A crash course in #SciComm: my experience as the Ri’s digital intern

PhD student, Naomi Heffer, reflects on her experiences working as the Ri’s digital intern.

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    Credit: Pixelkult via Pixabay

I first became interested in science communication after helping at a science festival for primary school kids. I was explaining some cool visual illusions to a student, which prompted them to say: ‘I love science. Science is cool.’ This emphasised to me the power of effective public engagement to educate, excite and inspire.

Why the Royal Institution?

The Ri is known as one of the best organisations at doing exactly this. From their world-renowned CHRISTMAS LECTURES, to their historic Friday Evening Discourses, the Ri has been engaging the public with science for more than 200 years. And thanks to their innovative use of digital platforms, they are now able to engage with people far beyond those that physically walk through the doors of their London home on Albermarle Street. YouTube has over 30 million daily users, Twitter 145 million, and Facebook an eye-watering 1.66 billion. This presents an amazing opportunity to communicate science to a massive audience. But with so many different individuals and organisations competing for people’s interest, how can scientists make content that will stand out and grab people’s attention online?

As a PhD student seeking to do impactful research, I wanted to know the answer to this question. So when the opportunity came up to work as part of the Ri’s digital team, it was a no-brainer. Three months on and I feel that I’ve come from having a broad awareness of the digital channels that can be used to communicate science, to having a pretty good idea about what effective digital content looks like and how best to engage with different online audiences.

Getting social

One of the best things about the internship was how incredibly varied the work was. From writing blog entries to making podcasts, filming and editing science talks to creating Twitter threads. One aspect that I particularly enjoyed was creating content for social media. This is also the experience that I can see being most directly translatable to communicating my future research as a PhD student.

 Whereas I had previously thought of science communication as needing to be quite formal with a traditional ‘academic’ tone, one of the key lessons I learnt was to never shy away from using a GIF or a meme format on social media. I applied this knowledge when I did a Twitter Takeover for the Ri all about how humans perceive biological motion, which is a key aspect of my PhD research.

  • A screenshot of a tweet, including an image of a man running.

    The first post in Naomi's Twitter Takeover, which was about how humans percieve biological motion. 

    Credit: Royal Institution

In addition to this type of carefully planned social content, there were also exciting opportunities to be really spontaneous. Because so many exciting things go on every day in the Ri building, like talks, workshops and demos, I found that there were lots of opportunities to grab a camera, or even just my mobile, and take pictures or short videos of what was going on. This ‘off-the-cuff’ content was some of the most successful that I put out on social media during my time at the Ri. In fact, the most successful social media post I created was an impromptu video I took on my mobile whilst volunteering at one of the Ri’s family events. This video showed a Lego robot solving the Rubik’s cube.

 

 

Filming and meeting speakers

The internship also provided opportunities for me to learn about filming and video-editing. I was trained in using cameras and recording equipment so that I could help to film the evening science talks. As well as learning new audio-visual skills, filming the talks meant that I got to listen to a whole range of speakers talking about an array of exciting scientific topics, from the Big Bang to nanotechnology, magnetism to lightspeed. The highlight was getting an intro with Thrill Engineer Brendan Walker, whose research combines engineering with neuroscience to investigate what makes rollercoasters so thrilling. His talk was one of the best examples I saw of how to communicate complex science in a fun and accessible way, with exciting visuals and examples, but no skimping on the scientific explanation. It was really satisfying to be part of the process all the way from the initial filming of the talks, through the editing, and up until the YouTube release.

  • A woman standing behind a video camera.

    Naomi in action filming evening events in the Ri's historic lecture theatre. 

    Credit: Naomi Heffer

 

As well as being involved in generating new content, I also had the opportunity to go ‘behind-the-scenes’ and look at the statistics to work out which types of content were performing the best across the Ri’s different social channels. Before starting at the Ri, I was already aware of the biases in digital SciComm engagement statistics which suggest that it is easier to engage men online about science than women. Because of this, one of the main projects I worked on during my internship was analysing the Ri’s YouTube videos to work out how the Ri might be able to engage more women online. This was only possible because of the flexibility in the internship, which meant that I could focus on my interests and carve out a project from my own ideas.

Using my knowledge

This was also the case for a short-form video project which I got involved with. As a PhD student investigating sensory perception, I was keen to help produce some short-form video content for the Ri’s YouTube channel about interesting and unusual forms of perception. For this I enlisted the help of neuroscience professor Jamie Ward, and together with the rest of the video production team, we wrote, filmed and edited three films about synaesthesia, a rare phenomenon where people experience ‘overlapping’ of the senses. Again, it was really exciting to be involved in the process from start to finish, scripting, helping to film and then editing the videos. I am looking forward to reading the comments from our YouTube audience when the videos are released.

  • A man talking while holding a model brain.

    A screen capture from the videos made with Professor Jamie Ward. In this shot, Jamie is explaining the different brain areas implicated in synaesthesia. 

    Credit: Royal Institution

 

Overall, I have had a fantastic time working with the passionate team at the Ri. Whether it was video-editing, science-writing or presentation skills, I felt like I was learning something new every day, and it was so rewarding to see people responding to the content I helped create with excitement and enthusiasm. As I settle back into life as a PhD student now that my internship is over, I will no longer view public engagement as a nice ‘add-on’ to doing scientific research, but as a key part of the mission of being a scientist in the 21st century.

Get involved with the Ri

If Naomi's blog caught your attention and you're interested in an internship or a career at the Ri, see what opportunities are available in our regularly updated jobs' section

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