More to science: working in science communication and art

There’s more to science than being a scientist! Next in our 'Science > Careers' series, Agnes Becker discusses working in science communication while starting a science art business.

What is your scientific background?

I’ve always sat in between the arts and sciences. I studied both at A level but went on to complete a BSc Hons Natural Science (Biology, Chemistry, Anthropology) at Durham University. However, I never stopped making things during that time and I even used my art skills to help my studies. I remember really enjoying drawing drosophila flies as seen under the microscope and creating infographics of Krebs cycle!

How did you transition from the lab to your current job?

At the end of my bachelor’s degree I knew I wanted to do something that used my art and science interests. I went on to study a Masters in Science Media Production from Imperial College London and then spent a number of years in various jobs – from TV researcher and Science Museum Explainer to freelance web editor and film editor.

Eventually I settled working in academic institutions as a communications specialist, primarily with global health researchers. I currently work as a science communication manager with the Mental Health Innovation Network, based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Mental health is chronically underfunded, particularly in development, even though wellbeing is part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

I started we are stardust in 2013 as a shop for all sophisticated, curious minds.

My job involves maximizing these limited resources by networking mental health innovators from all over the world to share information and resources. Innovators include researchers, NGOs, policy makers and funders.

I enjoy my day job but I’d always had a dream of creating something for myself that mixed my love of making with my interest in science. I had the idea for we are stardust – a shop where art and science collide – when I worked at the Science Museum.

agnesbecker
Agnes Becker

All their museum shop items were for people who love science. I didn’t want we are stardust to be a shop just for those who love science, I wanted it to be a place for everyone who loves learning about the natural world. So I started we are stardust in 2013 as a shop for all sophisticated, curious minds.

Each card captures a fact, story or curiosity, so that when you post a we are stardust card to your loved one, you gift them with a moment of wonder for the natural world.

The hardest part of starting my own business was the decision to go part-time in my day job in order to focus on getting we are stardust launched (the shop opened on 15 September). I’d been working on we are stardust in the evenings and weekends but wasn’t able to give it the attention I wanted to.

Going part-time meant I lost quite a bit of salary. Luckily, I’m in position to be able to manage that and focusing on we are stardust has brought me so much joy that even if I don’t make my money back, it has been worth it just to try something I love doing.

How do you spend your day in your job?

In my science communication job, days are very varied but they always involve thinking about a target audience and what information they need in order to improve mental health services e.g. people working in NGOs to implementing mental health programmes don’t have much time to read academic papers so I would produce a short, visual infographic on top level findings and reference the paper for more information.

I work around eight hours a day but as I work in a small research team we all have to muck in when things get busy and that has meant occasionally working late. My to do list now consists of preparations for a stall that we have at a conference next week as well as collating content for World Mental Health Day on 10 October.

At we are stardust I do everything in order to run the business! I have every Friday off from my day job to spend on we are stardust and every week I can’t wait for it to arrive. I spend lots of time on my daily commute to  work  daydreaming about my business and imagining new designs and ideas.

I’ve loved learning how to really step into the shoes of the audience.

There are tasks I really enjoy – researching new facts or stories, drawing the illustrations and designing the cards – and tasks I don’t enjoy so much – doing my accounts. My tasks have changed as the year has gone on. I started in January working on my branding and card designs, then this summer I spent a lot of time updating my website and leading up to the launch on 15th September.

I try to make sure I work on my social media every day as I’ve found Instagram a great way to connect with potential customers and other creative business owners. My to do list is endless as I have so many ideas and thoughts on how to expand the business but with only one day a week to work on it, I’m training myself to be more focused.

At the moment I’m working on getting my cards into shops which involves a lot of accounts to make sure I’m charging the right wholesale price.

For both jobs, my science degree gave me the opportunity to see the world through a scientific lens. In Professor Brian Cox’s words, this “deeper understanding confers that most precious thing – wonder”. During my degree I learned about different cultural attitudes to health, how atoms bond and plants grow. All of this knowledge feeds into my day job and my business.

What do you like most about your job?

In my science communication job I’ve loved learning how to really step into the shoes of the audience. I particularly love it when I get to travel and work with researchers in other countries on their mental health work – I learn so much about other contexts and cultures and audiences. Communication is a two-way process.

It’s about listening to what your audience needs and tailoring messages to meet those needs, for example, a Minister of Health doesn’t have time to read an academic paper but they will listen to their advisers, so how do we make sure the advisers have heard about the research findings we want to communicate? Do they have experts they call on? Do they have briefings we can contribute to?

To give a specific example, a recent trip to Pakistan to work with the amazing Family Networks for Kids project showed how the team could strengthen their communications work to keep potential partners informed. Nearly 100% children with development delays in Pakistan don’t get the healthcare they need.

In the absence of formal healthcare, the team is doing vital work training the families of children with developmental delays on how to care for their child using evidence-based techniques.

I love having my own project that I can shape and use my imagination to grow.chili_back_web

If their partners don’t hear about the good work they’re doing, it will make it difficult for the team to roll out the project to other areas of Pakistan. I worked with the team to think about how they could use the inspiring stories of the families work with to demonstrate the impact their work is having.

I am still in the early stages of my business but I really enjoy creating my cards and researching the science behind them. I find hours can just slip away as I draw or make something at my makeshift home studio. I also really like connecting with potential customers on social media.

Surprisingly I had a great time working on my branding earlier this year. I initially thought it such a corporate idea but it has been invaluable in helping me focus on what I really want my business to be about. However, most of all, I love having my own project that I can shape and use my imagination to grow.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs looking to move out of the lab?

My advice is to just give it a go! Whatever you want to do – writing, making, creating – try it and see what happens. Even if it’s just in the evenings or at weekends, if you don’t try you’ll never know. I have no idea where we are stardust will take me or if it will ever make any money but every week I can’t wait for Friday to come so that I can work on my business and at the moment, that’s more than enough!

Where can you be reached if readers want to ask you more about your job? 

For information on working in science communication, particularly in global health, you can contact me on Linked In and at agnes.becker@lshtm.ac.uk. More on the Mental Health Innovation Network: mhinnovation.net.

For information about we are stardust you can email me at agnes@wearestardust.uk or find me on www.wearestardust.uk.


Join the conversation by commenting below or using the #moretoscience hashtag on twitter. Do you have a job in science that you love, or know someone who does? Contact me at dana.berry@biomedcentral.com or @DanaBerryBMC if you’re interested in participating in our series.

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