What the Quantum?
Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices
What the Quantum?
A career in outreach provides creative opportunities close to scienceBy:
Jenny Hogan, Outreach and Media Relations Manager, Centre for Quantum Technologies
With a week to go, I was worried. Almost six months earlier, we had launched a competition for short films inspired by quantum physics. It was an outreach project aimed at encouraging people to engage creatively with science. We had asked, “Does the idea of a quantum multiverse fill your head with stories? Can you picture a quantum superposition?” With little time left until the deadline, there were disappointingly few entries. I was also questioning the wisdom of our open-ended suggestion that people show us how quantum physics made them think about the world rather than try to explain the physics.
I am the outreach and media relations manager of the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT), a research center hosted by the National University of Singapore. The center has more than 200 staff and students, and outreach is an important part of its mission. We aim to run activities that nudge young students toward science, inform people about some of the remarkable ideas in our area of research, and show why it makes sense to spend tax dollars on curiosity-driven research as well as applied science—all while trying to make science fun.
The Quantum Shorts film competition in 2012 was one of our most fun projects, and I needn’t have been anxious. We had teamed up with New Scientist magazine, a partnership that gave us an international reach we couldn’t have achieved on our own. A heap of submissions arrived in the competition’s final hours. The film that eventually won was a marvelously bizarre but scientifically rich stop-motion animation. In under three minutes, it told the story of a multiverse-hopping girl with a banana-shaped quantum computer phone. In the end we considered the competition so successful that we ran another one in 2013, this time for brief pieces of fiction (“flash fiction”) inspired by quantum physics. Quantum Shorts 2013 had as media partners the magazine Scientific American, the sci-fi and fantasy publisher Tor Books, and Tor.com. The competition drew over 500 entries from around the world.
People working in scientific outreach come from diverse backgrounds. My route was through science writing. I studied physics in the UK as an undergraduate, and I was set on being a science journalist. I wrote for the student newspaper and did short internships before I graduated, and longer ones afterward. This led me to jobs with New Scientist and later with Nature. After family circumstances moved me to Singapore, a former colleague put me in touch with CQT. It was a lucky break for me that the center director happened to be looking for someone to manage science communication. I started work at CQT in fall 2010.
One of the attractions of writing about science is getting to dip in and out of the most interesting subjects. Perhaps unwisely, I once described myself in a writer’s bio as having been led to journalism by a broad interest in science and a short attention span. The broad interest in science part was fine; the short attention span part would have been better spun as “enjoying variety.” Both attributes are useful for a job in outreach.
As well as coordinating big projects involving outside partners, the CQT outreach team helps to set up visits to the center, organizes public talks, and participates in exhibitions. We sometimes host writers and artists for residencies. We also produce leaflets and reports, provide news and images for the center’s website, and update its social media pages. We prepare and issue press releases. We handle ad hoc requests from CQT scientists ranging from making presentation slides to proofreading grant applications. This is not an exhaustive list. Every week I have the opportunity to use a wide range of skills, from getting along with people and handling administration tasks, to crafting articles and coding simple web pages.
Part of this variety is a function of belonging to a small team. In a larger organization, roles may be narrower. It’s something to think about when considering jobs, which kind of environment will suit you. For me, doing many different things is one of my favorite aspects of the work, second to sharing my enthusiasm for physics with others. I also like the environment of academia, and a role in outreach is a good way to stay close to science without being a scientist.
If you are considering a career in outreach, try volunteering first. For example, find out about programs your department or SPS chapter may already run, ask your city’s science museums or science festivals if they take volunteers, or even approach schools to find out if they invite scientists into their classrooms. Volunteering in outreach can help you to hone your communication skills; it can also provide contacts and experience that could ultimately help you land a job. If you would like to further develop your skills in science communication, many universities offer formal courses covering this broad field.
Jobs with research organizations aren’t the only way to be involved in science outreach. I am inspired by some of the people who promote science through their own platforms, such as blogging and performing. When we were planning our film competition, we had in mind some of the science-themed YouTube channels that have millions of subscribers. Readers of this magazine may be familiar with MinutePhysics, for example. If you have that kind of talent, just start using it! //