How I got two science communication jobs

I have seen on Twitter the heart-ache for people in science communication who can’t find full-time jobs with benefits.

Well, I found two of them. So let me tell you how I did that.

First, how did I search for job openings? I’m not very good at that, but one thing I did was to keep on searching “scicomm jobs” and variants thereof on Twitter. Apparently, not a lot of people do that. In fact, the first scicomm job that I got seemed to have advertised almost exclusively on Twitter, and from what I could tell, a total of three people applied. Once I had the job, I was given control of the gmail account for it, and I could see the great rush of applications sent in for the job (not). Kind of made me feel like a loser, like, wow, I was more qualified than two others. Great.

Well, this job turned out to be not so great. I complained to all my friends about it, and one of them sent me a job posting she’d seen out of the blue. I applied for that on a whim, mostly because my friend had been nice enough to think of me and send it to me. And then I got that job, too.

So why do I think I got these jobs? From what I can tell, the employers liked the fact that I had a PhD; and they also liked the fact that I can make animations.

The PhD is apparently a big boost when applying to scicomm jobs, from my experience. My first employer did not say this straight out, but I got the impression that is was sort of an elitist issue for him, like, he doesn’t like to deal with people who don’t have PhDs.

The second employer straight out told me that me having a PhD was a big advantage to my application. They wanted someone who had a strong background in earth science, because they want a communicator who knows the science about as well as the scientists.

So the PhD has been a boost, but so has making animations. I think this is a somewhat unique skill among earth scientists, or scientists in general. I make 3D animations in a free and open-source program called Blender. I’ve been using Blender now for years and years. In the interview with the first scicomm job that I got, the animations were something that my soon-to-be boss asked about and seemed interested in. It was probably something that stood out from the grand total of two other applications.

And with the second job, the animation skill was even more important. The job was advertised as earth science visual storyteller. I might have been the only person who applied who both had an earth science PhD and extensive visualization experience.

Because I had been making animations for so long, and making them about my science research and as part of outreach programs, I had many years’ worth of samples that I could show during the application period and interviews for the second job.

When I first started making science animations, by the way, it was during my PhD, and my first advisor, who was a total disaster, was very haughty about the whole thing, and seemed to think it was a big waste of time, and something that perhaps demeaned the field of science. But I loved doing it, so I kept on. I’ve never been officially trained in animation, and I get feedback often that I’m not doing things quite right; but it would appear that despite all that I still need to learn, science + animations skills are a unique and rare combination. And that seems to be how I got these jobs.

So I guess my advice boils down to a very unsatisfactory, very humdrum: “follow your dreams and pursue your passions” and something will work out. Haha, so boring. It’s not true, anyways — it won’t always work out.

But I can’t come up with anything else, except …

For those who are both getting their PhDs and interested in scicomm:

Ignore the people who say that a PhD has to consume your life. No. Absolutely not, not least because of the big chance you’re going to crash and burn out of your PhD. You want to have other things going on for you. Don’t give up everything else that you love.

Oh, and I can think of one more piece of advice for everyone: when I was done with undergrad and had a 9-5 job, that was when I taught myself how to animate. I wasn’t in school anymore, but I still wanted to learn this new skill. I spent a few hours after work several times a week on it, and then usually a full day on the weekends. I didn’t have to force myself to do it, it was so enjoyable. My point is, keep on developing interests and skills even when you’re out of school — it will pay off so much later if you can spend at least some of your after-work hours doing that. Even if you don’t get a job from it, it will pay off — learning to animate was fulfilling and wonderful way before I got any money or reward from it.

 

My 2019 AGU talks

AGU is a conference held in December each year, about a week before Christmas. AGU stands for American Geophysical Union. It’s more interesting than it sounds, promise! Usually it’s held in San Francisco. I’ve been a couple of time.

This past December, I had three talks at AGU. Two were invited. I felt very special.

To get to AGU, I first took the train from Houston to Los Angeles. It was a very nice train — and it didn’t take so long — and look at all the pretty things I saw along the way.

Then from Los Angeles, I took mostly an overnight bus north. Overnight so I wouldn’t waste a day traveling. The bus literally does run all night long, and at long last, just after sunrise (it was winter, so the sunrise was kind of late), we arrived in San Francisco. I stayed for a week, gave my 3 talks, and it was great.

My talks were all about my Animations with Kids program. For the second talk, I got to show everyone how I teach the kids 3D animation.

Scicomm made polished, part 3

I finished a new animated Twitter thread for work. This one is on planet collisions. Woah!

You can see it here. It’s nine tweets in all.

I wrote about getting feedback on  my animated Twitter threads earlier. I was sad because I was told about how bad and unpolished my work was.

Well, after all my whining and complaining, I did the teacher’s pet, good-girl act of “let me learn from my mistakes” and “take the feedback to heart”. I decided to act all mature and pretend I was happy to be told I sucked. While making the new Twitter thread on planet collisions, I paid attention to the backgrounds and colors I was using. I worked on it for a month, and tweeted it out last Thursday. It was in fact my last act at work before becoming a Coronavirus refugee.

protoplanetary disk0062
This is supposed to represent a solar system in its infancy.

Then I sent this new thread to one of the people who had given me feedback. What do you think now? And in a very cutesy, inspiring turn of events (thankfully), I was told: this looks great! Big improvement! Nice job!

Isn’t that nice?

Further: that the colors and similarities in style between the different animations makes it much more evident that they all go together. That they have a relationship to each other through the color choices or the dark background.

lava flow0071
Lava flow.

You know what, though, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate my own work. I, for example, thought there should be something distinctively consistent in the background for each animation — something I wasn’t able to ensure. But upon receiving my feedback, that was when it first dawned on me that just the simple consistency of a dark background in each animation was enough — nothing fancier than that. So I still have a lot to learn, but it’s definitely nice to receive praise, and I think if I iterate this cycle of experimentation on my part, and feedback from others, I learn little nuggets of insight at a time.

As always, I use Blender3D to make these animations.

Texture vs Point in Blender materials

I discovered a new, tiny detail in Blender3D. It’s a tiny thing that made a big difference.

I was trying to make etches onto a cube with an image — like engrave the image in.

I wanted it to look like this:

puzzle0017

See, nice and clear! However, it was just looking like this:

puzzle0008a

Much less crisp and sharp, and when I went to print it out (the images were for a poster) it didn’t show up hardly at all.

Almost by accident, I discovered what the problem was. Below are two material settings, one for the ‘good’ image and the other for the muddled one:

material texturematerial point

Yes! The only difference was that for one image, the ‘Mapping’ node in the Materials was set to ‘Texture’ (the bad image) and on the other it was set to ‘Point’. And it made all that difference. Amazing, and so, so easy to miss.

Scicomm made polished, part 2

I was bemoaning the apparent lack of polish in my science animations and not quite understanding all the criticisms, but now it’s a few days later, and something has dawned on me.

I remember now reading people’s blogs, and them saying all all their photos are put through pre-sets in Lightroom. Meaning every photo gets a “finish” on it, or something, and it’s the exact same finish for each photo, and that finish will mute the colors all in the same way; or get the brightness of the photo to look the same; or maybe some other stuff, too. So then when you see photos from that person all together, they all have that same sheen to them, so you kind of can tell they came from the same place.

Honestly, does this not also make it boring? So every photo kind of looks the same, one to the next. But if you don’t do this, then your photos look incoherent?

Well, I’m going to try something: for my next animated Twitter thread, I will choose a color palette carefully and stick to those colors throughout the whole thread. And I’ll see if that helps with the “polish” and the “coherence.”

Explosions in blender

I need to make an explosion in Blender for work.

First I used this tutorial, which was only 7 minutes long, and I followed it easily and got the result.

But then I decided it looked too cartoonish, so I went for this tutorial, which was 14 minutes long. So still quite short, and for just double the time, it promised something way cooler-looking.

However, I tried it twice, and what I got looked very bad and different from what I was supposed to get. So I gave it up, and decided my result from the first tutorial was not so cartoonish after all.

You can decide for yourself here.

explosion0041
A still from the explosion animation

Honest feedback from kids

When I make animations with kids, part of the point is that other kids will want to watch the stories and learn something about the environment and about science on the way.

Well, after I had finished “When Anders, Dilsa, and Reza were mean: a bird story” with the kids at a local summer camp, I showed it to a 4-year-old boy. Or I tried to show it to him. He ran away to grab his video games after 10 seconds, with the cheekiest grin on his face, and blithely informed me that it was “boring”. Oh dear.

I tried the same movie with a 9-year-old boy, and he went “ho-hum” and told me he’d finished watching it after he got through watching Disney’s “The descendants”, or something … but then he never actually watched it, ever.

But that same 4-year-old boy really likes watching “Mr. Glump and the poisonous pond.” He likes it because he says, with a great giggle, that Mr. Glump looks like Trump. Well, I can honestly declare that none of the 30 kids who worked on that movie, and none of the kids or family members at the viewing party, made any such comment, but this kid is certain! So he’s watched “Mr. Glump” through a couple of times.

Mr. Glump
Mr. Glump with his scowl and his poisonous spraying bottle.

Scicomm on Halloween

I made this short little video for work way back, just in time for Halloween:

I spent the week leading up to Halloween feverishly focused on it, wanting to get it done in time. It’s haunted house-themed, and it describes the premise of CLEVER Planets research in a Halloween-flavored nutshell.

Unfortunately, as you can see, it didn’t really get a lot of views or re-tweets or anything. It felt like a bummer, because I spent a lot of time on it; but the pay-off was all limited to one day (unless I tweet it again next year); and so it felt like it was a waste of time.

I had been planning to make a model of Olaf the snowman from Frozen and use him for a winter-themed animation about CLEVER Planets research … but for now, I have decided to tread carefully around seasonal themes and avoid them.

 

A very girly science feed

I am working as a science communicator, like at a real job, can you believe it?

Well, I like shiny things, a la Taylor Swift, and I like pretty colors, and softness, and sparkles and flowers and things like that. So my plan is to use my new position to populate the online presence and outreach presence of the project I’m hired under with all those favorite things of mine, in the name of science.

So far, I’ve mostly made Twitter stories. This one has pretty flowers and pretty glaciers with a sunrise behind them, and a cute girl, too! This one was a little more sedate. Nothing very silky and golden and whimsical about it, but it’s still okay.

Right now, I’m trying to make a series that I shall call, “how we know what we know.” I am trying to make the introductory frames, first. I’ve had to do a couple of takes. My first attempt looked like this. I loved the pretty ocean water and its rich, sparkly green-ness, and I loved the glacier, and I loved the diamond moon, and the blossoming pink tree … but then I realized that it was way too busy.

So I had to take out a lot of the pretty stuff, and I ended up with this, instead. But that’s okay, because I have my girl back in it, and it’s a cleaner and clearer view of things overall. It’s just a work in progress for now.

I made these videos in Blender.

Something new in the Blender tutorials

It’s rare enough to find a Blender tutorial made by a woman.  I won’t complain too much, because essentially all the men making tutorials are sharing their knowledge for free — aside from some ads — but when there’s no women making tutorials, it gives you a sense that you don’t really own the field all that much. I think before yesterday, I had only seen one tutorial by a woman — and I don’t remember it at all — I just have a feeling that there was such a one — and aside from this mythical one, I believe all the hundreds (or thousands?) of tutorials I’ve used were produced by white men.

But yesterday, I came across a tutorial that I’m pretty sure was made by a Black woman. This is her YouTube site, VScorpianC. She has tutorials on Blender, and all sorts of other cool, free, artistic programs. The tutorial I watched was on the grease pencil. She went at a very slow pace (for me), but it’s probably just right for many others, and I got the information that I was looking for.