Sex, Genes & SciComm

This article is co-authored by Leonardo Guida & Evatt Chirgwin

Science communication is more than just a buzzword or #scicomm. It’s a paradigm shift. It’s a revolution. Never before has the individual had such power to access and share information so freely. This in itself has somewhat liberated scientific research from the shackles of obscurity and a realm where its language is understood by a select few.

At Wild Melbourne, we’re part of this ‘revolution’ just as much as you are. Being a science communicator seems daunting and challenging; your audience is global after all. So we sat down for a coffee with Professor Rob Brooks from the University of New South Wales, communicator extraordinaire, to chat about his research and the various joys and perils of science communication.

SO WHO IS ROB BROOKS?

Rob has had a brilliantly diverse career as an evolutionary biologist, researching topics from the courtship behavior in crickets to the evolutionary advantages of left-handed cricket players. His research comes back to one theme: sex. Rob really likes to thinks about sex. How sex evolved, the costs of having sex and being sexy, and how natural selection has shaped the natural world.

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Rob is quick to say that he ‘…always had an interest in things evolutionary...’, explaining how his upbringing in South Africa has had a large bearing on him pursuing a career in evolutionary biology. He grew up in a time where there was the excitement of ‘…lots of big fossil finds…’, and the oppression of the apartheid regime where the notion of evolution was seen as ‘…contraband…’  Until he reached university, Rob states that ‘we hadn’t be allowed to learn about evolution in schools – basically the fundamental business of all living organisms – so when I got university it was kind of a rebellious thing.’

His current lab at the University of New South Wales studies evolutionary biology and ecology. One of his greatest curiosities is human sexual selection: ‘…what I have always found coolest about evolution is that it can shape our understanding of who we are… it really helps us understand what it means to be alive.’

However, Rob’s interests extend beyond the research side of science. He is actively involved in science communication across a delightfully diverse range of platforms including stand-up comedy, appearances on TV shows like Catalyst, social media, and of course his brilliant book Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll. He has become renowned for his creative and comical ways of communicating the wonders of science to a broad audience.

Many scientists and enthusiasts are challenged with communicating science in a simple and engaging manner – sometimes the stuff is just too complicated. Rob acknowledges that often science communication requires a hook to attract a broader audience, but at the same time that hook should not supersede ‘…the intrinsic value…’ of the actual research.

You have the knowledge and you have the passion, but where do you start communicating science? It’s quite simple and there’s no need to overthink it: ‘…we do [science] because it is interesting…. find what is interesting to you and work outward from there.’

BEING IN IT TO WIN IT

Social media has revolutionised science. It provides a means by which scientists can express their interests as well as create, develop and extend collaborations and personal networks. Rob himself has ‘…really loved getting into social media these last five years or so…’ and credits it to newly formed collaborations with people ‘…who are some of [his] best friends now…’

Enter the Kardashian Index or K-index. ‘Say what?’ you ask. ‘Kardashians? Science? Oil and water?!’ You’re not alone and your sense of bewilderment is 

well founded. To explain, the K-index is a measure of how many followers on Twitter you have weighed against your citation record (i.e. how many times your work is professionally credited). Although meant as light-hearted fun, some see it as a loss of credibility. Nevertheless, at the end of the day Rob sees it as personal preference. Whether your K-index is high or low isn’t the point, but ‘…if what you want is for people to read and cite your papers, use your citation index. If what you want is for the average person to know about your work, then use Twitter…’

The top 48 twitter science-celebrities defined by the K-index. Image: http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2014/09/top-50-science-stars-twitter

The top 48 twitter science-celebrities defined by the K-index. Image: http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2014/09/top-50-science-stars-twitter

But being an active researcher and social media magnate takes some serious effort and many scientists feel that this comes at the cost of their own work. There’s actually no need to be able to do it all and Rob is quite right when he says ‘…invest as much time as what works for you...’ because after all there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ‘…people who just don’t do [social media] at all and they just go look, “I just don’t have time for that”...’

Many early-career researchers find themselves suffering imposter syndrome: a self-diagnosed, chronically debilitating disease fraught with insecurity which Rob describes eloquently as a fear born from the ‘…notion of saying something stupid that then gets repeated around the world…’ Surprisingly, this visceral fear of being wrong strikes not just the early-career scientists but also the seasoned veterans.

Scientists don’t always have it figured out. Research is being continually refined, reviewed and updated. So whether you’re a scientist or an enthusiast, and you’re spruiking what you think is the greatest finding or piece of news (providing you’ve adequately researched it to the best of your ability), fear not! Rob himself claims that he has been wrong more times than he can remember. He puts his resilience down to a quote from Bob McNamara, an influential ecologist circa 1950s and 60s, who said that ‘…there are a lot of things worse than being wrong and one of them is to be trivial…’ That is to say that ‘…you can work on something and do something of very little interest to other people or that’s of only incremental advance, and that’s…its own thing or you can try and do something big and bad and get it completely wrong - that’s probably still better to try and do that.’

I’M EXCITED! BUT HOW & WHERE DO I START?

There’s no right way of communicating as such; it’s a matter of finding your own voice and crafting what you have to say about science in your own way. But, whether you prefer short tweets or love the artistic approach that Instagram provides, you need to be ‘…literate in those platforms… and there are some fundamentals that everybody should learn… Know who your audience is or who you want your audience to be, understand what they do and don’t know [and] talk to them at the right level but don’t talk down to them…’

Rob’s communicating genius and popularity stems from finding his voice in creative writing and giving talks in which he gets to inject his own brand of ‘…sophisticated humour…’ and educate the audience through laughter. If there’s one thing Rob does wish, it’s that there were more ‘…outlets where you could do sort of intellectual stand up. I’ve had a few chances and by far they’re the most fun talks I’ve given…’ Science and stand-up, who would’ve thought…

The number of outlets in which people can communicate science is endless and up to the creativity of the individual. Rob believes, as do we at Wild Melbourne, that ‘…it’s an exciting time to be doing [science communication]… you don’t have to depend on newspaper editors and publishing houses and television companies and all those kind of power structures any more. With the internet, you can create other ways… for people to find their voice….’

Putting Rob’s advice into a nutshell, if you want to be a science communicator, it’s about finding your voice by using your comfort zone to step out of your comfort zone. Sounds a little counter-intuitive, but use what platform you feel is best tailored for you, start small and see where it takes you. There will be people who like what you do and from there, who knows?

‘Just give it a crack!’