Churchill Fellowship: Engagement at Yale

For the second part of my Churchill Fellowship I took the train from Boston to New Haven, the home of Yale University. I caught up with scientists in the Geology and Geophysics group, visited the amazing Peabody Museum (definitely one of my new favourite museums - more below) and met up with science writer and blogger Carl Zimmer.

I was extremely grateful to Carl for giving up some time to meet with me. I think it is important to speak with communicators as well as scientists as they are experts in knowing both how science works and also how to engage the public about science.

We spoke about how the low barrier to entry on social media (no cost, no paperwork) makes it easy for scientists to put themselves out there online. But, how they choose to use social media platforms is up to them.

The Yale Graduate building
For Carl, he said the use of social media by scientists is interesting as you can see what really excites them about the work they are doing. Scientists share when they are happy with their work and discuss at length elements of their work that would not be covered in press releases. Giving you an access to their daily lives that you otherwise would not see.

He also uses it as a filter mechanism - keeping up with everything in science is impossible and so Twitter can help filter quickly through lots of information and pick out the most interesting papers and stories.

One downside is trying to find a balance between being switched on and concentrating on other work, it's too easy to be online all the time.

We also spent some time thinking about the future. Podcasts and video have created new and eager audiences for science through the use of smartphones (I will be exploring this in more depth a little later on the trip). There's been a decline in quality blog comments and discussion tends to happen away from the original article and commentator. Is there a way of pulling that discussion back together and what would be the benefits? Establishing quality interactions online has always been a difficult thing to do.

As I was in Yale over the weekend I had plenty of time to explore. A friend from my PhD Sean McMahon, who is now a post-doctoral researcher in Geology and Geophysics at Yale,  gave me a fantastic tour of the university and surrounding area. Like many universities Yale is also home to a number of museums and has significant collections in art and science.

Sean in the Yale Library
There are lots of interesting details on the Yale buildings if you look close enough

Yale is home to the Peabody Museum of Natural History which has a fantastic fossil and dinosaur collection. Painted on the walls is a pretty famous mural too, 'The age of reptiles'

Dinosaur collections at the Peabody Museum

What I loved the most about the museum was the incredible dioramas. The are created to make it appear  as though you are looking out on a natural habitat. They used a curved background and were were created by the artists Perry Wilson and Frances Lee Jaques along with the Peabody's Chief Preparator Ralf C. Morrill. The backgrounds matched perfectly with the foreground. Can you tell in the picture below where the foreground ends and the background starts?

Dioramas at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale

The museum was of particular interest to me as a hub for engagement. It's interesting to see how university museums work with researchers to engage with with public audiences. As museums have a year-round offering and infrastructure to connect with the public it can mean there's a ready audience for researchers to interact with. Researchers can add value to the museum too as they can discuss the relevance of the collections. The Peabody museums' collections, (there's 13 million objects), are used for research purposes.

The Geology building, apparently built to represent a mine
I even stepped back into the lab to 'help' Sean (actually, some genuine help in using a bit of equipment in the lab that I had used (once) during my PhD. 
I spoke to researchers about how they have worked with the museum for engagement events and outreach schools events. These activities have all been be face-to face, rather than digital, and have included drives such as the Bioblitz that has run in the past and frequent 'meet the researcher' type events and public talks. It was good to see the two organisations running closely together to benefit each other. Many university institutions have museums and collections but they do exist as separate entities with different management, not all museums and researchers have a such a close relationship.

The other positive thing I noted from those I spoke with at Yale was that the museum is linked to research right through research grant applications, where appropriate. This approach solidifies the partnership between them and provides some funding benefit in return for the museum which is important for its sustainability.

The Peabody museum does have a significant social media output with a Twitter account, YouTube channel (with a great video on the creation of the dioramas) and a Facebook page.

More of the Yale Campus

Meeting with the communications team and social media lead, Jim Shelton and Mark Stricker,  at Yale was really informative. They spoke about how the digital landscape has shifted the way news communications is carried out. Now quite often they find the Yale News website as being the news source online, rather then the previous model where their role was to distribute news via press releases and a journalist writing about the press release would become the news source. Universities are increasingly becoming their own 'News Hubs'. This gives some increased flexibility in how they approach news too.

They specifically target some news to social media using video and images. This approach means that a wider spread of research-led news is distributed by the university across different platforms than the press release model could ever manage.

They also host informal 'brown-bag' lunches to share best practice between those using social media which I think is a great way of stimulating discussion and sharing knowledge. Importantly, this can also help prevent duplication of efforts within the university.

The use of social media isn't imposed on everyone, but those that wish to use it can be supported in getting the most out of it. Like many other institutions there is no social media 'policy' and this approach removes barriers to engaging online. They also have some best practice advice for those that wish to get online.

While in New Haven I also managed to sample some of the local 'delicacies', pizza - it was great. I also attended a public talk delivered by Sir Roger Penrose on 'before the beginning and beyond eternity' to a packed-out audience. The talk was great, and the best presentation using an overhead projector I have ever seen.

Sir Roger Penrose at Yale

The students of Yale have their own science engagement initiatives. There's an active science magazine (although sadly I didn't get to meet up with anyone from this group) and the 'science diplomats'. I met with Dr Kenneth Buck who talked me through the activities of this group, mostly arranging face-to-face interactions with public audiences through talks. This group plays an important role in passing on expertise about engaging with a public audience to graduate students and post-doctoral researchers at Yale as before each talk they provide hands on training for each of the presenters. They aren't doing much online engagement yet but would like to expand in this area, so watch this space.

The Yale art gallery is fantastic and had a great exhibit on the favourite equations of mathemeticians and physics, Concinnitas. The museum has some great non-science art too, but this particular exhibit seemed the most relevent to include on the blog. I'm not sure I have a favourite equation of my own!

Finally, during my time in New Haven I went to visit the new medical school Qunnipiaic University. A former pharmacology colleague, Dr Douglas McHugh is part of the teaching faculty at the institution. 

It's a fantastic medical training facility with a great use of technology. The course has also put some learning materials on YouTube for use by students. They were surprised to learn (without any promotion) that these have been shared and picked up around the globe - showing that if you put something online that people are looking for, they will find it! Now something that wasn't originally created as a promotional tool or engagement activity is generating lots of interest. I suppose that it is a reminder that sometimes in the online environment you can't tell what is going to do well and reach a global audience and what isn't. 

The next stop on my trip is Washington DC! 

This June I am undertaking a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to look at the communication of science via social media. I will be traveling to North America and I am looking to connect with people as I go. You can read more about it here.


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