SciComm Actually: Caitlin Kight joins Real Scientists!

We are thrilled to round out 2017 with a curator who is here to remind us all why we’re here in the first place – to get science communication right. After completing her PhD, Caitlin Kight (@specialagentCK) has dabbled in many things, from writing a pop sci book, editing a conservation magazine, writing magazine articles, and lecturing students on the development of non-science skills for PhD students. She is currently an Academic Developer at the University of Exeter in the UK.

Caitlin Knight

Caitlin Knight

Caitlin told us a little about her journey to science (and beyond!) so far:

Don’t let my job title fool you: I’m a behavioural ecologist who will always be a research scientist at heart regardless of what job I am currently doing. That said, even as early as during my PhD, I knew that I did not want to be a full-time researcher because I would struggle to focus mainly on the element of academia that I loved best: communicating science, both as a teacher and someone who does outreach in all its many permutations. Happily, I have made my way into Academic Development, where I help lecturers–particularly those in the STEMM fields–think about how to improve their teaching and learning techniques. Along the way, I have been a STEMM manuscript editor, an education administrator, and a communications and marketing manager–roles that have given me useful insights into the inner workings of higher education institutions, and have thrown many unique science communication opportunities my way.

Over the years, the ways in which I have engaged with science have changed dramatically. For example, I started off giving public lectures about my own research but then transitioned into organising outreach events and teaching others how to make their talks more engaging; I maintained my own blog analysing the latest scientific literature, but now spend more time editing other science writers’ work and exploring ways for them to broaden their reach by engaging with multimedia outreach. I find all these activities exciting and interesting and am a passionate advocate for recognising and rewarding science education as much as we do science research. 

I feel lucky to work in the higher education environment, where I have easy access to both the latest journal articles and the academics who write them, which allows me to stay abreast of cutting-edge developments and continue to act as a science advisor and consultant even though research is no longer my main focus (though I do still dabble, because old habits die hard). I have always worked in an interdisciplinary way and it has been a pleasure to piece together a career in which I can meld my love of science, communication, and teaching. I became a scientist because I love asking questions and finding answers; it’s thrilling to have a job where I learn something new every day!

First and foremost, I am a naturalist and I grew up doing and loving all things nature (particularly birds). Because I was worried about the future of wildlife and the ecosystems they inhabit, I wanted to become a conservationist; however, when I began pursuing the relevant coursework, I realised that many areas of scientific research were interconnected–and that I loved them all. Perhaps more importantly, I discovered that ‘science’ is really more of a way of seeing and engaging with the world than a particular field of study.

I have been fascinated by birds since I was a young girl, so it seemed particularly appealing to me to engage in research that allowed me to ask broadly important questions (e.g., about conservation and evolution) in avian study systems. I have now shifted out of focused scientific research but continue to use my expertise to advise and dabble in projects while focusing on communicating scientific research and teaching STEMM lecturers how to be better educators.

I studied the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance on avian behaviour and breeding success. Originally, I explored whether disturbances affected time budgets (especially foraging and chick care) and whether this, in turn, impacted fitness. I then focused on the influence of noise on vocalisations to see whether birds altered their songs as a result of noise, and whether this affected their ability to attract good mates and successfully produce offspring. I have also conducted research on the importance of wildlife in cultures around the world; for example, I have explored the role of birds in art and the ‘cultural history’ of flamingos (the latter in a volume for Reaktion Books’ Animal Series). Now that I am more focused on education, I am conducting research on doctoral supervision practices and on the role of storytelling in (particularly STEMM) outreach and science communication.

The work I engage in–the scientific research, the science communication, and the pedagogical research–are all focused on creating an environment in which everyone has equal access to information so that they can be critically reflective and make good decisions. This applies equally to, say, being aware that traffic and loud noises can harm breeding bird populations; learning more about a rare species that is wonderful in its own right but also could influence the future of human medicine; and thinking about how to create an inclusive educational atmosphere that is conducive to retaining a range of researchers who can bring their diverse perspectives to bear on the greatest scientific challenges. I have always felt that access to information, and knowledge of how to critically engage with that information, is key to making wise decisions. Now more than ever, I think this is something that the lay public craves and needs.

Because of my background in not just science but also marketing/communications and writing, I am often asked to hold workshops for academics and students who want to improve their communications and outreach skills or even make a career change. I have developed educational activities to support writing, editing, publishing, organisation of sci-comm events, and use of digital platforms. I have founded a number of science outreach efforts and supported students in their efforts to do the same. I hosted a science-themed radio show for two years and run two blogs (though I haven’t updated them for quite a while because I’ve been distracted by other projects!). I write science/nature articles for lay publications, including Current Conservation, of which I am also an editor.

I am an avid reader (particularly sci-fi and fantasy, poetry, and history), a musician (piano, tin whistle, singing), an athlete (a retired heptathlete now focusing on hiking, biking, pilates, yoga, and tai chi), a needleworker (preferring crochet to knitting), a gamer, a birdwatcher, and a photographer.

There is nothing I like better than exploring the outdoors, so an ideal day off for me would involve a long hike during which I could watch birds, take photographs, and maybe see some old ruins. Once I’d stretched my legs sufficiently, I’d return home to relax with some reading (right now I am making my way through all of Iain M Banks) or video gaming (probably Skyrim, which I officially finished ages ago but keep returning to).

Please welcome Caitlin to Real Scientists!


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