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Nachgefragt – bei Alina Loth

22. Oktober 2018

  • Erstellt von Thuy Anh Nguyen
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  • v Nachgefragt
As a child, biologist Alina Loth imagined we would soon be able to communicate across all language and species barriers. Photo: Alina Loth Array

As a child, biologist Alina Loth imagined we would soon be able to communicate across all language and species barriers. Photo: Alina Loth

In the series „Nachgefragt“ ("Asking Questions"), we introduce, in no particular order, people working in science communication. With 17 questions – and 17 answers, sometimes serious, sometimes humorous.

In our thirty-sixth episode we are speaking with Alina Loth, biologist, public engagement officer at the University of St Andrews and speaker at the 11th Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation.

A good communicator needs…?

… first of all, passion for the topic! While I think there is definitely good and bad communication, I don’t think there are necessarily general personality traits for good communicators. I am convinced everyone can be a good communicator with the right training, experience, and a good amount of passion for and understanding of research. In my position where I both communicate myself as well as help researchers to find the narrative in their own story, it doesn’t hurt to have a good amount of humour, creativity and empathy, though.

What motivated you to work in the field of science communication?

I tremendously enjoyed doing my own research, but also felt it led me down a path of ever-further specialisation in a rather narrow field of science. I have always had quite broad professional interests in biology, zoology, psychology and the study of behaviour, as well as in pedagogy and arts. I wanted to make cutting-edge research matter more broadly across these disciplines and to wider audiences, and possibly contribute my skills in illustration, graphic design and education. The Public Engagement with Research position I hold at the University of St Andrews allows me to do all these things, and some more to boot. We also hold our own grants, coordinate between projects and researchers and plan lots of exciting events, so it never gets boring.

Describe your daily work in three words.


What is the best experience you have had as a communicator?

In the first ever training event I led, a young researcher sat in the back of the room. She wasn’t really convinced that public engagement was for her – she was too shy to speak publicly, and no one but her would care for her research. Honestly, at the time I thought, that’s a tough one. But she kept coming back, and her passion for her own research caught on. She recently participated in a public engagement event in front of a live audience, rocked the stage like it was her second home, and won the public appreciation prize. I felt very lucky that I could be part of her journey and was proud to see her develop so many new skills and build up great amounts of confidence.

What was your biggest communication disaster?

Maybe not a disaster as much as a constant source of annoyance. Not sure why, really (I blame wicked algorithms!), but auto-correct keeps changing our PowerPoint titles from “public engagement” to…well…include one fewer L. Giggles from the audience, red faces from us.

Which of your traits bothers you the most in your daily work?

Is this where I mention my intense coffee addiction? More seriously, I think because we work so closely with multiple audiences and because we share the researchers’ passion for their topics, many people in public engagement want to please and help as much as they can. We are often so committed that it can be challenging to let go of things that are beyond our control. Additionally, I always get very emotionally involved when I train people, to the point where I personally feel everyone’s stage fever when I watch them on stage or at a delivery… all of this is sometimes only bearable with copious amounts of coffee. It’s a vicious cycle.

Which (historical) person would you like to have dinner with?

I have spent possibly worrying amounts of time thinking about this question, to be honest. Maybe the rat from Ratatouille? My own research focused on animal communication, and this one communicates well and can make an amazing dinner! Maybe Florence Nightingale? I recently read an article about her – she was not only an amazing woman, a pioneer in so many fields, but also created one of the first infographics to communicate her complex data in an easily accessible way. I’m sure dinner with her would be fascinating, although I’d probably be too awestruck to contribute much. I think I’d be more relaxed around Sir David Attenborough – what a giant of science communication, and he comes across as lovely and interesting.

What is your favourite research discipline?

I’m probably biased here, but I’d opt for my own: biology and specifically ethology. I have researched extensively on animal behaviour, communication and cognition. Not only are these important for the conservation of wildlife and just all-out fascinating: they can tell us a lot about questions in other disciplines and in our everyday life, from psychology to group behaviour to how to communicate best.

Which research topic would you least like to communicate?

In public engagement, my colleagues and I aim to enable researchers to communicate their own findings. Honestly, we haven’t seen a discipline or topic yet that we didn’t want to contribute to – as long as the researchers are keen and passionate about their project. Especially those topics farthest from my own research background have in the past tickled my curiosity and ambition. If the researchers can get me to understand and want to engage in their project, I think they deserve that I give it my all to facilitate them reaching their intended audiences.

If time and money were no object: Which science communication project would you like to do?

This feels a bit like writing a wish list for Santa! While we hold our own grants and have some project money available to support researchers to reach out and engage with wider audiences, just as anywhere else, we can never really fund all the great ideas that come to us. And single events or initiatives are often drops (important ones, to be sure) on a hot stone. If time and money were no object at all, I would aim at providing wide-spread financial incentives that create a political space and an awareness for what I believe is a crucial societal task: sustainable and wide spread embedding of public engagement in institutional structures across higher education, research and policy sectors. If I would have unlimited funding to initiate my own project, it would probably be something like a giant research playground that allows everyone to experience research in a creative and playful way that involves all our senses. Obviously, I would have to hang out there quite a bit myself to make sure the project is thoroughly evaluated!

If you didn’t work in science communication, what field would you like to be in?

Working in public engagement is a way to avoid choosing, in some ways. Science communication, and especially public engagement, is so varied, it has allowed me to reshape my job constantly and to combine the things I like to do: research, education and communication, illustration and design… I could see myself in positions in any of these fields. In the past I worked as a research assistant in several international research projects. I loved being outside in the mud in my wellies, working with passionate people, travelling worldwide and running experiments. I think I would eventually get a bit tired of not being able to plan more than 2 months ahead. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed all the adventures that came with this work.

Science communication in 2030 will be…

Looking back at the immense technological progress of the last 12 years, I think the next 12 years will bring fascinating new formats, new ways to access and contribute to research. Hologram science in your living room? Remote citizen science projects with simultaneous participation from all around the globe? Science communication will inevitably also encounter new challenges to do with data access, the privatisation of content, and ensuring it really addresses and engages wide audiences. Increasingly, Universities such as St Andrews can communicate with global as much as local communities. What does this mean for how public engagement has to adapt? I think it’s fair to say that in an age of echo chambers on social media and debates about fake news and alternative facts, communicating research well is really important, and I think this will stay with us at least until 2030.

What do you consider the greatest achievement in the history of science?

At the danger of sounding a bit cheesy, I think the slow but steady democratisation of science (and research more generally) is probably both an amazing achievement as well as its future promise. Much of it wasn’t science’s own doing, to be sure. But still, opening up higher education to women, people of colour, realizing that researchers can and should meaningfully and to the mutual benefit of all involved communicate and engage with wider audiences – these are powerful drivers of change and progress. We know that much remains to be done, but I’m optimistic that we can works towards fair, open, and accessible research for all.

How did you imagine the future as a child?

I always imagined we would be able to communicate across all language and species barriers in the future. Not just acoustically but in every possible communication mode (e.g. visually, tactile, chemosensory). I was utterly fascinated by this idea, probably one of the reasons why I decided to do a PhD in animal communication and cognition. I think we are already making some huge progress in the fields of speech recognition, and machine learning is improving automatic translation tools every day. Despite this technological progress, it remains baffling to me how often humans still struggle to understand and respect each other - let alone any other species. I hope this will change in the future.

How do you keep your head clear when you are stressed?

I’d be keen to hear what other people answer here! I guess I fight stress in a rather stereotypical way (for the only German in the office, no less): I like the good, old to-do list. In fact, I like them so much I have multiple ones. This can lead to the meta-stress of managing parallel to-do lists – I guess sometimes you win some, you lose some. I also find it oddly satisfactory to cross out things on them, which means I may on occasion add things to my lists which I have already done, just to be able to cross them out – definitely a stress relief!

I like to help colleagues with …/ I like answering questions about…?

I am always up for a challenge and efficient in emergency and high-stress situations, so organisational tasks are right up my alley. However, my favourite requests are probably about creative solutions, the facilitation of interdisciplinary projects, and visual links in communicating research narratives. When it comes to answering questions, don’t get me started on stories about weird and fascinating animals unless you are sitting comfortably and are in no rush to leave!

Who would you like to send this questionnaire to and what question would you like to ask them?

I think you should forward this to Sir David Attenborough, and since we’re on it, maybe you can ask if he wants to go to dinner with me?

Dr Alina Loth

Alina Loth has a PhD in the field of Ethology and Communication. Her secret passion as a researcher and freelance illustrator? Combining science and art and making it accessible to everyone! With her blog www.oceansandtheseas.com she has been honoured at the Hochschulwettbewerb 2016/17. She is currently working at the University of St Andrews in Scotland as Public Engagement Officer and takes part in several projects for engagement and science communication. At the 11th Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation, Alina Loth will present the project “Under the Skin” – a multidisciplinary Public Engagement project that brings together art and science.


In order to read all the posts of this series please follow this link. 

1 Kommentare

  1. Remy the Rat am 25.10.2018

    Firstly, I have a name and it's Remy (I made Linguini type this for me). Secondly, this should be tweeted at Sir David Attenborough and no doubt he'll invite you to dinner soon (although that means you'll miss out on my food). Thirdly, what a smart interview - loved it!

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