)

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Philip Ball, science writer and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about the art of chemistry.

Philip BallOf all the sciences, chemistry has always seemed to me to be closest to the arts. It appeals directly to the senses: the shapes and colours of molecules, the smells, the tactile aspects of materials and instrumentation. It draws on intuitions and craft skills, for example in the practice of forming crystals or getting a reaction to work. And most of all, it demands creativity and imagination: ‘chemistry creates its own object’, as Marcellin Berthelot puts it.

Most of chemistry is not about discovering pre-existing forms and objects, but deciding what to make and how to make it. Molecular targets express ideas. Can we make something that fits into this hole or onto that surface? Can we create new atomic unions, unusual topologies, surprising bulk properties, new oxidation states? Can we design molecules to assemble themselves into new and useful (or simply pleasing or amusing) superstructures? The questions aren’t limited to what the natural world provides, but are circumscribed by our imaginations, which in principle need have no boundaries.

(more…)

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In this first of a series of guest posts, Elizabeth Tasker writes about the how and why of her piece on cosmic chemistry, which was shortlisted in the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition.

Elizabeth TaskerThere are some stories that beg to be written. When you find an experimental astrophysicist building a star-forming cloud in his laboratory, there is practically a moral obligation to remind the world that there are no boxes for ideas.

Astrophysicists usually come in three flavours: observers (telescope kids), theorists (‘The Matrix’ universes) and instrument builders (hand me a hammer). We cannot typically perform laboratory experiments since putting a star (or planet or black hole) on a workbench is distinctly problematic. The closest we come to hands-on experiments is through computer models, which is the toolkit I use when studying the formation of star-forming clouds. However, Naoki Watanabe had gone ahead and built his own cloud  in a super-cooled vacuum chamber. (more…)

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