Ellie Welch’s placement took her from the buzzing city of Manchester to a quiet village in Oxfordshire and then on to the coffee loving city of Portland in the USA. An unusual trio of places to bunch together, however, one that perhaps sums up the potential that science communications has to take you all over the world. Here, the History of Science, Technology and Medicine student discusses her time on placement and whether the coffee, street food and craft beer are all what they’re cracked up to be in Portland.
I’ve always liked science. However, I’ve always preferred the reading and learning side of things as opposed to actually ‘doing’ it. I want a career in science, just not in a lab! So, when it came to my placement year I was eager to do something in science communications, which led me the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
When I decided to spend my placement year working for the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source at the Science & Technology Facilities Council I couldn’t have envisaged the places it would take me or the things that I would learn.
My role consisted of writing and speaking about the work that went on there, which meant communicating with scientists from all over the world, a truly fascinating experience.
Hearing about all the research taking place across the globe was great, but so was learning about the differences in science funding from country to country and how their research is structured differently to ours.
At first I was a bit daunted of working for a particle accelerator (I was quickly trying to remember GCSE Physics) but it soon became apparent that science communication is based around understanding your audience, and being able to tailor your output.
Writing about science
The written element of my job covered everything to do with science journalism and writing. I would help write stories of scientific research that had taken place at the accelerator, publishing them on our website or developing them into press releases to be sent to local and national media.
One of my favourite parts of the job was speaking to scientists when the accelerator was running. Over the course of a week I could speak to zoologists studying the atomic structure of spider silk, particle physicists researching superconductors, engineers looking at the damage on airplane wings, and archaeologists trying to date artifacts by understanding the material they were made of. I would skim through research proposals, identifying any newsworthy research we could pitch to the media or write an article on.
Talking about science
The other half of my role was dedicated to talking about science. A large part of this involved developing and delivering public engagement activities for visitors or taking the science to them. I quickly got used to giving tours to groups of people and being able to talk about particle physics, tailoring it to each audience.
One of my favourite events was talking to people in the local community who weren’t aware of the research that took place a stone’s throw away from their homes. Although that was the same day as one of my trickiest tasks – explaining particle collisions to young children using pipe cleaners as a demonstration.
It wasn’t just about communicating to school audiences; I often had to speak to leaders in industry and relevant academic fields through conference organisation and representing the facility at such events. I was extremely lucky in my placement year that I got to go to a conference in Portland, Oregon – with some spare time to explore the city too!
The conference was on the effect of radiation on electrical components. My colleagues and I were exhibiting at the conference rather than presenting as one of the instruments at the research facility was built to test the effect of cosmic radiation on electrical parts. I spent most of the conference speaking to researchers from industry, such as aircraft manufacturers, about the research they could do at our facility.
Before my placement year, I thought I’d prefer the writing aspect more than the talking, however the trip to Portland confirmed to that it was actually the other way round!
As a place, Portland is an incredible city, famous for its coffee, street food, and craft beer – all of which I can confirm are amazing. It’s a city that I’d never really considered as a holiday destination before but I’d jump at the chance of visiting again.
Back to university
I enjoyed my placement year and learned a lot about working in science communication but after completing a history of science final year project, I realised I was interested in pursuing further study.
I’m currently completing my MSc in History of Science, Technology and Medicine and hope to do a PhD in the near future. Although I’ve returned to studying, I’m still passionate about the importance of public engagement throughout academia and aim to continue volunteering events.
I volunteered for the Manchester Science Festival in the autumn and am currently organising a stall on the history of science with course mates for the Faculty of BHM’s community open day in the summer!