Teignmouth Science Café

I have a philosophy in life that if there’s something I want to achieve, but that’s also a bit scary, I’ll just say yes to it without too much thought and worry about it later. That way, it’s too late to go back and I know that the experience, whatever it may be, will benefit me in the long run. Every time I do it I question my sanity, but over the years, looking back, it’s been good for me and has led me to do things that perhaps I wouldn’t have if I’d really sat down and weighed up the pros and cons. It helps put me outside of my comfort zone and that’s generally a positive place to be. And so it was that at the turn of the year I shot off an email off enquiring about and volunteering myself for a talk at Exeter Café Scientifique, who then passed my details on to Teignmouth Science Café. After the exchange of a few more emails, I was booked. But not for several months down the line, so I could worry about it then. I knew that I wanted to do more of these types of events but I also knew it would be a challenge and very different from any presentation or public engagement I had done in the past. So really, it was the perfect application of what we can call my ‘do now, think later’ approach to life!

As the months became weeks, the weeks became days and the days became hours, I got gradually wound up, but in a positive, looking forward to it kind of way. Of course, there were the ever familiar “why do I do this to myself?!” moments, but they came and went fleetingly. I’d sold the talk under the title of ‘Bogology: the science of peatlands and past climate change’ and had prepared slides and a talk based around the general structure of Bogology.org, first introducing a few key concepts, then talking about ‘How we do it’, ‘Where we do it’ and finally, but crucially (especially when talking to a public audience who fund my research through their hard-earned taxes), ‘Why we do it’. I’d thrown in plenty of titbits from our blogs and the slides were essentially the prettiest bog photos I could find, with minimal text and only one even vaguely scientific looking diagram (see below for a few of the slides). I wanted my audience to be listening to what I had to say, after all, not reading from a projector screen.

And so it was that last Friday evening, Tom and I could be found driving down to Teignmouth with a peat corer and a couple of core sections in the boot. It was a balmy hot and muggy evening and the café was far enough back from the seafront to escape any cooling breezes. There was a quietly buzzing audience of about 30 or so people enjoying their dinners in advance of the talk when we arrived. The café was laid out in an L shape, with me standing at the bend, visible to all. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly which helped to dispel the few fluttery nerves I was feeling.

Not since my PhD viva (a four hour long oral exam to defend my doctoral thesis) have I talked so much out loud about my research! The time absolutely flew by. Faces seemed generally interested and there were a few sniggers and other positive noises, but it’s always a bit hard to gauge how things are going down in the midst of it. But the talk went pretty well from my perspective. There were a few little things I wanted to say that I didn’t but the timing was spot on and I was happy with the message I got across. The four practice runs over the previous days had probably contributed to that! The worst moment was definitely when I demonstrated how the corer worked and it made an almighty squeak, fairly terrifying someone in the front row!

I was blown away by the response. People were genuinely interested and thankful for the talk. In the 15 minute ‘break’ after my talk, Tom and I were answering a raft of questions and showing people the cores. Sure, they look like 50 cm long hunks of worthless mud, but there really was a sense of wonder that that mud was so ancient and held so much potential scientific value. The subsequent question and answer session also went by in a blur. It was cut off after a solid hour with hands still in the air! I got my chance to voice my thoughts on the use of peat in agriculture (round of applause #1) and then took a deep breath and attempted to explain stable isotope analysis (it took a while, but ended in round of applause #2!). Afterwards, I shook many hands and received many thanks. It was a wonderful experience and couldn’t have gone much better. I guess that it was a receptive and interested audience to begin with and there are still a lot of people out there who need much more convincing about the value of the research we do, but for a first science café, it ticked a lot of boxes.

When we arrived, David, the friendly organiser, asked me if I’d ever presented at, or even been to, a science café before, both of which I had to honestly answer no to. You could almost sense the slight nervousness in his smiled response! I certainly now hope that there will now be others in the future (no, I haven’t sent the email yet!). I genuinely believe that as publicly funded researchers, we have a duty to make our research more accessible to anyone who wants to know more. Last Friday night in Teignmouth went some way to doing that and at the very least, I’m pretty sure there are now 30 more people in the world who won’t be buying any peat compost in the near future!

One response to “Teignmouth Science Café

  1. Good to hear Matt- a great experience for you and those who attended, and a great message for all academics! As a scientist I try to share my work at all levels. In Uganda with our peat research we have not only presented to Government policy makers but also to the young University in South Western Uganda where we employ research assistants from, and given field demonstrations to the local school around our field site. Every time we present and discuss with ‘non-experts’ the response is inspiring (one school student saying ‘now I want to study even harder!’). Sharing our knowledge and work in a way that others can understand and relate to is so important.

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