If you follow me for a while, you might know already that one of the section of my blog is dedicated to interviewing people inside and outside academia that made their own success from scratch. Please look at the section Interview to Success to check the previous articles.
Today, I want to use this space to talk about Anna Zakrisson, a scientist who made her career out of science communication. Anna is a doctor in biology and studied at fancy institutions like Cambridge and the Max-Planck Institute. She also held the position as VP of Content at a fast-growing company. After this, she decided that she was better off doing her own things and educated people on the importance of science and science communication. Anna is a SCIENCE COMMUNICATOR. She works closely with world-renowned musicians and artists creating UNIQUE performances and events that transgress the ridiculous Victorian subject lines. Her main collaborative partner is the opera singer Joa Helgesson and aims to reach the general public with SCIENCE BY STEALTH and awaken curiosity and eagerness to learn more.
Over to Anna now.
Q: How and when you decided to become a scientist?
A: My path to science has been a bumpy ride. Directly after high-school, I didn’t even want to study. When I was 19, I sold everything I owned and left my country and went travelling in the Middle East and Africa for a couple of years. I finally ended up in England where my step-sister scraped me off the street and I started studying at Cambridge University. I now have a PhD.
Having said that, I have always been very interested in biology and medicine. Well, almost ridiculously interested. My parents are both in the natural sciences and I spent my childhood learning about the Swedish fauna and flora and visiting my father’s lab and my mum’s clinic. I think I might be one of the very few people on this planet who think that hospital and lab-disinfectants smell like home and cosy…
Q: Inside the wall of the ivory tower, science communication is still addressed as a waste of time. It keeps students and academics away from the “real science” that is doing research. You made a career out of your passion for communicating science? How did you do that?
Q: I frankly think that this is a bullshit attitude and that it’s causing much harm. I think this attitude and lack of communication is one of the reasons why the general public is showing an increased distrust in science. This in combination with an increasingly incompetent coverage of science in media has polarized society on important matters. It all feeds into the illusion that science is merely some sort of post-modern heap of opinions rather than a solid investigative method. The result is that people don’t understand what science is, how it works and hence don’t trust the results. We have a serious problem on our hands.
I’m not saying that every scientist should start a blog, but I do think they should open their cake-holes and talk about their work without being arrogant
I’ve heard enough scientists sneer about how “stupid people are” because “people” have no idea of some aspect of that particular scientist’s work. I have been that kind of asshole scientist myself and I feel embarrassed when I look back at my own behaviour. I was stupid.
If you think that a person has misunderstood an issue or topic, see it as an opportunity to talk about your work. Most of the time, and if you don’t do it in an arrogant manner, it turns out to become a very interesting conversation. However, I think that it should be compulsory for scientists to take courses in the science of science communication during their studies. Simply flashing people with facts rarely work. On the contrary, it can make the situation worse, but that’s a different story that we can talk about another time.
I also think that if you are publicly funded, you have a responsibility to communicate your work in some way, even if it’s only going to a school once a year and give a 5 min talk about your work. Yes, you do have time to do that.
How I started my career as a science communicator? Well, after having finished my Ph.D. (in Sweden) I had some troubling months with financial insecurities, a divorce, a new country, and as I’m a mum, it was harder to find employment in Germany than I had anticipated. In order to keep myself sane, I got up early every morning, went for a run and wrote a blog article. I later started my Facebook page and continued building on my platform as a hobby project also when I had found employment. After some time at Charité University hospital and a couple of years as VP of content at ZAGENO, I decided that I had learned enough marketing and communication strategy to finally take the leap. I started as a freelance consultant on June 1st this year.
Q: Statistics show that the overall effect of social media on health is negative. People compare themselves to non-realistic models, wake up in the middle of the night to check out notifications, etc. However, there is a positive bit, social media help in reaching out to your community and like-minded people. In the big scheme of things, science is a niche, in the UK only 3% of the population holds a PhD, so should we or shouldn’t we embrace the new technology for science communication?
A: Social media is here whether we like it or not. We can spend our time being grumpy about it or see it as a useful tool. I personally have quite strict rules around my social media use as I work with it daily. No phones *ever* at the table or during night time etc. Also, Instagram did my head in for a while as I noticed how terrible I felt about myself after having used it. I did a clean-up on who I followed and removed all accounts that made me feel bad. Problem solved. Now, Instagram makes me smile – thanks to all quirky, interesting and funny science accounts particularly @Silli_Scientist @thescicommunity @phd_to_success and many more!
I take my hat off to those scientists who travel around schools or invite kids to do labs with them. This analogue work is crucial! However, these efforts are targeting people who are already interested in science. I think we need to think much broader; combine strategies to reach the whole population. Scientists are such a diverse bunch so I’m sure that we can have successful and diverse communication strategies.
I think we need to think much broader; combine strategies to reach the whole population.
My target audience is the general public; those who we lost along the way. I want to kindle an interest and spark a curiosity in those who didn’t even know they were interested. This is why my content strategy is different than those scientists who do labs and why my strategy includes social media and marketing techniques.
Q: In your opinion, what are the greatest challenge for modern science and scientists?
I am a huge fan of Carl Sagan, a scientist and science communicator who said many wise things: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” It frustrates me though and I want this to change. People now make decisions about our future without understanding their options and this is extremely frightening especially now with climate change around the corner with food shortages and epidemics ahead of us.
It is frustrating that people listen to the likes of Avocado Wolfe, Sheri Tenpenny, and Gwyneth Paltrow and the GOOP-goo she is spewing out across all social media channels – and that people are buying into it!
However, it’s even more frustrating to watch scientists so stuck in their own echo chambers that they utter things like “oh, that’s just a few stray people believing such nonsense”. Many times, “that nonsense” is displayed on pages with several million social media followers.
I just recently had a chat with a highly educated humanities major who believed that mushrooms come from space. He had not been on David Avocado Wolfe’s Facebook page, but he had read a newspaper article who had apparently gotten their information for the article from Wolfe’s page. Suddenly, the story had gained an air of credibility as it had been in a newspaper. People outside the “Avocado-sphere” started believing his stuff. Successful communication if there ever was – but shitty content.
Science is up against a media profession where few seem to have completed any kind of high-school science. Science is also up against the marketing geniuses who peddle woo over social media and who search engine optimize the living hell out of their pages, drowning science and demoting good scientific content to the 5th Google page.
It’s like we are being built into a sound-proof chamber where our voices seem loud on the inside, but no one is hearing us. It is dangerous.
I thank every scientist who communicates their work whether it’s on a soapbox science event, a school lab, a short talk over a beer… It’s more than “just” about science anymore. It’s about democracy.
A population who doesn’t understand what is done to them isn’t really free to choose after all.
Q: Women are underrepresented in science and in leadership positions. It is often said that this partly due to the lack of female role models. You are a clear example of women empowerment. What’s your advice to women in science and women, like me, that want to change the things, with regards to science and society?
Wohoo! Thank you! I have one advice: GO FOR IT! Leave the “good girl” somewhere under a rock and go for it. A good girl does what she is told and confuses other people’s opinions with her own. Don’t do that. However, always be a decent person and find people to collaborate with. Don’t become part of the problem by sinking people in order to climb the career ladder. Ensure that you build a solid network with collaborative partners. There’s space for everyone. Join our communities on social media and initiate awesome collaborations. Think big! There’s no reason why science/art acts could not play on huge arenas, or that science communicators should not be hired en masse by the big media outlets in the near future. What’s your big dream?
Thanks to Anna and her awesome contribution to my blog. I very much agree with everything she said and I hope we can change the things, although what we are doing now seems like a drop in the ocean. A few comments: 1. Social media are algorithms, you get out what you throw in, if you do good you get good, if you put s**t, this is what you gonna get out. 2. Science is a mean of critical thinking which is the biggest tool of freedom and empowerment since humanity was born.
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