Episode 21 – Interview with scientist & visual artist Kate Cranney
This week we are so excited to catch up with one of our University of Melbourne Science Communication alumni who is doing amazing things in the world!
Kate Cranney is a science communicator, scientist and visual artist. She combines these skills in her role as a Communications Advisor with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.
Kate’s background is diverse. She’s climbed trees in Borneo, scaled volcanoes in Papua New Guinea, pulled snakes out of traps in the Simpson Desert, and counted turtle hatchlings in Solomon Islands … all in the name of science. With interests spanning ecology, the arts, science writing, education, podcasts and film, science communication was a natural fit. In her current role, she creates communication materials, delivers communications campaigns, liaises with the media, and runs storytelling training for the approximately 850 scientists in CSIRO’s Land and Water, and Energy divisions.
Kate holds a Master of Science (with Distinction), and a dual Bachelor of Laws / Environmental Science (with Honours). In 2018 she spent 10 months travelling as part of an ISSI Fellowship in Science Communication. She visited museums, aquariums and other science organisations in Scandinavia, Europe, Canada and the USA. Her task? To learn from the most creative, novel and effective forms of science communication, and to bring that knowledge back to Australia!
This is the visualisation of Ira Glass’ ‘The Gap’ Kate mentions in the conversation: https://vimeo.com/85040589
You can follow Kate and see more of 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 everybody and welcome to this week’s episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
I’m Jen. And as always, I am thrilled to be joined by Michael. Hello, Michael.
Hey Jen, it’s a pleasure to be here as always.
Well, I am so excited this week Michael. I think pretty much every other week you’re the one who says I’m excited. But this week I’ve stolen your word because I’m really excited to introduce you to this week’s guest. This week’s guest is one of our former students, Kate Cranny. Hello Kate.
Hello Jen. Hi Michael. Thanks for having me.
Well, a very warm welcome to you Kate. So Kate and I first met back in 2014, which is quite a while ago now and at that stage Kate was studying her Masters of Science in Botany at Melbourne Uni and very very thankfully she decided to study a couple of science communication subjects and that’s how I got to know Kate.
And Kate, I have this really vivid memory of you in a tutorial talking about your childhood growing up on a farm in Queensland. Now I don’t know if I’ve remembered this right or not, you’ll have to tell me if I completely made this up. But I have this memory of you telling us all You know yeah, I was like 8 years old and dad just gave us a blowtorch ’cause we had to go and you know, like we had to go and and do some back burning on the paddock. So here’s me thinking My goodness, at 8, would I let an 8-year-old go and set fire to a paddock? Have I remembered that correctly?
I might have embellished the story slightly. I was maybe between 10 and 12. But that could have been right. I actually… crazily enough, that story came up recently when I was talking to some bushfire researchers last week in Canberra. So I must have brought up from time to time. But yeah, I grew up on a farm and I’ve always been surrounded by nature. So I think that’s where my love of science probably began, yeah.
Excellent, we will certainly be asking you further questions about that shortly. But since her time on the farm, Kate has had a really diverse education and career, which is one of the reasons we’re so looking forward to talking with her.
So Kate’s background includes degrees in both law and environmental science at Griffith University, before she moved down to Melbourne. And since graduating from her masters, Kate’s worked for Bush Heritage Australia, The Nature Conservancy and she’s currently a communications advisor at CSIRO, which for anyone outside Australia, that stands for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. And it’s the Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research. So Kate is working with the best of the best. And in 2018 Kate was also awarded a really prestigious fellowship with [The] George Alexander Foundation and she travelled to Africa, to the US and to Canada, to Scandinavia and to Eastern Europe, exploring how different environmental groups tell their stories.
And what you’re going to discover about Kate today is that professionally at least, she has three loves. Her three loves are art and science and storytelling. And Kate is a very accomplished artist. So of course we can’t wait to speak about that with you Kate.
But we’ve got to start back at the beginning. As we just said that you grew up on a farm, near Goondiwindi I think. And I want to know, can you remember a time in your childhood perhaps, where you decided that science was your thing and that you really wanted to pursue being a scientist?
Oh, that’s such a great question, Jen. Yes, the farm was quite remote. So Goondiwindi is considered metropolitan by Western Queensland standards. It’s only about four hours from Brisbane, but we used to have… and it’s timely to be talking about this, but every probably five years or so would have floods there. And it’s a very flat landscape, and so you go from having droughts for years on end to having these I want to say biblical kind of floods.
And so you’d see these creatures then that you would never see ordinarily. So yabbies would come out and you’d see all these types of crabs and big long earthworms that you would never normally see throughout the, the rest of the kind of dryer times. And that flux, and to see the interesting parts of a landscape which ordinarily you would never see, and the landscape that I knew so well like the back of my hand, that could still surprise me. It was just amazing. And yeah, I’m not sure. I think just my folks probably fostered that real interest in nature. And then when it came to… I went to boarding school, I love geography, love chemistry, love science and then decided to pursue that into my university life.
Yeah, great, that’s fantastic.
And Kate, I’m curious to know about your motivation for studying law. So was it law first and then environmental science?
Probably environmental science first. I think in the back of my head maybe I wanted to be an environmental lawyer. There was a lot of interest in me for that kind of conservation of the environment. And it’s quite strange actually… So I decided not to pursue the law side of things. But it’s interesting how useful that actually has been. So I mean heck, step aside, it’s also been a really great thing for me to do.
So I think I love literature, I love language which has been really helpful in the science communication work that I do. A lot of my work at the moment is either writing or editing and I think law has been really useful for that. But probably an early interest in that kind of protection of biodiversity and that way leads onto way, and then I’ve found that communication and science communication was a perfect combination of all of my interests.
But I don’t regret that I did law. I think it’s probably helped me actually to get a few of the jobs that I’ve had in the past, even if I might never kind of you know, I would never want to touch a legal textbook again in my life, or see one. So yeah, so it’s a dual degree of science and law. So five years of five subjects a semester. So it was a heavy kind of workload, but fantastic. Much the same as when I did my masters, I did stats and modelling and I[‘m] also happy to see, to never see RStudio again. But geez, it’s been useful in talking to scientists, yeah.
Did you ever practice in law Kate? Or did you work out during your degree that law wasn’t an area you wanted to work in?
I was very fortunate. I had a bonded scholarship with the Queensland Government and I worked in the water, law planning area for Queensland Government. And you know, fantastic learning. I ended up doing my honours project in my, on traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous water flows, and planning. But I realised soon that law was probably a bit too dry for me and what I really loved was to meet people and to meet scientists doing that work and to be out in the field. So anytime there was an opportunity for me to get out in the field, I was there straight away.
So with my work I got this fantastic opportunity to go out to the Lake Eyre basin and it was just after the… some water had come through, so floods. So in that boom and bust ecosystem it was just tipping over from that boom towards it being like maximum carrying capacity for the waterholes that join up to become creeks and rivers. And so I was, put my hand up straight away to do that.
I put my hand up straight away to do a umm tree climbing project with the Smithsonian Institute, to look at biodiversity across the gradients in Lamington National Park, which is a rainforest here near Brisbane where I’m based. So I soon I think, probably all of those opportunities for me were so compelling that I, I realised I probably don’t want to be in an office just working on legislation. As important as it is, I had this great realisation actually which was so freeing when I thought someone else is going to come along and love this job. They’ll be good at it… Like I think I was still like probably quite good at it, but I didn’t love it and I just realised someone else is going to come in here and just enjoy this so much and so I’ll leave this job for them to do. Yeah.
So it was all about being generous Kate. And I know how generous you are, leaving it for someone else.
Yeah, that’s right. There’s probably someone there in Queensland government, just like writing the best water legislation and policy. Yep, that wouldn’t have been me.
So Kate, these days you actually work as a science communicator, and we’re often telling students you know, there’s not that many jobs out there where your job title is science communicator, but there’s lots of jobs where you need to communicate about science. But you actually are a science communicator. If you think back though, what do you think your first experience of communicating about science was?
Yeah, I suppose that would have been early on. Yeah, that’s a great point actually Jen. So I went to boarding school. There were lots of day girls and girls who grew up in the city. So maybe just explaining what I’d seen and then maybe more professionally, it would be yeah, in my first jobs… So I worked for the Torres Strait Islander Ranger Program for a while and that was kind of project work, so helping, helping to support the rangers to do their incredible work on the ground.
But I always, I’ve always loved celebrating people’s good work and sharing stories of science. So while that job didn’t actually entail any kind of communication, I would write stories about the ranger’s work and the indigenous ranger program and write stories about their environmental and cultural work on country for the local paper. And Mark, my friend was actually the journalist for the area, so he also liked that I was writing some, some articles. It was helpful for him.
But I just really enjoyed that. And I would put people forward for awards as well. I really like that process of celebrating other’s achievements. I think it’s really fun for people to get recognition for the great work they do. So that’s the people side of things, but that’s kind of inextricably linked to the science that they’re working on.
And I just find, I find natural world just fascinating. I’m interested in psychology and medical science as well, but just ecology and the natural world, I just yeah, I, I get so much interest out of it. And then I love when I share those stories when other people get a kick out of it. So one great example that I am super proud of, I was running along a beach when I lived in Melbourne a few years ago and saw these kind of transparent, imagine like an enormous jelly bean the size of like maybe two hand spans or so. Clear jelly, jellyfish, jelly bean looking thing. My friend and I are running along the beach and we kind of dared each other to touch it. And I was like, I’ve never seen this before. So I went home and I googled clear sausage-shaped jelly thing, Melbourne beach and found that it was the egg sack of a moon snail. And there’s like predatory snail. Super cool. There’s this tiny snail. It kind of inflates and becomes this jelly like matrix.
Anyway, I was working for CSIRO at the time. I put a post up: like did you know that this is the egg sack of this moon snail? And they were thou… it just went like properly viral. There were thousands of comments of people sharing with their friends saying “It wasn’t wild poo after all”, or “It’s not dolphin poo”. And someone saying “I’m 75 years old and I’ve always wondered what this was”. And that just felt like such a… And people saying “We threw this at each other”. “This is what I made you eat when we were 12”. So it was just so amusing and I was like, how fun to share.
You know, I get such a, such joy from learning more about what’s around me. Even in this, like right near the centre of Melbourne in a big city that there are things there that I have no idea about and that a lot of people don’t know. And sort of share that, to make that knowledge publicly available, I just think it’s yeah, it’s wonderful.
Yeah. Oh that’s fantastic. And I suppose the other thing a lot of people around Melbourne don’t necessarily know about are all the insects that are around the city. Kate and I know I want to make a, a shift towards talking about your art because I’ve had a look at your website katecranney.com. Your work’s really beautiful there and I know you illustrated and co-wrote The Little Things that Run the City. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about that. I’m curious to know what advice you might have for listeners about how to bring science and art together in a meaningful way.
Yeah, sure. So that project, it was a kind of a job that I was doing during my masters to sort through some insects. And I was working on the project with Dr Luis Mata. Luis and I just had a brainwave and said, you know, he takes beautiful photos, macro photos of insects. So I thought, why don’t we pitch to the City of Melbourne who is co-funding the work an idea to have a kid’s book The Little Things that Run this City, which is a… For those who are into ecology, E. O. Wilson’s quite a well known biologist, ecologist, and so he talked about insects being the little things that run the world.
And so in Melbourne, Little Things that Run the City, so all the pollinators and the decomposers and the important role that insects play. So I illustrated the book and co-wrote it with Luis, he took beautiful photos. And it was terrific. I’ve had such lovely feedback from that. It’s now in every library in school within the City of Melbourne. We’ve chose… you know, it’s hard to choose from hundreds, thousands of different insect species, but we chose the most common. So that’s a good in for people. They can say, “I recognise that. They’re really bright green, praying mantis or the most bizarre”. So there are you know, just odd-looking insects. Or you know, we found some aquatic insects that breathe through the kind of tube on their bum, essentially. And that was a great thing to hook, to bring kids in, all that kind of grotesque stuff’s fantastic.
So yeah, so it was a really good lesson for me Michael. You’re asking about advice for scientists. I think if you have a hobby or an interest that you mightn’t necessarily think lines up with your work professionally, but you never know where those things might cross over. So actually Jen, through your courses I met some wonderful people doing really interesting work with theatre and science. And like no doubt, that would help them in talking at a conference as well. Like these things overlap. They end up overlapping in the most surprising ways.
So my art’s been fantastic for that. And I think I was trying to think now of my current role and how it helps me, my art helps me. I think it’s in like you know, it’s even in taking photos and having a good composition of photos. It’s in knowing the story that an image will tell, and whether that’s the best one to use for a certain article. It’s been really, a real joy for me that work, the artwork that I always kind of thought would, I would just do in the corners of the week, that it can combine and become part of my, my career as well.
And Kate, are there times that there’s a story you want to tell, and although I know you’re a really wonderful writer, that you feel like the words just don’t cut it, and it’s essential that you can bring in art to help you tell the story? Like I’m sort of thinking you have the luxury of being able to pick Well, will I tell this story with words or will I tell this story with art? You know, it’s mere mortals like me who have no artistic skills, sadly don’t have that option. Do you sometimes pick and choose, or do you feel like words plus images will always be the most powerful way to communicate ideas?
I would say probably the latter, like words plus images, that’s fantastic way to, to reach lots of different audiences. So people kind of pick up knowledge and retain it in different ways. But what I have found is that it’s a great, art’s a fantastic way to really draw people in and to really open up a world to people that they mightn’t have known about before. And it’s just less like smacking people over the head with information and just allowing people to feel, feel different things first perhaps.
So I was just in Canberra last week for work at the opening of the National Bushfire Behaviour Research Lab for CSIRO. And afterwards I went to the National Gallery of Australia. And just the kind of you know, there’s artworks there that like a Fred Williams artwork for instance, like quite abstract landscapes. And it’s just, it just evokes such a sense of like being out in a sparse part of the Australian landscape. And it’s just such a great in for a lot of people and to see something beautiful you want to know more about it.
So an example of that is there’s a group sharing this kind of research, and I’ve just completely forgot the name of their work. But they had a great image of a parrot fish. Again, this is kind of grotesque and fun, but a parrot fish kind of covers itself in a mucus cocoon, so it’d like to protect itself from predators, and it eats it each morning. And there was just this great image and I was like I mean, you could maybe show that in interpretive dance somehow. But it was just such a great painting, an image of that whole process that you get one kind of snapshot and you look at it, and then you realise there’s this whole process and cool behaviour behind it that you want to know more about.
And who doesn’t love grotesque or you know, grotesque things? Or bum jokes?
Or you know, let’s get real with this stuff. Right?
Yeah, adults and children alike I think. Yeah.
Yeah. I’ve learned a few grotesque things just now. I’d love to actually know more.
It kind of makes you think what other weird creatures are out there that I just don’t know about.
Yeah, yeah exactly.
Kate I want to talk a bit about your passion for storytelling, because obviously storytelling is something that most people who are interested in science communication are pretty invested in. We all talk about the fact that we know facts don’t convince people of things and that stories and helping people to connect emotionally with ideas is really important.
And that’s obviously something you do in your day job and you know, you hit on this viral post by sharing these little crescent moon- shaped jellies, and everyone wants to know what they are, but obviously this was also part of what you were working on in your fellowship when you were travelling. Given that most scientists get told you need to tell a story, what’s your advice around that? What have you learned about storytelling when it comes to science?
I think to start with, just sharing why you’re interested in your work is such a great icebreaker and opener. So for instance, I worked with some flood modellers here in Brisbane. Sharing that information, I was asking who would it would be helpful for and they mentioned that it would be helpful for people who use rivers and creeks recreationally, so kayakers. And it came up maybe I don’t know three quarters in the way, like into a one-hour interview with this, with the scientists I work with that the main scientist is an avid kayaker. So I was like great. Like when you’re talking about it, start with that, like fantastic that you personally you’re going to benefit from this improved model. So I think sharing that.
I sometimes feel like a little bit self-conscious talking about the farm I grew up on. It was a long time ago that I lived there. I haven’t lived in the farm since I was 12. But then I think, no, it’s so important, ’cause it, it stays with me so much and that’s what started my interest in science really. You know, like seeing gross stuff like decomposing sheep carcasses in the middle of a drought, and like understanding floods and droughts and locust plagues, mice plagues, like living through all that. It’s giving me such an appreciation of the work that the CSIRO scientists that I work with that they do. So I think in sharing your interests and why you’ve become interested in the area of science that you work in, that’s such a great starting point and people connect with human, human stories, that’s brilliant.
And then don’t be self conscious of simplifying it and using analogies because the onus is on you as a scientist who knows more about this topic to… The onus is on you to explain it in a way that other people understand. It shouldn’t be upon the person who doesn’t know as much to try and figure out what you’re talking about. So I’m a firm believer in making science accessible for everyone. I think people don’t mean to make science snobby often. But I really, I think it should be something that every person in Australia should be able to understand, the work that the people are doing in science. So yeah.
And then practice it, it’s just like any skill. It’s not some magical art. Just practice it and ask for feedback. Say “Did you understand what I meant when I talked about that XYZ?” And then get some feedback, yeah.
Yeah. I mean, I guess you can get so caught up in your own bubble of science and it’s all familiar to you.
You know, you know all about moon snails and it’s just a normal part of your everyday life.
But for someone else, it’s like moon snail, what is that? Please tell me more.
So Kate, I’m just noticing we’re, we’re running out of time.
We would like to ask for some tips if you could think about what you’ve learned along the way about effective science communication. Is there one top tip that you would like to give?
Sure, this is not having thought about it, but the first thing that comes to mind is just start. I think if you’re a scientist wanting to continue to be a scientist and share your work more broadly and more effectively, or if you’re a scientist interested in becoming a science communicator or a journalist interested in going into science journalism, I think the most important thing is just to build up a portfolio of work. And you can only do that by making a start.
And there’s this great, I would really recommend, this is a great kind of ethos to have in the back of your mind, Ira Glass from This American Life fame has this terrific animation, which I’m not sure if you can like link to things on this on the podcast page. But it’s called The Gap and it’s all about the gap between… Like if you get started in something, you know the kind of level. Say you want to be like Dr Karl, you want to communicate that well, but you’re not going to get there without just putting out a great volume of work. And it mightn’t look like what you want it to end up like at first go, but just make a start.
And yeah, there’s some things that I look back on and I’m like oh geez, that was a bit rusty, like a few years ago. And it’s just a necessary thing that you’ve got to, you got to make some kind of awkwardly like newbie products to improve. So get started and seek advice from folks who’ve been in the game for a little while longer. And yeah, enjoy it. I think that’s the main thing with any job or hobbies just to enjoy what you’re doing. Yeah.
Yeah fantastic. Well, we’re running at a time.
But Kate, we will move on to the next stage of the podcast, the next section, which is the rapid-fire questions.
So I hope you’re ready.
Yeah, I’m ready. I’ve rolled my sleeves up.
They’re nice and light. So I know they sound quite ominous, but nice and light.
No pressure Kate. No pressure.
So Kate, if you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
I know it’s like somewhat connected, but maybe investigative journalism or a psychologist, I think both are fascinating.
I want to do those two. Can we do them together?
OK, next question. Your proudest professional moment.
Oh, great question. I think working… So I worked with their Nature Conservancy for a while and I worked with Indigenous Women Rangers from Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Northern Australia and Micronesia. And we brought all these women together in Brisbane for a week of training. And it was just fantastic to be with them and to get to know them and support their, their learning.
Yeah, sounds great.
Twitter or Instagram?
Oh, I use both. I really like Instagram. My professional Instagram is much neglected.
This might be a good kind of reminder for me to improve it.
But I just love images and so that’s a yeah, that’s an easy one for me. Yep.
And definitely encouraging everyone who’s listening to have a look at Kate’s artwork, because it really is amazing.
I have several pieces of Kate’s work on my wall at home and in my office and it’s just beautiful Kate, so thank you.
Wow, thanks Jen.
Question number 4 is: What is your favourite science related movie and/or book?
Oh, I’m drawing blanks across the… I better just have a quick look at my bookshelf.
Kate’s just wandered over.
Oh, this is going to be really nerdy, but I, but I love, I love a good ID book really.
Like I just think I love going on bushwalks of bringing a great ID book with me is just yeah, I love it.
Plants, birds, mosses, butterflies.
Plants, yeah, mostly plants. And, and I’ve got the Wildlife of Greater Brisbane and Wild Plants of Greater Brisbane. They’re two great ones.
Make little notes in the margin, like an 18th century naturalist, yep.
Such a cool nerd.
So it sounds like such a great way to enhance a walk. What a great idea. I’ve never thought about that before.
OK Kate, last question. What would your top tip be for explaining a piece of science to a non-scientist?
I think the top tip would be to make it relevant for your reader and then lead with that I think. And so that way it shows people relevance and how the research that you’re doing might have an impact upon their lives. And let’s say it’s some like wacky super interesting theoretical physics or science. There’s always a way to bring that back to people’s everyday lived experience, I think.
And then you know, as I learned in Jen’s classes at the Uni of Melbourne, and then it’s in not using jargon and having great imagery. And if you can like I talked about before including a bit of your own passion about that area, including that in the story as well.
Great advice. Kate, thank you so much. That was fantastic.
Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time. But thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.
Thank you Michael. Thank you Jen. And yeah, if folks are interested in the work, CSIRO does work from everything from astronomy to aquatic ecology and everything in between. So can follow us on our CSIRO channels as well.
Thank you so much Kate. It is always a pleasure to speak with you and I’m so glad now our listeners get to hear your wisdom as well.
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