We’ve all been there, at workshops and meetings which we think are a waste of time. Be it for team building, or the latest company strategy meeting. When I signed up for the DISTINCTIVE summer school at Sheffield University, a number of the talks really took my interest on engaging with policy makers and on pitching our own outreach activities, but I’ll admit I was sceptical. I went in with an open mind, knowing how it is becoming increasingly important to communicate research to everyone, not just other scientists. The trouble is often found in knowing how to get across points in a concise and understandable way; one thing I’ve always found difficult as I was never much of a writer.
First up was a talk which piqued my interest after it introduced #VirtualChernobyl. This is an ongoing outreach activity done by Mike Wood from University of Salford which uses virtual reality (VR) headsets to allow the user to look around the exclusion zone around Chernobyl without leaving your chair. I couldn’t wait to try this out as I’d heard so much about how immersive VR is but never seen one myself. When I finally got my hands on the VR headset I knew exactly where I was going first, outside the Chernobyl reactor itself. This was great to see the massive arch which will be put over the building. I then moved onto the surrounding towns of Pripyat and Burjakovka. What was really surprising about some of these images was how normal everything looked with most views looking no different from what you’d see in a local nature reserve. The other thing that took me by surprise was the giant ant that snuck up on me during my look around Burjakovka, although I should note its size was due to actually crawling over the camera lens and not radiation in the area! This was a great experience to see just what it is like in the exclusion zone and to see how animals are actually thriving from motion triggered cameras.
Day 2 brought sessions on communicating with the media. I’ve always felt this to be a tricky thing to do as we all have our opinions of journalists and this opinion is usually that they just want the best story, whether that aligns with the truth or not. I certainly don’t want to get caught out and misquoted. After some talk on how to pitch the message you’re selling and how to handle the type of questions, it became time to put these newly acquired skills into practice. First was a mock phone call with an editor to sell our ‘cutting edge new research’. Never has a phone call been so stressful. Getting your point across in less the 90 seconds while trying to be tripped up by questions is more difficult than it sounded. The mock press conference was then just as stressful with even more tricky questions for you to answer in a way that relates back to the message you are trying to get across. You can judge for yourself how my attempt went.
Friday stated off with a heated discussion of the contentious EU referendum result, which I’m sure I could double the length of this blog post and alienate a lot of readers by expanding on so I’ll just say it certainly gave us plenty to write about in the day’s activities. The first talk was on engaging policy makers and then there were a couple of talks from freelance science writers followed by writing a section for ourselves. The day was rounded off by groups pitching ideas for outreach events to take funding for. The team I was on had an astounding victory and we hope to take the activity forward to various local schools and science fairs, so watch this space. I also managed to gather some ideas for the NGN’s outreach activity at MoSI in September, promising to make it even bigger and better!