My first guest blog, “Being BOLD and Taking Responsibility” at the LFIA’s Adelaide forum

I recently attended an Adelaide based forum on “Building Nutrition”, held by the Living Future Institute of Australia (LFIA). It was fascinating to say the least. Afterwards I was contacted and asked if I was interested in writing a guest blog on the forum experience – and of course said “Yes!”

Here’s how it starts…

“There are times when you hear about real people taking small steady steps toward achieving their goals and making changes. You listen with a sense of satisfaction, the changes might not be huge but at least they’re happening. This is how most change comes about, “green” or not.

Then there are times when this slowness of pace gets to you a little… You begin to hanker for some mountainous shift in the ways things work, some outrageous plan or project or people just getting on with things – regardless of apparent restrictions. For me, these are the moments that make all the small steps and the consistent effort worthwhile. And it doesn’t have to be something I’m personally involved in, I’ll accept inspiration from anywhere!

This is where the latest Adelaide Forum from the Living Future Institute of Australia (LFIA) comes into the story…”

Follow the link to read more on the LFIA website: https://living-future.org.au/blog/

 

A Guest Lecture on Urban Agriculture

Last week I gave my first ever guest lecture for a UniSA course called “Environment: A Human Perspective”. There were about 50-60 first year students present and my nerves came on strong at the beginning. But I made it through, and listening back I think I managed to get my passion and enthusiasm for urban agriculture across to the students –  I even made them laugh couple of times!… intentionally, of course.

Part #1 of the lecture covered the basics of urban agriculture (UA), some of its differences around the world and how common it is in South Australia.

In Part #2 (which is still being edited) I describe how there is more to UA than simply the productive side (how much food people can grow) – there is also a strong social value side. In the middle there’s some interaction where I ask the students what it takes to grow food from start to finish, and how this in turn influences your research design.

I mention both my honours research on the social reaction of people to aquaponics, in addition to how some of the local councils react to the idea of aquaponics. And finished up with a little on my PhD research on the productive capacity and social value of UA via the Edible Gardens Project.

I know there are a couple a little rough moments in here. But I would still love to get any feedback you may have.

Enjoy!
Georgia the Urban Ag. Scientist

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 4

The fourth instalment of Dr Randy Olson‘s book explores the trait of “likability” and its place in scientific communication.

Part 4: Don’t be so unlikeable.

Even just the title of this chapter made me think – “What does he mean ‘unlikeable’? Is he talking about always agreeing with people? Or trying to look pretty and make friends?” It turns out there’s a bit more to it than that…

To begin with, Olson once again describes the value of scientists as society’s truth tellers, or as the “designated drivers” of reality. Scientists are those who resist getting swept up by fantasy and instead try to take a good hard look at the facts.

Scientists play an important role – there’s no denying it. However the question remains, can you be a scientist and still be liked?

Because science is based upon the process of critical evaluation, pointing out flaws and faults in arguments and ideas, can become second nature. But this sometimes aggressive process can be taken as un-neccessarily critical, arrogant and just plain mean when seen by the general public. Olson warns scientists to be careful of “rising above” (acting superior, arrogant or smarter-than) when communicating with people from a non-scientific background.

From previous chapters we already know there’s substance (what you say) and there’s style (the way you say it). Now would be nice to think that the substance of an idea, process or project, is what people pay attention to. Yet as discussed by both Randy Olson and Richard Lanham, when it comes to large public venues with broad audiences (or any time when the amount of information being communicated reaches excessive levels) then people’s minds make a shift from substance to style.

It becomes easier to evaluate the presenter, then to evaluate the information they’re sharing.

So how does Olson recommend you can become more likeable?

  1. First impressions count. People can form an opinion of you within the first few seconds of meeting you. Try to appear friendly, calm and organised (neat).
  2. Even if someone disagrees with something you say, don’t rise above. Stay grounded, calm and try to understand where they’re coming from. Don’t be dismissive.
  3. Shift from using only your brain to using humour, emotion and passion. If you can work “fun” in there too, then you’re golden.

Does being likeable mean you cannot use critical thinking? No, not at all. It means you can use both positivity (a form of spontaneity or creativity) and THEN negativity (critical thinking).

Options for interviews:

One opportunity for using both positivity and negativity which Olson gives is during an interview. When asked a question, he says you can partition your answers, for example by beginning with a range of creative possibilities and then imposing some discipline by moving on to, “But a lot of evidence points to the most logical explanation of ….”. This shifting back and forth provides your interview with much more interest than simply sticking to the pure logical results the entire time.

My own recent attempts at likability

By launching my Edible Gardens project, I have been doing most of the promotion myself. Often I have only a few minutes to get explain my project and make a good impression. So thank goodness for all my hospitality experience with waitressing, bartending etc. I am more than comfortable introducing myself, smiling and chatting to new people.

But it’s not just my hospitality experience making the difference – I am working hard at being likeable.

Lots of smiling, nodding when people talk, taking in their perspectives and ideas or concerns, learning a bit about their circumstances to see whether or not my project is right for them – as much as learning whether they are right for my project.

By making a social effort and focussing on the mutual benefits, I am getting through to most of the people I meet, and have had many project volunteers.


Want to read all the brilliant stories and details of, “Don’t be such a scientist” for yourself? You can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!

Project Launch!

After almost two years of planning, I am utterly excited to introduce you all to the Edible Gardens project!disc_edible-gardens-logo-small

Many people across Australia grow some of their own food. In fact in South Australia, 59% of households do so (Wise, 2014). As most of us now live in urban areas, this food production is taking place in cities, towns and suburbs. Urban agriculture is any form of urban food production from growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, to even keeping urban livestock such as chickens, fish or bees

Have you ever wondered how much food your garden actually produces each year? Or how much water, time and money went into producing that food? The Edible Gardens project wants to find out.

The project is currently open to all South Australian home, community and school gardeners. Feel free to share this with anyone you know living in South Australia who produces urban food.

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“Preparation” is the word

The first step was to take stock. According to the University of South Australia I have four years to design my research, collect sufficient data, analyse it, write it all up and then publish / present / submit a thesis.

So boy did I make plans. I started with:

  • A four year budget with price ranges
  • A Gantt Chart timeline complete with contingencies
  • Drafts for every step of the project, estimating and imaging as best I could what each of those steps would entail. This way, even though I may not look at some of those drafts again for another six months – by the time that particular step came along I already had an idea of what I needed to do
  • Draft promotional posters with various taglines to suit different types of gardeners
  • A list of what participants would get from taking part in this project
  • Another list on what the value of this project was for different interested parties, e.g. local Councils or the Natural Resources Management (NRM) Board

Even with all this preparation I have still experienced delays and mishaps amounting to approximately 6-8 months. Happily, I’ve been told that this is considered both standard and reasonable for most PhD projects.

Yet there is still the unexpected…

There were two things I underestimated at the beginning of my PhD. The first was the reciprocal nature of citizen science. The Edible Gardens project is supported by the Discovery Circle – an Australian citizen science initiative working to better connect people with nature. Citizen science involves opening a project to contribution by interested public. Some projects open their entire process from design, data collection, analysis and reporting. A more typical approach is engaging people in the data collection phase of the research. The data collected and all the results are usually freely available to the public.

This meant my project had to be engaging and interactive enough to keep people’s interest. It needed a whole web interface for registering gardens, searching through the list of participating gardens, entering data, viewing results and a way to compare the results of different participants.

project-postcard2

The second underestimation was the sheer amount of work, time and talking I would have to do to promote the project. We designed postcards (easy to distribute, display and take home), clever Facebook posts, guest blog posts and numerous versions of short blurbs. I’ve visited community centres, Council offices, libraries, community gardens, gardening groups, markets and events. Sometimes I feel like a tv with only one channel.

seed-freedom-food-festival-2016-photo-by-david-cann
Chatting to Stephen at the Seed Freedom Food Festival. Photo by the talented David Cann.

Why it’s worth it

Since making the project open to the public (about 3 weeks ago) we have had 140 survey responses from all around Metropolitan Adelaide and from some gardeners as far away as Mount Gambier, the Yorke Peninsula and Port Lincoln.

Of these 140 people, 95 of them have volunteered to collect data on their own gardens and 73 of them are keen to attend a focus group on the social value of growing your own food. I love response rates like this.

Now it’s back to work – to infinity and beyond!


If you’re interested in finding out more about the Edible Gardens project visit the webpage at: http://www.discoverycircle.org.au/projects/edible-gardens/

 

Crusaders of Science

A recent article by Richard P Grant on why scientists are loosing the communication fight, really struck a chord with me.

Richard comes across as actually saddened by the way in which many scientists attempt to communicate with the public. He points out that most of the people who actively argue and disagree with science are just people. They’re people who want their concerns, fears and needs listened to and taken into account. And instead of doing this, we scientists have the tendency to fight the good fight and defend science at all costs.

This article certainly made me wonder – is the habit of defence so ingrained in all scientists that it’s actually eroding our ability to communicate?

Now I don’t know any scientists who habitually browbeat people into accepting their point of view. However, there is an element of defence in everything scientists do. We are taught to defend our research to other scientists. We defend the value of our research to funders, companies and governments. And then we go right on and defend our research to the public, even though perhaps, this is one group of people with which we should instead be conversing, inviting in and offering the chance to engage in what we do.

But what about frustration?

I feel frustrated when I overhear someone’s conversation about “the myth of climate change”. I feel frustrated when my partner or someone in my family hears the debate of a science skeptic on the radio or tv and says, “Oh that’s a good point”. As someone who has studied long and hard to obtain environmental science knowledge, it can be really hard  when other people don’t automatically understand. But to be fair, not having that knowledge isn’t their fault. Everyone has different knowledge and has mastered different skills.

Maybe my frustration could be more useful as a warning that my defensive tipping point  is fast approaching. Because as romantic as it may sound to be a crusader for science, our defensive fervour could be getting in the way of true communication. I for one am going to try and listen a little more and defend a little less.


To read the full article by Richard P Grant, click here.

Confronting the 3 Minute Thesis

I finally sat down after the first School of NBE round of the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) and thought, “Well I tried but I don’t think I’m getting through.”

This was because I have never been so overwhelmingly nervous during a presentation ever before in my life. At one point I even remember thinking, “If I just lie down right here on the ground… will everyone just go away and leave me alone?”

So thank goodness I did better than I thought I did.

The 3MT was developed by the University of Queensland and has been running since 2008. It’s a deceptively simple concept:

Can you take your 4 (or 5 or 6 or even 7 years!) of PhD research and explain it to a non-expert audience in under 3 minutes? Oh and you’re only allowed one slide behind you, with no moving parts or sounds. Sounds like a reasonable challenge yes?

In that first school round I came second (which I was not expecting at all).

Three weeks later in the Division round, the presentations were part of an all day Division Information Day. This means it was held in a large sunken lecture room with more than 100 academics coming and going throughout the day.

Again I was very nervous. But thank goodness I was still slightly less nervous than the last time. I tried to set myself up to succeed by leaving the room about three presentations before my own, and using some of the warm ups and voice exercises I learnt in voice training. By the time I returned to the lecture hall – it was time for me to present.

As I was slightly calmer I was able to use my hands to gesture more, I was able to smile more and even move around a little. However I still stumbled on some words and when trying to move on to the next part or my talk.

The others who were also presenting did mostly really well. Everyone stayed within the three minute mark. Some had brilliant voice projection, and some were a little hard to hear in this large padded room. Most of them moved around while they spoke, and used hand gestures to great effect.

What I took away from this was that not only should you practice a lot, but you really should try to practice in front of as many people as you can muster. With only three minutes to present, you don’t have any time to relax into your talk once you get going. You need to start already relaxed.

For anyone interested in watching the 3MT Final Round for the University of South Australia, it’s on Wednesday the 17th of August from 10-12 at the City West Campus. Good luck to all the presenters!


And does has anyone had a similar experience with the 3MT? Or do you have any ideas or suggestions for how to begin a talk calm, instead of having to calm down during your talk? Let me know!

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 3

Here we cover the third instalment of Dr. Randy Olson‘s book which gets a little deeper into the “arouse and fulfil” tactic of getting people interested in the point you’re trying to make. And although that simple two-step process can work just fine, one way to mix it up is via storytelling…

Part 3: Don’t be such a poor storyteller

By now you may have noticed… many scientists aren’t brilliant storytellers. They can be passionate and big picture oriented, but also long-winded, detail obsessed or even dull. In Hollywood, people study for years to learn how to tell a good story. Scientists study and train for the complete opposite – to always constructively review whatever they are told, and to keep an eye out for any inaccurate details. But to get your information across to a non-academic audience… you have to be able to tell a good story

You begin with your raw material. For scientists this is your data, results, interviews, conclusions or realisations (admit it – there’s a lot). It may be in a jumble, or you may have it in the standard scientific structure: introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. Although that structure is perfect for the scientific world, it isn’t great for anyone else.

While working on his film, “Flock of Dodos”, Olson figured out that to go forwards with all of his raw material – he would have to go back to one of the simplest stories there is: there’s a man, a journey, a damsel, a dragon and a larger evil in the land. Then all of his raw material suddenly worked together like magic.

The trouble is, the simplicity of a good story is both its greatest strength in engaging people, but is also the biggest sticking point for those who cannot (or will not) suspend disbelief, and believe in the story they’re told.

Olson tells of his trouble when showing some of his films to scientists, how they simply could not stop themselves from constantly questioning what was occurring – “Could that really happen?” or, “I don’t think that detail is correct”. Olson goes so far as to call them the “designated drivers” of the storytelling audience, while everyone else sits there drinking in the wonder of the story.

I find this habit of constantly looking for flaws in everything a little inflexible. Yes, stories can be simple and tend to follow patterns we already know. But they’re not just for children. Most of us became scientists because we never quite lost our childlike fascination with the world. Scientific research begins with a simple curiosity that drives us to ask, “Why…?”. So why on earth can’t we accept the power and necessity of a good story sometimes?

The book then shifts to the challenge of Accuracy vs. Boredom. Scientists care most about how accurate something is. Almost everyone else cares slightly more about whether they’re bored or not. Olson goes so far as to call this, “The fundamental dilemma facing the world of science today”.

One way to overcome boredom is by introducing  a source of tension or conflict. Something to think around or overcome. By denying any challenges made to science, scientists are missing out on a potential opportunity where they could fight the source of conflict and triumph!

Olson winds up this chapter by unreservedly championing the fact that,

“Being concise” is not the same as “dumbing down”.

Yes, you will have to work harder to get down to the relatable true essence of what your research is about. But surely you will become more confident and comfortable in your own understanding, and your ability to share what you do. So see if you can’t weave a little storyline through your work the next time you have to talk to those outside the academic sphere.


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Happy Reading!

A WISE Event: All the Career Possibilities

One brisk Monday night, a large roomful of women gathered in the silver mirrored SAHMRI building to hear from three amazing women / successful scientists who have trodden a wide range of career pathways and ended up in jobs very different to those they first imagined.

The first speaker was Dr Kate Gridley, now a Research Coordinator in the Division of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia. Check out Dr Gridley’s homepage at – http://people.unisa.edu.au/Kate.Gridley

Dr Gridley started with showing us the difference between her assumed career path once she had finished studying, to the path she actually took – winding in and out of different positions.

The jump from hands on PhD research, to a more administerial position required a serious effort in translation. Mostly, the translation of all the skills Dr Gridley had honed during her PhD to be shown as applicable and valuable skills for non-research work. She spoke of learning to, “sell myself as an asset…” and, “remaining open to any options”.

Dr Gridley finished with asking us, the audience, to think more about our future career and to practice selling ourselves and our skills as transferable to any position.

Next we heard from Dr Kristin Alford, currently the Director of the Science Creativity Education (Sci. C. Ed.) Studio and part of the University of South Australia. The Sci.C.Ed. Studio is set to open in 2018 and will have a mixture of permanent and seasonal exhibits. To learn more about Sci.C.Ed check out their information page –  http://www.unisa.edu.au/science-creativity-education/

Dr Alford started off by comparing her current descriptive title of “A Futurist” with her incredibly technical PhD in Engineering Processes in QLD. The story of her career described incredible leaps from one position and field to the next, assisted by favourable impressions made on past colleagues, bosses and mentors. Dr Alford leapt into the field of science communication by becoming an advocate, communicator and educator for new nano-technology. She has also, until recently, been the licensee for TEDX Adelaide.

Dr Alford’s parting words were to never underestimate the value of your peers and that we should try to take every opportunity that comes our way, because… “how hard could it be?”

The final speaker for the night was Dr Ixchel Brennan, now a partner of Corporate Engagement and Development for UniSA Ventures at the University of South Australia. Follow the link to read her home page – http://people.unisa.edu.au/Ixchel.Brennan

She too began her education and career under very different circumstances. Dr Brennan completed a PhD in appetite and gut function and finished with the full success of many papers published, many conferences presented at, and plenty of career options. But although there were strong expectations for her to continue into an academic career, she felt this wasn’t for her.

Dr Brennan emphasised the importance of learning how to package your skills for varying contexts and careers. She spoke of the need to be able to effectively communicate your differentiated skill set, and that a PhD is so much more than just your research focus. It is also an intense crash course in all project management, communication and creative problem solving skills, so don’t sell yourself short.

Her final advice was to, “Resist the option of knowing what your dream job is”, as she had seen others do – because you never know what jobs will come along, or even what jobs will exist in the future.

From her own experiences, Dr Brennan told us some of the lessons she had learnt along the way:

  • Seek a mentor not form an academic position (they will give you a different perspective).
  • You do not always need to say “Yes” and your job doesn’t define who you are.
  • Be willing to work with people and in roles that push you outside your comfort zone. This is where you learn the most about yourself – what you’re good at and what you could improve.
  • Have confidence in your skills and your contribution.
  • Say “Thank you” and say it often.
  • Emotion does not equal weakness.
  • and finally, that “Authenticity will always shine through”.

It was a wonderful WISE event and I was so glad I attended. It was a relief to hear that these undeniably successful women had been through so many changes, upsets, choices and career transitions. I can’t speak for the other women who attended, but I for one am feeling much more hopeful and less stressed about where I might end up career-wise, after my PhD experience.


Thanks to all the event organisers, SAHMRI, the University of Adelaide, the University of South Australia and Flinders University, and a particular thank you to the speakers – you were inspiring!

Fresh Science at the Pub

Last Wednesday night, I attended the FreshScience talks at the Lion Hotel in North Adelaide. I was there to hear from all the South Australian based young researchers who had just been through two days of media and public communications training, and were now going to give a casual but short talk on their research in a pub setting.

The night was hosted by Sarah Brooker – Managing Director of ‘Science in Public’ , “We believe that the media have an appetite for science”. The presenting researchers were kept on their toes and didn’t even know which order they were to speak in. To make the time limit extra obvious, each speaker with given a birthday sparkler. They were to introduce themselves, have the sparkler lit, and then had until the fire ran out to tell the audience all about their work.

They did brilliantly. Most of the young researchers didn’t even seem to need their full sparkler time. They told us the basics of their work, and then would look down, surprised that the sparkler was still going and so they could tell us more. Much of what they said after their first spiel was more about the impact and importance of their work – how it was going to help people of change things. Often it was the most interesting part!

After their talk, each speaker was asked several questions by both Sarah Brooker and the audience. For some of the speakers, the answers merely expanded on what they had already outlined for us. But for a few, the questions and answer time provided a much clearer picture of what their work was about.

The topics varied considerably. We heard about a fascinating array of research. There was everything from using thermal maps of Mars to find liquid water underground, to phyto-absorbtion and -restoration of mining sites using acacia, to the impacts of greater fish oil consumption in pregnant women to lower the likelihood of allergies in their children, to using system dynamics software to help solve complex social problems, a number on severe brain, spinal cord and body trauma reactions and potential treatments, and one talk on a new sensor, sensitive enough to monitor the health of embryos during IVF.

The young researchers had spent the day working with different media representatives, learning how to convey and discuss their work with the media and the public. This night of talks was presented to a mostly academic audience, who were very interested in the scientific details of how the research developed, what the findings were and then what the broader applications were.

It was a brilliant night and I am keen to attend again next year to hear about the work of the next successful wave of young researchers.

P.S The Lion Hotel did a great job of hosting Fresh Science – just watch out for those extra hot chicken wings!


If you would like to know more about the FreshScience competition, or about Science in Public, check out their website at, http://www.scienceinpublic.com.au

 

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a scientist” Part 2

Here we cover the next part of Dr Randy Olson’s insightful book:

Part 2: Don’t be so literal minded

Olson builds on the first part of his book by describing some of the struggles scientists can have when trying to communicate to those outside of academia. Logical, literal and data based arguments (the head perspective) can be up against an unfair fight when emotional or instinctive arguments (the heart or gut perspectives) are used against them. And who else, besides the scientists themselves, pride themselves on using purely logical, literal and data-based arguments? No-one. Not governments or politicians. And not businesses or industries.

In this loud, information overloaded world – if you as a scientist are attempting to engage anyone outside of academia in the work you have done, it’s not always enough that your work is rigorous or has real-world implications. You will have to promote your work a little… or a lot, to be heard.

One place to start is by coming up with an interesting title for your paper / report / presentation / ‘call to action’/ project. It’s time to let go of being so literal. Olson states that the best titles are a mixture of, “elusive enough but familiar enough”. By this he means be elusive enough to be slightly mysterious, but familiar enough that people don’t instantly switch off because it’s too alien.

We are then introduced to the idea of “Arouse and Fulfil”, also known as “Motivate then Educate”.

This is about getting people intrigued and wanting to know more, before you give them the logic and data. Olson talks about how scientists can get stuck in “Fulfil and Fulfil” habits, or just educating without bothering to do any motivating. In contrast, Hollywood can get caught up doing too much motivating and then never moving on the educating. All style and no substance.But the movie industry does do one thing right – they don’t assume that their work (a movie) will just sell itself. They have huge advertising budgets and promote their work months ahead of release.

Now if scientists aren’t so great at the motivating side of things, what can they use to help them out? The answer according to Olson… is ART. Art is evocative. It stirs people, motivates people and gets them asking questions. And once people are asking questions, then we can cue the scientist to answer them.

Okay, so art can be a powerful visual medium. But what does this mean for scientists?

It means that you can complement your rigorous scientific work, with evocative visuals to help motivate and engage your audience. Any images in your presentations, or images that are part of promoting your work are incredibly important. Below is a small example of the same  powerpoint slide with and without any images. Which do you feel is more engaging?

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Even when teaching a lecture, visuals can be used to help “motivate” the students to want to know more. Olson describes having to teach students about the 35 major groups of vertebrates in biology – some of which are really cool… and some of which are just lots of worm types. You could spend an equal amount of time on each group, describing them. Or you could start with a short film which aims to entertain and not to educate. It would cover all the cool aspects of the different biological groups and get the students enthused to know more. Then you can hit them with all the necessary details and differences.

So for mass communication, keep in mind motivating and then educating. It can be used as a two part process, or as Olson’s next chapter expands… you can use it in a whole other way!


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!