Dr Nicola Stock on public engagement with science
Developing scientific activities that appeal to a broad audience, and the dream of becoming a professional musician.
Dr Nicola Stock is the Public Engagement with Research Manager at the Roslin Institute, where she supports scientists to engage a broad range of public audiences with their research. In this interview she talks with MSc Science Communication student Katie Smith about how she found herself pursuing a career in science communication and the challenges that this can pose.
What was your first job?
When I was at high school and during the university holidays when I was a student, I worked in a supermarket as a checkout assistant. Looking back, that was a great job for me because I got to interact with all of the customers and I really enjoyed that aspect.
How did you come to work in public engagement?
I studied science at the University of Cambridge, followed by a PhD at the University of St Andrews and a postdoc at Northwestern University in Chicago, specialising in virology. After a few years working as a postdoc, I realised my favourite parts of the role were presenting at lab meetings or speaking at conferences - bits that other researchers hated! Volunteering as a guide at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago further solidified my love for communicating science and interacting with people. I really missed the bigger picture perspective while working in my specific research area, and came to realise that being a lab researcher was not using my best skills. It was time for a career change.
Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?
I wear a lot of hats in my job now, which keeps me very busy. The role itself can be broken down into three main parts. The first is that I am, along with the Institute’s Academic Lead for Public Engagement, responsible for the strategy that sets out why Roslin Institute researchers do public engagement, who we engage with and how we will do it. Second, my team and I provide support and engagement training for our researchers. Although this does not always involve formal training sessions, we provide lots of opportunities for researchers to get first-hand public engagement experience and I work with them to include funding for engagement activities in their research grant proposals. The final part is the organisation of public engagement events for a variety of audiences on campus and across the country, often working with external partners. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work and logistical planning which goes into these events. This all requires a broad skillset, a lot of which I have had to pick up along the way.
Do you have a favourite project you have been involved with at the Institute?
It’s very hard to choose, and I’m tempted to say the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre as that’s something I’m very proud of, but for sheer variety it has to be the programme of events that we organised in 2016 to celebrate 20 years since Dolly the Sheep was born at the Roslin Institute. In the space of six months I had the opportunity to meet a Nobel Laureate, hear first-hand accounts of Dolly’s birth, life and death, commission (and eat) a Dolly-shaped birthday cake, and speak to hundreds of people about their recollections of Dolly and what she has meant for science in Scotland and beyond. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Dolly’s birth, so who knows, it might be time to revisit some of those memories.
Why did you decide to work at the Roslin Institute and what do you like the most about working here?
My previous job as Education Manager at the Centre for Life science centre in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, was focused on engaging school pupils with science and maths. While I really enjoyed the job, I didn’t get many opportunities to work with other audiences. I wanted to work with adults and families as well as school children, and so the flexibility of the job at Roslin, especially as it was a new post at the Institute, really appealed to me. I was also keen to reconnect with research, and use some of the skills gained during my research career.
I like a lot of things about working at the Roslin Institute. Probably the top one is that I am still very interested in science and I really enjoy learning about the research happening on site - especially the virology!
What are the challenges you experience as a science communicator?
Something that comes up a lot is deciding how much of the science to explain to the public. Everyone is so passionate about their research and they often work really hard to explain all of the details, but to deliver an engaging activity we have to start with the really big picture - what people are interested in - and work backwards towards the research. Although this can be tricky, I really enjoy the challenge. Sometimes we find that we don’t need to explain the details at all, and that conversations with the public about our research take us in really interesting and unexpected directions.
If you were not a science communicator what would you be doing?
I love singing and I have sung in choirs since I was at school. When I was in living in America, I sang with lots of professional musicians and it made me think about whether I could retrain as a singer and be paid for what I love to do. In reality I had not only left it rather late for such a career change, I also think I wouldn’t have the discipline to practise enough to be a professional singer. I’ve kept singing as a hobby though, am I’m currently a member of the Edinburgh Singers and Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Not being able to sing with either choir since March 2020 has definitely been one of the biggest challenges of Covid-19 for me.