Coaching confidence in communication
10 April 2019
Department Public Engagement
How do we attract tomorrow’s brightest research students?
Step 1: Make sure they know we exist. We don’t teach undergraduates; you can’t study oncology at A’ level. We need to give them a chance to explore how physics can cure cancer. How biology leads us to a better understanding of cancer, and how chemistry helps us design imaging agents that will guide therapy choices.
On Wednesday 3 April, we held our 8th Annual Open Day. Over 120 secondary students came to meet 20 scientists. An informal science fair allowing visitors and researchers to talk about science and the way this science will shape tomorrow’s cancer medicine.
It was an excellent day. For 2 hours, the room filled with the buzz of conversations. Passionate scientists describing their work to increasingly inspired and curious teenagers. A common piece of feedback was a request for more scientists, and more time to spend with the scientists.
The room contained more than people and talk. Each of the scientists had a game or demonstration to illustrate their science. These demos are the real story. A story of how a group of scientists took world-leading research and turned it into easy to make, practical demos. Demos that were made without finely honed DIY skills. Demos that cost less than £50 to make and helped the scientists have a 5-10 min conversation about a complex subject.
The story begins four months before the Open Day. I met this year’s scientists for lunch on a dark December Friday. The first task was to get to know each other and to share each other’s science. No worrying about plain English, just a group of scientists speaking to each other in our highly technical version of English.
This conversation has a serious side-effect. The scientists learn about each other’s work. People can work in adjacent lab areas and have no idea what each other is doing. The work fascinates me and leaves me blessing my own choice of training. Without my own technical background, I would rapidly become lost. My gratitude to a younger self is not just one of casual interest. The next steps are empowered by understanding the technical descriptions I spend the hour listening to.
After a plate of sandwiches and some cakes, I spend another hour challenging people to boil their science down to three bullet points. It’s hard. I sometimes see researchers look at me with disbelief when I ask them. I do not let them off the hook.
I want to know what need drives their research. What white space in our map of cancer still has ‘Here be dragons!’ on it.
I need to understand what the essence of what they do. How will they fill the white spaces on the map with knowledge? For some they work to understand the role of a protein in bladder cancer. For others they labour to develop an MRI imaging agent that will find brain tumours over six months before current techniques.
Finally, I ask for a clear statement of why the world will be a better place when they have done their work. Something that will reassure a cancer patient that their daughter’s cancer journey will be easier and less terrifying than the one they’ve just undertaken.
The discipline of creating the three bullet points takes two sessions. But at the end of it, each scientist has a solid plot. A story they can turn into a prop or game.
Again, I face serious doubts. ‘How can I possible make something that illustrates this?’ For many researchers even designing such a game feels like a big ask, but then actually making it is really daunting.
Leadership sometimes takes confidence. I have done this before, seven times in fact. I know we will get there. Over the course of two more lunch sessions, we propose, refine, and make shopping lists. We eat cakes and help each other. By the end, it’s a team game and people are having fun – having fun because they are beginning to believe. This will work!
On the day, researchers always confess to some nervousness. Will the visitors be interested? Will they understand? How will I relate to them? All the nerves and the knotted stomachs dissolve in the first 10 minutes. By the time we’re packing away, the scientists tell you with smiles that they’ve really enjoyed it. “Some of the students asked me really good questions!”
It always feels good to see it work and makes me smile to learn (again!) that 2 hours with an audience has left the scientists more tired than a 16 hr day in the lab.
It’s a moment that reminds me that I have a great job.