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A week ago I found myself on Skype to a group of school students in Houston, Texas. Not something I had expected to be doing this year, but a lot of this year is not as I expected...

Working from home has its challenges in the best of times. Getting the home office right, staying connected with co-workers, and avoiding distractions to name a few. But we live in exceptional times, and working from home in 2020 comes with more baggage than usual.

We are dealing with the loss of things that we once took for granted, worrying about the state of the country and world at large, wondering when or if things can return to normal, and indeed wondering what ‘normal’ even means anymore. It is no wonder that many of us are eager to jump at opportunities to engage with others as much as we can.

Against the backdrop of lockdown I was fortunate to discover an organization to connect researchers with classrooms around the world: A simple yet elegant idea to make the science we do more accessible to the general public; ‘Skype a Scientist’ organizes online sessions to pair scientists with people who want to talk to them. It’s a diverse range of audiences: schools, groups of adults, or families, anyone who wants to hear about our research.

It wasn’t long before I was matched with a class at T.H. Rogers School in Houston, Texas, to talk to a class of 8th grade students about radiation therapy. During the talk, I presented basic concepts of radiation therapy including some of the basic physics. The students were incredibly inquisitive and bright, and their questions conveyed keenness and thoughtfulness about the challenges of cancer treatment. Additionally, I got to talk a little bit about myself and the path I’d taken to get where I am today, allowing the students to get a glimpse into the career path of a scientist.

The online format was quite different to a recent in-person talk I’d given at Lord Williams’s School in Oxfordshire.  I could not rely on my body language nearly as much while presenting through Skype. I had to rely more on my tone and my slides in order to engage effectively. This presented challenges as I was not used to giving talks this way. I had been reduced from an actual person in a room to a tiny face in the corner, so there was a lot less attention on me than I was used to during presentations. I adapted to this by having the PowerPoint play a larger part than I would usually (more diagrams, moving figures, animations). I kept text short to minimize time spent reading, and I began the lecture with a short personal biography to put  a face (larger than a thumbnail) to the voice.

Despite the challenges, the online nature of the talk had some powerful advantages. It was not lost on me that the ability to use Skype (well, Zoom, in our case) was giving me the opportunity to engage across continents and oceans from the comfort of my own home.

What especially struck me is just how easy this had been to do, and how seamlessly one could take the first steps towards getting started giving online talks.

I think that Skype a Scientist is an invaluable tool for scientists to communicate with the public. I encourage all my peers to give it a go at, share your science, skills, and story with the public, extend your outreach to a global audience, and help make lockdown a little less lonely!