University Research Fellow Steven Lee and collaborator Nick Evans tell us about the motivation behind TheScienceShed, a podcast aimed at making academia accessible to a wider audience. Described as a ‘ramble through the undergrowth of academia’, we hear how a conversation in the pub inspired this public engagement venture.
A long time ago, probably before some of my undergrads were even born, Nick and myself were once humble postdocs, toiling away in the dark basements of Stanford University. As homesick Brits, we both bonded over our mutual love of internet radio from back home. To cheer myself up as I plugged away trying to squeeze a bit of data from some probably futile experiments, my station of choice was XFM.
Now XFM doesn’t exist anymore, but when it did, it was a friend to lonely scientists like me. You could rely on it to keep you entertained all day. In particular I would ensure that I had a fairly mundane experiment to do when Adam and Joe broadcasted their regular show. Adam and Joe were my radio buddies. They were personable, amusing, seemed to share similar interests to me and, most importantly, were very, very funny. It was fantastic. Unfortunately, they had an annoying habit of broadcasting on a Saturday morning, when the west coast of the US was asleep. It was then that I first found out how to best use podcasts.
How did you get started?
If you haven’t come across podcasts, they are like radio programmes that can be delivered automatically to your smart phone or tablet. They can be about anything. You can listen to them at any time. Sometimes they’re distillations of the best bits of a regular radio programme, like Desert Island Discs, which allows you to avoid timing your experiments with the radio. Other times they can be exciting real-life talking-book dramas, like the amazing Serial. They can be funny like Masterpiece Bookshelf, or even about science including the excellent Level up Human or the Infinite Monkey Cage. The podcasts that I like listening to personally are the ones where you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation between people that you wouldn’t normally hear.
And that’s where we decided to have a go ourselves…
About a year ago, Nick and I met in London to chat about some collaborative work we were doing. As usual we went for a pint afterwards and amused each other with our highly witty science-based repartee. Conversation promptly turned to Adam Buxton’s new podcast, and we thought, surely other people could benefit from the comedy gold we were wasting on each other in the pub! So we decided to have a go ourselves and TheScienceShed was born.
As you all know, public engagement and science communication is IMPACT. These days, you have to show that you’re trying to engage with ‘stakeholders’ – the public. So why not have fun doing it? That’s what we thought anyway.
How have things developed?
Our first podcast was an elastic bands and string attempt. We borrowed one poor-quality microphone, and recorded direct onto an old PC. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it was fun bumbling through, just like my experiments in the dark, we even made some jingles.
Together we travel through the murky undergrowth of scientific endeavour, trying to amuse each other along the way. In our rambling chit-chats, we’ve explored topics such as how you might remove an embarrassing tattoo through the power of light, why horny toads caused a serious bun-fight in the story of evolution and how you might hide your Nobel Prize if you got invaded by Nazis.
Has the podcast been a success?
The feedback from the podcast has been hugely positive from both academics and non-scientist alike. We’ve had many thousands of listens, from countries as far-flung as Peru, Kuwait and Kazakhstan. If you want to find out a bit more, have a read of this article the Royal Society of Chemistry did about us and our public engagement philosophy.
In addition more than anything else, we enjoy having a good excuse for a meet-up and a chat about science together, and hopefully to try out a bit of (real) collaborative work. I just hope that along time from now, some poor postdoc is not taking us into the lab for company!