Brian Wecht is a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the School of Physics and Astronomy. His idea for public engagement started in New York and has since spread through America and to London with a mission to share the personal side of science.
Hi Brian, could you tell us a little about your public engagement?
I co-created a series of science storytelling shows with Ben Lillie called "The Story Collider". These shows, which take place in theatres, clubs, art galleries, and other non-academic environments, feature people telling true, personal stories about their experiences with science.
Each live show features 6 storytellers from a wide variety of backgrounds, and half of the storytellers in each show are non-scientists. I also host the show and often am one of the storytellers.
What was your inspiration for setting up Story Collider?
To demonstrate that science is a universal endeavour, and to humanize the process of living in a world run by science. Many of our scientist speakers have stories related to their current research, and by telling their story, help convey an aspect of their work that is essentially impossible to find via traditional scientific means (publications, blog posts, etc.).
Who would you say is your audience?
Typically they are people who have heard about the show through the performance, comedy, or storytelling community, and are not used to approaching scientific topics. Because these shows take place in theatres, clubs, art galleries, etc, we are engaging people that do not usually come to scientific events. And because our performers come from a wide range of backgrounds, we get storytellers who wouldn't normally engage with scientific ideas to do so.
How does this public engagement benefit the speakers?
We are the only organization that asks people to explicitly talk about the human side of science. We explicitly ask our storytellers not to explain scientific concepts in great detail, since there are many other venues for public engagement in which people can give public talks about their work. This focus on the emotional, personal side of science makes us innovative.
I work with all the storytellers to craft their stories, often going back and forth with them on several drafts, helping them to create a compelling narrative. These people then get first-hand experience crafting a narrative as well as performing, and as such are exposed to a new way of communicating about science.
How do you think the audience benefit from the events?
We've had many such people tell us that hearing scientists speak about their work on a more personal level has made them more friendly towards, and sometimes even enthusiastic about, science.
Many of our storytellers are past audience members who, after listening to other people speaking on stage, want to tell their own science story.
The effectiveness of the idea is in part shown by our audience sizes. Despite being relatively new to London, every Story Collider event I've done so far has attracted audiences of 70 or more people, some of whom are people returning because they enjoyed previous events, but most of whom are first-time attendees. At a recent event in Shoreditch on 23 April, around 60% of the audience was new to The Story Collider.
How do you ensure your project has a large, lasting impact?
Stories from the live shows in London, New York, and other places where my collaborators live, are featured on a free weekly podcast on storycollider.org.
Our shows have included QMUL's Prof Peter Kalmus, Dr Ben Still, Dr Alison Hartshorn, and Tom Horner, and future shows will branch out into other QM departments. By presenting experts from QM in a new environment, we continue to work towards QM's goal of engaging a large and diverse public in a non-traditional setting.
You can visit the Story Collider website for more information and upcoming events.
The Story Collider also features as a case study on the Queen Mary public engagement website. If you have a public engagement project you'd like to blog about or see as a case study then let us know.
Interview by Daniel Taylor Assistant Public Engagement Officer Queen Mary University of London