The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Giving back by speaking out

O hai, terrifically neglected blog and blog-readers! I totally got sucked into that weird swirly vortex of work/rest/procrastination that sometimes happens over the winter break (you grad students know the one I mean), then suddenly found myself back in action at school (including teaching three days a week) and I am just now getting my spinning head above water again. Phew! Anyways, I’m back now.

The start of this new term was marked by my latest presentation. I didn’t give this talk at a conference, nor at a departmental seminar or even for a grad course. No, this talk was given to a special interest group called the Arctic Circle – a group of people with experience working in the Arctic and/or who are simply interested in what goes on in Canada’s northerly latitudes. I had been invited to speak about my research on beetles from Nunavut and the program of which I’m a part.

Now, consider this:

The audience members were not people in my field. The networking opportunities were therefore not ideal and it was unlikely that I would get the chance to schmooze with any potential future advisers or employers. I did not get paid.  This was not an academic event. There was no press coverage. There wasn’t even any free swag or food.

So why on earth would I spend hours carefully preparing slides and rehearsing? What was in it for me?

Well, that’s actually not really the point. The point is that one of our jobs as researchers and leaders in our chosen fields is to bring new and interesting information about our work to the general public.  I think we are often guilty of forgetting who it is that we’re doing research for: Mr. & Ms. J. Q. Public.

We grad students are doing lots of amazing research, but it often doesn’t make it past the pages of the latest issue of X Journal. It’s read, of course, by our academic peers, but what about everyone else? Don’t they also deserve to know about our research, and how it affects them personally? We find our  own work super-interesting (hopefully) – wouldn’t we want other people outside our field to be excited by it too? Let’s also not forget that most of us, in one way or another, are conducting publicly-funded research; the public deserves to hear what their tax dollars are doing.

I think we all have a duty to take these kinds of opportunities for outreach or education with the general public whenever possible – to share our work (and our enthusiasm for it) with others.

If you must have less altruistic motivations for doing this kind of thing, here you go:

  • sometimes you get paid (Or fed. Or offered beer. Or all three.)
  • you can practice your communication skills
    • public speaking (this talk was the first lecture-length presentation I’d ever delivered – and it went well!)
    • PowerPoint slide-making
    • NOT USING JARGON (completely impractical when speaking to a non-specialist audience, or to children!)
  • you might meet someone that could end up being a collaborator or supporter ($) of your work
  • it can be fun!

Personally, I really look forward to these kinds of opportunities. It’s refreshing to speak to more diverse audiences than the usual conference-goers. Working with kids can be especially rewarding – they have such enthusiasm and a wonderful sense of adventure, and they really provide the perfect audience for doing hands-on or outdoor workshops!  I have another general interest talk lined up at a garden club this spring to address the matter of a certain pesty red beetle – should be fun! I see this blog (and Facebook, Twitter etc.) as being a natural online extension of these activities.

Some kids in Nunavut, checking out my specimens, and ones they caught outside themselves - public outreach CAN be fun and games!

What do you all think?

14 responses to “Giving back by speaking out

  1. Adrian D. Thysse January 23, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    Nice to see you back again.

    The way I see it you can progress doing outreach to increasingly older audiences until you get to teenagers, and then you’ll be ready for anything! Even JAM 2012…

    PS have new blog, please update link:

  2. dragonflywoman January 23, 2012 at 5:27 PM

    I wholeheartedly agree with you here! I think that scientists should consider it their duty to communicate their work to the public. Sadly, I have a feeling that many scientists don’t share this opinion, but maybe things will improve as more and more kids of the digital age start making their way into academia.

    Another less than altruistic reason to do presentations for the public: you can add those talks to your CV! Your higher ups might not always consider these sorts of talk as “worthy” as some of your more academic talks at conferences or your home institution, but others will be happy to see that you’re trying to engage the public. I think that’s becoming more and more important, even for the big funding agencies, so having public talks listed on your CV can be a good thing.

    • TGIQ January 23, 2012 at 6:15 PM

      You raise a great point! I will totally be putting this talk on my CV, conference or no conference. It was a good science talk that was of interest to a broad disciplinary audience – so there! 😛

  3. Derek Hennen January 23, 2012 at 11:20 PM

    I couldn’t agree more. Even if the rewards for you personally aren’t all that great, you’re still putting yourself out there educating others. The way I see it, your goal for each talk you give should be to get at least one new person interested in some facet of science. Even if it’s just 1 out of an audience of 50, that’s still an accomplishment.

    Plus, entomology needs all the positive press it can get! I’m still working on convincing my friends not to step on any insect or spider they see…

  4. Warren January 24, 2012 at 4:24 PM

    Basically, I do not talk to anyone outside my floor in my wing of the ivory tower. I cross the street to avoid those mouth-breathing troglodytes known as the “general public.” If I spend too much time within the gravitational pull of their diabetic asses, I fear I might start binge drinking and cheering for the local sports team. I applaud your efforts to mingle with the natives. Perhaps your adventures might produce a paper in an anthropology journal? I am friends with the editor and will inquire for you.

  5. George Sims January 25, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Welcome back. I missed you.

  6. Pingback: Science outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway « The Bug Geek

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