Episode 41 – Interview with physicist, author and science communicator, Associate Professor Suzie Sheehy
Happy New Year and welcome to another season of Let’s Talk SciComm! We’re excited to be back for another year of podcasting about our very favourite topic – science communication. And we’re launching Season Six with a bang, talking with Associate Professor Suzie Sheehy.
Suzie is an accelerator physicist who specialises in novel particle accelerators and beam dynamics, with a current focus on medical applications. Her research at The University of Melbourne investigates novel particle therapy accelerators and beam delivery systems, compact linear electron accelerators (X-band) and improving accelerator reliability in Low and Middle-Income countries (STELLA project) to address global health challenges. She also retains an active research role at the University of Oxford, where she is now Visiting Lecturer, focusing on intense hadron beams. She has held prestigious research fellowships from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 (Brunel Fellowship 2010-2013) and the Royal Society (University Research Fellowship, 2017-2022).
Suzie is also an award-winning public speaker and science communicator, dedicated to sharing science beyond the academic community. Her 2018 TED talk on ‘The Case for Curiosity Driven Research’ has been viewed around 2 million times, and her first popular science book ‘The Matter of Everything: Twelve Experiments that Changed Our World’, is published worldwide with 11 translations and selected as Times and Sunday Times Best Books of 2022 and Waterstones Best Books of 2022.
You can follow Suzie and learn more about her work here:
- https://www.suziesheehy.com/ (you can order Suzie’s book under the ‘book’ tab)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everyone, it’s Jen and I’m so thrilled to welcome you to another season of Let’s Talk Scicomm. Hopefully you’ve had a good break over the summer or winter depending on what part of the world you’re in and you’re feeling excited about a new year with lots of great science communication ahead. Michael and I are definitely excited! We’ve got some amazing interviews coming your way.
Today you’re going to get to hear from Associate Professor Suzie Sheehy. We’ve also got interviews with Andrew Kelly and Jared McKenna and Tullio Rossi, and they’ve got such great stories to tell. Then we’ve got an episode about how to communicate science with high school students coming up and how to communicate about your work with industry. We’re going to be talking about communication when it comes to controversial topics and we also want to talk about how to deal with nerves when it comes to public speaking. So we’ve got lots of great episodes coming your way. We can’t wait to share our passion for effective science communication with you, and I hope you really enjoy today’s episode and all the episodes coming.
Hello everybody, I’m so thrilled to welcome you to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m Jen and I am thrilled as always to be joined by my friend and my colleague and my sometimes partner in crime and other endeavours, Michael. Hello Michael.
Hey Jen, I’m very excited for today’s episode because we have a very special guest today. Our guest is an award winning accelerator physicist and science communicator, Dr Suzie Sheehy. Welcome to the podcast.
Thank you, thanks for having me.
Now Suzie, I wanted to ask what exactly does an accelerator physicists do and we were having a bit of a chat about how you like running so… Is there a connection there? Is that physicists who like to run?
Physicists who just like to go fast. Yeah no, no no. So most people you know, sort of put my field as a subcategory of particle physics in understanding the fundamental constituents of the universe.
I actually put it sort of almost to one side, because the machines themselves, the particle accelerators that are designed to take subatomic particles and boost them up to high energies. They’re used in all walks of life and my job as an accelerator physicist is to understand the physics behind those.
So a lot of electromagnetism and plasma physics and all sorts of areas of physics, all put together to try and actually contain that beam of particles and and make the machine do its job. And if you have an idea of an accelerator as sort of like a laser for a particle beam, that’s completely wrong.
Right? All the movies.
Do tell us, quick.
Yeah, all the movies like give us this idea that it’s, it’s like a laser beam for, for particles. It’s really not. It’s much more complex than that. Imagine like really tiny microscopic galaxies being coaxed around by forces you know, in the universe. But we cross you know, we intersect with engineering very strongly in all, all walks of life, from radio frequency to superconducting magnets. So it’s, it’s very varied field in that sense.
Hmm, so vary as in it relates to a lot of different topics. Interesting that you say, did you say subatomic galaxies? That’s the way you imagine it. Why do you use that word?
Suzie (00:04:40 )
So the physics that describes the mechanics or the evolution of the galaxies, which is usually through classical mechanics. And similar problems in classical mechanics, like a similar mathematical construction applies to the particles in a particle accelerator. Sometimes the equations really are very similar.
And so like people who study astronomy and galaxy formation and all of those things, we’re also running these huge supercomputer massively parallel calculations to try and predict the trajectories of these particles.
But unlike the universe where you can see it at a difference, we’re trying to do it in the lab where if we lose one in a million particles in something like the Large Hadron Collider, we melt a hole in the side of the thing and the whole program shuts down.
So, so it’s not just theoretical. Like we’re really, you know, we have to get this right. We have to have this understanding or we can’t have these amazing tools for science and for medicine and other areas.
Yeah, wow, that is so fascinating. And for the listeners, you can probably already tell. Suzie is a highly accomplished academic. And you’ve studied at the University of Melbourne and also at the University of Oxford over in the UK. And you’ve won several awards, including being awarded a prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowship.
Yes, yeah, so that was for one of my research projects in the UK, which is still running. I still have a, one PhD student who’s still working on that, which was like… You know how I describe this sort of crazy galaxy simulation thing.
I ended up building like a compact experiment, like a table top size experiment that mimics the physics in these big accelerators but without the possibility of you know, blowing a hole in the wall of the side of thing thing.
So yeah. So I use a sort of equivalent physical system to, to study the dynamics, which was really yeah, really cool and very well supported and, and it’s going well.
Wow, yeah, that’s fascinating. And I think the other thing that listeners can probably tell is that you’re a pretty gun science communicator. You’ve dedicated a lot of time to this, including your excellent TED talk, which has been viewed nearly 2 million times. It’s getting close to 2 million. You’ve also been a TV presenter for the Discovery Channel show Impossible Engineering. So I’m a big fan of that of that show.
So most of my role is what’s called an expert presenter. Basically I do a day or two of filming at a time and there’ll be in this series, especially there’ll be like a specific plot point almost or a specific segment that I’ll be leading.
So in my case, that’s usually like the basic physics or science behind something or behind an innovator or a discovery in the past.
So for example, for the electric car episode, about all, about the Tesla Gigafactory, I actually got to drive like a 1901 electric car because actually in the early 1900s… And you learn all sorts of things as well, right? So in the early 1900s, about half of all cars were electric.
But this one was actually used by Harrods, the famous department store in London, to deliver their goods to people who’d ordered them in London right up until like a few years before we did the episode, which was about 2017, I think something like that.
Wow, and it sounds both super stressful but also super fun. I can imagine you would have had an absolute ball.
Yeah. I mean, at first, the first… I have to tell you the first episode I ever did, they made me fly a plane.
I don’t have a pilot’s license. It was like a lesson. We ended up having to like a pilot’s lesson because we couldn’t film any other way because there was no chartered flights around.
And we were flying over these old sound mirrors, these concrete parabolic dishes on the south coast of England that were a early warning system for aircraft before the invention of radar. They had these enormous concrete sound dishes. They normally closed off to the public,so it was quite a privilege to sort of get in there.
And we also rigged up with the Open University, we rigged up microphones. And then one of the things was you know, the plane with the pilot would fly across and, and we’d actually pick up the sound of the aircraft and see if they actually
worked. But part of the thing was I, a few pieces to camera from the plane. And the only way I could go up was if I was flying the plane. So that was terrifying.
That’s another level. That’s another level of stress right there.
It was my first ever actual documentary presenting. You know, I had a friend point a camera at me before, but this was like the first real thing and it was like a baptism of fire honestly.
So yeah, at first it was quite stressful. But you know, after four seasons of doing sort of at least a few episodes each season, it got to the point where now I just find it really really fun now. And because I know I can rely on those, those skills that have been built through that practise.
Yeah, well, once you’ve flown a plane without a licence, I guess anything is possible.
I was learning. I was learning.
And Suzie, most recently you’ve just published your first book called The Matter of Everything, which is about 12 experiments that changed the world. So congratulations.
Thank you, big journey. Yeah.
Was it tricky to pick the, the 12 experiments?
Incredibly. Yes. So I created this spreadsheet of like every major discovery in particle physics since the first, you know, since the discovery of the electron, basically.
And then I basically had to chunk it up into like right, what were the key transformational points in our understanding where after that experiment, our thoughts were sort of never the same again in terms of how the universe worked in some way.
And so the number 12, I didn’t start out with a number in mind. It just sort of ended up as 12 through that process of trying to pick the most important ones. The other thing I was looking for was also… Because the subtitle is 12 experiments that changed our world. So there’s kind of these long-term trajectories whereby you start with a curiosity driven experiment and you end up with technologies, ideas, inventions, discoveries, which are sort of working away in the background in our lives, that we’re often completely unaware are associated with those earlier discovery led experiments.
And to me, that’s incredibly important in the current climate where we have this sort of dichotomy between the curiosity driven or blue skies research, research for research’s sake.
And a lot of people rightly feel that that is an underfunded area in our society versus the you know, sort of more applied translational push, which is getting more focused in the Australian environment especially at the moment, but is after short-term gains and short-term wins.
And I feel what is missing is this understanding of this long-term picture of how the curiosity driven research actually translates through over often long timescales, decades. You know, five decades, six decades in some cases to transformational technologies. Because we’re often working in the scientific space, you know, the discoveries are before their time.
And so it takes a long time for people to figure out often how to use them. So a lot of the early discoveries in physics, say take X-rays, for example, the invention of something like a CT scanner, which does a full body scan, including the soft tissue couldn’t happen until you had the confluence of X-rays and good detector technologies, plus computing technology that was widely available enough to be able to do the processing of the data to reconstruct the images. That gap is 70 years between X-rays and the first CT scanner.
And now they’re like first line defence, but we don’t associate a CT scanner with the fact that someone once upon a time was trying to figure out what a glowing light was in a cathode ray tube. But it’s true.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so you really have to take the historical perspective when making a strong case for curiosity driven research like that. I think it’s great that you’ve written about that in your book.
Suzie, I’m really interested because obviously your, your passion for, for science and for physics is incredibly visible and audible and I love hearing you talk about your work. But not everyone with a deep passion for their work ends up investing a significant amount of their time in science communication, whether that be on radio or TV or writing or any number of things that you do and have done.
Tell us about that journey. At what point did you discover that you were enjoying communicating about your work? Or yeah, I’d just love to hear how you find yourself in the position you are now as a really successful researcher, but who has a very distinct other kind of you know, string to your bow?
Yeah, look I say to people quite often that I wouldn’t still be a scientist if I hadn’t also done science communication. And how that started was again, it was in my first year of undergraduate and one of my lecturers in physics.
And he was running some summer science shows for kids and was looking for volunteers. And you know, I was around and so I volunteered. And yeah, so I spent a few weeks over summer engaged in this and seeing you know, all these physics demos and you know, the sort of performance side of physics, which I’d never seen before.
And within two days they’d thrown me on stage alongside him as his co-presenter. So I had a bit of a theatre background. So that just kind of happened organically. And then from there, I over time got more opportunities for more professional training. I worked at ScienceWorks for a bit before my, before I went away for my PhD.
And then there was a point where I realised that the value I was getting from the science communication in terms of the well-rounded view of my field and the ability to explain things. And I realised that that was becoming an asset that others didn’t actually have or didn’t value. No one ever advised me, “Oh, you should keep that up. One day, maybe you can do it alongside academia.”
In fact, I had the opposite advice, which was focus on publishing papers. You know, you can do that later, that fun bit. But every time I did it, it was, there was this emotion attached to it, which was this feels good not just because the people in my audience are enjoying it and learning something about physics, but it consistently reminded me of why it was that I wanted to study that subject.
You know, it consistently reminded me of the awe and wonder and why I was doing it in the first place. And that’s why I say I wouldn’t be still in the field if I hadn’t done science communication, because it is for me that consistent stepping back, seeing the bigger picture.
And by having to communicate that bigger picture to other people, you also communicate it to yourself. And I, I’ve witnessed in my career a lot of my peers lose the you know lose the… lose the enthusiasm for their science and just go, “What am I doing?” You know, yeah and I’m being, I’m not as well paid as I would be in industry, for example. I don’t have job security for a long time as an academic scientist. You don’t have that job security, especially through the postdoc route.
And if you lose the almost belief that what you’re doing is actually valuable, you’re gone. Like…
So it’s not just that the system pushes it out, us out because there aren’t enough jobs and blah blah blah. We lose that, we lose enthusiasm.
That’s a really really good point, because we often say there’s a lot of benefits to communicating in a variety of different ways to a variety of different audiences. But the motivation thing, the actual stepping back and realising you know, what is the big picture here seems really really important.
And I guess by engaging in science communication, you’re really going down some kind of interesting avenues that give you some unique insights and perspective on your field. And I guess one of those for you might be the historical perspective. And it seems like you’ve communicated a lot about that.
Yeah, I just think you know that’s excellent and so you, you would say that you found that historical perspective by communicating about that. It’s really kind of given you motivation and drive.
Yeah, the actually, the process of researching the history of experimental physics in my book. And a number of people have reflected this back to me after they’ve read the book is that it’s re-enthused them as well in their, in their own science.
Because what, by finding the human stories which wasn’t easy, I’m telling you in my research process. By finding those human stories, it was like, it was like I was connecting with these scientists back through the decades and back through the years.
And so realising for example, as an experimental physicist, that when I walk into the lab every day, I don’t always know exactly what’s happening. When I see a signal on an oscilloscope, at first I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand why my apparatus is doing that. It’s like there’s gremlins in the machine, you know.
And to realize that even J.J. Thompson, who discovered the electron and was [a] preeminent physicist in the world at one point. Basically, in his memoirs, he wrote at length about the difficulties of understanding experimental apparatus and how it made him feel and all of these things.
So it was actually a real privilege to take the time to learn about the stories, the real life stories of these people, and not just the sort of pigeon version of history that I’d learned previously, but actually almost engage with them on a, on a human level.
And that goes for the women as well. There was a number of stories of women that sort of jumped out in my research process where I was like whoa whoa whoa, hang on, how come I’ve never heard of this person? And just reading their stories, the ones that are recorded, at least, there aren’t many that are written down, realising that they were always there, that they were always working in experimental physics.
My field is still only around 10% women in accelerator physics. And so that gave me a sense of belonging and identity through the decades in my, in my research. But also if I looked back at all those people and the leaders in my field or in physics throughout the decades, they were also excellent communicators, I must say.
And there’s something about you know, you don’t… especially now, but even then, if you look back, it’s not just doing the best physics. But communicating it well is a huge part of making a real impact in the world and actually having the ideas carry forward.
And obviously there’s all sorts of inequities in the communication and recording of the history and the physics and all, all sorts, which I won’t go into. But it was, yeah, it was an amazing process to go through, to really reconnect with my field in that way.
But I think that’s really interesting, Suzie. Because, you know, we’ve just been talking about the history of how important it is to have a historical perspective on the science. But I’m also interested in kind of the historical perspective on the science communication because you’ve said that, you know, some of these early scientists were such great communicators.
And we all, obviously, the fact that we’re here suggests that we all care deeply about communication. We believe passionately that that’s how scientists have impact and influence with their work. But yet you and I have both been given the advice, “Oh, it’s just this frivolous stuff on the side. It’s not worth anything. You should go and do your research.”
Like, are we confident that there is a shift happening, that those of us who have got careers with these multiple aspects that we can see synergistically create far more than they could on their own? Like, do we think it’s getting better for people?
That’s a really good and tough question, actually. I mean, I feel like I have been particularly lucky in the mentorship that I’ve had, whether that’s from my PhD supervisor to subsequent bosses. It also does take a little bit of holding onto your own you know, sticking to your guns with it.
You know, when someone advises you that, it’s like okay, everyone will give you advice from their own perspective. They’re telling you what worked for them. And for them, just publishing lots of papers and whatever worked for them, and therefore they’re just projecting that onto you.
Well, do you know what? Times have actually changed. And I think Australia is a little behind, actually, I would like to be honest, in recognising that duality of the science communication and scientists pathway.
For example, there are no, there are no grants here for science communication or public engagement projects. There are no fellowships for science communication or public engagement. There’s no professional support to make it a professional strand in the way that I have done in my career.
In the UK, the research councils actually have all of these fellowships and grants. You know, I’ve held multiple grants in science engagement activities over there, which has helped me grow as a professional communicator. It’s helped grow my sort of experience and platform to the point where yeah, a TV company can call me up and say, “Hey, will you come and present for us?” Or we’ll say, “Hey, you know”, like my agent found me through my talks at the Royal Institution in London, who are an awesome institution for picking up emerging communicators and giving them a platform and helping them produce content which is wanted in the world about their science.
I see fewer of those pathways. Obviously, you guys are doing a great job in that space, but I see fewer of those pathways professionally in Australia at the moment. And that is something that I would love to see more of and really encourage people to think about.
We can do what we like if we get our students and PhD students to be great communicators. But then if there’s no pathway for them to value that skill through their professional lives, what message is that sending in the value that we place on it? And then you get to the top levels of government and, and all the blame is pointed out. “Well, scientists aren’t very good communicators, are they”? And it’s like, “Well, you didn’t exactly support the ones that are the good communicators, did you?”
Yeah, completely. I think there’s a real lack over here. And I hear that from colleagues in the UK and the US all the time that we are very behind in that regard. That we sort of like it when people are good, are good at it, but we really expect them to do it in their time and there won’t be any sort of pathways whereby people can use their time for that and be rewarded for that. Just, just such a shame.
It’s even like you know, just a little indicator, which is that in the UK, most of the people I know who are also professional communicators, it’s totally normal to be paid for a keynote talk where it’s not you know, in your research field, but it’s like a public keynote talk. Not always, but people will offer you payment for that.
That blew the mind of a bunch of my colleagues over here, the fact that people, professional scientists can get paid for speaking. And I’m like, “Well, yeah, it takes hours and hours of preparation outside of my day job. It’s not part of my day job. It’s an additional skill that I, at this stage, haven’t been hired for. It’s just the second professional strand”. And that money goes into my student’s travel grants anyway. So…
Yeah so, so it’s interesting just even that slight difference of culture of not respecting it as a professional strand in that we don’t expect to even be paid for it.
Yeah, the money I get paid for things like that goes into producing this podcast for the same reason.
Woohoo. Good on you.
Yeah, and I mean there’s so many benefits to scientists engaging with the public a lot more, you know, it absolutely should be supported. And I mean maybe one of the benefits perhaps from the type of science communication work that you’ve done is, is about this idea of making a case for curiosity driven research.
Because you know, as you said earlier on you know, I can imagine it is a challenge for scientists who are in that area to communicate about that, especially when applying for funding and things like that.
So I guess I’m curious to, to ask for listeners out there, other scientists who are in this area of fundamental research. What advice would you have for them? To those scientists who want to do more science communication?
For ones who want to do more science communication. That’s interesting. I was going to say in terms of advice for people working in those fundamental fields about how to communicate or what to communicate. Story, story, stories, right? We’re story-driven people. Find those stories. And they’re not easy, as my research process was intense for writing the book. But yeah, find the stories that make a difference.
I think if I were to advise people who are wanting to do more communication in terms of how to get into it. In that sense, I’m going to apply the story lens again and say, what’s your story in this? What inspires you to do this? Because that is going to resonate with people out there who you know, people sometimes view physicists, especially as these kind of almost non-human people.
Like, it’s like, you know honestly, the reverence that people show for especially theoretical physicists, I’m not going to lie, it’s like they think they’re from a different planet. But it’s also like they think they’re not human.
So I think sharing the story of why you are interested in this field, I think that’s a great way to have people engage. I think if you go straight in with, look at this mathematics, isn’t it pretty? Or you know, look at this really fundamental thing and you’ve lost them on slide two because they haven’t understood slide one. That’s a really difficult thing.
But if you can pin it together with a story, especially if it has an emotional journey potentially attached to your own story if you’re willing to share it. I think that is a way for people to engage, to see what you do and to challenge that stereotype as well of the sort of unemotional, completely objective scientist.
Like we… At the end of the day we’re each individually completely subjective, even in what we’ve chosen to study. Even if we want our scientific results to be objective. So I think don’t be afraid to just be who you are and tell that story in your communication.
Yeah, ’cause there’s always a human angle to the research, even if the research isn’t directly applicable to people. There’s always people behind the research. And it’s interesting to explore those stories. You’re absolutely right.
And on this podcast we like to get the human angle of our guests and get to know them a little bit better through some lighthearted questions that we like to include at the end. And we have come to that time in the podcast for our rapid fire questions.
So lighthearted quick answers.
First question. If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
Now it would be writer, just full time.
That’s still possible, Suzie.
I know. But I’ve got a lab to look after so…
Oh, you got plenty of time. Plenty of time.
Exactly, plenty of time.
OK, question 2. What’s your proudest professional moment?
Ooh, I think my proudest professional moments are when my students and staff have successes. So there’s been many. I’m very lucky to have had that. So I think it’s at this point, I just have a series of PhD students about to graduate.
But at, at this point in my career I’ve had one student who, who’s graduated, and I think her completing her PhD was a… yeah, it was an amazing and proud professional moment of wow, I made a baby scientist.
It’s so great, yes. ‘Cause when you reflect on your own journey through science, it reminds you, I guess when you then go and have a student who is going through some of the similar milestones. So yeah that’s, that’s fantastic.
Next question I’d like to ask, Twitter or Instagram and why?
Oh, I’m on both. There are obvious reasons, maybe for not being on Twitter so much anymore. Yeah, I sort of prefer Instagram now. I prefer the, just the style of communication and it’s a much more positive environment for the most part.
Yes, it’s interesting times for scientists on social media. But we shan’t, we shan’t go there.
Yeah, TicTok’s the boundary though. Like I’m, I’m not on TikTok yet. I’ve set, I’ve set a limit.
Yeah, not yet, you said though.
Yeah, I also… No, I won’t let my children use TikTok. So by definition, I don’t use it. So I’m with you with that boundary.
But next question, what’s your favourite science related movie or book or joke?
Oh my goodness, that’s a really hard one. I think I, I change all the time based on what I watched or, or read. I’m not a comedian so I won’t go down the the joke route. Which ones have I read that…
So I think a book that I read recently that I really enjoyed was called Convergence and I can’t even remember the author’s name. Maybe we can put it in the show notes afterwards.
It was called Convergence and it’s really. It was really just taking all these disparate areas of science and showing how, how you know effectively, because science is looking for underlying principles, you find that these same things crop up in lots of different places. And it was just a beautiful journey through that.
Hmm, writing that one down.
Wow. Yeah, absolutely. It’ll go on our show notes.
Excellent. Final question. You’ve given us some really good advice already, but I’m curious to ask if you have a top tip for effective science communication that you could share.
Yeah, treat it like a professional strand. Ask for feedback and take it seriously and constantly try and improve.
Beautifully said Suzie, and I think the fact that you communicate so effectively in many different ways and to many different audiences shows just how seriously you’ve clearly done that in terms of treating it with the respect it deserves to be a professional communicator while doing other things.
And to yeah, ask for feedback. You’re right, it’s crazy that we would never submit a manuscript without feedback. Yet people, as you say, go off and do all these other things and just assume it was fine without checking.
Yeah, and in fact, they assume it was great. It’s like oh, that’s a cognitive bias right there. It’s like OK, feels good… just because it feels good to do it doesn’t mean it’s had the impact you think it’s had, yeah.
Yeah, so true.
But that’s why, yeah, also just don’t take it personally when people are critical as well, which we learn in our, we learn in our science. But trying to do that in our science communication is you know, it takes some emotional work, I think to, to do that.
Yeah. It’s been wonderful chatting with you. Suzie. Thank you so much. It’s really great that you are so passionate about science communication and I can’t wait to see more of your science communication in the future. And I haven’t read your book yet, but umm, it is on my to-do list now so…
Thanks so much, Suzie. Thanks so much for making time for us.
Thank you. Thanks.
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