Evolutionary Adaptation of a Muppet

It’s the BIG event today. That’s the STEM Communicators Network‘s annual conference. I’ve just posted the anecdote that ‘the last job interview I went for required a demo of what you might do as a session. I put pins in the bottom of a plastic cup to make an electrolysis cell. For quickness, I didn’t seal the holes with glue, and the cup steadily leaked water over desk for the duration of the interview, becoming an oceanic elephant-in-the-room between me and the panel.

It’s a session on careers, and the chat is rich, and hard to keep up with. We’d previously talked about Andy Lloyd’s comment that ‘careers are something you recognise in hindsight’, something that partly resonates with me and SciComm. For some time, I actually resisted calling myself a ‘science communicator’, arguing that the term was too broad. During the last [n] years, I have run workshops, busked, produced demo shows, performed stand-up comedy, recorded podcasts, sung science songs, danced, training and advised, made videos; you name it, I’ve given it a go. Some have stuck with me, and I still do them today, but I’ve found myself drifting though the various rooms of SciComm. Where am I today?

First, let’s talk Pre-COVID. Maybe serendipitously, I was already moving away from being the centre of attention in my shows; less ‘sage on the stage’, and more to the production side. While the debut of Jon’s Little Big Show, an ‘animated-film/theatre-set-chimera’ has been cancelled, it is still in production. In a way, the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has done me a favour.

Just a caveat: While many freelance science communicators have been massively impacted on, I also work part time for the University of Birmingham, who have continued to support me fully. Other freelancers have been affected more than me and have been searching for what services they can offer, that will pay the bills. Not every freelancer I know has been able to get funding from the UK Government.

Rather than add more water to the deluge of online materials to support home-schooling, I’ve been allowed time to listen, and strategically consider where SciComm is going for the rest of the year, and to invest in some skills I had some basic experience in. The only events that have been delivered this year are those that have adapted to virtual delivery, either through pre-recorded components or through live broadcasting. I see this continuing for some time to come, and there will be a greater focus on curriculum delivery, rather than enrichment activities.

Either virtual medium suits me. I’m happy talking to a camera, whether that’s live, or recording for editing. I’ve never shied away from when things go wrong on stage, and I like the authenticity of lo-fi filming. Check out my YouTube channel if you want to see some of the things I’ve done. So, during lockdown, I’ve (almost) managed to clear my hard disks of adventure holiday footage, having put out 10 hours of memories. This has led to me choosing to upgrade from iMovie to Final Cut Pro; a step up in post-production skills and a shift in workflow. It’s been worth it, and I admit, I still have lots to learn.

The unescapable fact was that I needed to up-skill in filming, editing and broadcasting. Fortunately, I already had a small collection of kit that was required for my new show. Now I had time to plan what, and how, I was going to deliver my activities for the rest of the year (at least). This was also going to feed into my fellow academics at the university, so there was going to be a double benefit. For them, I have built an online, outreach training course around Greg Foot’s excellent YouTube course, ‘Talking Science’. I strongly recommend it! Sure, I’ve added a few things that are specific, such as ‘how to develop a workshop, and how to safely run it, and I also added a bunch of extra details about tips to avoid common pitfalls when filming.

But for me, the opportunity to join the swell and make some short videos has been a great way to contribute to virtual festivals, both live and pre-recorded. I’ve shared videos and chatted online at the Malvern Science in the Park festival, and busked live at CoCoMAD festivals. Ok, I did them as freebies, but I wanted as much to get back to the buzz of the event, and they were both a good place to start. I used the same video for both events, just with a tweak to the sign-off.

Looking at why we breathe, as people argue over whether face masks cause hypoxia. They don’t, by the way.

Then there came my usual opportunity to busk in London, at Sutton’s Virtual Science Festival. More than happy to go live, but they wanted some pre-recorded elements of busks. So, back to the corner of the conservatory to set up a tiny studio.

‘Three days of wearing the same shirt’ later, we had Jon’s High Street Science, a five part trip through some of my favourite busks. Each is less than eight minutes, and there is opportunity to get involved and do your own thing.

First episode of the five part series, ‘Jon’s High Street Science

Even though this was last week, I’m learning more about what I would do differently next time. For instance, I’ve just come out of the conference session from Fran Scott, who shared some of her wisdom on filming a great demo. Some of what she described is posted here. For instance, she advocated lifting the demo so it can be seen with your face rather than using multiple cameras. A happy accident in the case of the thumbnail you can see above.

It was between these two events that I realise I had been a scientist for 30 years this Summer, and I’ve decided that I should take one last blast at creating some science films with me in it, before retreating behind the script and editing window. So look out for more of ‘Jon’s High Street Science‘ as the year goes by.

Of course, all this comes at a cost. That includes making a space in my office at home that I can use to film in. We’re into ‘day two’ of that shift. Out has gone my huge, beloved school desk, and in has come a bijou, functional desk from Ikea; up has gone the T-bar on a lighting rig, and out has come the wireless mic; down has come the Angolan flag, and up will go the science pictures. Maybe this is the start of a new career; who is to say? Maybe I’m being drawn inexorably to the recognition that I wish I had done more drama and performance at school. If only there was a careers talk I could listen to that could guide me through the evolution of my ‘career’. In this moment of flux, all I can think to say is…

“It’s time to play the music

It’s time to light the lights…

…it’s the Muppet Show tonight!’