Friday, 29 May 2009

Successful Celebrating


A young scientist out looking for algae

Another 'drinks', and another chance to talk about plants (and algae), and myself. Last night I joined a few hundred scholars, past and present, to celebrate all the good things done in the Faculty of Science at University of Sydney. We met, and drank and ate, in MacLaurin Hall.

I saw how chemicals of different polarity, polarise light differently - it was actually quite impressive to see a light shone through two jars of citric acid producing, or not producing, an eery glow depeninding on the angle of the polarising filter and the 'polarity' of the acid - as well as large green insects on eucalypt branches, the pickled foetus of a shark and lots of other quirky science displays.

In the talking part, Paul Willis was effervescent as always and I got to chat about how I got interested in communiting, as well as doing, science. The newish Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research, Jill Trewehalla, and Dean of Science, David Day, had the harder task of not talking about themselves but praising, rightfully, the good words of the Faculty. Chris Stewart MC'ed with poise and panache.

This is pretty much what I said:

"Ending my PhD on the taxonomy of algae, I was wondering what to do next. I needed money & meaning in my life – in equal measure. I wrote to colleagues around the world – Paris, New York Christchurch, Rhode Island but ended up post-doc in the same city, Melbourne.

During that time, at a bit of a low point, I applied for Media Studies at RMIT. I liked science, but I also liked reading and writing. My stepfather was glad I didn’t go into journalism. He was a cartoonist with The Age for a while, and said journos drank too much. He clearly hadn’t worked in science.

I kept up an interest in reading and writing, and talking. I worked as volunteer for 3RPH, and then did some local community radio: Brainwaves (Wipe Out as a theme), Pablo Picasso Show ('PP was never called a…', the Jonathan Richmond song, as a theme). And I liked giving talks.

A life changing event was Age science journalist Graeme O'Neill speaking at the School of Botany about writing scientific feature articles and invited us to submit. I sent in two on algae (too long at first, but soon trimmed down to size), then diversified - from fish and the origins of life, to AIDS and rainforest diseases. I wrote a story every couple of months – and I loved it.

So it was algae by day, creative 'pretend' science journalist by night!

Coming to Sydney 10 years ago - head of science at the BG and then 5 years ago as Director - I was given even more opportunities for spreading the news about plants, and about science.

I started by doing some ‘Bizarre Plants’ talks – David Jones with half a dozen elderly couples resting between shopping – but got back on to radio, which I love. Television is too hard - you have to concentrate on what you look like and speak, and on radio you can use notes.

Here at the gardens we had a very appropriate slogan 'Plants = Life', and it does. But that slogan implies there is science behind it and that’s the heart of what we do at the botanic gardens – discovering and understanding plants, and then passing that information and inspiration on to visitors.

I am a self confessed 'media slut', and trying to become an 'web pest'. But I do think if you have even an inkling of that slutiness or pestilence, act on it. The world needs you.

And do question everything – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I want our botanic gardens to be places where people ask questions – sometimes getting an answer – but always asking questions. Science is all about communication."

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