TV, Tots and tours of the universe
“You can get caught up in the science and getting out and talking to people allows you to step back and ask who will this help, who am I having an impact on?” - Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, UCL
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock recounts a story of giving a presentation on space to a class of deaf children. Among them was a young boy, a voluntary mute, who had never spoken. After Dr Aderin-Pocock’s talk, the boy asked his first question to his teacher: about space. “That is an unusually powerful reaction,” admits Dr Aderin-Pocock, “but it illustrates how inspiring science can be and what an individual scientist can achieve when they get out and start talking to people.”
Dr Aderin-Pocock is not your usual STFC-funded space scientist. For one, she does her research in industry. She is a space scientist for Astrium Ltd where until recently she led the optical instrumentation group, making bespoke instrumentation for NASA and the European Space Agency. She holds an STFC Science in Society fellowship through University College London where she worked from 1999 to 2004. The fellowship buys out two days a week to pursue science communication and public engagement activities. She uses this time to make documentaries on space science for the BBC and Teachers TV and has become a well-known broadcast commentator for space-related news. She has delivered talks to thousands of school children all over the UK, often accompanied by her baby daughter, who at the age of two is already a regular on the science communication circuit.
When you question scientists who do public engagement about why they do what they do there is often an underlying obligation to make their research accessible to the people whose taxes make their work possible. For Dr Aderin-Pocock the initial motivation to start doing science communication came from a more commercial perspective.
“I fell into science communication as a necessity. I was recruiting for optical scientists in the UK and just couldn’t find anyone. This got me thinking about why this was and whether the dearth of scientists was due to the fact that young people just didn’t know where a career in science could lead them. I wanted to do something about this.”
What began as something that Dr Aderin-Pocock would have to use her annual leave to pursue has flowered into a second career. She has set up her own small business giving ‘Tours of the Universe’ talks to young people and is in demand for TV work. How, though, does she fit this in with her paid research work?
“My science communication does have an impact on the work I do. It can be difficult to manage, especially if I have to drop everything for a TV interview; but at the same time the benefits are multiple,” she says. “From a purely business perspective sometimes having someone with a media profile can be good for the company image. But there are also the transferable skills: the ability to take fairly complex ideas and break them down into something straightforward and communicate it to different levels of understanding is invaluable in my business role as a project leader”.
There are also benefits for her science research too: “You can get caught up in the science and getting out and talking to people allows me to step back and ask who will this help, who am I having an impact on? I find that people outside of the industry are able to offer a much broader view of what we should do with optical instruments and how it might be used. For instance, climate change can be a very emotive subject often seen as a political hot potato, but when I discuss how we are using satellites to understand and monitor the effects of climate many people show a much greater interest and even make suggestions of things we may be able to do in the future. Putting that together with scientific knowledge provides me with an insight I would not get if I stayed in my lab.”
As a commercial scientist the economic pathway to impact of Dr Aderin-Pocock’s research is clearly set out. Science communication has given her the opportunity to forge another pathway to impact; one that aims to inspire young people to study science and become scientists. This is much harder to quantify, but perhaps in the future the number of physicists and space scientists who say ‘Maggie Aderin inspired me to do science’, will offer some measure of success.