Episode 7 – Interview with the singing scientist Catriona Nguyen-Robertson
In this episode we’re so excited to introduce you to Catriona Nguyen-Robertson who is a singing scientist: she sings in the laboratory and dreams up immunology experiments in the shower. She is a researcher at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, studying the immune response in skin allergies. An advocate for diversity in STEM, she is Secretary of the Pride in Action Network, and was Vice-President of Women in Science and Engineering at The University of Melbourne.
Catriona is also an enthusiastic science communicator. She is part of the Science Communication Teaching Team at The University of Melbourne and a Learning Facilitator with Museums Victoria. She also works as the Science Communications Officer for the Royal Society of Victoria and Convergence Science Network, and is Associate Editor of the Immunology and Cell Biology scientific journal. She regularly engages with science mentoring and outreach programs, such as Skype a Scientist, Pint of Science, In2Science, BrainSTEM, and the Gene Technology Access Centre – sharing science online, in pubs, and in schools across Victoria and the world.
You can follow Catriona and find out more about her work here:
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Jen and I’m very excited to be joined today, as always, by my co-host Michael. G’day, Michael.
Hey Jen, I’ve had my coffee this morning. I’ve been outside for some bright light exposure and I’m very excited for today’s episode.
I’m so glad, ’cause you without coffee, I don’t think our listeners will need to hear that Michael. We’ll keep that quiet.
So we are super excited today because we are joined by another one of our amazing teaching team. We’re using this first season to introduce you to our whole team and today you are going to have the great pleasure of meeting Catriona Nguyen-Robertson and it’s hard to know how to introduce Cat other than the fact that we just adore her.
But Cat is also known as the singing scientist, she’s an immunologist, she does more SciComm than you can shake a stick at. And we are so lucky that she also works with us teaching science communication at Melbourne Uni. So hello and welcome Cat.
Hello Jen, Hello Michael, I absolutely love working with you and talking to you so I’m very excited to be here.
Well, we think that’s pretty awesome. So the first question, Cat be ready, it’s a pretty tough one.
No, I’m just kidding.
Think back and I’ve, I’ve seen photos of you as a kid, so I have a beautiful picture in my mind of little Catriona, little Cat.
Can you remember a moment when you suddenly realized that science was your passion, science was your thing, you realized, yep, I want to be a scientist.
Well, I, for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a doctor and I guess my family guided me towards that. And during high school you sat like an aptitude test and it would tell you what kind of jobs you’re suited for. And it was three-page long list of jobs and they were all related to science for me. It was essentially saying you can do nothing except science. And doctor was on that list, but so there’s a whole bunch of other different jobs that I had no idea existed. So you know, that kind of, maybe go OK, science, science is my thing.
And then I went to the National Youth Science Forum just before I started year 12 and it was really exciting to see what studying science at university would be like. And because of that, I thought you know what, I’m going to do a general science degree and see where that takes me.
So at what age did you decide medicine wasn’t your thing? ‘Cause that must have been a big step, if you’d always thought you were going to be a doctor.
At what age? 21? [I] think?
Yeah, during my third year of undergrad I did a little bit of lab work. And every day during the holidays, I’d go into the lab and it was just this quiet space, and I was the only person in the lab.
So I’d turn on the radio, blast the music and sing along as I was pipetting. And I was like, this is brilliant. I want to do honours, I want to, I want to work in a lab where it’s like this.
The lab I ended up doing honours in played the radio, although not a station that was my favourite. But you know, I still liked the lab work and so I think, after honours, I just couldn’t, I, I applied for medicine at the same time as I applied for a PhD scholarship. But I couldn’t imagine not going into the lab everyday. So I kept going.
And history was made.
Yeah, it’s something that you hear a lot from scientists that work in that kind of a lab environment, that they really love it.
So I wanted to ask you Cat, what your particular passion is in science? I mean, it sounds like you love doing lab work, but what kind of science really ignites your passion?
Do you mean in terms of field or what about science?
Both, I want to hear both.
For me, I guess it’s the discovery aspect. You’re just always learning, you never have to know all the answers. That kind of pressure, it’s just too much. But I love that you, you can be the first person in the world to know the answer to a question, or you can be the first person in the world to discover something.
I went on a fossil dig once and cracked open a rock, found a fossil. I was like, I am the only living person to have seen this ever.
And that’s just incredible. With science, you are the first for a lot of different things. And I like that you can just keep asking questions. The work’s never done, like, there are always more questions to ask.
So I guess that’s the aspect of, of science that I like and in terms of the field, well, I guess I love immunology enough to be an immunology researcher. I am fascinated by how we fight off infectious diseases, how we can harness our own bodies and own immune systems to fight off things like cancer as well, especially when we give ourselves a little bit of help with really exciting, cool new immunotherapies.
But I guess I also am interested in a whole lot of different sciences. I work with the Royal Society of Victoria and with them, I listen to all sorts of different lectures. A lot recently around sustainability and climate change and things. And I’m really passionate about that as well and I really enjoy listening to people who are in that space talking about it. It’s everything, I love everything about science.
Yeah. Thinking about science communication. Did you have a first experience where you realised you really enjoy doing science communication? ‘Cause you do a lot of it now, but when was your first experience of that?
I guess it kind of counts as communication in that I taught as a tutor. I volunteered for a homework group in Footscray for refugees and children of refugees, and so I started teaching some of high school students their science, and I also took a job as a teacher as well. And that ignited a passion for teaching.
And then I guess I started dabbling in other, you know, aspects of science communication when I started doing more science outreach with places like the Gene Technology Access Centre, I jumped onto the Twitter bandwagon. I was very late, I felt, jumping onto Twitter.
But I started going on there just to I guess, highlight different talks and things like that that I went to. So when I went to the big immunology conference of Australia and New Zealand every year I started tweeting about the keynote and things like that. And I really liked the challenge of OK, you’ve only got… by the time you use all the conference hashtags and everything like OK, you’ve got 200 characters to sum up a 30-minute talk, go.
And that just really fun, it was a bit of fun. And so after I went to that conference, I mean, I, I’ve been multiple times, but after the first time I did that and did Twitter at the conference I came back in December, back to Melbourne. And I thought oh, what can I do and I started reaching out to different people, to see what I could do for them and the Royal Society Victoria and Convergent Science Network said, “yeah, we’ll take you on board”, so I started writing articles for them.
And you now do more science communication than many people I know Cat. You do so many different things, but you haven’t yet talked about your music.
Though I know music is something that’s been important to you for a very long time, tell us about when you first realise that music and science could come together.
I think the first time I paired music and science was for FameLab. Which is, for those listeners who don’t know it, it’s a competition where you have 3 minutes to sum up your research, a little bit like the three-minute thesis competition, except you are allowed to sing or dance or use props or costumes. So it’s much more fun, I think.
Way more fun, I agree, it’s, for someone who’s judged both, they’re both awesome, and they’re terrific competitions for encouraging us to work out how to be concise and how to explain research in accessible ways. But I just love FameLab for the creativity.
Yeah, it was a fun challenge and for the finals, I thought I’ll tell the story of why I got into cancer immunology research. And I started singing a little song from Matilda [the] musical. I have to mention I changed the words a little bit.
Feel free to do a rendition for us Cat.
Can I even remember it? It was like… When I grow up, I will be a scientist. And then I did my bit and then at the end summed it up, like summed up the main message again in that song and that was scary, doing that in front of a live audience. In my head I was going, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh.
But I got through it and people really liked it and people who I hadn’t really spoken to, but they were kind of colleagues in that they work in the same building as me, that kind of thing. They emailed me and said, “Oh, my children watched your thing and understood it and really really resonated with it.” I was like, Oh my gosh, that’s amazing, that’s exactly what you want. So that’s the first time I used music and science together.
And then later that year I was invited to the Science Gallery Melbourne Poetry Slam as a speaker, as a scientist speaker. And I thought, oh, because the theme was disposable and waste, and I thought, what can I bring to the table? I don’t really research in that field, so I’m not really a scientist in that area.
But I decided to talk about human waste and talk about digestion and how we form our wee and poo. And again, summed up all the main messages into songs that people, people knew. ‘Cause I thought, you know, it’s a poetry slam, you’ve gotta be creative. So I did that and that went down really well and so from there, I thought oh, it would be a great idea to pair music and science and just have a different way of sharing scientific messages.
And so it was really last year that I started writing my own music and started writing more songs about COVID, how it works, how we fight it. And now, different scientific topics as well, like space and states of matter.
Yeah, it’s a fantastic combination, science and music.
And I was just curious whether you thought having done that as a medium of communication as well as speaking and writing, what advantages do you think singing science has over some other mediums of science communication?
Well, I’m going to start with a con, ’cause the first con comes to my mind is that it’s slower. So when, when you’re thinking about FameLab and you’ve only got 3 minutes, I was wary that by singing twice, it cut down the amount of time I could speak for.
But in terms of the pros and why I think it’s an excellent tool is that music is so ingrained in all of our lives. We have music for celebration, for culture, for ritual and ceremony, and there are so many songs that people know the lyrics to. There are so many songs that get just stuck in your head.
So I thought, what if we had ear worms, so ear worms are songs that get stuck in your head that are about science. So people are just like, you know, walking down the street and humming along to something that’s teaching them something as well, so that’s one benefit of it. Like you know, getting stuck in your head and people have told me that some of my songs are quite catchy, so, that’s a win.
But also like, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I did a little bit of reading into it, into the idea of cement memory and, and then how we form memories. Yeah. And if you read something and this is not to dismiss writing and things like that as a form of science communication ’cause I do that as well. But just if you read something you’ve form, sort of, one road or pathway into that memory. So you might remember it, but you’ve read it and that’s kind of one way to sort of trigger it.
But if you hear the same thing in music form, you’ve got multiple pathways to access that memory because you can remember the actual content; you could remember the rhythm; you could remember the tune; you could even remember like oh, the kind of music and the timbre of the instruments. So there are more ways to access the memory and it kind of cements itself a little bit better.
So I guess that’s a really big benefit, and it’s, I think, able to connect with people who might not ordinarily read about science or, or things like that. It might just be that people are looking for a good song and it happens to be about science.
Yeah. Wow, that’s fascinating.
Maybe we should be singing our science communication teaching instead of traditional talking. Need to start my singing lessons though.
Ah, I’m up for that. Let’s sing our lectures from now on, let’s do it.
There are certainly studies. I had a look at a review in 2012, as in the review was from 2012, I didn’t look at it then. And they looked at different studies that were showing high school students and college age students learning things and studying for tests, and students performed better when they got the content through jingle or I think one study was progressive rock…
Oh no, that’s awesome.
Or something to learn about food safety.
But yeah, essentially there are studies out there that say we do learn content better.
Yeah, that’s fascinating.
Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Because of all the things you’ve just said about kind of, just a different way of forming memories and, and I guess for some people, reading science may feel like a chore, right? Like it might feel like a task, whereas for very few of us is listening to music a task that we would not enjoy doing. Listening to music is generally something that’s fun and it’s a sign of relaxation, so I can totally understand that.
But Cat, thinking about the breadth of experience that you have, I know you now do live shows for audiences when we’re not in lockdown, you do shows at Victoria’s Science Museum. I know you, you know, obviously still do a lot of Twitter, you MC events. You sing, you do all sorts of different things.
We’d love you just to reflect a bit on what have you learned over all these years since you decided that I’m not just going to be a scientist, I’m also going to be a scientist who tries to communicate what I do to different audiences. What are the, some of the things that you’ve learned along the way about what really makes good science communication?
I think being genuine, being your genuine self is super important and I felt that I’ve really connected with audiences when I’ve been at ScienceWorks or even virtually. And connecting with students as well, it just comes across so much better and you can build kind of a relationship with them, even if you know, it’s a 35 minute show. You can build kind of a nice relationship where you feel like they learn something, but they also get to see a part of you.
So the first show that I presented at Scienceworks was in the Lightning Room and it was kind of like a game show. And so I really just had fun with it. And I did really dorky dancing and sang a little bit. And I think the audience really, really liked that, and it, it just gave them something to kind of latch onto and connect with me with.
I think also letting go of perfectionism. I, you know, I’m, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. But I felt over time you know, the more I perform I would just be really nervous if I’m worried about being perfect. But I think when you’re communicating science to people, whether it’s as a speaker or presenter or something like that, even you know, other things like us being on a podcast, it makes you more human if you make mistakes or if you acknowledge that we all do make mistakes.
When I’m presenting at conferences to different audiences, I try and just have a bit of fun with it rather than thinking about like, oh my gosh, I have to present my data, and, and be perfect and have the best conference presentation. So I think I try and bring that into all my science communication, trying to think, OK, no-one is really judging you. It’s OK, just do you.
Yeah, I think that’s so important and it’s also around this maxim that we all say and we all hear about respecting your audience and knowing your audience. I think that’s a sign of real respect. For me, bringing your authentic self and being willing to present yourself, flaws and all in front of an audience.
To me, that’s, that’s a way of showing respect, because it means you’re not presenting yourself as the know-it-all expert who isn’t there to learn or isn’t there to have a conversation. Because the minute we have pictures of scientists who are just experts out the front talking at an audience. We all know that’s, that model doesn’t work. It’s been well shown that that model of science communication just doesn’t work.
Hmm, and especially when I’m presenting science that isn’t, you know, my specific field, like namely, immunology. Sometimes I might not know the answers to questions that I’m asked. And I’m like, well, you know, this is great, it’s a chance to learn and there’s kind of [as] nerdy as that sounds, it’s really really true, and I think it also shows to your audience, not all scientists know everything about all sciences. So it’s great when you can kind of take that as a oh, let’s learn about this together, let’s figure it out. ‘Cause I don’t know all the answers.
Yeah, I think that’s particularly important with kids because the last thing you want is for kids to, you know… I, I do a lot of school talks as well and I just don’t want them to get the impression that I know everything because I clearly don’t and the whole joy of science is asking questions and not knowing answers.
Yeah, so it’s almost like it, it makes it easier for yourself in terms of being a bit less nervous. But it’s also beneficial to everyone else as well because it’s saying that it’s normal to not know everything, it’s normal that sometimes you make mistakes and it’s not setting that standard of ‘it must be perfect’.
That’s just stressful.
Yeah. It’s good for question time as well, isn’t it? You know, what you just said Cat, about if you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s fine. Because then you just say that’s a, you have to first of all say that’s a great question, I don’t know the answer, but I’ll get back to you.
Yeah, or you ask the person, particularly it’s a kid asking the question.
I like to say, Wow, that’s a brilliant question. I’ve never thought about that. What do you think?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And then often from a kid, you’ll just get the best response because they have been thinking about it.
So Cat, we’d love you to now put yourself back in time and think about your undergraduate self, which I know isn’t as long ago for you as it is for some of us, namely me. But thinking about kind of all the steps you’ve gone through, you know, is it medicine? Is it immunology? Is it, is it mixing immunology and communication? What advice would you give your undergraduate self about how to forge a rewarding career in science? A career that you wake up every day and feel excited about.
I would say just try a whole bunch of different things. If I hadn’t gone into a lab, if I didn’t step foot into a lab besides the normal prac classes that you have during undergrad I wouldn’t have found that I really enjoyed lab work.
And if I hadn’t started tutoring, and if I hadn’t started working for GTAC, Gene Technology Access Centre, I wouldn’t have found that like oh, I, I really like doing this kind of outrage sort of work.
And the more I dabbled in different things, the more I collected jobs or a little tasks and things that became my things. They became things that I really love and yes, I do a whole bunch of different things now, and I will admit I don’t have the best work life balance right now. But I love everything that I do because I’ve kind of forged a path where I tested out lots of different things. I put my foot in lots of different puddles? Waters? What’s, what’s the?
Camps? Yeah, we know, we know what you mean.
Yeah, fingers in lots of different pies?
Hmm, pie, yum.
That’s exactly what I’m thinking.
From there, I found you know like, oh maybe I don’t like that pie so much. But I do like this one and I like this one too, and I like this one too.
So I guess just trying different things and as soon as you realise that you don’t like something, you do need to say no because you know, there’s only so much time in your day. So it is important to, to drop things as well as just collecting a whole bunch of different roles. But yeah, just try them all so that you can find what you really love.
What good advice!
Yeah, such wise advice Cat.
It’s all about the pie, that’s what I took away from that conversation. Eat, eat more pie.
How many different flavours of pie are we going to get?
Are we talking about savory? Or sweet or?
I was thinking apple pie myself, yep.
It’s the season for pumpkin pie.
I’m happy to eat any pie. All good.
Oh, you’re making me too hungry now. I think there’s so many more questions we could ask Cat. But we must move on to the section of the podcast which is rapid fire questions.
Oh, this is making me nervous.
No, that’s OK there, just light-hearted rapid fire questions.
It does sound a bit serious, doesn’t it? Maybe we need to change the name of that Jen.
OK so first question, Cat, which, think back to your earliest days, ’cause there may be a different answer to what we’ve already heard from you today. But what did you want to be when you grew up?
A paediatrician who had also been on Play School.
So that my patients could be like, Oh my gosh, my, my, my doctor was on Play School, yeah.
I feel like we need to explore that more, but that kind of goes against our idea of this being rapid fire.
So is it because you knew you’d love play school or just ’cause you wanted all the kids to adore you when they came to see you as the doctor?
It just looked really fun to be on Play School. Like I did musical theatre and things like that. I really loved working with children. I’d volunteered in childcares and things like that.
So I just thought being on Play School would be the dream. But I also wanted to be a doctor, so I thought well, a paediatrician is like the perfect doctor for me.
Sorry, can I reveal I don’t know what Play School is.
Oh my goodness. I sort of thought there would be…
I’ve been living a lie.
Yeah, I know you’ve spoken about this before, I don’t know what it is.
I thought they’d be like a Play School equivalent all around the world.
Are you telling me in Ireland you grew up without Play School? Oh dear.
I’m presuming we do have Play School in Ireland, but I’m presuming it’s something else, no?
OK, go Cat. Fill him in.
Play School’s a television show that’s on the ABC and it’s a children’s television show where they do lots of things, like creative things or they go through a window and visit a place or nah it’s great, story time.
Yeah, it’s educational television for preschool aged children. So it’s reading books and I guess it’s sort of the Australian equivalent of Sesame Street, but obviously with its very own flavour.
OK, OK. Hmm.
And the presenters are very important. The presenters do lots of singing and dancing, and there are an integral part of the show.
Yeah OK, I can see that the, the fascination then, to that kind of combination of being on Play School and being a paediatrician.
Yeah and Cat would be like the perfect Play School host. The singing, the dancing, the, the you know, anyway…
Except I haven’t been to NIDA.
All right, next question Cat.
Do you have a proudest moment in science or science communication?
Proudest moment in science is when I came home, I’d won an award for being the top honours student. When I came home, my parents are just like, “Oh, so does that mean you’re not going to do medicine?” I’m like “no, this is my path now”.
You’ve found your calling.
OK question 3 Cat, Twitter or Instagram?
Ahh, they so different.
Twitter, I feel like there’s more of a community vibe there.
Hmm OK, cool, yep, happy with that.
Alright. Cat, question 4, What is your favourite science related book or movie?
Like does Doctor Who count?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
I mean sci-fi, but, but then, but then which doctor?
Ah, I’m always going to be a big fan of David Tennant.
But like Tom Baker is great too, and I have Tom Baker scarf so.
Ah, there you go.
Yeah, well I’m a child of the 80s so I’m Tom Baker all the way.
Moving right along, final question Cat, you’re nearly off the hook.|
If you could give one tip to a science student or a scientist about how to be a better communicator, what would your one tip be?
Have fun with it.
Explore different ways of communicating that works for you and then find the way that it’s the most fun for you, because then you’re going to show the most passion with that.
Cat, it has been such a pleasure to get to chat with you. I know we work with you, but I’ve discovered some new things today.
It’s been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for joining us on Let’s Talk SciComm.
Thanks for having me. Good luck everyone.
Thanks so much Cat. And just before we let you go, I know you put out a lot of great science communication content.
Can you remind the listeners where can they find you?
Well, on Twitter I’m CatrionaNR but my songs and things on YouTube and Instagram are Nyuroscientist. I know I said I’m not a neuroscientist. But, it’s Nyuroscientist, n-y-u-r-o-scientist, play on my surname.
Excellent. Thank you Cat.
Thanks for listening.
You can reach out to us on Insta and Twitter @LetsTalkSciComm and Let’s Talk SciComm podcast on Facebook and we would love to hear from you.