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How to Be a Human Being: a Lesson I Learned from the South Side Science Festival

“So what are you studying?” Jerry, a janitor and new friend of mine, asked me to take the elevator to the second floor of my apartment building.

“Astronomy!” I answered with a smile and more than a few fun facts about astronomy in my back pocket.

“Astronomy!” he replied enthusiastically. “I’m a fish, what does that mean?”

For decades, poster sessions and conference talks have prepared young astronomers and scientists in general how to explain their research to audiences in their field and beyond. But what about learning how to get your research out to the general public? what about kids After spending countless years studying the effects of how “the spin-flip energy level of hydrogen can affect the radiation received from quasar number 4983240,” it can be difficult to know how to do it in a fun and engaging way about Your research may not know anything at all about your field. The skills astronomers learn in science to communicate their research may not be the same skills needed to be effective in public relations. But don’t worry, you already have the skills needed to be a great science communicator! All you have to do is be human.

And that’s exactly what I realized on a bright Saturday morning at the University of Chicago. With tents and booths scattered across campus, families with children of all ages came to enjoy the first annual South Side Science Festival. Scientists from a wide range of disciplines demonstrated everything from extracting DNA from strawberries to handling butterflies. But as a writer for Astrobites, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the astronomy booths organized by Juliet Crowell, UChicago’s director of education and public relations for CMB experiments. I was excited at the prospect of learning something new, but had no idea how much was in store for me.

how to be human

Lesson 1: Be creative!

Find unique ways to grab your audience’s attention

My first stop was at one of the booths hosted by the South Pole Telescope (SPT) group. These astronomers study the cosmic microwave background (CMB), light almost as old as the universe itself. At the first table, I watched children put their hands in ziplock bags insulated with lard, feathers, or cotton before putting them in a Buckets of ice water dove. Meanwhile, graduate students Wei Quan and Paul Chichura told the children about the conditions at the South Pole and what animals lived there. Well, that hardly seems like astronomy. I thought. Shouldn’t we save ourselves the wildlife biologists from talking about animals? where is the science

“Some of the sciences can be a bit esoteric and intangible. When I’m talking to you and just holding up something you can’t touch, can’t hold, it’s really difficult to keep someone’s interest and engagement. Juliet told me about public relations in a one-on-one interview. “[Scientists] They may want to focus on talking about their research, and adding an activity to draw in the public to show them how exciting space is can be just as important. You want to inspire them to listen to you and get excited about science.”

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That was the first lesson I learned about public relations: you have to give people a reason for doing it want to learn about your science before actually talking about it! Given the background of presenting my research at conferences, I naively believe that the most important aspect of scientific outreach was to convey as much scientific information as possible to my audience. After all, I already had an avid audience of science enthusiasts—why should I have to convince them that science is fun?

But in public relations, learning how to talk about your science isn’t everything. Embrace your natural creativity and show your audience why outer space is cool! Let your audience play with the wafers you make in your labs, have them draw their own scientifically accurate black hole, or show them all those beautiful astronomical images you spend days zooming out in DS9. These experiences will be as unforgettable as the science you teach them.

Lesson 2: Be yourself

Don’t be afraid to show your personality!

The next SPT booth I visited was a photo op. Children and young people were invited to don the special extreme-weather parkas that South Pole scientists wear when they work on SPT. Once wrapped up, they faced a beautiful backdrop of the South Pole, a stunning aurora painting the sky above the telescope. Standing alongside was research scientist Tom Crawford, a senior scientist with the SPT group who is keen to answer any questions curious passers-by might have about the South Pole and the science being conducted there. It was easy to see why this booth had an experienced scientific communicator like Tom on standby, but I couldn’t help but stare at the photo booth. It was creative enough to draw people in, but what could a photo op teach the public if it wasn’t science? Once you’ve inspired your audience, how do you start making an impact?

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Plain and simple, “It’s about allowing kids to see themselves as scientists,” Juliet explained. “The idea is that you talk to a scientist with the South Pole. You can wear these clothes. you come to be the scientist. What often happens is exactly that I am the scientist and you are the general public. But it should be: How do I dress you? How do I get you to introduce yourself as a scientist?”

This was the second lesson I learned about public relations: once you’ve engaged your audience, you should try to make real connections. When presenting my research, I often get into the habit of putting on my “scientist persona.” I explain my research calmly and professionally, almost as if in an interview; I believe so should talk about science. But sometimes, this may not always be the most effective way to manage public relations. Sometimes just being yourself can be far more powerful. You’re just as cool as the science you do!

Lesson 3: Be passionate

Share your enthusiasm for science with others!

My final stop was at a table hosted by a group of exoplanet experts. There were a ton of different activities at their table, including making your own comet out of tinfoil, foam balls and ribbon, or scratching your own alien. I could never pass up the opportunity to create an alien! As I scraped away, I spoke to graduate student Louise Gagnon about why she volunteered for the festival and how she got into public relations in general.

“There was an observatory that I went to when I was younger called the JJ McCarthy Observatory. They had open observatory nights for the public to attend and it was such a cool coming of age experience. It was the thing that inspired me to get into astronomy and why I love doing outreach.”

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As Louise spoke, I couldn’t help but recall Julia’s words: “I spent sixty days sailing as an instructor on a geoscience research vessel, and the chief engineer on that vessel was from New Zealand. As a child, he collected sand dollars and other items from the beach and placed them along his bathtub. It’s about finding the first spark. Even if people do not understand all of science or are interested in other scientific fields/professions, they can feel your passion.”

And just like that, the whole picture of public relations came together. Every researcher had their first spark that inspired them to do science. It could be as simple as thinking the night sky looks cool, or as philosophical as wondering where our place in the universe is. Whatever the case, the true impact of public relations is using your own passion to give others the first spark of science. While sometimes it feels like you don’t make a huge difference in someone else’s life, sometimes it just takes a few seashells to make a difference.

The Final Lesson: Anyone Can Outreach!

Although I returned home from the South Side Science Festival with my own comet and extraterrestrial in hand, I really came home richer in knowledge. I’ve learned that being an effective science communicator can be easier than you think. All you need is a little bit of creativity, a little bit of personality and a little bit of passion – things we all already have inside of us.

At the end of the day, public relations is not about learning how best to explain all the complexities of the CMB like academic communication might teach us. It’s really about that persons in conversation with Persons. It’s all about being human. Because although we all come from different walks of life, we all have one thing in common: we can all become great scientists.

So I encourage you, whoever you are, student or graduate, professor or science hobbyist, to get involved in outreach if you are interested. It’s not scary! There will always be people like Juliet by your side to help you every step of the way. Whether you’re a Pieces or a Leo, you already have the passion, personality, and creativity you need to make a big impact in someone else’s life.

Edited by: Sasha Warren

Selected picture credits: The University of Chicago

About Kayla Kornoelje

I am a first year graduate student at the University of Chicago studying cosmology and the cosmic microwave background. Outside of research, I love writing sci-fi, drawing, petting my cat and hanging out on Twitter @kayla_kornoelje!

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