The art of science communication; in conversation with Dr Bonnie Tecce

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The art of science communication; in conversation with Dr Bonnie Tecce

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Communicating COALA’s products and achievements is an integral part of the COALA business model. We sat down for a conversation with Dr Bonnie Teece to discuss the art of science communication.

Teece is responsible for ensuring the COALA work is communicated across all platforms, and as far as science communication goes, Teece is an expert.

Dr Bonnie Teece completing fieldwork at Yellowstone National Park

Teece has the notoriously busy schedule of a successful Early Career Researcher. Between preparing to move countries for a new job, teaching and finishing writing PhD papers, Teece lights up when she speaks about science communication. Teece introduces her role, “I used to be the science communication officer for the COALA project and have recently taken over as Chief Investigator for science communication, dissemination and dissemination of the COALA project.”

What is science communication?

Rather than joining COALA as an agronomist or a data scientist, Teece joined the team as an expert in science communication. Teece quickly explains why my request to define science communication is more complicated than it seems.

“Science communication, I think, means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There are many aspects of science communication as well. For example, there’s science communication between scientists, and you would do that using a different language. You would also pitch your learning materials differently. Because the idea is that you’re talking to somebody with a baseline level of science. You would pitch that science differently depending on what type of scientist the other person was compared to you. And then there’s science communication for the general public, although I would not say I like that term because there’s no such thing really as the general public. And then, there is science communication for schools and different types of environments. So, I guess science communication broadly is communicating an aspect of science. And that’s something that’s done every day in multiple different forms. Most people find out about science in the news from researchers through journalists,  who are relaying information they’ve received from scientists.”

Science meets art

The more Teece speaks about science communication, the lines between technical skill and creative art form blur.

“A lot of people say that you have to choose between being creative or being a scientist, but there are many ways to be creative and a scientist. Many people are making sci-comm films at the moment. For instance, the Earth Futures Festival is airing, where Earth scientists worldwide make short films to communicate their science. I’ve heard people say that you have to choose between being creative or being a scientist, but there are many ways to be creative and a scientist. Just take STEAM, which is science and art mixed together it’s becoming more and more popular, as more and more people change careers and move around and use lots of different skills.”

Teece’s experience in communication and the skills she developed during her PhD communicating her work have led to COALA’s extensive and successful communication and dissemination program.

“When I started university, I was not doing a science degree. I was doing a degree majoring in English literature and Russian studies. The university I was at had a requirement to do a subject outside your faculty. So, I did a science subject; astrobiology, and from there, I decided to add a science degree to my arts degree. But I felt trapped and lost because everybody spoke this language I didn’t know, a scientific language. I couldn’t find a way to get my hooks in or really understand. So I really struggled the first few years I was doing science.”

The importance of accessible communication

The barrier of finding accessible language to communicate scientific thoughts and ideas was the first step in Teece’s passion for science communication. What came next was a self-taught journey to break down communication barriers around scientific language. 

“I started doing science, and I was doing palaeontology, mixed with a bit of geology and biology. I then added chemistry later because I liked sitting at the nexus of all these fields. I was a jack of all trades, master of none. And I didn’t really have that vocabulary sitting there. So often, I’d go to talks or sit in class, and I had no idea what was happening. And I realised nothing was being spoken about in a way that was enhancing accessibility for people outside of these networks. So I focused on science communication a lot during my Master’s degree as a hobby, something that I wanted to get better at. Then, when I went to UNSW for my PhD, I started teaching science communication. So, my PhD was in astrobiology, and it was looking at organic geochemistry, molecules that contain carbon and trying to work out how we might be able to detect them on Mars. While I was teaching astrobiology and science communication, I started to really understand the theory behind science communication rather than just what works and what doesn’t.”

During her PhD, Teece began to expand her science communication work. “I started doing many science communication activities and co-founded an education and outreach initiative called Praxical with another PhD student named Luke Steller. That education initiative was based on the idea that the best way to learn sciences to do science. We didn’t  really want to be speaking in these abstract terms; we wanted to create these hands-on approaches that people can learn while doing because that’s the way we learn.”

Through teaching and learning by doing, Teece developed her understanding of science communication to a level where she is now a leading expert on the topic. Applying these skills to the COALA project has allowed it to grow globally across four social media platforms, through scientific networks and into educational content.