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It’s harder to be what you can’t see

The need for representation in science outreach

Pciture of a person in a lab coat showing a labcoat with the name-tag "you" to two smiling children
Inspiring the next generation of scientists can also inspire your own sense of belonging

As an earth scientist, I feel that I have a duty to be an ambassador for my subject, as our planet becomes increasingly inhospitable and humans are exposed to more natural hazards and climate change. So I got into outreach. This has allowed me to share my research with others, build professional relationships and promote earth science to the next generation.

Last summer I gave my favourite outreach talk online to a group of school students in Texas through the organisation GeoFORCE Texas, which aims to increase the number and diversity of future earth scientists. The students, 82% of whom were from underrepresented minority groups, were full of curiosity, asking some challenging scientific questions that I mused over for a while afterwards.

Following my talk, the teachers reached out to share their and their students’ thanks, outlining the impact that me, as a Black woman, being a vocal, visible earth scientist had on them. This reinforced the importance of representation in science outreach to me. But my experiences haven’t always been so positive.

Earth sciences is one of the least diverse Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. From 2014–2019, just 10% of geology PhD students in the UK were from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background, significantly lower than other Stem subjects such as materials science (22%) and chemistry (15%). As a Black woman, I feel isolated. To inspire the next generation of scientists and improve research culture, we need to increase diversity and foster the retention of underrepresented groups. Outreach is an important tool to increase representation.

The outreach activities I have taken part in since 2018 have had a positive influence on my PhD experience and myself personally as they forced me to see my subject from a different perspective. They have challenged me to think creatively about how to translate complex concepts to different audiences to create universal, foundational understanding. I have been able to improve my teaching, leadership and communication skills – all skills that are vital for a successful career in science.

"For the first time, I felt like I fully belonged in earth sciences"

I’ve taken part in a wide range of outreach activities. I led a team of students to run a Spooky Science event at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool, engaging over 100 young children (and their parents!) in our activities, including an interactive fossil dig. As the postgraduate outreach representative for my department, I designed and led outreach activities including Liverpool’s Royal Institute Christmas Lecture Science Fair and Girls in Maths careers day. The skills that I have gained, such as leadership, problem solving and event management, have enhanced my PhD experience and extended my scientific reach beyond my lab research.

However, there was something missing from these activities. In the vast majority, the audience consisted of wealthier, white students, who are well represented in earth sciences. I wanted to reach a more diverse audience to engage those who may wish to become a scientist, but do not see themselves represented.

Raising my online profile was key to widening my outreach work to a diverse, global audience. Following the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in summer 2020, myself and other Black scientists led #BlackInGeoscience week. There were over 190,000 interactions with the hashtag, including people sharing their research and interacting with panel discussions on being a Black scientist. For the first time, I felt like I fully belonged in earth sciences – as others shared their experiences of racism in this field, my own experiences were reconciled.

Since then, I have been invited to present my research to the general public at various events with more diverse audiences, including the XM2 Minerva Prize Talk. This was particularly rewarding as many family members and friends, who had little experience of earth sciences, attended. Sharing my science with my family and friends felt like a full circle moment – after years of them supporting my studies, I felt that I was able to ‘pay back’ by presenting what I have learned in an accessible way. These experiences, in addition to the GeoFORCE Texas talk, have fulfilled my desire to promote earth sciences to a wider range of people. To increase audience diversity at other outreach events, I recommend that organisers consult with relevant networks such as Black Geographers and in2scienceUK when planning to ensure events appeal to a wider range of participants.

Black and other underrepresented scientists should not feel obliged to do outreach work, although many feel a duty to give back to our communities. I am inundated with requests to take part in outreach events to increase the diversity of activity leaders, and I often feel guilty for turning these down. But while science outreach can be a powerful, mutually-beneficial tool to increase representation in fields which lack diversity, this should not come at the expense of the researcher doing the work. Activities must be fully recognised and rewarded in impact assessments. To fulfil my duty as an ambassador for earth sciences, opportunities for outreach must also enable me to progress in my career and develop into a better researcher.

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