Inspiring Stories – #PlanetaryScience4All: A Video Contest for Virtual Science Communication
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Melissa Mirino (doctoral candidate at The Open University and of the Chair EPEC Communications Working Group) shares how the extraordinary experiences of 2020 inspired her to launch a contest to bring together the early career community. This story is an extract from the first Issue of the Europlanet magazine.
The year 2020 will be always remembered as a year of isolation, disruption of the normal daily activities, and in extreme cases a year of loss. However, during this period we all did our best to find alternative solutions to carry on with our lives, jobs and activities and remain positive and connected with each other using the current available technologies. Research and academia have not been an exception. Both the Europlanet Society and the Europlanet Early Career Network (EPEC) did their best to remain active, and to guarantee the usual sharing of ideas and scientific results by transforming the EPSC 2020 Conference into a virtual meeting.
As Chair of the EPEC Communications Working Group, I wanted to create an activity that could combine the EPEC goal of supporting early careers, our working group’s aim of communication, and the need to transform face-to-face activities into a shareable, interactive and online form to support the EPSC2020 virtual meeting. The idea of a video contest came to mind. This format is already considered by many universities as a good way to train and challenge students in science communication. Since the main subject of EPSC is planetary science, the topic of the video contest was easy to identify. With support from the EPSC2020 Outreach and Europlanet Communications teams, and many months of planning, creating and sharing the new activity, the #PlanetaryScience4All video contest became a reality. #PlanetaryScience4All challenges early career students to present their research in four minutes to a non-expert audience.
The first edition (2020) of the contest was open to Ph.D. candidates involved in planetary science studies, asking them to explain their Ph.D. research using any type of creative video format (Lego movies, drawing, PowerPoint, storytelling, etc.). The videos were judged based on criteria of scientific content, communication skills, and creativity by a panel of experts from the Europlanet Community. All the contestants and their videos were featured in live sessions during EPSC2020, promoted on YouTube, and shared widely on social media. The winning video was highlighted through the Europlanet website and newsletters, and it has also been used for EPEC outreach activities. The winner of the 2020 edition, Grace Richards, received free registration to this year’s EPSC2021 meeting. Recently, Grace and Gloria Tognon, another contestant, have also joined the EPEC Communications Working Group to support our activities. Based on the success of the 2020 competition, I feel confident that #PlanetaryScience4All will become a traditional part of EPSC.
The second edition is now open, this year welcoming Bachelor’s and Master’s students, as well as PhD candidates working on a thesis related to planetary science.
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Sara Motaghian, a doctoral student at the Natural History Museum (London), tells us about her experience organising ‘Roving with Rosalind’ for classrooms across the UK.
Roving with Rosalind is a series of curriculum-based activities which give students the opportunity to overcome challenges and solve problems based on the ExoMars mission. We have created 5 large practical kits to be housed at STEM hubs across the UK filled with engaging workshops and activities linked to space science.
We applied to the UK Space Agencies Aurora Outreach funding in the summer of 2019 to make the Roving with Rosalind project a reality and were ecstatic to be awarded the funding at the end of that year. The project aims to reach to 7000 students across the UK in total during its primary funding period. At the end of the project’s nominal funding timeline, the kits and resources will be hosted indefinitely by STEM Learning ensuring the kits can be collected and used well beyond the first 7000 students.
In total, 20 educational, curricula-mapped resources have been created to accompany the practical kits. The project funds the postage of the kits to schools in order to remove funding and geographical barriers to participation in STEM initiatives, improving opportunity and equity in STEM learning. This model helps us to reach schools and students that are geographically distant from science centres, universities and museums, and schools that don’t have the funding to engage with other initiatives.
The main activity categories are:
Landing site selection, geology and remote sensing
Rover and mission design
Instrument design and building
Analogue missions (the most fun!)
Learn to code in Python
The main activity is the analogue missions where students explore a map of the ExoMars landing site, in one of three ways, to search for points of interest and data to analyse. First, students can walk around the map as the rover, communicating with their team as mission control. Secondly, they can utilise remote-control rovers with video feedback to simulate the difficulty in controlling a rover from afar. Or thirdly, they can build and program the included rovers to execute a path across the map. For every point of interest students locate they receive a data downlink from Mars to analyse!
We were really lucky to be able to launch Roving with Rosalind during National Astronomy Week and deliver a rover design and building workshop to over 200 school classes and ~5000 students! We have been able to send our kits to three classes so far, restricted due to COVID, and 100 students to date. We have been able to partner with several STEM equity programmes, like In2Science and Girls into Geoscience, to deliver out Python programming workshops to over 300 upper secondary students with amazing success, and the program has already received some great feedback:
“[It] has been one great interesting and informative experience. I enjoyed everything … provided for the participants. One particular event: I had never done coding before. It was a bit challenging since I had no idea where to begin but the mentors made it so easy to grasp. I’m very excited, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I will definitely do it as an extracurricular activity in my free time. There were a lot of courses. I was clear about what I wanted to do, but the courses gave me a lot more information about the university and beyond. I want to study physics so I’m looking forward to University and onwards.”
As well as reaching students, the Roving with Rosalind programme also aims to improve teacher confidence in the delivery of STEM resources and has provided training to over 50 teachers, technicians, STEM ambassadors and lecturers. The Roving with Rosalind framework is also now being used as a basis for a Europe-wide outreach project run by the ESA Robotics Working Group.
Inspiring Stories – Outreach activities in a European project like PLANMAP
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Gloria Tognon, a doctoral student at the Center of Studies and Activities for Space ‘G. Colombo’ of Padua (Italy), tells us about her experience of taking part in the European PLANMAP project.
Scientific knowledge is not just intended for a limited number of people and should be shared and made accessible to everyone. The Horizon 2020 PLANetary MAPping (PLANMAP) project is committed to the production of highly informative geological maps of Mars, Mercury, and the Moon, and every European partner dedicated part of its activities to communication and dissemination.
The main aim of PLANMAP was for several products (geological and spectral maps, 3D geomodels, and virtual environments) to be made freely available online to the scientific community as well as the general public. A particular focus was put on the promotion of planetary geology to young people through the creation of downloadable artworks, digital story maps, and a comic novel published in a special issue of the PLaNCK! Magazine about PLANMAP, “Geomapping other worlds” , which also contained interviews with young researchers working on the project.
Within the framework of outreach activities for young people in the general public, all PLANMAP partners actively organised and participated in festivals, public talks, seminars and school activities. Kids in particular were the main targets of European Researchers’ Nights, and although the events were open to the general public, I can tell you that young people from 5 to 10 years old constituted the real audience. The creation of games and video presentations as a way to engage and hold their attention while explaining difficult ideas in the easiest and funniest way was a crucial step. It may not always be easy for adults to think of ways to communicate science to young people, but for me, videos and games represent a recreational pursuit and a super rewarding experience.
Less imagination and more practical thinking were required in February 2021 when the PLANMAP project concluded its activities, and put its last efforts into organising the virtual ‘Geology & Planetary Mapping Winter School’, which engaged more than 50 instructors from at least 9 European institutions to address 150 registered participants from all around the world. During the school, I had the great opportunity to share my knowledge of planetary geologic mapping with the students, and to organise the final event displaying the ‘Virtual Reality environments for planetary applications and training for astronauts’. Promoted, funded and sustained by the Ambassade de France en Italie-Institut Français en Italie, Center of Studies and Activities for Space “G. Colombo” of Padua and the PLANMAP project, this event provided online lectures and a virtual reality experience simultaneously held in Padua and Nantes. Participants had an amazing chance to have a real-world perception of another planet, and take a field trip to Mars to perform scientific measurements in the field.
I can assure you that engaging with people and sharing your knowledge with them will help you develop your communication skills and self-confidence. Above all, it is the most worthwhile life experience!
My strong enthusiasm for space exploration started from a very young age, after attending planetarium shows and astronauts’ events. Since I have been largely inspired by outreach events myself, I have developed a personal interest in inspiring the younger generation to consider a career in science. I have taken up many teaching and outreach opportunities to develop activities for students of different ages and to share my passion for space with the public.
One of the most important and inspiring experiences I have taken part in so far relates to my work as a PhD tutor with The Brilliant Club. This award-winning charity that works with schools and universities across UK. The aim of the organisation is to inspire students from under-represented backgrounds to progress to highly-selective universities.
As a Brilliant Club Tutor, I have been creating and delivering tutorials related to modern topics in STEM, from climate change to planetary science.
Thanks to the support of my mentors, I had the opportunity to create a custom Handbook, where I could create lessons and activities based on my personal experience (Figure 1). The Handbook is structured in sections to introduce pupils to the many aspects of the space exploration, creating interactive and different types of activities (see images) to cover and stimulate multiple intelligence types (logical, verbal, visual, etc.).
During my seven tutorials, students explored the various stages of space missions from the primary concept to the data collection phase. They debated the best target for a space mission, selected landing sites, interpreted data from real active missions (Figure 3-4-5), described the martian surface using 3D images (Figure 6), and much more.
For the final assignment, NASA Mission Calling, I asked students to propose a mission to NASA, selecting a target and identifying a main research question, as well as the instruments they would need to carry out their investigation. This exercise allowed them to express their imagination, and have fun exploring and learning about the Solar System. They also gained experience of following rules of structure and references, and an important mind-set that they can apply to future challenges.
Reading their essays was inspiring and a lot of fun! You can read some excerpt from their essays below.
Working as PhD tutor made me realise how great and smart those kids are, but how the lack of support and self-esteem could influence their performances or could demotivate them in pursuing a career in STEM or academia. Space and human missions can be very engaging for young people and I hope that my contribution will have had a positive impact. I really hope that those kids will find their personal space, wherever it means for them.
The Brilliant Club was an amazing experience and I would recommend young professionals in UK to consider getting involved. More information can be found at: https://thebrilliantclub.org/
Excerpts from a few of the students’ essays, where they explained why their missions would benefit the human race:
[…] This mission is particularly important for the advancement of future human knowledge because if we were to find signs of extra-terrestrial life, we could use this to work out the conditions needed for it to survive. We can then move on to bigger things, like creating an environment on earth that matches these conditions and possibly grow new forms of life. […]The knowledge we acquire from possibly finding and sustaining life on Mars can improve our agriculture as we would need to develop new techniques to grow crops, using less water which is very limited on Mars.
[…] This mission is important because it will help us determine if there is other life in our solar system, even if it is primitive bacteria. If we do discover life in the subterranean oceans of Europa, this mission could teach us about how bacteria evolved over the millennia by comparing them to bacteria here on Earth. This mission may also inform us about whether it is possible for life to exist so far away from the Sun. […] We also might be able to learn more about cryogenic storage and how to preserve things in ice, as may have happened on this celestial body. All of this it will enhance our knowledge about other celestial bodies bigger than Europa, including another moon orbiting Jupiter called Ganymede which also has a subterranean ocean. It will also enable us to prepare for colder environments deep in space where solar panels are not as effective at producing power. This would help us plan for and prepare deep space missions. For example, if the water and ice is clean, we could rely on using planets and moons like this to resupply water and oxygen rather than having to transport large quantities from Earth, helping us conduct deep space manned missions.
In conclusion, my proposal is to send a satellite with a lander to test for biosignatures in the ice. My target is Enceladus due to it fitting all the requirements for life as the temperature stable liquid water has inside it the energy source of hydrothermal vents, Enceladus has an atmosphere and it is less radioactive than possible moons of the Jovian system. By finding biosignatures in the sub-surface ocean of Enceladus we could further human knowledge about the conditions needed for life to form, it could prove to us the existence of extraterrestrial life and it could provide key information about how life on earth originated and adapted.
[…] I think that this mission […] could improve the future greatly because then NASA can be sure that they can populate Mars and then attempt to do it. This has the possibility to change where people live forever. If there were bacteria living on Mars, it would be incredible. If life were to be found, then NASA could study how that life form survives in such harsh conditions. To help with NASA’s future, this would be a huge potential way of making an enormous amount of discoveries, potentially leading to minerals being discovered, since everyone knows how scientists and the world of science are desperate to make such discoveries.
[…] The first reason I believe this research will be beneficial to humans and scientists is because Europa has liquid water, which is rarely, if not never, found on other planets besides Earth. This means that Europa has at least one of three main components needed for humans to thrive and survive. Europa also hosts key elements needed for humans to survive – oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen – which suggests we could somewhat find and get oxygen and water. Compared to other planets with thick atmospheres, high temperatures or gas planets, they don’t contain liquid water, although they may contain deltas or frozen lakes. This gives Europa an advantage over these planets, as they have something which planets do not have, except for Earth. Since Europa also has flowing water, scientists could study as a terrestrial analogue and try to find an area similar to the flowing river or lake underneath the surface of the moon Europa.
[…] This mission is crucial in human advancement as it will definitely deepen our understanding of Mars. […] This will help us to understand our solar system more in depth but that is for the future first we have to get to Mars. This would greatly improve the quality of our lives. Let us say we do find extra- terrestrial life this tells us life can exist outside of Earth which if one day we need to move we have a location to go. It would be a way to assure the survival of humanity in the case something bad occurs in the future to our planet who know climate change might make us have to leave our beloved Earth.
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Gavin Tolometti, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, describes how he is making space science accessible through podcasts.
Since I was a kid, I remember seeing rockets and rovers designed and constructed by engineers on the news, and the out of this world (excuse the pun!) space and planetary science research being conducted by NASA scientists. My interests for space research led me to look for grad school openings in planetary science. I applied to as many as I could, and eventually my applications brought me to the University of Western Ontario in Canada, where I joined the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.
As I started my PhD in Earth and Planetary Science, I became more involved in outreach and science communication. I love opportunities to chat about space and getting the chance to constantly talk about it at schools, museums, institutes, and public events has always made me happy and excited. For this reason, after meeting more and more people involved in the space exploration I decided I wanted to find a way make space science more accessible, to share the stories of why people became involved in space, and to chat about the everyday technology we use because of space exploration.
At the beginning of 2021, I started my own podcast called “The Diaries of Space Explorers”. I have loved listening to podcasts ever since I moved to Canada in 2016, and I even joined a graduate student podcast committee in 2018. I wanted to combine the skills I developed from the committee and my love of space to create a brand-new podcast community and to bridge the gap between the public and the space sector. The goal has been to highlight the stories of students, scientists, engineers, artists, journalists, administrators, musicians, and more, about why they chose space and how it has helped shape their lives and motivate them to improve the world.
In my podcast, I also aim to bring the human side of the space sector out. I wanted the audience to connect with the guests in more than one way. Not just connect with them because of their job, but because of who the guest is as a space explorer. One fun question I ask my guests is what is their favourite spin-off technology that came from space exploration. From this, I get to reveal some of the technologies and materials we use every day that has come from space missions or space companies. To this day I am still surprised at developments that have come as a result of a satellite launch, astronaut training, or from NASA hiring a company to help them solve a flight test problem.
I have so far published more than nine episodes, and I have many more to share with the world. The goal is to use my podcast and my research to help connect people around the globe through space science and exploration. I love podcasting. I love science communication. I love space and I love my research. Combining these passions is my way of showing the world why space is incredible and why so many smart, brilliant, and talented humans around the world strive to push the boundaries of humankind.
I hope you can all connect with my space explorer guests, and share with your friends, family, or even your neighbour about why space is amazing and how it impacts their lives.
Inspiring Stories – Instagram Infographics to Share Space Science
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Lanre Logan, Space Exploration Systems Masters student at the University of Leicester, tells us how to share passion for science on Instagram.
I love sharing what I’m passionate about; you might know the feeling. There’s a topic you’re enthralled with, and it’s all you can manage not to talk to your friends about it…all the time! When it comes to science it can be exactly the same, except in this case it’s vitally important that we share this information with others.
By communicating science to a few friends, or especially to the wider public, you are helping the scientific method work. Afterall, who are these discoveries being made for if not the wider world? On a local scale, sharing a scientific tidbit or a recent discovery could lead somebody to think “Huh. I want to know more”, become inspired, and launch their own career in the field!
Personally, I simply find great satisfaction in getting to the crux of a topic and getting a deeper understanding of how a physical concept works. Furthermore, being able to instil the same feeling in others is even more gratifying.
The rise of social media has made this an even more accessible possibility where people don’t need to sift through endless journals or newspapers to find the latest developments. Simply following their favourite YouTube channel or Instagram page can give them all the science stories they need.
I hadn’t considered all of these possibilities when I began Straight Outta Quantum (I hope you get the pun), but I am all the more satisfied for knowing them now.
At first, I was in the position I mentioned earlier – I couldn’t stop talking my friends’ ears off about a new astronomy fact that I’d learned, figured out, or had recently been turning over in my head. I’d always have something I was eager to share with people, and then it hit me: I had Photoshop skills I could combine with my love of science and explain my favourite ideas through Instagram!
The freedom that the Instagram medium brings is a welcomed break. The topics which I write about are mostly content from the courses I have studied, a fact somebody has told me in passing which piqued my interest, or a science video I watched which intrigued me to research further. Before I even realise I want to make a post, I’ll have caught myself turning over the details of it in my head (while I should be revising!) The challenge then is turning it into a story.
If you’ve read any of my posts before, you may not have realised that they are essentially mini narratives, as simply posting the facts line by line would convey the information, but not in any manner that will encourage the viewer to read on. Once I’ve summed up my points coherently, all the while picturing how I’d like each slide to look, the drawing begins! Each slide of course compliments the lesson I’ve written, but to decide how they’ll specifically look I mostly think to myself: “What will look the most exciting?”
For example, instead of showing a diagram of a comet’s constituents, why not draw it rushing past you in the dynamic vacuum of space? All my graphics are made in Adobe Photoshop Elements, purely by myself, and from conception to posting I spend about two weeks between each publication. However, seeing as this began as a hobby, I don’t keep to any strict schedule and mostly work on the posts when I like!
To figure out how to break down complex information into reasonable chunks, I realised communicating science like this successfully comes down to three factors: how comprehensive vs abstract my graphics are, the detail vs brevity of the explanations, and the scientific accuracy vs artistry of my depictions. It’s fun finding the balance with these as too much of any would be detrimental. For instance, I strive to maintain scientific accuracy while still making posts artistic enough to be eye-catching and memorable. Similarly, more detail allows for a deeper understanding of the ideas but too much is of course unmanageable, and not what Instagram users tend to stick around for. Fortunately, I know my audience well through their responses to previous posts, for instance, ones with more words on each slide don’t do as well, most likely because they look less welcoming to read. Once I’ve chosen the key messages of the story I try to add as little to that as possible while keeping it coherent, as this follows my chosen mission statement of simplicity.
Inspired by YouTube channels such as Kurzgesagt and PBS Spacetime, my vision is to share aspects of astronomy and other science which I find interesting. Simple infographics are my chosen information vessel, explaining things from astronomical events such as “The Great Jupiter-Saturn Conjunction”, to more obscure facts such as that “Stars Aren’t Star Shaped. Your Eyes Are”. I believe science should be accessible and making it as easy to follow as possible is my target, even encouraging my followers to see astronomy facts for themselves by reminding them to ‘keep looking up.’
In the end, Straight Outta Quantum serves as a great pastime for me, creating designs about space; both things I love. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, or where it will end up, but I suppose that’s part of the journey when it comes to outreach. There are limitless forms it can take, anybody can do it, and if you enjoy sharing your interests then it is a great option.
Inspiring Stories – using science fiction to teach astrobiology
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Julie Nováková from the Charles University in the Czech Republic and the European Astrobiology Institute tells us how she edited an anthology of science fiction stories to help astrobiology outreach and education.
When was the last time you felt the unmistakable ‘sense of wonder’? The familiar awe, surprise and joy at – what? A beautiful sight to behold? A story? A discovery? A piece of data? For scientists, data itself or its collection can evoke a powerful sense of wonder (and sometimes frustration, boredom, puzzlement – we probably all know it), but for nearly anyone outside of science, the journey and/or the result has to be communicated to inspire wonder and facilitate understanding, and hopefully further interest.
Science fiction is a genre of literature built on the sense of wonder. In the 19th century, people held their breath devouring the latest Verne or Wells, widened their eyes at the modern-age horror described by Shelley, and imagined the key ‘what if’ at the heart of SF – what if we could really create new life, travel to the Moon, encounter visitors from Mars… Nowadays, SF is also very popular and increasingly familiar to most of us, at least indirectly as ‘common knowledge’. The mix of familiar tropes, wonder-inspiring new ideas and in the ideal (if not the most frequent) case relying on science makes SF a great medium for communicating science. All of the above points are enormous advantages of using SF as means of science outreach and/or education. There are potential pitfalls as well, of course – with this approach, it needs to be outlined clearly what is science and what is speculation within a story, without getting too carried away.
I’ve been writing, editing and translating science fiction for more than a decade, publishing in major magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog or Clarkesworld and having published seven novels in my native Czech. And for a decade now (how the time flies!), I’ve been studying biology. For approximately the same time, I’ve been writing popular science articles, doing workshops at schools, helping out at science-themed summer camps and lecturing at festivals, conventions and elsewhere. Astrobiology, together with astronomy and planetary science, has always been an interest of mine, and I was happy to join the European Astrobiology Institute (EAI) at the time of its founding in mid-2019. Then it was only logical to take the next step and merge my backgrounds…
As my first major project as the leader of the team ‘Science Fiction as A Tool of Astrobiology Outreach and Education’ at the EAI, I decided to prepare a freely available book of science fiction stories with interesting astrobiology themes, each accompanied by a popular science essay on the topic and a few tips for using the text in classroom, making the book useful for any individual reader as well as high school or university teachers who like to experiment with unusual approaches. It also enabled us to clearly distinguish between SF and current scientific understanding, while also providing the readers with the option to read just the nonfiction texts, just the stories, or both.
The anthology, titled Strangest of All, was released in May 2020 under the free Creative Commons license in several e-book formats, so that it was accessible to as many people as possible. It contains seven science fiction stories by six renowned authors and a bonus story by myself (whom I cannot possibly call renowned next to the rest of the names). The stories are reprints (meaning previously published), but many of them are impossible to access elsewhere, which would be a shame, because they are all amazing. Together, they showcase the topics of life in a subsurface ocean, life under extremely high pressure, potential for life in the Kuiper Belt, Dyson spheres, the Fermi Paradox, SETI and planetary protection. Each is introduced more in-depth in the nonfiction pieces I personally wrote for the book.
Publishing Strangest of All wasn’t the end of it. It needed to be promoted so that it could reach its audience and actually inspire as many people as possible. The news was shared by Europlanet, Tor.com, Centauri Dreams and elsewhere, including sources in different languages such as Spanish, Portuguese or Czech, thanks to translations of the press release by members of the institute, especially the SF outreach team. Furthermore, I conducted interviews about SF and science with three of the authors so far (Peter Watts, Gregory Benford, G. David Nordley), with three more coming up later (Geoffrey Landis, Tobias S. Buckell, D.A. Xiaolin Spires). We also used several stories from the anthology for tasks and discussions within the Astrobiology Seminar at the Charles University.
Nor is this the end. The team ‘Science Fiction as A Tool of Astrobiology Outreach and Education’ has a lot of work ahead. Apart from the ‘usual stuff’ such as convention talks, participating in exhibitions or preparing more interviews with scientists and SF authors, we’re hoping to publish a print anthology of original SF stories – written exclusively for the book in cooperation with EAI scientists – also accompanied by nonfiction pieces, covering more astrobiological topics in an exciting and innovative way. We have a long journey ahead: securing funding, talking to publishers and authors, facilitating effective author-scientist collaboration, editing… but I’m optimistic. Having edited three anthologies so far, one of them in print, I know it can be done, and I hope the result will be as amazing as we imagine now.
Luckily, we’re not alone in our efforts. SF has been used in outreach for over a century to some extent, and for instance organizers of the recent Exoplanet Demographics online conference edited a short SF e-zine for each of the days of the event, with contributions tied to the scientific topics presented that day. That is awesome – and so we move from reading the latest Verne in the age when electricity was still a miracle of modern technology to an era where science and technology surround us everywhere and are more accessible than ever before, but also have to compete for attention with many distractions and agendas. SF can hopefully help bridge the gap between entertainment and science – and show that science itself is often much more exciting than fiction, with fiction nevertheless helping us imagine what science cannot yet.
So switch on your flashlight or your e-reader, nestle in the bed covers, dive into fantastic stories of life in the universe and dream on… perhaps so much that one day, it will be you being the principal investigator of a mission not just inspired by visions of exotic life, but also aiming to elucidate the equally fantastic history of the solar system and life here on Earth.
Inspiring Stories – Unlocking the Secrets of Enceladus with a homemade video
In this EPEC Inspiring Story, Grace Richards, a doctoral student at The Open University (UK), describes how she developed a winning video for the #PlanetaryScience4All video competition.
This year, EPSC-EPEC launched the #PlanetaryScience4All video competition, where PhD students and early career researchers involved in planetary science were given the opportunity to showcase their research through a 4 minute video. Although I have very little experience making videos and no camera equipment, I decided to enter. I am a first-year PhD student at The Open University, studying icy moon surfaces, with a focus on Enceladus. I will be working on developing a system which can analyse surface composition and determine the effects of space weathering processes, such as micrometeoroid impacts, on icy surfaces.
Having just bought some watercolours to keep me occupied during the lockdown in the UK, I decided to take inspiration from stop-motion videos made by Stacy Phillips (her videos use Lego figures to explain the geology of mountains – watch here!). I wanted to make something which was accessible to non-scientists and fun to watch, while maintaining a high level of science.
My resources were fairly limited because I’d just moved to a new flat. After watching some YouTube tutorials, I downloaded the Stop Motion Studio app for iPhone, and used voice notes to record the audio. The only issue with recording the audio in this way was getting it recorded in between noise from my family/dogs/neighbours. Luckily, I have a lot of experience editing audio files from taking part in dance competitions!
After making a storyboard of the video, I started matching up the audio with how many frames were necessary for each section of the video. I used 5 frames a second, so had to take 1,200 photos to meet the 4-minute mark. This gives the video a very “stop-motion” effect. Although it may have looked smoother and more professional to use more frames, I thought that 1,200 photos was my limit (and my phone’s storage limit). The Stop Motion Studio app is extremely easy to use, especially for someone like me who isn’t very good at taking photos and there are some really great tutorials online for how to use it.
The longest part of the process was the painting. Using watercolours can be a fairly quick process, as you use thin washes to build up the colour, but care is needed to ensure the paper doesn’t wear through. I’d work on multiple pictures at a time, but the whole process took me a few full days of painting. I also enlisted my sister and her friend to help me cut out the little figures of spacecraft and text, so that was a lot less painful than I initially thought it would be.
I filmed the video by balancing my phone on a shelf above my paintings and surrounded the whole (very technical) set up with lamps. The only issues here were trying not to move my phone, some lighting problems while the Sun was setting, and trying not to move the paintings too much. I divided the filming into blocks so I could take a few breaks, then merged the audio and video files together using iMovie. My final video was called “Unlocking the Secrets of Enceladus” and can be seen at the bottom of this post.
I would like to give a big shout out to all the other contestants who submitted their videos, illustrating the fantastic science that is being conducted throughout out the EPEC community. The other films in the competition ranged from a detective story about the geomorphology of the Martian surface, insights into planetesimal formation using comets, and planetary mapping of the moon and Mercury.
Inspiring Stories – Make the wonders of space accessible to all
In this EPEC Inspiring Story, Ines Belgacem and the Sens’Astro team describe how they are creating resources to share the wonders of the Universe with those with disabilities through a multisensory experience.
Making your work accessible to the general public is a crucial part of a scientist’s mission. This is the fundamental belief that brought the eight of us together to create Sens’Astro: experiencing space through the five senses.
Passionate about space science and astrophysics, we love sharing that passion with the public. However, in our past experiences, we have been struck by how part of the population has limited access to the wonders of space that are so much based on what we see. That is how in October 2019, through the original idea of Marina Gruet, we came together to create Sens’Astro. Our mission is to share innovative content to discover the Universe through our five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – making it accessible to people with sensory disabilities.
Meet the team!
During our first year, we have developed several activities that we have had the chance to test at a series of public events with audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Do you know what the Milky Way tastes like? What does the Moon smell like? What does Mars’s wind sound like? These are the sort of things we are proposing to be discovered at our events!
We are grateful for the support we have already received from organisations like the Société Française d’Astronomie et d’Astrophysique (SF2A), la Cité de l’Espace (Toulouse, France) and Délires d’Encre. Thanks to them, we were able to develop and do live tests of the activities we want to share.
We are now looking to expand and invest in more durable equipment for the future. We are currently reflecting on how to make our activities safe in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are really looking forward to going back out there to meet the public and keep sharing our passion with everyone!
One of the most rewarding aspects of this first year has been getting feedback from our different events. So much of space exploration is told through breath-taking images and it is not easy to find ways to share it through other senses. People who were already a bit of a space enthusiast found our activities to be a clever take on what they were already familiar with, and they even discovered a new way to look at the Universe. People with sensory disabilities appreciated that we tailored our content for them and had some crucial remarks to help us improve, e.g. the spacing in our Braille impressions was sometimes insufficient for them to read. Kids were incredibly happy to be able to touch things like meteorites and 3D-printed planetary surfaces or to bake Milky Way and Jupiter cookies. Involving them in that way makes it so much easier to hold their attention and help them remember what they learnt.
All in all, finding ways to discover space through all five senses has been challenging – in a good way! It has allowed us to reach a wide range of audiences though innovative and accessible content. And you can do that too! You can visit our social network pages to see more examples or interact with us. You can even participate in our first-year anniversary event and share with our community the image, the scent, the feel, the sound and taste of this last year in space.
Inspiring Stories – Explaining Seismology Through Comics
In this EPEC Inspiring Story, Dr. Petr Brož, a researcher and space communicator at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, describes how he has developed, together with his colleague Dr. Matěj Machek, comics about seismology for teenagers.
Communicating science can be easy when we target those who are already interested and have a desire to learn something new, but this isn’t always the case. There are many groups which don’t consider scientific knowledge a priority – one of which is teenagers, who are at the transition between childhood and adulthood, and overwhelmed by the many new distractions this brings.
Those who teach know that teenagers can be one of the most difficult groups to attract. To get their attention, one needs to engage and entertain them at the same time, but also communicate to them in a familiar way.
My colleague and I had been thinking about how to overcome these difficulties, as we wanted to ignite a love for Earth sciences even within this hard to reach group. Our solution was to prepare comics explaining some basics of seismology – a field of science which is a research focus of our institute.
The idea to use cartoons as a tool for education is not new. Actually, it has been widely used; just remember ESA’s famous Rosetta and Philae ‘Once upon a time…’ adventure to catch the comet. But as far as we were aware, there was not a dedicated comic for teenagers about seismology, or more precisely, about seismic wave propagation through our planet. So the plan was simple: let’s produce one!
However, our simple plan had one tiny problem. Neither of us had any experience producing comics or an artistic gift to draw. While there was the prospect that we could learn how to make comics, it was clear to us that we would never learn how to transform our fancy ideas into beautiful drawings. Therefore, from the beginning we knew we would need to ask for some professional help. We needed the services of a graphic artist and a scriptwriter. However, to include professionals in the team caused an additional problem, but luckily for us only a minor one. We needed money to hire them!
We started to search for money. Firstly, we asked our institute, but were rejected. There was no will to spend around €8,000 on such a project. We then went one step higher and asked the Czech Academy of Sciences, but ended up with the same result. This time the reason was that there was no money left for the fiscal year. At this point we started searching for external funding. We wrote emails and spoke with many organisations, but all of them gave us negative responses. They liked the idea, but because we were asking in the middle of the year, it was a bad time to get funding. But we weren’t ready to give up. So we tried another option – asking our friends and followers on social media. Surprisingly, this finally worked and our post reached someone willing to help us.
Once the funding was secured, we started to work. First we had to think up a story which would be attractive for readers, while at the same time explaining various processes occurring inside the Earth. It may sound simple, but it was not. How could we take processes occurring deep under our feet which cannot be seen by the naked eye, and turn them into something attractive? This seemed to be the big challenge. During our brainstorming sessions several ideas came out, but it soon became clear that we would need a character to describe these processes to the readers. Who would this be? The selection was simple, the only one who would actually “feel” these deep buried processes: a seismic wave.
But a seismic wave is just energy and therefore cannot speak. So we needed the wave to become a person, and that’s how our seismic “superhero” was born. We sharpened this idea together with the scriptwriter Lucie Lukačovičová, and the rest of the story was actually quite simple to write. We came up with the idea of two kids visiting a seismic monitoring station where they would encounter the P-wave, telling them a story about how she was born and ran through the entire planet. Of course, every good story needs a build-up of tension leading to the grand finale, and our comic is no exception. We needed a dramatic ending that would also educate our readers. We came up with one, but I don’t want to spoil the story, so you’ll have to read the comics to find out the ending!
However, writing the storyline was just part of the project, and to be honest it was the easier part. The real challenges were still ahead of us. How to draw the story, the personified seismic waves (yes, waves, the P-wave has a sister, S-wave, and two brothers, the surface waves), and how to visualize these awkward processes hidden from our sight. To draw the strange behaviour of ductile rocks within the mantle or the formation of the magnetic field within the outer liquid core was not easy. These were the challenges to deal with! We spent many hours with our graphic artist Karolína Kučerová, teaching here the basics of our field before we were able to find a solution. We knew that outreach requires some simplifications of real processes, but we still wanted to be as accurate as possible. Were we successful in that? Again, open the comics and judge for yourself on all the details there.
Once we had all the drawings ready it was a time to finish the dialogues. Before making this comic I assumed that dialogs were written before the drawings, but this project showed me otherwise. There was clearly a need to significantly modify the dialog to match the drawings. I found that much of the text could actually be removed as the drawing helped to describe the scene, and this was a great lesson for me.
So after several months of work, we turned our dream into a real comic printed on shiny paper. This was a relief, but not the end of the story. There were still two important jobs to be done. First was to promote our comic to the public. This is an aspect of science communication which we have a tendency to overlook, but it is one of the most important. Once you finish your project you have to make sure that people know about it. Therefore, we arranged an interview on national TV in which we presented this piece of art, produced a press release, and actively shared information with others who could spread the word. This post is actually part of that effort. Additionally, to support sharing, the comic has been released under the free Creative Commons license.
But what about the second task? The original comic was written in Czech, a language that is used by only 15 million people. This is a relatively small audience, and our ambition for this work is much greater. We want to offer an education tool which anybody can use, and this brings us to the need to translate our work. We recently finished the English version, which you can download here, and this brings the comics to a much wider readership. However, this is not the end, and as not everybody speaks English our aim is to provide translations in many other languages, as many as our finances will allow. So if you are interested in seeing the comic in your own language, and you would be willing to translate, please let us know!
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Dr Billy Edwards, Twinkle Project Scientist and Research Associate on the Ariel space mission, describes how he is bringing cutting-edge exoplanet research into UK classrooms.
Last year I became involved in the Original Research by Young Twinkle Students (ORBYTS) programme. This educational scheme aims to allow secondary school pupils to work on new, exciting research linked to the Twinkle Space Mission under the tuition of PhD students and other young scientists (http://www.twinkle-spacemission.co.uk/edutwinkle/). To achieve this, ORBYTS connects science researchers with secondary schools, where, through fortnightly school visits over an academic year, the students are taught undergraduate-level physics. These classes allow the researchers to engage students with the subjects they themselves are studying. The ultimate goal of this project is to give students the opportunity to use this new knowledge to contribute towards publishable research.
The core idea is that pupils get hands on experience of scientific research and work closely with young scientists. By bringing together schools and researchers, the programme aims to not only improve student aspirations and scientific literacy, but also help to address diversity challenges by dispelling harmful stereotypes, challenging any preconceptions about who can become a scientist and I found the relative informality of the classes to a powerful way of connecting with the students. While projects have been run on a number of topics, mine focused on one of the core science targets for the Twinkle mission: exoplanets.
We currently know of over 4000 planets, which orbit stars other than our Sun. These range from small, cool rocky worlds such as those in the TRAPPIST-1 system to massive, hot gaseous planets such as WASP-76 b where it is thought to rain iron. However, while we have had some tentative insights, much about these alien worlds remains a mystery. Future space-based telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, Twinkle and Ariel will use spectroscopy to study their atmospheres, detecting the molecules present to give us a deep understanding of the planet.
However, in recent years, a problem has begun to develop. With so many known planets, keeping track of the exact time at which they are going to transit has become harder and harder. In the coming years, this is only going to get more difficult as surveys such TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will find thousands more exoplanets. The only way to keep the ephemerides of these planets fresh is to frequently re-observe them and this will require an increasing amount of telescope time.
In this project, we used a robotic ground-based telescope network to observe planets which had high uncertainties in their orbital parameters. The students were given free rein to choose the planets they wished to observe and then planned the observations before reducing and analysing the subsequent data. However, given the expected number of planet discoveries, professional telescope networks may not be enough to keep the transit times fresh.
Luckily, help is at hand in the form of citizen astronomers. As many of these planets are around bright stars, even modest telescopes can capture the transit event and in recent years the number of citizen astronomers contributing light curves has increased drastically. As part of this ORBYTS project we also analysed data obtained by a number of citizen astronomers and contributing to the ExoClock initiative (www.exoclock.space). The students approached the project with real enthusiasm, analysing the transits of several planets. This work was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) with all the students and citizen astronomers as authors.
For me, this programme was challenging but extremely rewarding. Teaching your first class is always a scary moment, even when it is on a topic you know well. However, the classes soon became the highlight of my week and, as the programme progressed, the increased participation and engagement by the students was hugely gratifying. While they may not all become astrophysicists, it is my hope that this project has inspired them to embark on scientific careers or, at the very least, to make them consider their place in the universe.
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Dr. David Píša, a researcher studying the plasma waves in space at the Czech Academy of Sciences, tells us how he and other researchers are organising outreach talks across the country.
As a scientist, have you ever experienced a situation when your friends or family were too embarrassed to ask you about your research? Have you ever asked yourself why that’s the case? Were they scared that they wouldn’t understand that top-notch research? Or do they not want to embarrass themselves by asking you ‘simple’ questions, and risk looking uneducated or asking something that may be obvious?
Because that’s exactly what happened to us, a group of PhD students finishing our respective studies in the Czech Republic. It was seven years ago when we decided to reverse the aforementioned situation and approached the problem of ‘question-asking shyness’ from the other end. We did not wait for questions, but instead wanted to proactively provide answers to our friends and families. The first event, named “Science is coming to your village”, took place in a small village deep in Eastern Bohemia.
About thirty friends and relatives came to hear what we were doing on that specific occasion. It was very satisfying to see how they were excited about our work. The complexity of the topics wasn’t an obstacle in any way; we were able to explain even complicated topics such as the vacuum or standard particle model. It was our small victory and motivated us for further work in this regard.
So what happened next? The ‘Science to Go!’ project was founded! This project connects scientists who are sharing their passion for science with a broad audience open to listening. It was quite wild in those times when two or three people were organising everything, including communication with the host venue, presenters, and promotion. However, the idea was stronger than the difficulties that we encountered. We ended up with a concept of three talks by different speakers about their research. Every presentation typically takes twenty minutes with the final ten minutes being dedicated to an open discussion. Each of the three talks is ideally from a different scientific field. This concept ensures that 1) the speaker is an expert, 2) the audience is more likely to see a topic matching their interest, and 3) the length is acceptable.
We started with a monthly event at the municipal library in Prague. A typical event presents three young scientists – this format sometimes alternated with a bigger show featuring a well-established scientist. The highlight was a presentation of gravitational wave observations by Prof. Podolsky (Charles University) that was attended by more than four hundred people!
After two years we were forced to find a new venue for our events. We chose the Czech Scout Institute at the Old Town Square in Prague. They have been brilliant hosts and we’re still happily functioning there to this day. For our efforts, we were nominated for awards from the Czech Mathematics and Physics Society and the Czech Physics Society. We told ourselves that it was time to enlarge the organisation team and established ‘Science to Go!’ as a non-profit organisation. We accepted more than eight new core members, and a new era started. We created a division for social media and regional events.
Nowadays, the situation with COVID makes things a little complicated, as we are not able to host our events in person. But that doesn’t stop us! Every week, we broadcast a scientific talk on Facebook – one session on Mondays when the scientific concept is introduced, and then a followup Q&A session the following day where we engage with the audience and answer their direct questions online. While this has been working fantastically, we miss our regular attendees and are looking forward to meeting our audience in person again.
After more than six years in existence, the project has managed more than forty events across the whole country, visiting cities and even small villages. We have presented more than sixty scientists with their research.
Why are we different? Because we can come even to the smallest community and show top-notch science. Science to Go! is willing to continue and evolve. We are open to new enthusiastic people who want to communicate their research to anyone who listens.
Inspiring Stories – A picture is worth a thousand words
In this EPEC Inspiring Story, Maike Brigitte Neuland, an early career scientist at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF) in Kiruna/Sweden, shares her experience preparing and organising an international painting challenge for kids.
Language, spoken or written, is the only way to communicate and discuss scientific questions, complex solutions, and to share experience and knowledge. Several thousand languages are spoken worldwide. Working in a field of science and/or technology, we naturally hold meetings and read publications in English. In between, we may take notes of measurement results and conclusions, or send a text to our family, in our mother tongue.
“Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.”
Breaking down our research field, and scientific topics in general, into a simple language that is understandable also to children is already a difficult task, at least for many of us. And if doing outreach projects with children, we are bound to our mother tongue, plus English, plus some other languages we might know.
The General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) is a conference with more than 10,000 participants every year. For scientists who are parents, the conference offers child care where kindergarten workers take care of children with a vast range of ages, while their parents attend the meeting. Together with a group of early career scientists of the EGU Planetary and Solar System Sciences (PS) division, we had the idea to organise a painting competition for the children staying at the EGU child care in 2017. The topic of this drawing contest should be, of course, related to space research. To inspire the kids and to give them an idea of what they should draw for us, I wrote a little text in English:
Expedition to space
Far away from Earth, there exist endless other planets, stars and galaxies. Years ago, humans successfully travelled to the Moon for the first time. The astronauts landed there and measured what the air and the soil there are made of. What do you think? Will humans also travel to planets, where the journey takes much more time than to the Moon?
What do these people do on the Moon or on other planets? They are interested in how it looks like there, if plants are growing there, what the soil is composed of and if perhaps it would be possible to live there. How do you imagine such a journey in space? What does a research station on another planet look like? And what do the people, who are working there, look like? Which tools and which vehicles do they use to explore their surrounding?
Help us to design such a research station! Make a drawing of the researchers during their life in space, of their work and their adventures!
But of course, as the nationalities of the conference participants were diverse, so were the languages spoken by their children. So the problem we were facing, was how to communicate the topic to all children.
“I feel it is unnatural and immoral to try to teach science to children in a foreign language. They will know facts, but they will miss the spirit.”
C. V. Raman
As diverse as the languages spoken at a conferences, so are the nationalities and mother tongues of my current and former work colleagues, and my friends. With the help of many people, I reached out to get my little text translated into 20 more languages! And with help from the parents at the conference, reading the text to their children in their mother tongue, it was fantastic to see how children imagine space research. And finally, it was an amazing experience for me to realise that even though I could not speak the language of a child, it still was possible to ask them what their drawing means and to get an answer that I could understand.
The painting competition was appreciated very much by everybody, and it also took place as “Cosmo Paint” in 2018, and became an established event at the conference child care. But since the divisions of EGU cover a wide range of geo- and planetary sciences, the topic of the event is now moving around through all divisions. In 2019 we could see many drawings of penguins, arctic ships and snowflakes (Cryospheric Sciences division, CR). And the “Volcanic Paint” at the next EGU general assembly will cover the world of geochemistry, mineralogy, petrology and volcanology (GMPV division).
“The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.”
Note: You can find the booklet with all translations for download. Please do not use it without citing the author, but have fun using it.
“What is that we human beings ultimately depend on? We depend on our words. We are suspended in language. Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others.”
Inspiring story – From shopping mall to science roulette
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Andreas Johnsson, an early career scientists at the Department of Earth Sciences at University of Göteborg, tells us about his experience taking part in one of the largest scientific outreach fairs in Europe.
With around 70 000 visitors every year, the Göteborg Science Festival in Sweden is one of Europe’s largest venues for scientific outreach. Exciting as it is to visit, it also opens up a plethora of opportunities for scientists to communicate our research. Events range from hands-on-activities for schools to host science departments, science slams, and panel debates, to more ordinary lectures at sometimes unexpected settings.
Since my workplace is in Göteborg I always viewed the festival as a fun and important way of sharing planetary science with the public, and my first experience in doing so was during my graduate studies. The arena: a small stage and full blown screen in the middle of the shopping center at Nordstan in Göteborg. An unexpected place for people to be exposed to planetary science. I can’t really express my horror of trying to fight the commercial forces in this setting with shopping adverts, lights, and fashion stores.
At the start of the talk my friends and family made up the bulk of the audience while others quickly hastened by, chasing their next purchase. It is normally advisable to try to connect with the audience, but I have to admit that the somewhat intimidating setting made me go into tunnel vision, and only later did I realise that a wall of people had stopped to listen to and see results from the planet Mars. That’s one to science!
One of my favorite events at the festival is the science roulette, and I have joined this activity almost every year. The basic idea is that each of the twenty-five gondolas of the Göteborg Ferris wheel host a scientist, and the public enter the Ferris wheel without knowing which scientist they will meet. This event creates a really interesting setting for casual coffee table discussions, with people whom you’ve never met. Also, the physical barriers of being high up in the air does not allow for an easy escape (in case they find the topic boring).
The advantages of this event are that it creates 20 minute face-to-face discussions where the eventgoers are more likely to ask questions and allows the scientists to go into greater detail, quickly adjusting to the visitors level of knowledge. Instead of computer slides, you may use other props such as printed images or fruits to represent Earth-Mars relationships and orbital characteristics. An obvious disadvantage of this event is the challenge to convince the eventgoer that your science is much more interesting than the thrill of riding the wheel with the spectacular urban views.
In any case, the event creates a unique opportunity to share your science first hand and to engage in discussions with 20-30 people in total, and often a younger audience.
A more general remark about festivals like this is that you may find your favorite way of expressing your science. If you ever have the chance then go take it! Engaging with the public can be very rewarding and serves as a great opportunity to exercise your communication skills.
Inspiring Stories – Les p’tits cueilleurs d’étoiles
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Anthony Guimpier, a PhD. Student at the Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique, Nantes, France, tells us how he is sharing joy and passion for science among hospitalised children.
“Les p’tits cueilleurs d’étoiles” is an association whose goal is to introduce the world of space and stars to hospitalised children. It is established in several cities in France and calls upon volunteers that include researchers, doctoral students, astronomy professionals and enthusiasts.
I am part of the association based in Nantes at the Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique (LPG) which is managed by Marion Massé. Our visits take place at the children’s hospital in Nantes on the last Tuesday of each month.
I decided to join this association after I started as a doctoral student at LPG. Marion told me about it during a discussion about my background and hobbies. The idea of sharing our science and making space and planets discoverable to as many people as possible is very important to me, because it not only allows people to escape and dream, but also to understand the world around them.
This interest in communication came to me the year before my PhD. After obtaining my master’s degree in planetology, I worked as a scientific animator at the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, which is both a museum and a cultural centre focused on space. During this time, I had to carry out, among other things, animations and guided tours which I really enjoyed.
This is why I wanted to be involved with this association during my PhD research. For me, communication is just as important as research because it shows people, including children, the latest scientific discoveries in the field of space, and allows them to better understand space exploration. Perhaps it might even spark some interest in the children to eventually study space themselves!
In my opinion, this communication is even more important with regard to hospitalised children, because it enables them to get out of their daily routine and think about something else, at least for an afternoon. Seeing their surprised expressions when we tell them anecdotes about the conquest of space, or seeing them marvel at the images and the grandeur of our Solar System is very rewarding, and the children always want to hear more.
The challenge when communicating science, especially to children, is to make the explanations clear and fun such that complicated principles can be understood easily. Some typical examples are: How does the Moon move? And why does it show us the same face? And why do we not observe a solar or lunar eclipse every month? For this we use stuffed planets which allow us to attract the children’s attention and help them visualise the planetary movements in space.
The animations produced by the association change regularly, and deal with themes such as the planets of the solar system, or the life of astronauts in space. To help the children understand what astronauts do, we organised a mini astronaut recruitment programme for the children for one afternoon. The program alternated between games of skill, images, and video. For example, we used a piece of survival blanket to simulate the helmet solar visor of astronauts.
The year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar mission. The association’s animations were therefore mainly focused on the Moon and its exploration. 2020 is the year when martian rovers from ESA, NASA and China will be launched. Undoubtedly, we will therefore be very focused on the red planet!
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Rutu Parekh, a second year PhD student at the DLR Institute of Planetary Science and Chair of the EPEC Diversity Working Group, tells us about a recently launched EPEC project entitled ‘Motivational Journeys’.
‘Motivational Journeys’ is a collection of interview recordings which I started together with several of my EPEC colleagues. The story behind this idea is very much personal to me. As a doctoral student, every day I struggle to improve myself in work and sometimes this struggle gets ahead of me. As a consequence, it takes me hours and sometimes days to get back to my work. During these tough times, I need a reminder of my capabilities and an assurance that all this struggle will be worth it one day. To overcome these feelings, I used to look for talk shows or books to provide me with reassurance. I realised how these narratives help to rebuild my confidence and that’s why I decided to create ‘Motivational Journeys’. Later I discussed this idea with my colleagues and they encouraged me to transform it into reality.
Initially the execution seemed deeply challenging. However, later on Maarten Roos and Anita Heward stepped in to provide all the necessary support in filming the interviews and putting them online.
For the ‘Motivational Journeys’ we have interviewed scientists who are specialised in their respective field. They have shared their journey to become a scientist – a path which has been full of obstacles, difficult choices and hard times.
Each of them was brought up in a different environment and culture. The only thing in common between them is the quest for science and courage to never give up on their dreams under any circumstances, even though they were aware of the fact that their passion demands constant dedication and hard work. Today each of the scientists are successful in their respective field and have managed to put forward some wonderful scientific work with their constant commitment.
In today’s era, early career scientists face lots of troubles regarding mental pressure, difficulty in surviving academia, gender biasing and constant issues of self-doubts. This sometimes has led them to leave the scientific career or can lead to mental and physical health problems. Many of them are not always comfortable sharing their problems out loud or discussing it with their colleagues or friends. In tough times, they may need a bit of motivation to give them reassurance and help them to pass the rough days. With this series, we hope to reach younger generations and inspire them to become successful researchers in the years to come.
By participating in this project, I have not only heard new stories, but it has also helped me to understand the true meaning of struggle. While talking with all of them I realised that it is not necessary to always be successful in the work we do. It’s not the only the successes that matter, sometimes failure also teaches us lifelong lessons. I believe that sharing such stories is beneficial not only for young scientists, but also for the public because it shows the level of dedication that has been put into every minute detail, and the circumstances that scientists work under. We should not only show the results of our work publicly, but it is also important to make sure that future generations of students are aware how academia and research work.
To date we have released three interviews, with five more scheduled. You can hear the personal stories narrated by scientists here or follow Rutu on:
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Elena González Egea and Joanna Ramasawmy are PhD students at the University of Hertfordshire and part of the Astrobites collaboration. Here they share with us their experiences writing blogs about the latest astronomy research.
Astrobites is a postgraduate student-run blog, featuring short summaries of recent articles in astrophysics literature. It was founded in 2008 by a group of postgrads at Harvard, who wanted to make it easier for students to understand and keep up to date with the latest research in the field. Reading scientific literature is a skill that takes time and practise to learn – we certainly found it overwhelming as we started our PhDs to be confronted with a stack of papers full of dense writing and technical jargon.
Each Astrobites summary is short (around 800 words) and written in a more casual, blog-style tone. We pick out the key messages from a paper and present them in context, relating to other important papers on similar topics and explaining background science, to make exciting results accessible to an audience that goes beyond seasoned researchers: our 40,000 page hits per month are mainly from other students, both postgrad and undergrad, as well as amateur astronomy enthusiasts and former astronomers.
The majority of our posts are literature summaries, but we also occasionally write about other topics that are interesting to us – for example, science policy, careers in astrophysics, or diversity issues. It’s a really useful toolkit for new researchers in astronomy to get to grips with the research environment!
Jo Ramasawmy: I started writing for Astrobites as a personal challenge – I’ve got involved in lots of types of science communication over the course of my PhD, but I’d never written about astrophysics before. It’s been a wonderful experience to be part of the Astrobites collaboration – made up of over 100 current and former writers – and by writing and editing one post per month, it’s been easy to fit in alongside my PhD, and given me confidence in my writing skills. I’ve had the opportunity to present our work at conferences, interview AAS keynote speakers, and meet other PhD students from around the world. When my PhD has been tough, I’ve found motivation and support from the Astrobites community. Receiving comments on the blog, Facebook and Twitter in response to our posts is really great, and it’s really nice to find out that the things I write are appreciated!
Elena González Egea:Despite the many challenges of doing a PhD in astrophysics, one of the things that keeps me passionate about astronomy is outreach. To be able to talk to other people about cool things that happen in space, and to see their excitement after discovering something new is as rewarding (or more!) as making a discovery when doing research. By writing for Astrobitos (Astrobites’ sister blog in Spanish) I can reach more people than by doing talks or planetarium shows, and as the blog is in my mother tongue, my friends and family can also connect with astronomy and understand what I do more easily.
Writing for Astrobitos has also helped me to comprehend what I read, as to write a summary about a peer-review scientific article you really have to know what it says! My writing skills have improved as well, especially the adaptation of technical jargon to everyday language. With respect to personal growth, being part of an international student collaboration such as Astrobites and Astrobitos has been a priceless experience. I have met incredible people and I have become more aware of equality and diversity issues in astronomy. For example, reading and translating the series of posts about the relation between astronomers and indigenous communities, and the discussion in the Astrobites community around these topics has been an enriching and eye-opening experience for me.
You can also be part of Astrobites (or Astrobitos)! Each year there is a call for authors in both websites: you can check the last ones here and here. You can also contact us to submit a guest post!
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Athanasia Nikolaou, guest researcher studying the magma ocean stage of planetary formation at the German Aerospace Centre, tells us how, together with other researchers, she has set up a network that links travelling scientists with local communities.
Scientific conferences on many disciplines take place annually in various places around the world. However, the local community rarely knows about these meetings and usually does not benefit from the temporary wealth of knowledge that is just around the corner.
We researchers are relatively frequent travellers with a certain environmental footprint. Anonymous data that we collected from scientific hubs indicate that over 50% of researchers travel 2-5 times per year, and 20% do so more than 5 times per year for work or personal reasons. Travelling researchers are a potential opportunity to bring scientists into direct contact with schools and link them with local communities.
Lecturers Without Borders (LeWiBo) is a voluntary platform to meet this aim. It was set up by myself, researchers Dr. Liubov Tupikina and Dr. Delphine Zemp, and educator Mikhail Khotyakov. When a researcher travels to a conference, we match him or her with a nearby school or association that would welcome a free lecture on a scientific topic.
We attract expressions of interest both from travelling researchers and from potential host schools and associations. We use a set of open access digital tools to help us organise the visits. We are looking for further collaborators to help us expand both groups of our network, so that we can reach the critical numbers required to cover requests across large geographic regions.
We cannot yet guarantee to meet every request of every researcher. However, thanks to the engagement of the volunteers, the project is already active as a pilot, and over 30 lectures have already been successfully organised in 6 countries since November 2017.
LeWiBo uses the necessity of work travel to maximise societal gain by empowering kids to ask questions about science – and even choose it as a potential career.
If you want to find out more details or support this initiative, you can express your interest as a potential lecturer or host school/association by filling the form scied.network/page/.
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Mai Wada from the University of the Arts London tells us how she has been working with two early career astronomers to enhance our understanding of the universe.
Painting the unseen is an effort to combine scientific data with art to visualise celestial objects, such as exoplanets, that are studied through science but not seen by naked eye. From the early stages of our civilisation, science and art have been two fundamental ingredients of human intelligence that are closely bonded to each other.
Today, our understanding of the Universe has improved tremendously thanks to scientific and technological developments. The question that arises is what can artists and scientists create together in the context of the rapidly changing field of space and astronomy sciences? We started our project in order to address the challenge of creating a unique perspective of the Universe by connecting science and art together.
I am Mai Wada: I am a painter, and for the last year I have been collaborating with two astronomers, Anastasia Kokori and Angelos Tsiaras. Through this collaboration, I have produced a couple of exoplanet paintings. The uniqueness of our project is the nature of our collaboration: two scientists and an artist without any scientific background who didn’t know each other before. We started without a specific methodology or format for how to work together and our image-making process has always been an experiment in itself. We have been working together to create an ideal visualisation of some known exoplanets. The fascinating thing in the project was that the entire process was new to us all.
For myself, the project was an opportunity to learn the latest news and understand more about exoplanets. This experience was entirely new to me and was a great inspiration for my artistic creativity. For the scientists, it was a challenge to present the properties of the exoplanets to me, as these objects cannot be seen by naked eye. They had to help me visualise pure scientific data, observations and calculations.
We agreed that our common ground is our curiosity to reveal the mysteries of the world. Despite the fact that art and science have different approaches and processes, we (artists and scientists) are both working towards understanding this world better. Soon, we realised that we had a common aim – to create a unique and new perspective to enhance the human understanding of the Universe.
However, sometimes it seemed to me that art and science were two parallel worlds, with common aims but no interaction with each other. Science approaches the world through a universal perspective, using observations and interpretations. On the other hand, artists use personal experience and feelings to express the world. It took us a long time to understand what science and art can really do together on a practical level and how we could bring these two worlds together. We finally divided the artmaking process into three phases: scientific research, artistic research, and the painting making process summarising both scientific and artistic views.
At the beginning (scientific research phase), I studied exoplanets as a scientist, by interviewing my collaborators. This phase lasted for a long time, as I had to understand a new field from scratch. My collaborators had to explain to me how they are obtaining information about the exoplanets – since we don’t observe them but only the light from their host stars that has been filtered through their atmospheres. I learned what chemical composition can be predicted from the data so far and what predictions we make for the temperature and the weather there.
For the artistic research part, I tried to connect the scientific data with my personal experience and envision the exoplanets. For example, by touching materials around me that could exist on these exoplanets, by watching relevant films, by listening to the sounds of other planets, or even by feeling a similar temperature to the particular planets. This part was flexible and depended on how much data scientists have – or have estimated – about the planets.
For the final process, the painting-making, I made a painting following my creativity after carrying out all this research. In that process, I mostly cared about the material and the technique. I used oil paint for all of them, but the tableau, the size, the way of prime, or thickness of oil, all varied for each exoplanet.
Recently, one painting was presented in a press briefing about the announcement of water vapour in the atmosphere of K2-18b (doi.org/10.1038/s41550-019-0878-9). The briefing was attended by many journalists (including TV and newspapers) who were attracted by the painting and took photos and used it to illustrate their articles and stories. I felt very happy because the panting could bring other people closer to the science of exoplanets. It could help them visualise K2-18b and understand more the discovery that was published that day. In addition, we presented our work in the EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2019 and attracted both scientists’ and artists’ attention.
Our experience is that art is quite accessible and we believe that art can act as a bridge between scientists and the public. Scientists and artists were looking at our work and were talking about the nature of exoplanets. We were really satisfied with the result, because this means that the aesthetic visualisation of a scientific object has created an effective context for people to talk about distant planets without any limitation. We plan to continue our project and we hope that our project will reach a wider audience, not only scientists and artists. Our story has just begun.
Inspiring Stories – Sharing Science through Social Media
Talking to young people in their own language.
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Jan Lukačevič from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Czech Academy of Science tells us how to reach out to a young generation with science through social media!
In previous Inspiring Stories we have read about doodling, active participation in science projects, and other examples of involving young people in science. Are there any other ways of engaging youth and attracting them to a career in science? Well, there are! And as one meme says: “Modern times require modern solutions.”
Communicating science to members of the public is an integral part of a scientist’s job, although the importance of this role has developed over the years. Mocking or disrespect directed towards those willing to communicate science is hopefully becoming a thing of the past. More and more scientists understand the importance of public and political interest due to limited funding and a lack of human resources. What has also changed are the tools to pass on the latest scientific findings. It’s common to write up press releases for media and let the journalist do their job. At best, some scientists are involved in co-hosting shows on radio or TV, although this is more common in English speaking countries.
Currently, media in general are going through a shift. With increasing distrust in traditional media and low interest in printed media and radio amongst young people there’s a need to adjust ourselves to new tools and ways to reach them. Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram are becoming the main source of information for young people whether we like it or not.
However, there’s a catch in moving onto different communication platforms. It is not only about migrating the original content, but creating completely new content which is more suitable to the demands of young people.
That’s exactly what I did two years ago, when my friends in the marketing industry convinced me to give it a try. At first I was l very hesitant, doubting my scientific achievements (there were close to none), and whether I was the right person to do this. And since you might be having the same thoughts, here’s what they told me: “Your senior colleagues may be more established and successful than you, but to a young person interested in science it is much more helpful to see somebody younger that they can more easily identify with.”
Emboldened by this, I started creating posts about space physics, my daily duties, struggles and facts related to how I progressed to my current career. I decided to use my native language for two reasons: First, there’s plenty of English content available so it would be very difficult to compete in terms of quality and second, I wanted to have as few obstacles as possible while trying to reach local audiences and bring them relevant, localised content as every education and cultural system has its own specific needs.
So far, it’s been a great success. Using humour and pop cultural references, I have built up a base of over 6000 followers, working with major TV stations and newspapers in the country and teaming up with various companies to create campaigns promoting science to the general public. The most recent campaign promoted by a telecommunications operator consisted of building a lab to grow plants in Mars-like conditions, and has already generated millions of views and the progress (fingers crossed, we haven’t had the first harvest yet) is being covered by both TV stations and newspapers.
So what are you waiting for? Sharing your passion for science and interesting things directly with others has never been easier. Post about your successes, your failures, little happy moments from the research and stories of how you got involved in science. And if you ever struggle (don’t worry, it’s also a trial and error learning process for me), feel free to drop me a message on Instagram. I’ll be more than happy to help!
In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, José Eduardo Oliveira Silva from the Observatorio Astronomico de Lisboa tells us how he embarked on an outreach voyage along the coast of Portugal to bring the joy of science to people living on the coast.
In August 2016, the Ciência Viva institution (which means Living Science in Portuguese) in Portugal was celebrating its 20thanniversary, and as a major science communication institution they planned a grand event to bring Portuguese cultural heritage together with science. Ever since Portuguese sailors navigated around the Cape of Good Hope over 500 years ago, sailing by the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean, Portugal has had a worldwide reputation for maritime exploration.
Thus the “Ao Leme com a Ciência Viva” project was born, which means “At the Helm with Ciência Viva”. Together with 7 volunteers representing different scientific institutions and fields including biology, chemistry and astronomy, we embarked on an outreach voyage along the coast of Portugal, passing through key ports to celebrate science, grand adventures and our connection to the sea.
At the time I was a Master’s student with a background in physics. I wouldn’t say I was a scientist at the time, but I was reasonably knowledgeable of the sky and the motions of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets. As in the early days of ocean exploration I was tasked with traditional navigation using the stars and tools like the sundial and astrolabe.
The voyage took seven days on a historical ‘man-o-war’ vessel named Vera Cruz. As part of a small 20-person crew of scientists and sailors, we lived and worked on or below deck and were always surrounded by the sea breeze and the light of the stars. Everyone had a job, and these ranged from handling the helm (which required at least two people sitting on a cable to push the helm in a given direction), preparing food, or cleaning the bathroom. It was sometimes hard to stay awake on duty at 4 in the morning while trying to keep the boat from crashing into a rock — but in these moments we were always rewarded with a beautiful sunrise over the coast.
The magic of outreach came to life during the voyage and, when docked at harbour, we met with the public ranging from dazzled children to curious seniors. I was given the opportunity to demonstrate how sundials work and how to build one with just a piece of paper and a straw (and of course by making some calculations, as at the end of the day I am a physicist).
So many remarkable moments were condensed in that week that it’s hard to express everything, and even harder to write them in a short article. But I’ll finish with something I learned from this trip (apart from how to tie knots):
To my fellow scientists, never miss an opportunity to do outreach. Whenever possible within your ability and schedule, be willing to give some time to help people. The help you give to others usually pays off in some way and you might even be selected to go on a wonderful voyage, as I was. For me, the outreach activity is its own reward. I’ve been doing it for more than 7 years, both at the Observatory of Lisbon and the planetarium, hopefully bringing wonder and knowledge to the public so they can peer a little bit deeper into the darkness of the cosmic unknown. Which, in my opinion is at the heart of outreach.