‘There are so many avenues in science that may not be being explored because the people they’re relevant to may not be in science.’ Hana Ayoob on the need to increase diversity in the STEM sector.
Hana Ayoob is a science communicator who wears many hats. She is a festival organiser who has helped run some of the UK’s biggest science events, she is a comedian, a consultant, an illustrator and one quarter of the excellent science podcast ‘Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet?’
In this week’s episode of Research Comms Hana talks about her multi-pronged approach to scicomm, what it’s like being a new-found freelancer and why she is so committed to supporting minorities in STEM.
You’ve recently become a freelancer. What’s that been like?
I think for me the biggest pro for freelancing has been the diversity because I'm interested in so many things and before I went freelance I worked full-time for a science festival as a programmer, which means I did everything from researching an area of science to finding speakers, booking speakers, making events happen and I loved that, I really did, but alongside that I was doing more and more stand-up comedy and communication work. I was also doing lots of illustration and basically I was finding that there were all these competing demands on my time and I was also doing a full time job that was a very demanding full-time job and it just it felt like it got to a point where I had to make a decision about whether to scale back some of my hobbies that could be more than hobbies or to sort of just, you know, dive in and see what I could do with them.
How did you get into science communication in the first place?
I did a science degree and I realised quite early on that the lab-based work or research work wasn't really for me. There wasn't any particular area of science that really jumped out at me. I loved zoology but there wasn't a bit of zoology that I could imagine researching for years of my life. But what I did love was writing about science, talking about science, and and at the time I was doing a lot of amateur dramatics work, so I was directing and producing alongside my degree, and in hindsight it makes perfect sense that I ended up going towards science-based events.
What drives you as a science communicator?
Personally for me it's it's always gonna be just about exploring the world, and I know that sounds really cheesy but it's about exploring ourselves as humans and the world around us, and I think that it's that core motivation that is part of why I straddle arts and the sciences because I think that applies to my artwork as well. I feel like I get to know animals better when I draw them than I ever could just by reading research about them, and as an extension of that I want to share that wonder, that desire to explore with other people, and that's why I produce events that's why I like standing on stage and talking to people, it's why I love doing the podcast.
Tell us about your podcast ‘Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet?’
So, it came out of conversations with Alex Laithbridge, who's the main host of the podcast and Oz who's one of our co-hosts and we we were talking a lot about how we didn't feel that there was a science podcast out there that really brought together popular culture and science in a way that also appreciates ethnic minority cultures as well, so we now have a podcast where we'll be talking about mental health but specifically about how mental health is viewed differently in Muslim communities and in African Caribbean communities and we often just get people tweeting, saying things like “I love that you made a joke about things being Haram” and it's really nice to have that space. We're now, I think, twenty episodes in and we've explored all sorts of things and we've probably explored things that other podcasts have as well, so we did one on the technology of airports but because it was us doing it we couldn't do technology of airports without making lots of jokes about random security checks not being that random, because Oz and Alex I don't think have ever been through security without being targeted for a ‘random’ spot check. And it's this idea that that technology and science are not independent of people's personal experiences, they’re not independent of culture.
How did you go about defining your audience?
We knew that the audience we wanted to reach was BAME young people who might be interested in science but weren't necessarily working in science and I think we were always keen that tech would be part of it as well, that it could be people who were interested in tech but who might not identify as being interested in science. Andd I think we were honest with ourselves in the beginning that other people were gonna listen and that's absolutely fine! But those people aren’t necessary the people we’re making it for.
What really brought that home for me is when I was sat chatting to a bunch of my university friends, who are all white British and I was having to explain the name of the podcast to them and then one of their boyfriends arrived who’s a doctor of South Asian descent, and I just told him the name and he bursts out laughing and at that moment it was just like “yeah, we know our audience actually” and that's really good
And so what does the name mean??
It's the idea that for BAME young people, if you're interested in science that you’re expected to become a doctor but also that those who are doing a PhD you have this added pressure from parents of “well, are you a doctor yet?”
Tell us about some of the other work you’re doing to support BAME scientists.
Alex and Oz who are both involved in the podcast and a few other people, we set up a network called Minorities in Stem which is about supporting and showcasing BAME people who are already in STEM. I think there's this sense that the recruitment side is maybe too big a challenge to take on but also that there are lots of people who are not having a very good time at the moment, and there’s this issue that also gets talked about a lot with women in STEM, which is should we be encouraging people into a workplace that isn't treating them very well? I don't think there are any easy answers but I think by setting up the network and doing things like having channels where we can chat to each other and meeting in real life it's made a lot of people feel less alone, particularly the researchers we've got in the network who aren't based in big cities, who often do feel very alone at the universities or very alone in the towns that they’re in.
But one of my personal motivations for it as well is to try and get science communication feeling a bit more diverse, having more ethnically diverse voices on stage. Because ultimately it comes down to different lived experiences and the network has opened my eyes to how those different lived experiences can actually shape people's research. In a way I think that I was instinctively aware of the situation but I didn't necessarily have examples, so I've got an amazing person called Jasmine Scarlett in the network; she's a volcanologist, a social volcanologist, and one of the things she looks at is narratives about how we talk about volcanic eruptions and how, actually, lots of perspectives have been ignored. Quite often it's volcanic eruptions in places that were colonies where the local voices were ignored. What happened to slaves during eruptions was ignored. And she says without her Caribbean background she might not be doing that. We also have a Twitter account where every week a different person runs the account and one of the people who took over it recently, she’s of Sri Lankan background, and part of her research is looking at suicide in Sri Lankan communities, which again she probably wouldn't be doing if she weren’t from that background. And so it's what goes back to what I was saying earlier about science not being neutral, and that there are so many avenues of science that may not be being explored because the people it's relevant to are not in science or because people who aren't connected to those communities don't feel comfortable working in those communities. I think science can only get better if it's representative of the population it's meant to be serving.
Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director.
He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.