Episode 15 – Interview with Science Communicator Amy LeBlanc
This week we’re so excited to introduce you to one of our former science communication students, Amy LeBlanc. Amy started off studying bird communication at the University of Melbourne but ended up graduating into full-time science communication instead! These days, Amy lives in Ghent, Belgium, where she is the Chief Editor of BioVox, an online news platform covering life sciences innovations. She spends a lot of her time interviewing scientists and industry leaders from around the world, writing articles, and editing content. She also works as a science communicator for Turnstone Communications, a consultancy company which provides strategic and hands-on communications support for research institutes, healthcare organisations, and start-ups. Amy is passionate about quality communication and diversity in STEM. She likes to spend her spare time with a book in hand, or cooking, travelling, and birdwatching.
You can follow Amy 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 another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
I’m Jen Martin and as always I am joined by my wonderful co-host Michael Wheeler. Hello Michael.
Hey Jen. It’s great to be here as always.
And today we’re joined by Amy LeBlanc, chief editor at the independent news platform Bio Vox and project manager at Turnstone Communications, which is a no-nonsense communications and business development service to the life sciences and pharma sector.
Thank you so much, it’s great to be here.
And Michael, I have to jump in here and point out that Amy is actually one of our early alumni from when I first started teaching science communication at the University of Melbourne. Amy remind me, how many years ago was that?
Many, many, many. It was a while ago.
I took the very first one of your classes already when I was in my Bachelor degree and then when I came back for my Masters and started doing research, I took every single one of the science communications classes I could.
And look at you now. We’re so proud of you.
Oh, thank you, thank you.
It’s great to meet you Amy. And just to give the listeners a bit of an overview of your experience. So Amy, you did your undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Melbourne in the area of zoology?
And it was here that you took all of Jen’s courses in science communication?
I think I actually did. I think every one of them.
And then isn’t it such a great endorsement that after that you went overseas and landed this awesome internship which turned into the job that you have now, doing science communication over in Belgium.
Yeah, who would have thought.
Belgium was never really on the radar, but here we are. Life takes some funny twists and turns.
So Amy, can probably tell us a little bit more about this in a moment but the company that you’re with, Turnstone communications, they specialise in communication, strategies and business development services. And then you’re also the chief editor of Bio Vox, so that’s an independent news platform that runs a monthly newsletter with over 16,000 subscribers from all over the world, and the purpose of that is highlighting local innovation and research in life sciences.
So you know, would it be fair to say you’re essentially writing about science-based companies, you’re writing about academic research and you’re kind of linking the world of academic research and industry and also investing as well and finance?
Yeah, no, that’s absolutely correct. So we really do cover sort of all different aspects of the life sciences ecosystem here in Belgium. And it’s something not that many people know, but Belgium is really like a biotech hub. So there’s so much that’s happening both in the Health Sciences and then the Agricultural Sciences here as well. And so there’s this really rich rich ecosystem that starts sort of with the universities, with the academic research and then ends up with a lot of spin off, so startup companies sort of started with academic ideas. And then you’ve got a lot of sort of the larger companies here as well, so the pharmaceutical companies and things like that. And of course, behind the scenes supporting all of that, you’ve got the investors.
And yeah indeed. So with my job with Bio Vox, I really curate this newsletter on the articles that we put together for that. And I write a fair few of the articles myself. So every month I’m interviewing scientists or business people and just covering some very very interesting stories on things that I’m usually learning for the very first time myself. And that’s really what I do with Bio Vox’s science journalism, primarily science journalism and then editing.
And then when it comes to Turnstone Communications and the job I have there, so that’s really sort of 50% of my time. And so what we do there is we’re really helping companies with their own science communications. So it’ll be life sciences companies, anything from sort of a small biotech startup that’s just getting started through to a big pharmaceutical company that has really sort of like strategic angles and things they’re wanting to communicate. We help them with the communications. Can be anything from articles and press releases to new websites for new companies, it’s really really varied. I love it, because it’s something new everyday and I’m absolutely constantly learning on the job.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. I can’t wait to get into some more examples of some of the work that you do.
But I’d like to take a step back for a moment and ask you about this journey that you’ve been on and the start of that journey. I’m curious to know whether you can think of a, a time or a moment when you first realised that you wanted to be a scientist.
Yeah, I, I can actually. I have this wonderful memory. It’s one of my earliest memories in life of sitting with my dad and I asked him as kids do, pulling questions out of thin air. I’d asked him what water is, right? Very basic question, what is water?
And of course, my dad started with oh, you know, it’s the wet stuff and it comes down as rain and we drink it. And then I was like yeah, no no no no dad, but what is water?
And my dad was like, “Well, ok. So it’s this, this little molecule and it binds with other molecules and it forms ice and different…” And I was like, no no no no no no no, what is water? And he was like alright, I guess we’re going for it. So he went and threw for like atoms and electrons and like the full… And and by the end of this,
I was like ‘okay!’
And I think that idea that that curiosity, that always wanting to know more and wanting to know sort of the next step down, that’s really something that started in childhood and has never left me since. I’ve always had sort of an insatiably curious mind, and science was just the perfect fit for that. So it was really a journey that never left me.
So Amy how did you not end up a chemist then?
Tell us about how you became a biologist, ’cause it sounds like you were all primed to become a chemist.
Yeah no, it’s true at that point I guess. But no, I really, I really quickly actually turned to animals and animal behaviour. And it’s really funny, but I think that honestly, it actually originated with a fascination with communication. So when I first started studying, it was zoology and animal behaviour, and I went into animal communication. And I think really at the core of all of it, I’ve just always been interested in how people communicate, and of course a very good way of learning about how people communicate is how animals communicate.
And so when I went through to university and, and sort of got stuck into the studies and then got stuck into a Master’s research project, that’s really the direction that I went with was with that just sort of the basics of communication. What is it? How does it work? And yeah, it’s… a lot of that actually laid the groundwork, I think for a lot of my ideas with, with science communication as well. So it’s a, it’s a continuum I guess.
That’s a fascinating, animal communication, fascinating topic.
I’ve always wanted to know whether you know, Australian seagulls could communicate with Irish seagulls if they were to ever meet.
But maybe that’s going down a bit of a side track.
Well, no, but it’s funny you should say so. I actually did a research project. So bird communication is really what I specialised with and I actually did a research project once upon a time that looked
at the dialects of sparrows up and down the coast of California.
So I don’t know about the seagulls, but certainly birds do have dialects, with a difference in their communication patterns depending on their sort of population and distance. So this is the thing, it’s, there’s a lot of parallels between animal communication and human communication. It’s why we study it.
Yeah, makes sense.
So do you have a first experience that you can remember of, okay wow, I’m doing science communication now?
Yeah, again, going back to childhood. So my dad that I just mentioned, he was actually a physicist, so I guess that also helped with the whole getting down to the atomic level of water. But he, he was [a] physicist and he actually worked on these particle accelerators, a specific type of particle accelerator called a synchrotron.
And already as a kid, I realised that if I was ever telling anybody about what my dad did for a living then it quite quickly got into a very complicated technical sort of a conversation. And a lot of people you know… the blank glaze would start to descend.
And, and so as a kid I really like, I didn’t think much of it. But I started finding metaphors or sort of things that people might be able to relate with in order to sort of describe these things that my dad was doing. And I guess, in retrospect, that’s really sort of the very first instances of science communication, was just for talking about things that I already had in my life as a kid.
And do you remember Amy feeling really excited that you could bring people into this complex world?
Like, I’m just picturing you as a kid.
I don’t know, was, was your analogy about dodgem cars or something? You know, particles smashing into each other?
I think, I think I used to go… standard thing was like to describe it as a big metal donut and then I started from that point and then expanded.
Yeah, because the synchrotron, unlike other particle accelerators, runs an electron beam around, it doesn’t actually smash things at any point usually.
Hmm, but it’s like a racetrack right?
You know, aren’t all the electrons just racing around the, the circular race track?
Absolutely, absolutely this giant ring that’s like the size of a football field.
Yeah, no indeed. No, I do, I remember having such absolute joy when I could talk to people about this without them sort of zoning out. I mean people generally are, are super curious. And if you’re telling them about something they’ve never heard about before, if you’re explaining it in an interesting way, people are usually really happy to listen. And I remember that as a kid, it was just, it was a really… I, I always loved telling people about something that they had never heard about before. You know, something that’s really genuinely new to somebody. To be able to describe that and to be able to get people enthusiastic and excited about that? Loved it, even as a kid.
Yeah, absolutely. So Amy, tell us… obviously you and I used to hang out a lot when you were studying with me, so that’s sort of my latest experience of interacting with you face to face.
Tell me about moving to Belgium. Tell me about your shift from I want to understand animal communication to actually gee, I really enjoy communicating about science, maybe there’s a career here for me. Because you were a brilliant writer back then and you were a fantastic public speaker…
You obviously have skills, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily… were gonna move into doing science communication as a job.
You could have used those excellent skills as a scientist. So tell us about that process and how you’ve ended up in Belgium.
Yeah, yeah, indeed. Like I said, it was never really on my radar to begin with.
No, so the moving into science communication as a full time thing for me is really… it was a little bit of a gradual process. But it really did start already back in Melbourne and, and really started during my research that I was doing for my Master’s. So at the time I was doing this project on bird song, on bird communications. I was spending a lot of time crawling through bushes with a big fluffy microphone chasing after birds out in the wild and, and I loved it. I mean, it was such a neat project. It was absolutely fantastic.
But I really came to realise when doing this, this research, that the actual practicalities of the work, wilderness aside, the practicalities of doing academic work didn’t fit that well basically with my brain. I’m a very big picture generalist person. I like to know a little bit about a lot of different things and that’s, that’s kind of I mean the antithesis, it’s kind of the opposite of what you do as a researcher. You get really, really intensely focused and narrow down on one particular topic and it just… as interesting as that topic was, that sort of fine focus didn’t work as well for me as that big picture.
So already during the research that I was doing for my Master’s, I started thinking okay well, what can I do that’s going to fit better with my generalist brain? And and science communication was just the absolutely perfect fit. It really just ticked every single box. It was, it was doing different things in different mediums. It was learning constantly about new and exciting breakthroughs in, in science and innovation. And it just, it just ticked every box.
And so when I wrapped up my Master’s project and I’d found myself a partner in Australia and he had a job lined up in Belgium, we moved over together and I knew from the get go… I arrived in Belgium with basically no plans, no idea what I was going to do. I was along for the ride in this brand new foreign country. But I knew that what I did want to get into was science communication as a career.
And at the time I didn’t really know what that looked like. ‘Cause my, my exposure to SciComm, it had been primarily through you and through scientists, researchers that then did the science communications work. And what I’ve, I’ve really come to think since then is that that’s a really important aspect, scientists doing the work. But I think there’s also [a] really important role for people who specialise in science communication as well, to be able to help people, either academics, or people who work with science communication as a, a business or a job, to be able to help them sort of translate their findings ’cause not everybody good at it either.
And it’s a learned skill. So, so I started looking around and seeing what was available and I found this company here where I really… I started up with an internship with them to begin with. And then that then developed and evolved into the job that I have now. Wouldn’t… Here we are nearly five years later, it’s just crazy.
And Amy, did you feel like you already had some or many of the skills that you needed? Or was it a really steep learning curve?
‘Cause I know you were already a great science writer. I’m imagining that you did have to learn quite a lot on the job though.
I did. No I really did. There were some things that… It was, it was interesting. There were a lot of things that translated, skills that translated a lot better than I, than I would have expected them to. You, you mentioned the writing. That’s, that’s a perfect example you know, although most of the writing that I’ve done was academic or occasional blog post or article here and there. That translating to other types and forms of writing and communication, it translated so much better than I ever would have expected. Because I think that this is, this is an important thing.
Like when you learn something about communication, the medium, the audience, the rest of it doesn’t necessarily matter so much. The skills, the basic communication skills are going to be the same across the board. Doesn’t matter if you’re writing a scientific paper for an academic audience, or if you’re writing a blog post for children, or if you’re doing a presentation to a politician. The communication skills, the basic skills of being able to convey a message effectively are going to be the same. So on that end of things no it really, it was sort of a continuum, if you will, rather than a, than a steep learning curve.
Going into sort of a non-academic job on the other hand, that was more of a, of a boundary. Not, not a hurdle, not necessarily a difficult thing, but that definitely involved a lot more sort of learning on the spot, something that I think that you don’t really have so much when you’re you know, sort of head down and knee deep in academic work, which is really the consideration that science is the product of and the part of a broader ecosystem.
You really need to think of all of the different stakeholders, the different members of that ecosystem. It’s not just your researchers, but the researchers are funded by taxpayer money. That money doesn’t come in unless the politicians decide that doing the… politicians don’t decide that it does unless the general public is on board with the science being done and that is sort of up to then the communications efforts of the researchers. And that’s even just with the academic sort of circle there.
Once you go one step further and take it into the companies that get spun out, then it’s a really interesting world. You know, you really need support at every level of the way. So for the creation of a company and then the evolution of that company you need obviously money coming in from investors who need to be motivated to fund it. Good communication very much is vital there.
Everything from an elevator pitch sort of a deal at a conference through to having a good website that people can go to through to then being able to communicate with your board of directors. I mean, it’s just, it’s really, it comes down to the way you tell your message and, and having, having your story straight the whole way through.
And then of course, you don’t really end up getting these amazing innovations out the other end until that, that story, that process has taken its full course in the translation from that academic through to some sort of a, a product or service or something at the other end. We’ve seen so much with the pandemic now in the past year, things gone from truly academic work and, and really just theoretical things through to, to then things that are actually helping people on the other end, vaccines and treatments and, and apps and and all kinds of things. And yeah, it is a really fascinating thing to be part of that journey every step of the way, seeing the ecosystem in that big picture view.
Yeah, I’m curious to know whether a lot of those companies that you’re working with, with Turnstone. Would they have heard about you through the newsletter? Is that kind of how you’ve got a broad audience there? And then maybe a small section of that audience might end up asking for more focused communications work.
So, just in terms of the newsletter, who is the audience there and what it, what does it try to achieve?
Yeah yeah no, absolutely. So it’s really, it’s really a global audience. We, we have readers from all around the world, which is really fantastic, especially considering the subject matter is basically exclusively Belgian life sciences. But like I said, there’s a real hub for the life sciences here in Belgium, and so there are a lot of people around the world that are very interested in what’s happening here since there is so much activity.
The readers are really usually life sciences professionals of some description. So it’s either your CEO of a startup or there’s sort of decision makers and higher ups and pharmaceutical companies. Or you’ve got the, the financial side of things as well. So it could be investors looking at it, seeing maybe there’s an article on, on the next big company they want to invest in, that sort of a thing.
And yeah, indeed then with the academics, we often end up… we’ve had multiple stories now which is so amazing to see of people where we’ve featured them in articles when they had some breakthrough with their academic work, and then two or three years down the line, next thing we know that academic work has actually been spun out into a company that has been developing a product to really help people or, or animals or whatever the case might be. So it’s really neat to see then people often come back to us, sort of in that, when that circle closes and, and the spin out company has been founded, they come back to us, but then help with the company communications as well.
Sounds like you’re performing a lot of really important roles there Amy and I’m really keen to get some, some tips from you essentially. So in all of the work that you’re doing, which as you said is really broad and varied and I can understand exactly why you love your job.
What do you think are the key things you’ve learned along the way about how we actually communicate science effectively to different audiences? What do you think the key things we all need to keep in mind are as we try and communicate science?
Yeah, so my absolute number one thing is to bear in mind at all times that communication isn’t a one way process, right? You can’t just transmit information. It’s no good if it isn’t received. This is maybe going back to sort that the fundamentals of communications, if you look at, at it on, on that sort of animal, animal level. But communication really is about modifying behaviour. So from something as simple as getting somebody to pass the table salt, through to having somebody changed their entire world view and, and the way that they’re approaching life.
Whatever you’re communicating, whatever the purpose is, that you’re wanting to elicit some sort of a change in your audience, you’re wanting to have an effect. And I think that when it comes to communicating science especially you know; it’s complex topics. And one of the key things is really considering who it is that you’re wanting to reach? But then also what is the impact that you’re trying to have. I think that’s absolutely key is, is looking at that impact and what it is that you’re wanting to actually get out of that communication. And of course, depending on your skills and, and how receptive the audience is, that can go well, that can go poorly. But I think the very first step is that yeah, considering what it is that you’re trying to actually achieve with your communication.
And Amy, when you’re interviewing scientists to write about their work, do you feel like they have that in mind? Or they just want to share their cool, exciting work with you and it’s up to you to draw out from them what it is that they’re seeking to you know, what impact it is for them that they’re seeking?
I’m kind of thinking what advice you would have for scientists who are going to be interviewed by somebody in a role similar to yours. How can they help you?
Yeah, yeah no, absolutely no. It’s really funny that you ask. I’ve had so many interviews with scientists where we get halfway through and I’m like okay, but why? You can get so bogged down in the details of what you’re doing and how it’s working out, and all the rest of it. And, and there are just so many people that fail to consider the basic question of why are we putting all this effort in? Why is this a really important thing that’s being done?
So when it comes to helping out somebody who might be interviewing you down the line… Having a think about that, having a think about sort of the purpose of what it is that you’re doing. What’s the big picture is just so vital going into any form of communication you’re doing, but certainly an interview. For sure. For sure.
Yeah, I feel like probably one of the things I’ve really developed in my teaching since your time Amy is probably the key questions that we now insist all of our students can answer is: What’s the problem you’re trying to solve or what’s the question you’re trying to answer and why does it matter? And you have to be able to answer those questions.
Yep, Yep. And it’s so fundamental that so many people don’t actually explicitly stop to think about that. So yeah, no, absolutely such an important thing to do. And then of course, when it comes down to the actual interview or, or the article or whatever form of communication, speech, whatever you’re doing, then there’s other things as well.
Once you’ve got those sort of key questions down, then I think for me personally, one of the most important things is just coming back to again fundamentals of communication, that it’s the storytelling and getting your story told in a way that’s interesting. I think one of the most important things you can do is tell it. Tell your story like a story. Don’t just rattle off endless facts. We know that doesn’t really work.
For many, many thousands of years, storytelling is the main way we have transmitted information. And it still works. Our brains are hardwired for it. So if you can sort of work that through, working narrative through the message that you’re sort of wanting to convey, I think that’s really a key thing to not only getting your message across, but also having it sort of received, remembered, and then ultimately having an impact down the other end.
Yeah, that’s some really great insight there Amy.
And time has just flown and we’re actually getting towards the end of the podcast where we’re going to move on to the next section, which is the rapid fire questions.
So are you ready? These are just short questions, light hearted.
The first one off the rank is: Amy, if you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
Oh my goodness. Ok, I don’t know if this counts as alternative, but I would love to write fiction somewhere down the line.
I mean, it’s still, still writing. But I would love to actually start conveying messages through stories rather than about science. Or maybe a bit of both.
Are we talking sci-fi or are we talking romance? You know? Fill us in.
Ooh. Oh well, why not both?
We’ll have to wait and see. We’ll have to wait and see what develops.
But I would, I would love to write some actual fiction down the line. That would be great.
Alien romance by Amy LeBlanc. I can see it now.
That’s it. It’s all the rage. It’s all the rage.
Just remember you knew us first. You knew us before you were famous.
You’ll get a signed copy, Jen.
Ok Amy, question two. What is your proudest professional moment?
Oh my goodness. Oh, that, that’s really difficult.
I would say… I gave a talk a while ago and it was, it was really talking about sort of the fundamentals of science communication. Just really, really the basics. It was at this, this conference for, for life sciences jobs. So it was really a lot of PhD students that had done academic work and were then looking at, moving into, into industry potentially.
And I had people coming up to me afterwards and saying that I had really changed their idea of what, of what science communication was as the basics. And it was, it wasn’t a big award or anything like that. But just this idea that by standing there and lending my time for an hour, I had really changed somebody’s idea of communication. That, that’s really special to me. So I think that yeah, that would be it.
Totally understand, I absolutely hear you. It’s not really about the awards, it’s about knowing that you’re contributing to people being able to do their work better and thinking about their work differently.
That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it, yep.
Yeah, that’s fantastic.
Amy, Twitter or Instagram?
Ah. Definitely Twitter.
I love the challenge of being able to pick just the right words with such a restriction on it.
It’s umm, comes back to word play. So Twitter for sure.
I seem to recall Amy that you have a real knack for puns in your tweets.
Ha, I do, I do.
You and Michael would get along very well. You’re, you’re both pun masters.
That’s puns and alliteration.
I actually have to like hamstring myself sometimes with article titles, ’cause it’s just, it goes all out on both of them.
Oh, love it.
The more puns, the better and more alliteration, the better.
I agree. I agree completely.
Ok Amy, your favourite science related movie and or book.
Ooh, oh, that’s really difficult as well.
There are so many good ones. There’s so many good ones.
See, you didn’t know you were coming for the really tough questions, did you?
You thought this is gonna be an easy day and now you’ve discovered we, we asked the really hard questions on Let’s Talk SciComm.
Hardline, absolutely hardline.
Look, I would say favourite movie, probably Inception.
Ooh, great movie.
Loved that, really love that. Yeah uh-huh.
And favourite book. Yeah my goodness. Now I really do love the science fiction ones. I, I read an absolutely incredible one. I don’t know if it’s my favourite of all…
No, you know what, I’m gonna pick Left Hand of Darkness By Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t know if it qualifies necessarily as science, but it is borderline science fictions. I’m, I’m gonna throw it in there. And it is just fantastic for challenging our notions of what society should and does look like.
Cool. We had a very broad church here when we consider science.
So that’s definitely in, sounds like a great recommendation.
It really is.
Yeah. And to finish off Amy, you’ve given us some great insights into science communication.
But if you have to pick your very top tip for SciComm, what would it be?
Well, apart from the consider your basic questions and try to leave some narrative through your story, I think that one of the fundamentals as well is realise that communication as with anything is a learned skill. So don’t assume that you’re going to be good at it. I think there’s a lot of that going around in science and academia.
Academics are expected to be you know, amazing at such a range of different skills and things. And they’re not all necessarily… they’re, they’re not things that necessarily even come naturally to people. Some people find communication easier than others. But it’s learned skills, and it’s things that you can explicitly train and hone as well over time. And I think acknowledging that is something that would help a lot of academics become better at communication; they realise that it is something that you can learn and train at.
Yeah, absolutely. And, and you can become unfit as well if you, if you haven’t been riding for a while, you know. You have to…
Oh for sure. As with anything, you get rusty real fast. It’s true, it’s true, yeah.
Yeah, hear hear Amy. You know my story. When I first wanted to start teaching communication skills, I got told no, no, you don’t have to teach that, they just pick it up by osmosis. And of course you don’t, you don’t pick up those skills by osmosis. You have to practise them and get feedback and practise again and, and you know, it, it is absolutely a learned process.
And learn new techniques. And, and there’s, there’s some things where it’s like, like you were saying, just even the basics of consider what your basic, why you’re doing your research. That’s you know, you would think that it would be so obvious that everybody thinks of that. But it’s not that obvious and not everybody does.
So I think putting yourself out there and, and realising it’s a learned skill and therefore trying to actually learn that skill that some… yeah, I think that would be my top tip.
Awesome advice, Amy.
Brilliant, that was fantastic Amy. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Oh, you are so welcome. I’m so glad we could make the time difference work for us.
Yeah, thanks so much Amy. It’s really wonderful to speak with you.
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