Episode 11 – Interview with Dr Catherine Wheller
We can’t wait for you to meet Dr Catherine Wheller on this week’s episode.
Catherine has had a wonderfully diverse career and is currently the Communications Manager at the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF). The NYSF is a not-for-profit organisation that runs a number of programs to encourage young people in their passion for science.
Catherine is an experienced science communicator, and higher education teaching professional with a history of working in the university, tech, museum, and NGO/NFP sectors. As a communicator with a PhD in mineral thermodynamics, she is a competent analyst across emerging technologies (AI and IoT); global health (soil-transmitted helminths and mass drug administration); and earth systems (geology and climate).
Catherine has recently returned to Melbourne after 4 years in the UK at the Natural History Museum and University College London and is thrilled to contribute to increasing science literacy within the Australian public. Catherine is participating in Homeward Bound #TeamHB7 in 2022.
You can learn more about Catherine and some of the organisations she’s been involved with here:
Catherine’s 3MT talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhvFJKoUVtI
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 another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
And welcome as ever to my wonderful co-host Michael. G’day Michael.
Thanks Jen, excited for this one today.
We’re joined by someone very interesting, who has combined their scientific background with their passion for science communication.
Dr Catherine Wheller, welcome!
Hi, it’s great to be here, thanks for having me.
Ah, it’s great, thanks for joining us on the podcast.
So Catherine, your background is in geology and your PhD was in mineral thermodynamics, with what sounds like some really interesting field work in remote areas of Madagascar and Namibia. And we’re really delighted to have you on the podcast because, as I mentioned, you’ve managed to combine your two passions and working in the area of science communication, I notice you’ve particularly focused on developing science communication strategies for public outreach and education and policy, so we’d love to hear a little bit more about that in a moment.
But just to kind of give a, a bit of an overview of some of your experience… So Catherine, you’ve also worked in some really interesting science communication roles as well. So overseas in London at the Natural History Museum, so we’d love to hear a little bit more about that, ’cause I believe you worked on a project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Also, you’ve got some interesting experience here with the PETRAS National Center of Excellence for the Internet of Things Systems Cybersecurity, sounds very intriguing.
That’s a mouthful, Michael. You need to practice saying that a few more times, I think.
Yeah, I think so, I think so, and that was overseas as well, I believe?
Yes, Yep, so those were in London where I’ve been for the past couple of years.
Oh brilliant, but you’re back in Australia now and you’re with the National Youth Science Foundation. And we’re also lucky to have you as part of our science communication teaching support team. So thanks Catherine for coming on the podcast.
Thank you, yes, I mean you’ve just gone through about 10 years of my life in 30 seconds.
And you’ll note that it has been incredibly varied.
Yeah, it’s great – fantastic experience. So we’d love you to maybe draw on, you know, some examples, some anecdotes and stories from some of those experiences.
But I guess I wanted to start off, maybe at the beginning and just wanted to ask whether you can remember a time where you, you first decided you wanted to be a scientist.
First time I wanted to be a scientist, I think, so my dad was a geologist and he would wander around with us on bushwalking hikes in Tasmania, and would always point out rocks. And the question was what rock is that? And of course, when you’re hiking in Tasmania, the answer is always dolerite, dolerite Dad. And I reckon that was one of my first words, and so I hated geology.
And then I came to Melbourne Uni and did a general science degree and decided to put a liDad saying that look, I’m going to major in geology and he just laughed and laughed. So I, I loved it because I really enjoyed everything at school, so I liked writing, I liked designing things, I was very creative, but I also loved numbers and, and stories and the natural environment. And so geology was a great choice because you have geochemistry, geobiology, geophysics. So for someone who’s kind of liked a bit of everything, earth science really let me do everything.
It’s so interesting, Catherine, because I think so many of the people I know who started off being deeply passionate about science, very strongly on science, but then later have discovered this real joy in communicating about that science. We often seem to be the people who at school, just loved everything. We loved the humanities, but we also love science, we love maths, we loved art. I think it just allows this creativity, bringing creativity to, to science and we all seem to have that in common.
Yeah, creativity and curiosity I think go hand in hand and there’s sort of the, the idea of just walking around and pointing out things of, ooh that’s interesting, I know a fun fact about that, and then just telling everyone around you.
Well, I have a fun fact now. I can’t wait next time I’m in Tasmania, I’m going to point at a rock and say, you know that’s dolerite, don’t you? And just hope that I’m right.
Look, don’t go to the east coast, it’s all granite up there.
Oh okay, right. Oh, you have to give me a lesson later. Catherine, so looking back, so you discovered this real passion for geology much to your surprise, by the sound of it. I can just imagine your Dad’s face when you told him.
But what do you think your first experience of science communication was? You know, when did you first discovered yourself telling stories about science and thinking, ooh, this is fun?
You mentioned that I was, that I now work at the National Youth Science Forum and I actually went through that program as a student when I was 18. And they gave us a challenge where we had to write about an interesting topic of our choice and give a speech about it, and I chose the genetics of red hair. And listeners you can’t see me, but I have bright red hair.
Beautiful red hair.
And I always was very proud of the fact that I was a mutant, a genetic mutant, and so I made a speech about how I was a mutant and how sort of genetics kind of works. And that was, I think the first time that I really had a chance to communicate something about science and something that was quite personal to me. I was going to do genetics actually at uni, but then of course you know, this geology thing got in the way.
That’s fantastic, I also note you have been involved in the Three Minute Thesis competition as well, where you had some success there.
Can you tell us what that experience was like?
Oh, that’s a fantastic experience and I notice one of your previous people on this show have talked about Famelab and Three Minute Thesis, and it’s something that I recommend that every PhD student or any sort of scientist at any level goes through. So you have to describe your very complicated thesis topic in three minutes.
And I of course at that time was working on Madagascan rocks and how you have these rocks that go through these cycles of basically like going in an oven and heating up and increasing the pressure and changing the minerals, and then you can now go back and find those rocks and work out what temperature the oven was set, that kind of backward modelling to work out how the earth formed. So I had to talk about that for three minutes and try and make it interesting for people as well.
So yeah, I used to bring out rocks and do science in the pub as well. So similar kind of talks, it was a lot of fun.
Hmm and Catherine, so you said when you first told your Dad that you wanted to be a geologist, he laughed.
Did you manage to change his mind through your science communication over the years?
Well funny you mentioned that because he did vulcanology and he told me early on there’s no jobs in that, don’t do vulcanology. And of course, what do I pick? I pick mineral thermodynamics, so metamorphic geology which is probably even more niche. But it, it did take me to incredible places.
And so I think that he was quite happy to see me go off and be very independent and, and do this field work in places that a lot of people don’t get to see, like we were very remote in Madagascar. Being there on my own with a supervisor was just an incredible experience.
And I have to ask, what’s the connection between Madagascar and Namibia? Because they were the two places that you were working.
Yeah, so geologically they weren’t both part of my research. So Namibia was a fantastic conference. So hopefully when you do geology, you get to go to these conferences. And not just in you know big cities, you get to go to the cool places. So Namibia was a, was a conference and field trip venue around there. But they’ve got these beautiful metamorphic rocks that are incredibly deformed, melt zones everywhere. It’s, and very shiny as well ’cause as soon as you heat up a rock and put a bit of pressure on it, you start aligning all these minerals and you get these beautiful glittery rocks.
I just love it that deformed in the context of rocks is a good thing, that something’s beautiful because it’s deformed, ’cause that’s not usually how we use the word.
See, I think we need to reclaim deformed, everything deformed is beautiful.
Couldn’t agree more. So Catherine, you managed to combine your science, love, your passion for science with your passion for science communication. And I have to ask you about your time in London.
So please start by telling us about your work with the National, sorry, Natural History Museum, a place I absolutely adore. What were you doing there and how cool was it?
So this sounds like a bit of a jump, doesn’t it? So I did my PhD in geology and then realised that I loved taking photos and talking to the people I met on field work and talking to people back home about what I did. I like that a lot more than I did the actual results of my work. And so when I told my supervisor look: I think my skill set is going to be communicating science and not just my science, other people’s science, he was incredibly supportive and he sent my resume off to his entire network. He asked me to sort of redo it and make sure that I was really showing off my transferable skills, so all of this kind of speaking and writing skills for the general public.
And my CV ended up on the desk of someone at the Natural History Museum in London and they were looking for a communication specialist to communicate the research of, of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project called DeWorm3. So they were trying to eliminate intestinal worms and trying to work out the best way to do this. And as part of that you need a communicator to sort of make sure that you’re collecting evidence and collecting documentation and quotes and qualitative stories about how the trial is going and the impact of the trial. So that at the end of all of their research, they can convince policymakers, such as those at the WHO, that the intervention that they’ve proposed works and is also needed.
And so I was there making sure that we did a lot of stakeholder analysis and worked out that okay, they need videos, they need stories, they need impact. We need to make sure that all of our results are incredibly accurate, but they’re not just put away in a peer-reviewed document, they’re also made shorter into policy briefs so that someone with not much time can look at it quickly and get the key message and be able to use that. So we were talking to parliamentarians, we were talking to of course, policymakers, we were talking to community leaders, a whole lot of different audiences.
So my work at my PhD in geology, and trying to change my message depending on what audience I was trying to target came in very useful for this kind of work at the Natural History Museum. And of course, it is the most beautiful place to work. Being there in the evenings especially, everyone has to leave at about 7 pm, and so if you’re one of the last ones there and all the lights are out, and the whale’s skeleton is just hanging, and you’re there all alone, it’s incredible.
So come on you have to tell us the truth. Is it just like ‘Night at the Museum’? Does everything come to life and you’re just not really allowed to tell us?
Oh yes it does, but you didn’t hear it from me.
Yeah, good, just just, just wanted to clarify.
All good. Does Charles Darwin stand up from his big throne and just kind of walk around?
Look, we put a Santa hat on him sometimes so he uhh, he might have some tales to tell.
Oh, that’s, that’s fascinating, Catherine. So I guess there’s a comparison there because I suppose a lot of researchers might want to have impact where they ultimately affect policy, and that sounds like that was your end goal.
How did you work out what you needed to do? What kind of evidence you needed to collect that would be impactful and influence policy, you know? How did you find out what the policymakers really wanted to know?
So this is something that I recommend that every scientist does, whether they are working on their own with a small research group or as part of a larger organisation. And that is to do not necessarily a focus group, but a focus person. As in go out and talk to someone who you are trying to influence and ask them, where do you get your information?
So with parliamentarians, we… oh, I didn’t do this, but I looked at research that sort of showed that they like videos and so if I was able to get some video footage of a child or a parent from Benin who had gone through some of our treatments and was able to show that hey, these kids don’t get roundworm anymore because they have these treatments and what that impact is for their families. If I can get them saying that on video, then that’s worth a thousand times more than a peer-reviewed paper for a very, very busy policymaker.
And so doing these focus groups or focus interviews with people and just saying, how can I best help you? It’s way better than just shouting out into the void and hoping that they pick up on your key message. It’s really okay, you get all your information from Twitter? I will post all the information on Twitter.
It does present a conundrum though, doesn’t it? Because what you’ve said just then absolutely speaks to the power of storytelling, the power of imagery, the power of emotion. You know, seeing a young child and understanding about their experiences, and we all know just how powerful and impactful that can be.
Yet to an evidence trained scientist as we all are, you’re also compelled to say but that’s anecdotal. You know, I need the peer-reviewed document to show me the data. I need to know that the impact has been widespread, you know, it’s reproducible, and all of the things that we care about. I shouldn’t be interested in just one story, yet you found that one story makes the difference. So how do you think we reconcile that?
Yeah, it’s difficult, isn’t it? Because if you pick the wrong story, or if you intentionally pick a story to mislead, or if you with best intentions, pick a story that actually ends up not being representative of a, of a group, then you are at risk of doing some harm. And I guess that’s why you need to make sure that it’s done in conjunction with sort of peer-reviewed evidence or larger cohorts and things. And of course, we’ve seen this in the last couple of years as well, with lots of debates about evidence based policy and the power of anecdotes to tell a story one way or the other.
It’s important to think about your audience. Because if we want change to happen just through peer-reviewed papers and peer-reviewed science, then we’re assuming that our audience is going to read all of those papers. And they don’t, and nor should they have to. The jargon is completely impenetrable for a lot of people, but we do need that language in the circles that it’s written for.
But we need to bring out these stories and bring out these key messages and make it brief. But at the same time, being honest with the public and the policymakers and people we’re talking to that it’s not a final answer or this might change, but it’s the best we’ve got right now. And being OK with clarifying when we’re speaking because we want to keep up that trust with the people we’re talking to. And if we come back in a couple of months and say whoops, we got it wrong, and we didn’t sort of warn them at first that it might be wrong or that there’s a little bit of debate here, but we’re doing our best. Yeah, I think it’s it’s, it’s a combination of everything and being honest and transparent I think will go a long way.
Yeah, no, that sounds fantastic. You’re striking a balance between hitting that you know, emotional side of the story, but also balancing it out with some evidence and maintaining accuracy throughout.
So I’d love to know what the outcome of that project was, and I also have to ask since it was related to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Did you have any interaction with Bill or Melinda?
I do know that our project was quite high on their agenda and so they were watching it, or at least the high ups were. But no, unfortunately it did not get to have much interaction with Bill and Melinda unfortunately. So this is actually a lesson for a lot of research groups who are hiring communicators. Hire communicators for the duration of the project. So before you write the grant, and after when you’re trying to disseminate the results.
So unfortunately, the contract for this work for me only was there for the strategy at the beginning, so they didn’t really have a communicator at the end to make sure that the messages were delivered. And so I’m sure they’ve done incredibly well, and we put a lot of sort of preparation and strategy into how this will be communicated at the end.
But didn’t quite finish the contract, didn’t quite finish the job. So… I think communicators and science communicators in these organisations are quite new roles and especially in Australia, I’ve sort of come to notice. And so a lot of times if you are hired in this role, you’ve got to advocate for yourself and your importance. And the reason why this group needs a communicator is because the science needs to be accountable and it needs to have impact and yeah, keep us on for the long road.
That must have been really heartbreaking for you to have to walk away from a project that was still completely, you know, in the throes of the doing, and you didn’t get to be there. That must have been really hard.
It was, and the things I love about these projects is that they are sort of limiting. So they’re three to five year projects, and so you can see something through from the beginning to the end. And that’s just wonderful.
I believe it’s in the grant though, which I think what you say particularly in Australia is true. Sometimes you can feel a little bit cynical that it’s just kind of lip service that we will communicate about our findings.
But as you say, it’s about the accountability. And if it’s government funding, then you have to make sure that what you find out is accessible to taxpayers. And as you say, taxpayers aren’t reading journals. And even if they could get access to them, given that they’re behind paywalls, they’re not written in a style that’s accessible for somebody without the training.
So I think it’s just essential that communicators need to be there at the beginning and they really need to be there at the end.
Absolutely agree, 100%.
Brilliant. So Catherine, I also wanted to ask you about the PETRAS National Center of Excellence for the Internet of Things Systems Cybersecurity, which I know is a bit of a mouthful, but it really sounds like a fascinating, like a fascinating organisation. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
So that’s about as far from geology as you could possibly get, something inanimate and, and made of dirt to the IoT, the Internet of Things and AI.
Yeah, so that was a project where the organisation was incredibly excited about the rollout of the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence in the consumer space, but was worried that the public and consumers didn’t understand the implications of this.
So the Internet of things is where you hook up your sort of everyday objects with the Internet. And things can talk to each other, things can collect data, things can send data elsewhere. They’re incredible. I mean, this is what your Alexa, your smart home is. This is just smart fridges, but it’s also things like the critical infrastructure that our everyday life depends on, being hooked up to sensors and getting real time data.
But then what might happen if those systems are compromised? And so they brought in a communications team and we worked together to make sure that this sort of breaking research done at universities on the privacy, ethics of these devices was brought out to the public and to policymakers again, because this is a sphere that’s not very regulated.
And the regulation that is going is quite lagging, so it’s not really keeping up with the technology and the sort of the, the bad guys, the hackers who can come in and disrupt these systems. So we really needed to have people in the team who could communicate these big disruptions in the system. And because it was London as well, it was fantastic, we were right in the middle of the tech scene. So it really was groundbreaking work.
Yeah, it sounds fascinating. So you mentioned ethics there. What kind of ethical dilemmas were you tackling?
Ooh, well let me think. There was one incredible project of a researcher who was looking into the domestic violence implications of smartwatches and smart homes and things that can track you but also, you might not have much control of in your house. And so, she was working with survivors who had, had their whole house set up by a partner. And so their partner could control light switches, could control locks, could track them on their phones and their watches. And then when a relationship breaks down, they still have the passwords to everything.
And so the research was looking into well, how can we regulate these sort of cowboy manufacturers who bring in these devices that have these passwords and tracking abilities, which for all intents and purposes you look at and they’re quite innocuous, you know? But they don’t think about the implications of if someone is going to use that GPS on your watch for the wrong purposes or is able to knock someone out of their house or play with someone’s psychology by switching lights on and off. So it’s, it’s really to make awareness to the, the policy people and to the device manufacturers.
That just sounds like the plot of a really, really unsettling movie.
It’s not a movie anymore unfortunately, it it it, it happens.
I know, I know, it’s yeah, it’s all just a bit terrifying, isn’t it?
But Catherine, listening to you speak, I’m just so impressed that you started off as a geologist. You’ve been in London; I know you’ve done lots of other things as well that we’re not going to have time to speak about. But you’ve, I imagine had a very very steep learning curve for yourself as taking on these very central and quite demanding communication roles, working with these different organisations.
If you had someone following in your footsteps, someone coming along and looking at the sort of roles that you’ve been doing. You know, what are your top tips? If you’re a researcher in an organisation and you want to bring a communicator on board, what’s your best advice for identifying the policy implications of your work? Thinking about the different audiences that you might need to communicate your work with? How to go about doing that? You obviously said focus groups or focus conversations are important, but tell us what else you’ve learned along your pretty amazing journey.
I think if you’re an organisation that has a research group and you are looking to hire a communicator, the two types of people that you’re going to be looking at are people who have done communications degrees, who sort of have an interest in science, or you’ll get the people who’ve done a science degree who have an interest in communications. And neither of these groups will necessarily have formal education in both spheres.
And I know when I got my first role in science communication, which was at the Natural History Museum. I really had to put myself forward as a Hey, I’m a translator. I’m a knowledge broker. I can translate between the academic culture which we’re kind of embedded in it, we don’t realise how different it is and how kind of strange it is to look at and, and how we talk. It’s not something that the corporate world particularly knows.
And so, putting yourself out there as a translator, and that I, I know science and I can learn the comms, is a quite powerful place to be, I think. So for the organisations that are hiring for comms people, look at the scientists and the ones who are scientists but interested in comms because they will be able to translate a lot better.
For the scientists, the scientists themselves, what are your top tips for scientists who want to be able to communicate to different audiences and think about the broader impacts of their work?
Yeah, so this was something that I realised very quickly that I didn’t have when I got this role, because my manager at this role at the Natural History Museum had an MBA, he was very strategic and he kept saying words about stakeholder analysis and SWOT diagrams and PEST diagrams. And these are something that if you’ve done a science degree and then gone deeper into a Masters or a PhD that you’ve never come across.
So I would recommend really pitching yourself as someone who can think strategically. So you don’t have to go and do business school, but you need to be able to talk a bit of business school. So that means segmenting your audiences, looking at focus groups, looking at how strategically you’re going to send out a message. So what time you’re going to send out messages? What platforms you’re going to use? Where does your audience like to hang out? What kind of jargon do they use? What kind of jargon do they hate?
So not just throwing your science out there, thinking strategically about where you’re going to do it. And when you are then going for these kind of roles in organisations that need communicators for instance, showing that you’re strategic and your thinking. And even if you’re not going for those roles, if you’re just a scientist who wants to communicate a little bit better, just think about writing a a communication strategy for your project.
That’s really great advice, Catherine, and could talk about that for a lot longer. But unfortunately we’re reaching the end of our time, but we do have to move on to the next segment, the rapid fire questions.
So fun and easy questions, quick answers if you can. And I’m going to start off with the first one.
So if you had to pick an alternative career path to the one you’ve taken, what would it be?
Oh, that’s terrifying. Because I’ve always said in my yearbook, I wrote that I wanted to be a presenter on Catalyst and that was when I was 18. So I’ve kind of haven’t quite got to Catalyst, but that’s always what I’ve said.
Oh, ok, journalist, I’m gonna go with journalist. It’s going to be a kind of a commsy role somehow.
I can see a whole TV career still ahead of you, Catherine. Make sure you remember us, the people you knew before you were really famous, OK?
OK, question 2 is what is your proudest professional moment?
I think that would have to be the field work that I’ve undertaken in Madagascar. I was quite ill as a university student, I had a kidney transplant in my first year of university and I was told that I couldn’t go anywhere, I was on dialysis for a while and that sort of keeps you in one spot. And going to Madagascar a couple of years later after that was the highlight of my life.
And so saying yes to that and spending a month in the most incredible place and doing really good research. We went there to find the edge of the jigsaw puzzle of Gondwana, and we found it. And we brought back kilos and kilos of rocks and memories and photographs that I will cherish forever.
Wow, that’s a heavy suitcase.
Yeah, but you know when people say like do you have rocks in that? And you sort of go, yes, yes I do, but…
They’re really important ones, please let me take them home.
Oh, we were trying to get them out.
They thought that we had sapphires and I had to say no, it’s sapphirine. It’s, it’s a mineral, and it’s invaluable to me, but it’s worthless to you.
Catherine, Twitter or Instagram?
Twitter, 100% Twitter.
Tell us why? What do you love about Twitter?
Twitter for the community, for the support and the opportunities, and just seeing what’s out there.
I don’t think I would have said yes to a whole lot of things without seeing other people say yes first and Twitter’s really good for that.
Agreed, OK question 4.
What is your favourite science related movie or book?
Oh, it’s got to be Contact by Carl Sagan. So the book and the movie.
But if you’ve seen the movie and haven’t read the book, you must read the book.
It’s dog-eared and dirty and it’s travelled with me across countries, it’s a good one.
Brilliant. If you could chat to your undergraduate self as you were starting off on this journey, what would be your top tip to have a rewarding career in science?
Ooh, I would say follow your nose. If you found something in your studies that’s really interesting, keep going down that pathway, don’t just stay in the curriculum. So I discovered my supervisor’s notes once from his undergraduate days and he’d written lots of little, ooh, that’s interesting, ooh follow that and he’d gone on tiny little tangents.
And I never did that, I stayed to the curriculum and just thought, oh, you know what? I’ll study this and get through the exam, study the next thing, get through the exam. And I wish I had taken a bit more of a breath to my own thoughts.
That’s excellent advice.
Michael, I do feel like we have to sneak in one really quick last question and that is just if you could give one tip about effective science communication, what would your top tip be?
Top tip would be to genuinely enjoy what you’re talking about.
Even if it’s, sometimes science that you are new to and it’s something that you haven’t studied, just dive into it and see why other people like it. Because if someone else likes it out there, there’s something interesting about it. So you need to find fun, find the passion.
Awesome advice and I think that’s true.
If someone finds it interesting then there’ll be something in there that you can find interesting too.
Brilliant, thank you so much Catherine for coming on the podcast, that was fantastic.
Thank you all. This has been great fun and it’s been a wonderful podcast series, so well done.
And we didn’t pay you to say that, right?
No, not at all.
No, thanks so much Catherine.
It’s just wonderful to hear about your work and we’ll have you back when you’ve done the next amazing three or four different jobs that we can’t wait to hear about.
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