White Rose DTP PhD student, Alex Holmes, developed and hosted an interactive gameshow at this year’s Be Curious Festival in Leeds! We spoke to the superstar science communicator about the festival, how she came to be involved, and what she loves most about public engagement and making science accessible.
The Be Curious festival is an annual research event held at the University of Leeds, which aims to engage local people with research happening within the University and show how this work is making a difference to the lives of the public. White Rose DTP PhD student Alex Holmes, a keen science communicator with over 2000 Twitter followers engaging with her posts on all things science, played a key role in this year’s festival.
“In previous years I’ve led stalls at festivals around protein structure and biology”, says Alex, “but this year seemed like the perfect opportunity to do a science show I developed called Big and Small”. In the show, Alex, who studies membrane protein structure and function as part of her PhD project, went head-to-head against a fellow PhD student in an attempt to convince the audience that proteins (a.k.a. small things) are better than the planet Jupiter (a.k.a. big things).
“I’m a pretty strong believer that science communication covers almost every conversation we have about science”
Something Alex loves about effective science communication is “seeing that lightbulb go off in the person you’re talking to”. However, working with proteins and structural biology meant she needed to get creative to ensure more and more people in the audience would have these lightbulb moments: “most people think of food when you say ‘protein’, so it can be a bit of a struggle if you’re not prepared to go ‘yes, but also…’”.
A top-tip Alex has for her fellow PhD students looking to communicate their own research in an accessible way is to remove nouns from your research topic title. For example, ‘understanding the structure and mechanism of membrane-integral pyrophosphatases and a mechanosensitive ion channel using biophysical and biochemical techniques‘ is pretty impenetrable, even if you’re in the field! Rewriting this title without the nouns and jargon leaves something more accessible, such as ‘understanding how the tools cells use to do their jobs look and work using computer- and lab-based experiments‘. Something Alex also recommends is using analogies to explain scientific topics, such as: “proteins are tools cells use; blood vessels are the motorways of the body; vesicles are like lunch boxes, and cells are like houses”.
“Most people think of food when you say ‘protein’, so it can be a bit of a struggle if you’re not prepared to go ‘yes, but also…’”
Although Alex has had great success in the fields of science communication and public engagement, hosting shows at Be Curious Festivals, Pint of Science events and even at the Royal Institute, she doesn’t plan to pursue a career solely in these specialities after she completes her PhD. Instead, she plans to take up a career in Higher Education teaching, but is keen to carry her science communication skills with her down this path: “I’m a pretty strong believer that science communication covers almost every conversation we have about science. Teaching has elements of science communication, from lecturing, practical demonstrations, thinking up activities and creative ways of explaining topics, as well as evaluating how well you’ve achieved those things”.