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Spotlight: Dr Nicola Stock, Public Engagement with Research Manager at the Roslin Institute

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

As part of a summer job while I was a university student I helped to develop a bestselling sage and onion stuffing recipe…

Tell us about your career journey so far

At university I studied Biology, with a focus on infectious diseases. I really enjoyed learning about viruses in particular, but I wasn’t sure whether doing a PhD was the right thing for me. To help me to find out, I worked as a university lab technician for a year, and this encouraged me to apply for a PhD. I spent three years researching the ways that some viruses can evade the immune system of people and animals, and once I got my PhD I had the opportunity to work in a virology lab in Chicago, which was a really exciting move.

I enjoyed my job as a researcher, and really liked spending time in the lab, but I found it frustrating when my experiments didn’t produce useful results that I could publish, even though I was working really hard. I also didn’t always enjoy having to focus on a smaller and smaller area of science. I started to volunteer at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History at the weekends and I really enjoyed talking to the visitors about the science behind some of the famous exhibits, including Sue the T. rex, and this made me realise that I would rather be a science communicator than a researcher.

I moved back to the UK and got a job at Centre for Life, a science centre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and worked there for five years doing all sorts of roles including presenting science theatre shows, running schools outreach programmes and designing hands-on workshops for school pupils and adults.

I really enjoyed the challenge of communicating the whole range of STEM subjects and working with the public, but I dreamed of a job that would combine my experience and knowledge of biology research with my love of communicating science. Luckily for me a new job came up to manage public engagement with research at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and I have been there ever since!

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

Biology was my favourite subject - I’ve always been interested in living things and I loved that biology explained the why and how behind nature. But I enjoyed nearly all of my subjects in the sciences, arts and humanities - it was really hard when I had to choose just three to take for my A-levels.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

I use all sorts of my skills in my job, and while my science qualifications from school and university (not just biology but chemistry, physics and maths too) are probably the most obvious ones, I also need research and writing skills from other areas and I’m glad that I studied subjects like English and History at school. I even once had to try to explain some facts about dinosaurs to a group of French tourists, which definitely tested my language skills!

My current job relies on good written and verbal communication skills, and these have been improved by my studies in a range of areas, as well as some of the extra-curricular activities I’ve been involved with over the years. Some people have professional qualifications in science communication, often Masters courses that they study after an undergraduate science degree, but my career didn’t take that path and I have lots of on-the-job experience instead.

There is also a huge amount of creativity involved in science and science communication, which isn’t something that I realised when I was starting out. You never know when learning will come in useful, so it’s good to study in all sorts of areas, especially the ones that you enjoy.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I love that the events and activities that I run with our researchers can make a positive difference to someone’s life - and that you never know who you’re going to meet next!

What is a normal day in your role like?

If it’s not an event day, I do a lot of planning and project management to get my team ready for the next event or project. This means writing and reading lots of emails, organising and attending meetings, brainstorming for new ideas on my own and with other people, writing funding applications, running training sessions for our researchers, persuading people to get involved in projects - all sorts of things really.

These days my job is mostly office-based, so I really enjoy it when I get the chance to go out and deliver an activity, as I still really enjoy meeting new people and talking to them about science. Last year we took activities about our research on the road to agricultural shows all over Scotland, which was great fun.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Any time you talk to someone else about science, who isn’t a scientist, you’re being a science communicator.

Choose a science story that you find interesting, or is linked to something that you care about, and talk about it / explain it to a friend or member of your family who isn’t as interested in science.

Have a think about how you’ll get them interested, whether there’s part of the story that will particularly appeal to them, and how you’ll translate any tricky science concepts and/or words into “normal” language. This is what science communicators do every day and we are all still learning!

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The UK-wide STEM Ambassador programme is managed by STEM Learning Limited, which operates the National STEM Learning Network, alongside other projects supporting STEM education. To find out more please go to the STEM Learning website