What I said to 200 16 year-olds at the National Youth Science Forum

29 years ago I participated in the National Science Summer School, now known as the National Youth Science Forum. On the 7th of January 2016 I gave the alumni talk at the Session A Rotary Dinner. My brief was to talk about my life after the forum, as if my 16 year-old self was sitting in the audience. This is what I said …

Thank you to the National Youth Science Forum for inviting me here tonight to speak to you all. It is a rather lovely thing to be invited back as an alumna and to have the opportunity to participate once again in something that is very special to me. It is also a rather wonderful opportunity to be able to thank Rotary. Their support of the forum for over 30 years has meant that, by my calculations, at least 10 thousand students have had the opportunity that you students have right now: to learn about science, and yourselves, in a way that lasts a lifetime.

I’ve been asked tonight to talk about ‘life after NYSF’ or in my case the National Science Summer School. The first thing that you might have already noticed is that I’m not a “scientist” and I’ll talk more about that later. But I hope you’ll see as I talk about my life after Summer School that science, and in particular agricultural science, have been a huge part of my career. But first, and at the risk of making myself seem really old, let me take you back to 1987 …

Here we all are: Session A 1987. I’m not actually in that photo. I was having a little rest that morning because I may have been staying up too late and needed a little rest. So take my advice guys, pace yourselves or you’ll miss out on stuff! The other photo is one of only two other photos I have from summer school. Remember, this was way before smartphones and digital cameras, and no one had heard of a selfie!

I grew up in Nowra and went to Nowra High School and I was sponsored for the Summer School by South Nowra Rotary Club (so thank you if there is anyone from there in the audience). I was in the Chemistry group, and I do remember some of the hands-on stuff, as well as the visits, but I feel now that the social interaction had the biggest impact on me and it was wonderful to meet so many clever and funny people, as well as the slightly awkward ones like me. I stayed close with lots of Summer School people during Year 12 and even into the first few years of Uni. Moving to Sydney was made so much easier knowing that there were going to be people I knew there. But I have to say that this was a time before Facebook, and sometimes it’s hard to stay in touch. I have reconnected with a few people over the years though and it’s been lovely to be able to just pick up where we left off. One of my strongest memories though, was when the then Minister for Science Barry Jones said that we were the future of Australian Science. I felt like he was looking right at me and I felt like I had something I had to live up to.

Now I’ve already mentioned that my kind of science is agricultural science and this brings me to the first of my three key points in this talk (there’s always three isn’t there) …

Agriculture is awesome. My whole career has revolved around agriculture and it has given me a much richer and more interesting career than I could have imagined. I think it’s because agriculture has both scientific and ‘human’ aspects — it’s a human activity. Of course all of the sciences are human activities — we gave them names and created the rules for how science as a way of finding out about the world works, but at the time that I was at school science wasn’t taught like that … but agriculture was and it appealed to me. In ‘ag’ we learned about Australian history and geography, our constitution and economics as well as chemistry, physics, biology and geology and I think it’s this combination which had given me the mobility I’ve had in my career.

But the main reason why I fell in love with agriculture was because it was where science became alive. The experiments were bigger and better and there just seemed to be so much more that you could get into and interact with … and sometimes you could eat the results! Chemistry seemed to make so much more sense when I could see (or smell or feel) it action at the school farm. I didn’t grow up on a farm so my only experience of agriculture was at school.

After high school I went to the University of Sydney and did a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture which was (and still is) a 4 year degree. We all studied plant, soil and animal science for starters but in later years I focussed on the animal sciences which interested me the most, and in particular animal nutrition. My Honours project in my final year was looking at heat stress in pigs because unlike the saying — pigs don’t sweat — and they can suffer from heat stress quite easily if they don’t have access to water. I was always going to do a PhD, and I was lucky enough to be offered a scholarship from then Pig Research and Development Corporation. The title of my PhD is “The physiological response of the growing pig to pleuropneumonia”, but what it was really about was energy metabolism and it can be affected by lung disease. Yes, my project involved experimenting on animals and I don’t expect everyone to be okay with that — and to be honest sometimes I wasn’t either. But I knew that my data was also going to be incorporated into a computer model of pig metabolism for other researchers to use, and I also trusted my colleagues (some of whom were veterinarians) and the institutional ethics committees where I was doing my work that it was okay. And it’s justfascinating. Breathing! I mean do you ever stop just to think about how incredibly complex and amazing that is? And metabolism! All of that chemistry just going on inside us, all of the time. After my PhD I received another scholarship from the pig industry to continue working in this area but in the Netherlands and there we were working on an isolated lung model. Lungs, breathing in a Perspex box! But I’m jumping ahead of myself …

In the last year of my PhD I was invited to participate in an industry display at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney and I think this was my first real taste of doing science communication. I also did Royal Melbourne Show and Sydney again the year after. It’s hard work — constant talks, answering questions as well as looking after the animals. In Melbourne there was a stage and we did shows every half an hour about pigs and the pig industry. During this time I also met someone who persuaded me to move with him to a farm in Queensland and I lived on the farm for a year while finishing off writing my PhD and while waiting to hear whether I’d got the scholarship for the Netherlands. And when that came through, off I went on my big adventure, expecting everything to be just as I’d left it when I came back and that I’d continue being a scientist who just happened to live on a farm.

It’s great the way you can travel so much for work in science. As well as the year in the Netherlands I’ve been to conferences in Thailand, Italy and Ireland, and since returning to research I’ve been the the USA a year or two ago. And the opportunity to go and live and work in another country is something that I encourage everyone to do.

But while I was away, I got one of those phone calls that changes your life. And I learned about grief and loss and mental health. It was a long time ago and I’m okay, and that’s really the reason why I decided not to skip this bit in my story — because sometimes bad stuff happens. And sometimes it’s really hard to manage, and it’s okay to ask for help and support and actually it’s vital that you do. And sometimes those bad things that happen cast a long shadow, but the sun does shine again. After I’d finished my time in the Netherlands, I took up a job in South Australia doing some pig nutrition projects and I worked for a couple of years, but because I wasn’t doing so well I ended up leaving research, and that was another loss all over again. Being a scientist was all I’d ever wanted to be … and it was what I felt I should have been. And that’s another thing I wanted to say — it’s okay if you don’t become a scientist. But it was really my involvement in the Summer School that helped me decide what else I could do with my life, and what else I could be. The involvement of Questacon in the NSSS had initially introduced me to science communication, so it had been something I had thought about at a few different times and of course I had also had those wonderful experiences at the Shows. I looked into study options and got myself a volunteer position at Adelaide’s science centre, The Investigator Science and Technology Centre (which isn’t there anymore). Oh and I met someone and I had my son, Patrick who’s now 15 and amazing. While he was little, I worked at the Investigator part-time doing science shows for groups, and running sessions for high school students on gene technology and food science and wine chemistry at the CSIRO Science Education Centre, and I studied a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication part-time by distance through Central Queensland University,

In 2003 I started work with the Molecular Plant Breeding Cooperative Research Centre where I had the job of developing and delivering education programs to schools and the community about the role of gene technology in agriculture because MPBCRC was developing genetically modified wheat and pastures. I was lucky enough to be part of running a session here at the NYSF in 2007 on some of the research in the agricultural CRCs. One of our major programs in MPBCRC was called Get into Genes, a workshop for high school students, which I co-developed and was being run in both Adelaide and Melbourne with the support of our partner organisations. Thousands of students have since done the program and we won a national award, and my colleague Belinda Cay and I nearly one a state one for Science Educator of the Year, which was rather nice. I stayed with MPBCRC for 7 years altogether — as long as the centre was funded. I travelled all through Australia extracting DNA from wheat germ with primary schools students, farmers and gardening groups. But I started to feel like all of our efforts weren’t making a difference.

Surveys were showing that community attitudes to GM food weren’t really changing. In fact in our last year of operation it got worse! Now GM food is, again, something I don’t expect everyone here to feel the same about. But in those 7 years I spoke to so many people about the science behind GM foods, and I wondered what it was that we, in the science community, weren’t getting. You see main idea behind science communication at the time was what we now call the ‘deficit model of science communication’ and this really is the idea that people resist science because they don’t understand it. They have an information ‘deficit’ and it is the job of science communication to fill that deficit. But science communication researchers all over the world were starting to say that it didn’t work. In some ways it might seem obvious now that the deficit model is flawed, but still the idea that people just need that new piece of information, that piece of information that they were missing, and then suddenly they are going to accept this new idea/technology is still so common in science communication. I read all the time “Oh, we just need to educate people about X, and then they’ll think like us about issue X”. Think about the vaccination debate, climate change. More examples where the ‘give them the science and they’ll change’ approach just doesn’t seem to have worked. I became more and more determined to get involved in research again, but this time on how to improve science communication and I knew that doing research on people is going to be very different to doing research on pigs … so I went back to Uni again.

I began a Masters in Education at Flinders University (which I have to confess I have still not officially finished) and took all of the subjects about how to do research on and with people. After the funding for MPBCRC ran out I worked in a few difference science communication roles at the University of Adelaideand one day I was lucky enough to meet Professor Rachel Ankeny in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide who has a shared interest in attitudes to GM foods, but she also does research in the history and philosophy of science, bioethics and food studies. Now I’m back doing research I feel like I’ve come home. I’m in the Department of History, where Rachel is based, but my work is more typical of sociology and this is where most ‘public understanding of science’ or ‘science and technology studies’ seems to fit. But it’s still about agriculture too.

One of the first projects we did in the Food Values Research Group was to look at so-called ‘ethical’ food choices and this involved interviewing people and running focus groups. This qualitative data is very rich, and I think of it like the difference between people saying whether they like the colour red, versus saying what it means to them. We’ve learned that what people think of as ‘ethical’ is very complex, as are the motivations for people wanting to buy locally produced, organic and GM-Free, and humanely-produced food. We’ve gone on to more projects now: one is looking at this history of genetically- modified crops in Australia including the development of our regulatory system and the other is looking at what people think about farm animal welfare. Now remember, I used to tell people all about intensive livestock production and the development of genetically-modified food, but now I’m really listening to all sorts of people tell me what they think about both of those things, including listening to some people telling me they think both of those things are unethical. But I think the most important thing I’ve already come to understand about issues like GM food is that — and this is my key point number 3 …

I’ve seen scientists very recently in the media saying ‘people should be choosing food based on science, not emotion’ and I think that’s part of the problem. In science communication we’d only been talking about the science, but think about it — why do people really choose the food they do? Food is a social thing, it is a cultural thing. If we took all of the emotion out of food would there be birthday cake? What about other celebrations. We are sitting at a dinner now where the food has been chosen because of the occaision, not science.

I think that the conversation about GM foods, as with other agricultural technologies needs to be had within the context of how we, globally, are going to be able to produce enough affordable, safe, nutritious, and sustainably-produced food now and into the future. We only have this one blue dot, and we have to share it. And somehow we need to include everyone in the conversation, and that means including the cultural and social meanings and values associated with agriculture and food when we talk about food production and consumption. And this is what I see science communication needing to become if we really are going to be able to do what we need to do.

Communication is supposed to be a two way thing, and science communication needs to be a dynamic and evolving conversation between the science community and the broader public. And I think we’ve been doing a lot of talking and not a lot of listening in that conversation so far. I hope my work is doing something towards that goal but I also think we need the science community more broadly to engage with the kind of researchers I now work with: historians, geographers, anthropologists, philosophers. And it’s awesome! STEM is great — don’t get me wrong, but if you want someone to eat, use, or fall in love with the products of science then you need to include researchers in the humanties, arts and social sciences.

And that’s my challenge to you – not just to be pro-science, but to be pro-learning and and to think outside the box when it comes to science issues. Science is not the only thing that makes our lives interesting.

So Session A 2016, I wish you well. I hope you remember your time at NYSF as fondly as I do and stay in touch through the Alumni.


Thankyou again NYSF for the opportunity to participate.


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