Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Communicating to the Public: Vitae Poster Competition

Last week I visited a sun-drenched Leeds University for a poster competition to communicate PhD research to the public. The event was organised by Vitae an organisation funded by the Research Councils UK (a partnership between 7 UK Research Councils) to help bring commercial skills to postgraduate researchers to increase their employability to industry. If you are a PhDer they have a great site of resources.

Vitae called for submissions of abstracts, which were proposals for our posters. From this, 100 PhD students were selected to design a poster in jargon-free language that a non-subject specialist could read in 5 minutes. This was the key judging criteria.

There were 5 Northumbria PhD students selected to submit posters. I met them and two staff from the Graduate School to spend the day viewing posters, having conversations about research and attending two very interesting presentations.

The first presentation was on opening us up to taking our research out in the public media space. Some ideas were to:
  • Make a documentary
  • Design a children's storybook
  • Approach newspapers and magazines (as journalists are always looking for news)
  • Use the internet
  • Approach the University press office
The second presentation was about commercialising scientific research. The research was on the ability of our ear to detect the location of sound. The research found that while the ear was good at detecting the location of sound, it could not detect the location of sirens due to their frequency. In times of crisis, we need to be directed by our senses. Fires are the worst because in low visibility, we cannot see green exit lights nor can the ear detect the location of the siren.

This research went on to develop a low frequency siren that could direct people in low visibility. The siren has since been adopted by ships, universities and in vehicular tunnels. The key message here was to encourage us to seek a connection in our research to real-life situations.

But back to the posters... I found the poster exercise and event really valuable. The process of designing the poster meant I had to try and put the bulk of my PhD on one page. Here's a photo of my poster

The poster submissions were very impressive and there was great variety. From seeing others and the winning posters, I definitely got a good feel for what I could do next time to better engage the general public in my research.

At the event I also found it really valuable to have a conversation about my poster. I had a few requests to talk through the poster and this helped me see that some of my language use could be improved.

If you are a PhD researcher, I would really encourage designing posters to communicate research. Throughout my PhD I have been doing 'one-pagers' to quickly disseminate and share ideas.
It's a fun process, it makes you think and it allows people to have a conversation with you about your research which helps refine language and clarify thinking.

A PhD friend of mine once said she felt "really uninspired" sitting infront of a blank Word document
. I think we would be less inclined to feel uninspired infront of Indesign or a blank sheet of paper with a pen- ready to sketch, map, draw or even write.

I found a paper recently which assembled An Evolving Map of Design Research and Design Practice of which the author visually mapped design research and then wrote an accompanying narrative. I think this is a great technique to employ and the Dubberly Design Office (where I found the paper) presents some excellent and engaging examples of concept maps to get one started.

At the end of the Vitae event, most of us didn't walk away with prizes (there could only be 3 winners- 1st, 2nd and 3rd!). But we did walk away with exposure to loads of other PhD research and more ideas to better communication our research to the public.

No comments: