STEMM Trails: In Conversation with Lee Constable

If you tune in to Channel 11 on a Saturday morning, you’ll catch Lee Constable on children’s science show, Scope. Claire Barnes, creator of STEMM Trails AND contributor to HCwBB Issue 3, met with Lee for a chat to hear all about her experiences as a science communicator, and how much fun presenting science to children really is.

Illustration of Lee Constable by Charlie Gurman

Claire Barnes: Can you tell me about your work and what you do?

Lee Constable: I’m the host of Scope, a science show on Channel 11 aimed at 7-14-year-olds. Each week we have a different theme, do experiments, and interview scientists to talk about their work. I also facilitate an event called Co-Lab: Science Meets Street Art, which involves pairing young scientists with street artists. They collaborate, and then for the final event the public can watch as the science-inspired street art is painted onto a large wall alongside descriptions written by the scientists.

CB: Where did the passion for science begin?

LC: I grew up on a farm in regional NSW where I could see the connection between people and the environment. Dad’s breeding of Texas Longhorns [a breed of cattle] and super-fine Merino sheep made me interested in genetics from an early age. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that I set off into the world of environmental science.

CB: You studied Arts/Science at university. Were you always interested in both?

LC: I loved both and couldn’t let go of one; a drama major and sociology major, and environmental and plant science majors, were perfect for me.

Subconsciously, I probably thought that science would be my ultimate profession, but I’ve found the arts to be just as rewarding and invaluable to my career as a science communicator.

CB: Do you think you could choose one of them, arts vs. science?

LC: I don’t know if I can answer that [Laughs]. I’ve realised how much you can adapt the arts to help communicate and express almost anything.

Wait a second though, why do we have to have this dichotomy between arts and science? Da Vinci never had this problem in his day!

Imagine if there had been, and imagine if Da Vinci’s parents had told him he had to choose just one of the two? Imagine what we wouldn’t have today!

CB: [Laughs] Great point. Did anyone ever actively try to dissuade you from pursuing both?

LC: Not quite, but many people were confused by it. I was one of only a few in a class of sixteen graduating students from my school who went to uni. Everyone was really excited I was going, yet when I arrived at ANU I found myself surrounded by people with totally different attitudes to careers and education than I had. A lot of these students’ parents were doctors and lawyers who had very rigid views about career pathways and couldn’t quite grasp why I was pursuing arts and science together.

Some people would tell me drama, sociology, and environmental science were a strange combination that wouldn’t take me anywhere. But I disagreed and still do: sociology and environmental science do work well together. Simply put, they enable the study of how society affects the environment!

CB: How did you first get into the field of science communication?

LC: It was a real slow burn. When I was doing honours§, a friend of a friend was studying a Masters in Science Communication Outreach and it sounded like it was for me. After my honours degree, I started the course. The practical element of the Masters was being a presenter in the Questacon Science Circus. We travelled through remote and regional Australia putting on science shows for schools. I loved it.

CB: Why is it important to bring science to the masses?

LC: Some people think it’s about transmitting facts, but science communication is also about improving people’s trust in the scientific process and teaching them what it’s all about. Science communication is about garnering peoples’ appreciation for the field and science’s application to everyday lives. Whether you understand the science behind everyday objects or not, it humanises them a little.

We need to improve the public’s understanding of science in order to avoid misunderstanding. We see the effects of this misunderstanding with the continued discussions on climate change and anti-vaccination. The public’s perception on science can have significant outcomes in the world, and can seriously influence and impact what politicians spruik, and the way people vote.

CB: What’s the key to being a good science communicator? What kind of a person does a good science communicator need to be?

LC: The public perception is that a science communicator is someone like Brian Cox, Dr Karl, Neil de Grasse Tyson, or Bill Nye. There’s certainly a place for these public figures – all male, I might add! – but it’s important to recognise that not everyone in science communication is necessarily in the public sphere: there’s much more to science communication than just a face on the TV.

It’s important to acknowledge those people who work behind the scenes, writing about science, organising events, and facilitating connections between scientists and politicians. All these people are science communicators too.

As well as the people who work for Scope, putting us in touch with scientists.

CB: What’s the best way to encourage people into science?

LC: I think it’s important to start young. Science can be very intimidating for parents and adults, and if they haven’t had a positive exposure to science, it can be scary. Sometimes parents may have been let down by science at school: shamed or embarrassed by teachers if they got something wrong or found it difficult. Unfortunately, these people are likely to pass these negative emotions on to their children. The sad reality is that I’ve heard from primary school teachers who feel they need expertise in order to teach science, which shouldn’t be the case.

It’s also important to remember that one of the most encouraging things about science is that being wrong in your assumptions is a good thing. You can learn so much through what some would see as ‘failure’.

CB: Why do you think some people are scared of science?

LC: Historically, science has not always been used for the benefit of society, but it’s been taken into the hands of politicians who’ve used it negatively. The atomic bomb is an example of this. But science also taps into the fear of the unknown: people are less likely to trust something if they don’t understand it or don’t know about it. Science, as a culture, has also historically been very alienating to particular groups, like women, or people of colour.

Science has a history of elitism that is hard to wash away.

CB: Any idea how we can reverse this?

LC: It’s important for the public to see experts as humans. As rational as we all think we are, most people make decisions based on emotions and, if there is limited diversity in science, then effective representation and emotional connection is restricted.

CB: How do we normalise the idea of women in STEMM? And how do we challenge the unconscious bias that women aren’t scientists?

LC: You know what? I question whether a scientist truly values unbiased results if they’re not willing to accept or fight for social equity in science.

If scientists truly believe in non-bias, then we need to equalise the playing field. We need to be more flexible for women.

Programmes like SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity) involve the establishment of practical policies within universities and research institutions to increase the flexibility of the workplace.

CB: Do you have, or have you had, a mentor at any point?

LC: I’ve unofficially had mentors, I suppose. Professor Marilyn Ball, my Honours supervisor, springs to mind. She is a scientific researcher who progressed to professor level and started at a time when there were barely any females in her field. She continually advocates for change. Peer mentorship is also highly valuable. Your peers share similar experiences and can be invaluable for support.

CB: What, for you, has been the most challenging part about being a woman in STEMM?

LC: The assumptions people usually jump to. That a scientist, or a science communicator, is a man. We need to continue to push this until women come to mind.

CB: And what do you see is the role for activism in science?

LC: I think it’s vital. I mean, the only reason women can vote today is because of the people who fought for it. Activism is so important. I realise it’s not for everyone, but we owe a great deal of respect to those who’ve come before us.

I think people complicate science as a sector and science as a process. The scientific process shouldn’t be influenced by politics, but unbiased scientific results should be more respected on a political platform. I think science and politics should mix more often, not less.

CB: Do you have any words of wisdom to any young women scientists reading this?

LC: Nurture your artistic side. Become familiar with social science and what it has to say about the world around you. The more science learns from social science, the more we can learn about everything around us.

Find Scope on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Find Co-Lab: Science Meets Street Art on Facebook.

Find Lee on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


Words and Images (with permission) by Claire Barnes

Illustration by Charlie Gurman

Featured Image by Anna Apuli of Crapuli

Edits by Emma Kate Lewis

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