Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research

Dr Elodie Chabrol on Overcoming Stereotypes, Pint of Science, and SciComm Training

April 18, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 1 Episode 8
Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research
Dr Elodie Chabrol on Overcoming Stereotypes, Pint of Science, and SciComm Training
Show Notes Transcript

In the second part of the podcast with Dr Elodie Chabrol, hosts Nikesh Gosalia and Jayashree Rajagopalan dive deeper into a discussion peppered with personal anecdotes and eye-opening metaphors. Dr Chabrol talks about the geeky scientist stereotype, overcoming these clichés through her science communication work, and how revealing scientists to be real multifaceted people could inspire a greater public interest in science. The conversation then covers Dr Chabrol’s experiences running Pint of Science festivals, from the top-down approach of Pint of Science talks to the “big picture” benefits for researchers involved in the festivals. Relevant to today's concerns, Dr Chabrol addresses the impact of the pandemic on Pint of Science and shares personal anecdotes to illustrate the process of shifting an informal in-person festival into the online space. Finally, she talks about the need for science communication training among scientists, particularly with regards to social media, and shares ideas on how societies and publishers can address this lack of training.

Dr Elodie Chabrol is the International Director of Pint of Science, a freelance Science Communication Consultant, and co-founder of Beyond Research. With a PhD in Neurogenetics from Paris Descartes University, Dr Chabrol is passionate about helping scientists share their stories and spreading the love of science. She can be reached on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Insights Xchange is a fortnightly podcast brought to you by Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Follow us:

Jayashree Rajagopalan 00:11

I love what you’ve said about the human side of science and about the fact that science communication is not as much about the communication of the science but the people behind the science as well.  When you began Pint of Science, I am sure this sort of meta message, it's very subtle, this sort of messaging is very subtle.  So how did you introduce this sort of thinking in a Pint of Science event?  When did you realize this, that the human element is as important as the science itself?  And how did it change you as a person also.  Lots of questions.  Sorry.


Elodie Chabrol 00:57

Yes.  So, I think I realized the first Pint of Science festival in France where people sat with an astrophysicist for 1-1/2 hour after the talk, asking crazy questions about exactly what I told you, what studies did he do?  Did he always want to study cosmos and to be an astrophysicist?  What is his typical day?  And I realized, okay, they don't want to leave the room.  We were like, okay, it's quite late, do you want to go?  And they were like, no.  No, no, we are good.  We stay as long as it's okay to say.  And they were asking tons of questions.  And it was amazing because I realized, okay, it's not just about the science, it's clearly about the human.  And the first Pint of Science I did was in UK.  And I already had that feeling a bit.  But that night where people didn't want to go, it was 11.  We stayed like four hours of Pint of Science and no one moved because they were like just – they wanted to ask more and more questions.  And he was super happy to explain that his everyday life, one day is never the same than the day after.  And people were just enjoying that so much.  They realized, okay, it's very important.

And also, as a scientist, often I was super-frustrated that people would tell me that I don't look like a scientist.  So, it's been always the little seed was always inside me.  Like, I want to show people what scientists are.  And to show them you have to show the humans.  So, I think it just opened my eyes to okay, this is something I always wanted to do, and it's actually interesting for people so let's go for that.  And actually, I built that over the years.  So that's why in my science communication, the consulting, I always try to tell people don't forget, it's not just data, it's a lot about not just the human but the method which is also the human behind.  Because having been a scientist, messing up experiments for 90% of the time, it's interesting for people to know.

And I try, I started my own podcast that is called ‘Sous la blouse’ in French, ‘under the lab coat’ where scientists undress themselves and they talk about them, their studies, their failures, the things they did good, what they do outside of science as well.  And I am going to start in English pretty soon as well.

Because I really realize it's what interests people.  And also, when you are young, a young person in high school, the role models are not the people that have amazing data, the role models are people that overcame some difficulties or that you feel close to.  So, if you don't tell those stories, then you are never going to inspire anyone.

And I think it's becoming more and more – I think with COVID as well, we had this huge wave of wanting to be more human, more connected.  So, it all went perfectly with that.  But I think it's just important to not see another cliché about scientists, like very cold people, just about the facts and the numbers.  And no, it's not that.  You have tons of different people.  And it's like in real life and you have people that knew they wanted to do science at a very young age, you have some that discovered that in high school, and I think it's good to show that to younger audience, to show them, don't be stressed, you are 16, you don't know what you want to do.  This is normal.  Some people did research, and they didn't know they wanted to do research or you age.  It's fine.

I think it's more inspiring for the public to have this possibility of identifying yourself to someone.  And even when it comes to understanding the data and how it works.  I think any good story, you have to get attached to the character, and that's it.  So, I think it's a way as well to understand how science is done.  And science in general, if you show the Nobel Prizes.  It would be good to have stories about how they ended up being there, it would be nice to just having usually old white dudes that just discovered something really cool.  Yes, but how many years did it take to discover that?  All that kind of stories would be great instead of just knowing they discovered something great.  And that's it.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 05:19

That's a fantastic insight building upon what you said.  But one last thing before I move to the other question that I had in mind.  Based on what you were sharing with Nikesh, another thing that really stood out for me was one realization that I think it's all about mindset.  For a while, I think for the longest time the mindset or the common thought has been that science communication is top down.  The difference between science communication and science instruction, it's very easy to think that communicating science is about teaching science to the lay audience.  And based on what you said, a lay audience could actually be anybody, it could be a researcher from a different field.  So, I think in this case deconstructing science communication to make it a dialogue that are then a top down instructional sort of communication, I think that will go a long way.  So, did that happen at any Pint of Science event where things were more instructional than conversational, and what happened then?


Elodie Chabrol 06:26

So first, yes, now we actually have science engagements, which is a name that is pretty cool because it feels like you are engaged with science.  And so, Pint of Science, what we always do is that we always start with a talk from the scientists explaining their research.  So, it's top down definitely.  But it's good because then it fuels people with questions, because you have some science cafe where you have to go with questions to the scientists.  And clearly, only students and people that feel confident enough to ask questions are going to go there.  So, we are feeding them information usually in a simple way, engaging way as well for them to understand.  And usually, the feedback I have from the scientists is that already preparing the talk for them is a game changer because it's always I have this metaphor for research is that ‘you are digging a hole, but it's a very, very tiny hole, but super deep.’

And doing science communication, sometimes it forces you actually a little more to take your little nose out of the hole and look around because you have to usually talk about your science but in society, what it does, the concept for people and everything.  And usually, when you do research, you are so deep in that hole that you don't step back, and you don't see the big picture because you're in it 100% or 300%.  And what I heard from scientists usually is that it was a very good exercise for them because they took a step back and they actually saw their research with the bigger picture.  And sometimes it's refreshing.  And some people told me, actually I realized I had some other ideas.  And even sometimes having super-simple question from the audience that you would never have in a lab meeting, a Congress, like reviewers from a paper, anything.  It's also shifting sometimes the angle that they research.  Because they are so used to reply to super-complicated questions, same deep down in the hole, that when someone is asking you a simple question is actually sometimes – and that can be terrifying for some scientists to do science communication, because it's pushing them out of their comfort zone and putting them in a spot outside of that hole, really outside.  And it's forcing them to see the big picture and sometimes to see differently their research.  So, that I heard a lot, and I think that's amazing.  So yes, usually just doing the talk and also the questions, like two different levels.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 09:15

Alright, I am forcing myself to move on and change tracks a little bit.  So, Pint of Science is primarily an event that attracts a lot of early career researchers.  But it is primarily an offline event.  Now, how did you adapt with and during the pandemic, how did you switch gears and how easy or difficult was it?  And what can publishers or societies learn or take away from the Pint of Science experience during the pandemic. I think one of the biggest factors of success was the fact that it's an offline event, people can see each other and talk to each other in an informal setting.  But then during the pandemic people cannot do that anymore.  We can't do that.  So how did you adapt and what can publishers or societies pick up from your experience dealing with this.


Elodie Chabrol 10:04

So yes, I think Pint of Science – and that's why another tip actually for societies or publishers organizing events is that really think about the setting because you are not going to have the same atmosphere in a bar, as in a conference room.  So sometimes people feel it's okay to be in a conference room, but just the room can change the whole atmosphere of your event and the whole result of your event.  So, Pint of Science, the DNA is having scientists meeting the public in a super-relaxed way.  So, when we moved to online, we really had to think about what is our DNA, and what do we need to keep, and how can we keep that thing going.  So, I think that's the thing when you move.  So, if you create some things offline to online, it's fine.  If you have an online event that you transfer offline, it's more complicated because you need to keep the characteristics that are important.  So, for us, I think the very big thing was to have a chat that was lively, and people that could chat there could be able to ask questions to the scientists and really feel a bit informal as well.

I think the main part was that.  Because obviously we couldn't recreate the atmosphere, but we tried to have the teams, always we remind them that while you are doing your live, you have some people there, so don't just do your live with your speaker but always try to see what the chat is saying, try to reply to the chat, engage with the chat.  Because the chat is normally the older people in your room.  And it's the most important part of it.

I actually had one that went quite wrong in France.  So, all the YouTube Pint of Science, it was people chatting in front of their computer with their webcams, having the chat open.  And it was quite nice.  And obviously it's pandemic Pint of Science, so it's not perfect cameras, and everything was good.  And then one of the universities wanted to organize a more professional one.  So, they had a scene with seats, and one person moderating, but they had no access to the chat.  And to be honest, it's the one in the feedback, everyone was like it was weird because it was like watching a Pint of Science happening, but not taking part in it.  So, it looked prettier but at the end the end goal was completely missed.

So that's the advice I would give is to think.  If you are transferring offline to online, is to try to keep your end goal as much as you can.  So first, the chat is the livelihood, it’s being nice like informality.  So, we kept the tone trying to be informal.  When I did the first live, so in French we say either ‘tu’ or ‘vous.  We have two different ways of saying ‘you.’  And one is a bit more formal.  And I told all my speakers, I will go for the informal one because it feels more natural and nicer.  And also, when you say to ‘tu’ to speakers, it feels like we are on the same level and are not talking to big scientists.  So that's in the language, in the way you do, that's the kind of thing.  So, if you are creating an online one, you have to think about what you want for your event.  But it's easier because you don't have something that exists already that you have to transfer and keep the same.

But obviously for Pint of Science, I am not going to say online was amazing.  It was nice.  It was a good way to do something, but our DNA is definitely not being online.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 13:52

So, I think the takeaway here is don't just think about logistics, the logistics of moving an event offline to online, but I think the key here is engagement.  Think about how you are enabling or opening up engagement, because it's a huge challenge moving.  People's expectations are also different.  So, I think engagement here is key.


Elodie Chabrol 14:15

And keep it short as well, because offline we can have someone talking for 40 minutes.  It's long, but it could be okay.  Online, people attention is one click away from going on Netflix or whatever.  So, you have to be very careful.  And I think going shorter as well when you do online.  For example, for Pint of Science we had 10 minutes talk, 10 minutes questions.  And that was good.  And Russia did online event and they were talking 1 hour, and they realized it was way too long because people just leave at one point.  It’s not the same attention as well, so you need more energy and more attention.  But yes, when you move, you have to think about the logistics.  When you think about what platform as well, you have to keep in mind the engagement.  YouTube is really good, for example, because you can have a chat.  If you move to your own platform, make sure you can have a chat as well.  And sometimes Zoom, people feel too much put on the spot if they have to orally ask the question.  So, all the things, maybe format a bit different to have it shorter and be sure people are going to stay awake during your thing.  And engagement.  Yes.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 15:35

Right.  That's actually very solid advice.  The piece about having shorter events actually makes absolute sense.  Because now, in addition to all of our other distractions, we have our online conversations that are also sort of vying for our attention.  So that's a really, really valid point.


Elodie Chabrol 15:54

Especially if you have slides to show, if you have visuals.  If it's something you can listen to like a podcast, that could go on longer, it's fine because people do something else at the same time.  But if it's something that keeps you captive, like you have trapped because you have to watch it, then it needs to be catchy and dynamic definitely.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 16:16

Fair enough.  Finally, Elodie, I just want to go back to your own experience in hosting or managing a Pint of Science event or all of Pint of Science events.  It's not that everything goes fine or smoothly all the time, right?  There are always glitches or there are always those interactions that are probably not so pleasant.  So, if you could share one of your most memorable challenges or challenging situations.  For example, was there a post that attracted a lot of maybe negative opinions or something controversial?  Or was there any trolling involved?  Or was there any sort of heated debate or discussion during a Pint of Science event?  If that happened, then how did you deal with it?


Elodie Chabrol 17:05

So, I think I have two, if I am allowed to say two different anecdotes.  The first one, I think it was on Twitter, people went a bit crazy because one event in one country had some practitioner that did Reiki, which is like an alternative medicine.  And they were saying, it's not real science, you shouldn't come to do that.  You shouldn't explain that.  And I think every year we always have a speaker that is controversial.  And the problem is that we work with volunteers.  And sometimes they don't have the time to check, or they think it's going to be okay.  So sometimes it's really that.  I think it's the problem was controversial science topics, or controversial non really science things.  And then obviously sometimes on Twitter it gets completely nuts.  It becomes a huge thing when it's not that bad.  The Reiki thing was actually – to explain, it was a nurse doing some Reiki and she was explaining how on top of cancer treatment that could help, and what was the science of it.  It could have been okay because they were not promoting it as the only thing.  But it became so, so bad on Twitter that people wanted to boycott Pint of Science in that country and everything.  So, we had to deal with it.  Obviously, usually the best is just to apologize and be careful as well, and also to tell your team.  It's just that sometimes with volunteers, they get overexcited on something and after, you see that it wasn't a good one.  So, I always try to make sure the teams know what to do.  I think we had also some stories of like misspelling names, where speakers were really not happy about that.  And I think the volunteers didn't really apologize the right way, so it became a big thing.  They should have just said, I am sorry.  When something happens, just say you are sorry and like normal thing.

I am lucky, I don't have much trolling.  I think it's because I am very second degree as well on social media, so I do the job for the people already.  But on something going very, very bad, I have the experience of the first ever Pint of Science in Paris.  So, it was the first event in Paris.  I wasn't supposed to run it that night, but the team asked me to do it because they were to stressed because it was the first ever, so I said, okay.  I arrived at the pub and the pub – they didn't confirm the reservation of the room to the pub.  So, when I arrived the guy was like, you are lucky it's free because they didn't confirm it, so the room could have been taken.  And we had 40 people coming.  So okay, I was just a bit stressed, but it was fine.  And then I asked, is it possible to have the screen to plug my computer to the screen because the speaker might have some slides.  And then they told me as it was not confirmed, the technical guy is not there, so there is no way of using a screen.  And they gave me a very small TV screen, and they were like, you can plug this one if you want.  But the room was huge.  And I was like, okay, okay, it's fine, it's fine.  It's going to be okay.  And then, the speaker came a bit early to Pint of Science.  And he told me, okay, so as your team told me, it's only scientists in the room and I prepared no talk.  They are going to ask me questions, right?  And then I was really about to cry.  And I said, actually, it's completely not that.  It's the general public, so you need to be very no jargon and anything.  And they expect you to do a talk actually before asking questions.  They will have questions.  It was about stem cells, so they will have questions.  But you need to fuel them a bit before with some information.

And just after that, I looked around and then I saw three guys dressed in black with a camera and a microphone.  And I asked them, oh, who are you?  And they said, oh, it's National TV.  We are there to record the first Pint of Science night.  And then really, I had to keep myself from crying because I was thinking, okay, National TV is going to record the first ever Pint of Science going very, very wrong with like a very tiny screen.  And then actually it went amazing, the speaker didn't do any slides.  And he was like, I can just talk.  It was amazing.  It was super, super nice.  He explained stuff that worked great.  People loved it.  They asked tons of questions.  On TV, it looked great.  But to be honest, that evening tested my nerves so much.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 21:47

And what an evening it was, especially because it was the first Pint of Science event.


Elodie Chabrol 21:53

Exactly.  It was the first one and having it on TV, I was like, if it doesn't work, that failure is going be on TV, or not maybe be on TV.  But yes, it was so much stress about that.  But in a general way we are good because people know it's volunteers as well.  And volunteers, to be honest, they are amazing.  They really put their hearts in Pint of Science, so we have very few things going wrong.  We always have technical issues, things like that.  But I think we are pretty lucky because we have amazing volunteers.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 22:26

All right.  Now, what you said brings me to the last question, add-on question that I have here is one of the things that you mentioned here is just before you shared your anecdotes you spoke about being prepared as much as possible.  And also, if it's something on social media, just apologize if there's a really tough situation.  Now this makes me wonder if and how publishers or research societies while working with scientists for science communication initiatives, is there anything they can do to train or prepare scientists.  Even the anecdote that you shared about the researcher at the first Pint of Science event, when he said, am I expected to do this?  Am I supposed to do this?  So that made me think about training and expectation setting?  So, do you think publishers or societies can do anything to help train or prepare researchers for science communication?


Elodie Chabrol 23:25

Yes, definitely.  So, there are more and more programs now for science communication for Ph.D. students.  But there is a gap.  Basically, as soon as you have your Ph.D. – some programs are helping postdocs as well, but when you are after in the more senior years, there is not necessarily something.  And the problem at the moment I think is that there is a lot of pressure on scientists to communicate on social media, to do science communication.  Lots of grants are asking science communication to give money.  So, now scientists are a bit stressed.  So, I think definitely training that I do lots, I think one of the training I will give the most is do Twitter, how to have a proper account on Twitter, how to share papers on Twitter as well, that's something that would benefit the publishers and the scientists.  Because if you want to reach general public and you are just sharing the link of your paper with the title that is not understandable for most of the people, it's not going to help.  So, that kind of training.

And also, sometimes, having a place where a researcher can know where to go if they want to do science communication.  Because that's I think a thing I've seen the most is that they want to do some, but they don't know where to go.  So maybe societies definitely could have a page of science communication initiative that scientists could reach to do some science communication, also some tips.  And publishers as well, it could be really good to help scientists once the paper is there, to share it and have either trainings or even tips, pages with tips on how to do that, that would be already really cool.  Because I think the problem is that there is a lot of pressure on scientists now to do science communication, but they don't always know where to go or how to do.  So, I think it would relieve them from so much pressure to already tell them this is possible, you can do that.  And it's like that timing of the year, you can do that, that much is wanted from you.  And also, some tips, training, online training, or offline training.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 25:37

That's actually very sound advice.  That brings me to the end of questions that I had Elodie.  I just want to say, you have a beautiful mind.  I love the way you introduce so many metaphors.  And especially the part where you said that, for a scientist, what you tell them is you are actually digging a hole, but it's a very tiny hole, but it's really deep.  And how that sort of micro-thinking or closemindedness tends to set in without it being intentional.  I think that was eye-opening for me.

You said a lot of other things as well similar to this.  I think it's amazing how you use all of these metaphors to connect science and life.  And I think you are one of the most passionate people, passionate about science communication, you are one of the most passionate people I have spoken to.  And I think that's absolutely inspiring.  I could see Nikesh bubbling with a lot of thoughts while we were discussing.  So, I am going to hand over to Nikesh for his final comments and then to close this conversation.  Thank you so much Elodie.


Elodie Chabrol 26:44

You are welcome.  Thank you.


Nikesh Gosalia 26:45

Thank you, thank you Jayashree and thank you Elodie for all the tips.  Tips that are so practical, that are so easy to follow.  And the best part is it's based on your experience.

Two takeaways that will stay with me.  One of them is science communication is not about just simplifying the message, it's about making it a part of your way of life.  It could be through events that are run in a coffee shop, or over a pint, or just at a tube station.  But just how do you make that a way of life so that more and more people can talk about it and not have this huge thing in their mind that, like you mentioned, scientists are those nerds, those geeky guys, who when they are 5 years old they know everything that's happening in the world.  So that's one definite key takeaway.

And the other was it's okay, try things out on social media channels.  Take constructive feedback, seek feedback, adapt, and try again.  I think because of such rich experiences that you've had, you just sound so comfortable sharing anything around science communication.  And I think that's such a useful tip for everyone and all our listeners.  A lot of times there is so much procrastination, so much of fear, so much of worry in our minds, and we want to get everything right.  But I think the tip of just, it's okay, was so fascinating that I found it extremely motivating.


Elodie Chabrol 28:20

Thank you.  Yes, just try out and if it doesn't work – it's a bit like research, you do an experiment, and then you adapt your experiment.  It's the same thing.  Try, and if it doesn't work, adapt it and change it until it works fine for you.


Nikesh Gosalia 28:33

Exactly.  Absolutely.  Thank you.  Thank you so much Elodie once again.  This was fascinating.  And like Jayashree, unfortunately, I think 1 hour just doesn't do justice to the fact that you've got so much of valuable insights.  But I am sure we are going to talk more often in the future.

Thank you, everyone for joining us.  You can subscribe to this podcast on all major podcast platforms.  Stay tuned for our next episode.