Public Engagement with Research: The Personal Development Holy Grail

This week James Walker, a postgraduate researcher in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Fuel Cells and their Fuels in the School of Chemical Engineering, shares his public engagement experience with us…  

Ever been at a party and killed a conversation in ten seconds flat when asked “so, what do you do?” If so, you’re probably also a postgraduate researcher (PGR) – or perhaps a town planner. My heart goes out to my peers who are both! I used to get as far as “oh I’m doing a PhD in Chemical Enginee-,“ before I’d notice the glazing over of the eyes of what had been my audience. “You must be very smart,” they all say, before suddenly needing to nip to the loo. Now I lead with “well I make really tiny renewable energy catalysts and look at atoms using fancy, expensive microscopes that look like weapons in a Bond villain’s arsenal!” Suffice to say, the second response engenders significantly more discussion. The subtle difference is in knowing your audience and tailoring your delivery, I’d say. These are among a crop of new skills that I’ve picked up since becoming heavily involved in public engagement with research and I’m writing this to tell you how you too can revolutionise your personal development simply by talking about the thing that you spend most of your time doing. Convenient eh?

I recently hosted a workshop as part of the University’s Arts & Science Festival. Entitled “In The Chemists’ Kitchen,’ my workshop invited a group of unsuspecting adults for a look behind the scenes in our labs in the Birmingham Centre for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Research. Workshop participants joined in in preparing nanoparticle ‘soup’, made microwavable ‘ready meal’ silver nanoclusters and recrystalised a copper sulphate ‘cheesecake’. It might sound wacky to use cooking metaphors to communicate scientific concepts but it occurred to me that while my lab is veritably inaccessible to the public, most people have at some point made a pot of soup and can relate to chopping up vegetables and boiling them to release the tasty goodness – usually as per the secret family recipe. When I synthesise nanoparticles, I boil up chemical compounds in a broth-like solvent until bonds break and smaller fragments assemble as desired, and I am usually following a recipe handed down ceremoniously in Nature Chemistry. The parallels are clear – to me at least!

James Photo

So what did I learn from developing my workshop, I hear you ask? First of all, independently developing and hosting a workshop required a significant amount of planning and project management. Keeping the activities and briefing engaging required a very critical assessment of my aims and objectives for the workshop, and a shrewd review of the way each concept would be communicated. I could not have achieved this alone – my workshop developed iteratively through inputs from experienced Public Engagement with Research Committee and Cultural Engagement staff, as well as technical suggestions from colleagues and the School’s health and safety officer. On the night of the workshop, I was ably supported by four PGR colleagues. I think the term “collaboration” is overused but in all reality my event would not have been nearly as successful were it not for my collaborative working with each of the above individuals – from encouraging me to be creative in my approach to physically assisting participants in their experiments. Finally, my colleagues and I were shocked by just how awe-inspiring routine and frankly boring aspects of our day-to-day work (using a magnetic stirrer, for example) were for the workshop participants. This new perspective well and truly answers the “surely people won’t find this interesting?” question that is such a barrier to getting researchers involved in public engagement.

To summarise, then, organising and hosting my workshop offered me an all-encompassing opportunity to develop my communication, team working and project management skills. It’s easy to get bogged down in the pursuit of data for that all important PhD thesis, but I think it’s also prudent to remember that there’s life after the viva and these kinds of transferrable skills will stand anyone in good stead for just about any career that I can think of.

We’ll be discussing the pragmatic personal development merits of getting involved with public engagement and highlighting just how fun bringing your research to a wider audience can be at an upcoming coffee morning for PGRs and ECRs. Please join us! The aim of the coffee morning is to encourage a collaborative and peer-supportive approach to PGR/ECR-led public engagement activities so some things to think about – how can we best assist each other to deliver impactful public engagement? How can we organically foster an interdisciplinary/cross-college approach to developing these activities?

For their kind assistance with his workshop, James would like to gratefully acknowledge Caroline Gillet, Jon Wood, Laura Milner, Kaye Winwood, Aimee Jackson, Laura Allerston, Pete Mardle and Alan Stephen.

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