#SciComm SA science communicators

Meet Marina Joubert

Marina Joubert is a science communication researcher and lecturer at Stellenbosch University (info as at April 2015).

Image provided by Marina Joubert.

What I do: I do research on science communication and also present short courses and academic modules in science communication as part of the academic offering at CREST (Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology) at Stellenbosch University. My post is linked to a newly established DST-NRF Research Chair in Science Communication. My PhD is about factors affecting science communication in SA. I’ve started a public dialogue series about science communication (Science Fridays @Stellenbosch) and created a Facebook page where science communicators can network and share ideas (scicomAfrica).

How I define science communication (or “scicomm”): For me, science communication is about making science (organised, evidence-based knowledge) accessible, relevant, meaningful and useful to people who are not scientists (or who are working in a different field of science). In public engagement the emphasis is on involving the public in dialogue and giving them a say about science (how it is done, what is done, etc.) Public engagement requires scientists to understand and listen to diverse public audiences. The current trend is that science communication should not be about promoting science to get people to support it, but rather embedding science in society so that people can participate in it.  (I read this recently: The purpose of science dialogue is not agreement about science, but fewer, better disagreements!).

How I got hooked on scicomm: I always wanted to combine science and writing. I enrolled for a one year programme in science journalism after completing my natural science studies. During the early years of my career (working at a research funding agency that preceded the National Research Foundation) I became aware of the public understanding of science movement in other countries. I made contact with some of the early pioneers and researchers and have benefited hugely from the global science communication network.

What I love about my job: There is something new in science communication every day and the online environment has added incredible momentum. Part of my job is keeping up to date on issues and trends in the field by reading tweets, blogs and research papers every day. When I contact the authors I find that they are incredibly willing to share information. All of this flows into new course materials and case studies – great fun!  The contact with course participants and students (online and face-to-face) can be challenging, but also immense rewarding. I love the vibe at places where science and public meet (science cafés, science centres, public lectures, etc). It is hugely rewarding and inspiring to get good feedback from students and to see them grow in the field.  On top of everything else, working at Stellenbosch University is a dream come true!

Worst things in my job: I’m not great with red tape and finance and that was a big part of my job before when I focused on running my own company. Now that I’m at a university, there is a great team here helping me. But, you can never escape admin and forms completely!

My greatest scicomm heroes: On the global scene my science communication hero is Neil de Grasse Tyson! There are also many inspiring scicomm researchers and practitioners that have contributed to my professional development – people like Jenni Metcalfe (Econnect); Sharon Dunwoody (Wisconsin) and Bruce Lewenstein (Cornell).  Closer to home I admire the strategic science communication savvy of Lee Berger. Some other inspiring communicating scientists include people like Himla Soodyal, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, Don Cowan, Dave Pepler, Leon Dicks and Nox Makunga.

Why scicomm inspires me: Ultimately science communication is about making life better, healthier, happier and more interesting for all – and that inspires me. It can also be very rewarding to give people an opportunity and platform to voice their expectations and concerns about science. I am inspired by scientists who are passionate about sharing their work, and also by seeing how people respond and enjoy being part of science.

The kind of science communication that I prefer: I love science-art collaborations, for example the “Shared Sky” project of the Square Kilometre Array Project.  I’m also inspired by the work of Jive Media Africa, especially their creative use of comics to tell science stories. Here at Stellenbosch University the “New Voices in Science” project helps young scientists to speak or write about their work in an engaging way. I’m also enthralled by the power of citizen science to involve and inspire people, and science theatre as a tool to engage people in science.

Thrilling scicomm moments that I will never forget:  I once had breakfast with Neil Tyson (huge science communication celebrity) in New York – what an inspiration! In terms of hands-on involvement, I will always remember the night I spent with marine turtle researcher Ronel Nel to search for and tag leatherback turtles at Sodwana (and then following their migration patterns for months afterwards). Being part of the SKA SA team when the announcement was made that part of this major telescope would be built in South Africa was also a huge buzz. But little things can also make a big impact – like seeing the face of a young child understanding something new in a science centre, or being allowed to touch a starfish in an aquarium.

My best scicomm advice: Science communication works best when you make an emotional connection – whether through a story, YouTube video, science show or even a tweet. Distilling compelling messages from complex science requires skill — it is NOT about dumbing down, it is about clearing up! As science communicators, we have to make an effort to learn from current research and get to grips with “the science of science communication” – how people learn, how people make decisions, how behaviours and attitudes are formed (and why it is so hard to change them!). We also have to question science, and remain sufficiently sceptical of its claims. Beware the unquestioning science tribe!

What about risks in science communication: Nancy Baron (science communicator in the US) teaches in her workshops that the biggest risk in science communication is to go into it unprepared. And I agree! It takes effort and time to prepare and develop effective science communication messages, stories and materials. One of the most neglected aspects of science communication (in my opinion) is good visuals – high quality photos and high-impact infographics.

How I cope when things go wrong: Explain what went wrong and apologize. Work hard to set things right. Never become hostile or defensive. Don’t blame others.

Biggest scicomm challenge: Making science part of everyday life for people across socio-economic barriers, and motivating scientists to play a more active role in this. It is also a big challenge to bridge the worlds of science communication practice and theory, especially staying up to date with fast-moving research in the field of communication science that can help us to become better science communicators.

I wish everyone could understand this: The value of biodiversity to sustain life on Earth, and why we need to change the way we live and consume for the sake of future generations. (If people could understand the nature of science – ie that it is a tool to investigate the world and an ongoing self-correcting process – it would take public science engagement to a new level.)

If I had R10 million to spend on scicomm: I would fund a national engagement project about the nature of science and how science works, so that people can understand how evidence is gathered and challenged and why science changes over time. This will also help them to understand the difference between solid science and bogus pseudoscientific claims. I would hope that it would also attract young people to scientific careers, to become part of this amazing journey of discovery.

Get in touch with me:
Email: marinajoubert@sun.ac.za
Twitter: @marinajoubert
I use #scicomm and #scicomAfrica when I tweet about science.
Join www.facebook.com/groups/scicomafrica to network with other science communicators.
Join PCST (www.pcst.co) to become part of a global network of science communicators.

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