PhD Student wins Science Communication Competition

PhD researcher Ben Stutchbury has won an international science communication competition. The competition was hosted by Chemistry World, the magazine published by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). The aim was to make chemistry a more accessible topic to the public.

The applicants first had to write an 800 word essay summarising a commissioned report by the RSC. The report found that chemistry, unlike other scientific disciplines, failed to be relatable to the lay audience.

Ben says:

“The RSC Public Attitudes to Chemistry Research Report highlighted a number of issues in the way chemistry is perceived by the public. For example, when asked where a chemist was likely to work, most people said “in a pharmacy”! One thing that struck me was how negatively the term ‘Chemistry’ is viewed by the public in comparison term ‘Science’. As chemistry is a huge part of science, I was surprised by how differently they are perceived. I think that the public opinion to the terms ‘Biology’ and ‘Physics’ would be more positive than that of ‘Chemistry’.”

The report had found that the public’s perception of science was that it was fun, interesting and engaging, which was in stark contrast to the view of chemistry as an isolated field, which was seen to be inaccessible, serious and intimidating. Ben therefore concluded that establishing why science was tangible and chemistry was not, would help to make chemistry more accessible.

Ben argued that this is likely due to chemistry’s lack of presence in the mainstream media. There is no David Attenborough or Brian Cox acting as a ‘public champion’ for chemistry. However, he also concluded that the problem may run deeper, stemming from how chemistry is taught in schools.

His essay, which will now be published in the next issue of Chemistry World, was highly received and Ben was shortlisted for the final, in the famous Faraday lecture theatre at the Royal Institute. Each of the 5 finalists had to produce a 10 minute talk to a mixed audience of 200 people that would explain a chemistry concept in an engaging way. For this Ben chose the chemistry behind the mucus in our bodies.

After some deliberation amongst the judges, Ben was presented with the award. The award comes with a week’s work experience with AkzoNobel – a world leader in the chemistry field.

Ben, whose PhD comes to an end in 6 months, says:

“It is really fantastic to have won the award, but the most exciting thing was just reaching the final. The opportunity to present in the historic Faraday Lecture Theatre is something I will never forget. The other finalists all gave brilliant presentations and it really showed that the communication of exciting chemistry has a bright future!”