When did you start writing science stories for children?
In early 2012, during my first year as a postdoc at the University of Reading, I was sitting on the train home on my daily commute from Reading to North Camp in Surrey. I’d had a long day in the lab, and I was flicking through my notebook trying to make sense of some data. Frustrated and confused by my bizarre results I began doodling some pictures, and by the time my train pulled into North Camp station, I had a little story board sketched. This story told the tale of a group of fictional animals that became split between two habitats. These habitats presented different challenges, and in order to survive the creatures had to adapt. In the end, little changes added up to make big differences – I had the beginnings of my first book, Little Changes.
Why was this project important to you?
I’d been thinking about writing a book on evolution for children since my days as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. I did not like the way evolution was taught in schools, as a static process and an aside, rather than a foundation, within the field of biological sciences. Recent changes in the curriculum have made some positive changes to how evolution is taught in schools. This change married nicely with the release of Little Changes, and so as part of the project I linked the book with online educational resources that aim to address the concepts introduced in Little Changes in more detail. I have since been contacted by schools to help with their lessons. One lovely experience was with a school in Washington, USA, where I was able to participate in their lesson via Skype; I talked to them a little about what I did as a researcher and why I was captivated by evolutionary science, and they read me their own fictional stories of adaptation. It was very special to be able to see the impact of my work at a personal level.
How did you get your stories out to the wider public?
Once written, I had to decide what to do with my book. At first, I wrote to a few agents and thought about finding a publisher – but I found this too demanding on my time. So I decided on a different plan of action and applied for a grant from the ESEB outreach fund. They kindly gave me the money to make my book into an educational resource for schools. A huge step forward for the project was the addition of the incredibly talented illustrator James Munro to the team, made possible by the outreach grant. James took the words I had written and brought them to life. To literally watch my fictional characters – the rinkidinks – evolve on the page was hugely exciting. In December 2012 the book was published for free online, and I self-published a hard copy via create-space on Amazon in March 2013.
What other opportunities came from Little Changes?
This project has since led onto many other exciting opportunities. I was contacted by the Evolution Institute in the US, who invited me to publish a collection of “peer-reviewed poems” for children, Great Adaptations, which enabled me to work closely with ten internationally recognised evolutionary biologists on developing their research interests into child friendly stories on evolution. This in turn, led me to Prof Angela Douglas who later asked if I could contribute short poems to an exhibition at Cornell University on mutual relationships between microbes and animals. I have been contacted by many academics that have read my books to their children and this has created opportunities for interactions which have led to new collaborations.
It has also led to opportunities outside of children’s science outreach. Being known as an active and willing science communicator, I have been invited to review many popular science books for Times Higher Education magazine, contribute numerous entries to a new book, 30-second biology, and be a reviewer for outreach project grants.
How have these ventures benefited your scientific career?
I have found my experience of finding unique ways to communicate evolutionary science to children hugely rewarding in many ways. Firstly, it’s fun. I have to create stories that will engage and captivate children, and in turn, I end up captivated myself. Secondly, it’s good practise for communicating my science to a lay audience. Trying to find a way to explain to a six-year-old how natural selection works is valuable practise for trying to write a lay summary in a grant proposal (although I do have to stop myself from rhyming). Finally, it has raised my profile as a researcher. Since publishing science stories for children, I have had many interactions with high prolife academics, both nationally and internationally, that have got in contact with me to discuss my outreach project – this creates the opportunity for research connections. Children’s science literature may not be for everyone, but finding your niche for ways to engage the public with your research is not only personally rewarding, but can benefit your academic career and bring new research opportunities.
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