Last week we featured the creator of the new Life Science Broadcast series and this week we feature a man who looks at the way science is portrayed in popular media. Read all about David Kirby and his work that looks at science on the screen.
Explain your research for the general public in about ten sentences of less.
As a science communication scholar, what I’m interested in are the ways that entertainment media serve as vehicles for science communication. By entertainment media I mean movies, television, graphic novels – things that we would think of as popular culture. I’m interested in the ways in which they disseminate messages about science and I’m interested in how those messages influence or impact real world science, technology and medicine.
How does this research benefit the general public?
Entertainment media like movies and television can have a significant impact on the ways in which the public think about science or technology. By examining the depictions of science in movies or on television and understanding how they are produced, how they are disseminated and how they are received by audiences, we can try and make these depictions better. We can try to ensure that those depictions match up with real world science – to make those depictions authentic, whether it is the depiction of science, scientists or the relationship between science and society.
How did you first become interested in your research area?
I’m trained as a scientist with a PhD in evolutionary genetics. I taught in a biology department for a while and during that time I became interested in the ways that media were depicting science. I had always had an interest in movies and that led me to undertake a retraining postdoc at Cornell University to study the relationships between science and media. Given my interest in film, I started looking at those relationships in particular. In terms of the research that I have done, I thought about the ways in which scientists have become involved in the making of entertainment products like movies and television. I thought it’d be a good idea to see the types of influences scientists might have on these media.
Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?
Yeah, in terms of scientists who inspired me to take this path, I would point to Carl Sagan. This is especially because I’m an American who grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s. Cosmos was a major television show in the US at that time and it’s considered one of the seminal, popular depictions of science in media. Not only was Carl Sagan an inspiring figure in terms of being a prominent and articulate scientist, but the ways in which he made science understandable and made science something other people wanted to study, was important to me. So when I made the shift to look at science and media I kind of took Sagan as a model.
How has working here in Manchester helped you?
Working in Manchester has helped me because it brought me to the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which is one of the top centres for studying science and society in the world. Being here amongst my colleagues and being someone who made that transition from bench science into studying science’s relationship to society, it was actually really useful to me being here. Being in CHSTM allowed me to see how some of the top scholars in the world have studied this particular topic. I think I can rightfully say that had I not received the job here 11 years ago, my book Lab Coats in Hollywood would not have been as successful as it was. I owe the book’s success to being here in Manchester.
What do you do outside of work?
Outside of work I have a lovely wife, Laura, and two cats and we enjoy doing a lot of travelling. In terms of activities for enjoyment, I play a sport called softball. It’s an American sport that is surprisingly popular here in Britain, especially in Manchester. We have a thriving league with over 30 teams, so we’re talking over 350 people playing the sport. I think its popularity in the UK surprises many people. For me it is a kind of life-line back to my roots in America.