Community and Education Team Internship, The Cawthron Institute, Nelson, New Zealand
This PIPS story is probably one that will be echoed time and time again with outreach and community projects, but I believe that it only emphasises the many advantages these placements provide for personal development, and illustrates how rewarding community education and science communication is. Having wanted to be a scientist since the age of 10 it is almost impossible to imagine a desk based job and, as such, is probably my worst nightmare. However over recent years I have become increasingly interested in outreach activities and the importance of communicating science to the general public; I therefore jumped at the opportunity to conduct a project with the Community and Education Team at The Cawthron Institute in Nelson, New Zealand. I arrived knowing very little about what was expected of me and, having worked in Sales, Customer Service, Administration, Telephony and Research I thought that this placement would be of little benefit to me – but I was wrong! There was indeed a plethora of amazing opportunities awaiting me and I was able to gain and refine a considerable number of skills, particularly surrounding my personal development.
Whilst the dull administration tasks such as data entry, filing and letter writing seemed plentiful initially, before long I was thrown head first into event planning and execution. The first challenge – a radio interview! I was required for a 15 minute interview, where I was given the opportunity to explore what I hoped to achieve whilst on placement, the skills I would like to gain, discuss my PhD and research in the UK, as well as share my ambitions and desire to become involved in science in the community. Whilst I was thoroughly terrified it was a fantastic opportunity to improve my public speaking and increase my awareness of how I communicate to different groups of people using different media. The radio show was broadcast across Nelson-Tasman districts and required me to convey important aspects of my research, making it accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.
My second challenge, two large public events in one week, and only a few weeks to plan and execute it all. It was madness and truly chaotic, the pressure was on to perform, and perform to the highest standard. Showcasing The Cawthron Institute to the general public needed to be done professionally and executed without error. The challenge was to advertise, organise and execute a Careers Day for schools in the local area and an Open Day with laboratory tours for the general public. Some of my tasks included making telephone calls, answering emails, and preparing documents for the events, I was also responsible for managing bookings and coordinating laboratory tours. I designed and assembled information packs for each student attending the Careers Day as well as Feedback Questionnaires for students, teachers and the general public. Only in New Zealand do you find yourself running around town delivering letters and putting up posters in the middle of Winter, enjoying the sun, as part of your job – I found some pretty creative post boxes on my rounds too! On the Open Day I was participated in organising and guiding laboratory tours which was a brilliant opportunity to engage with some of the most enthusiastic members of the public.
Prior to MIBTP I had no previous knowledge of computer programming and intensely disliked all the programming modules in Term 1 – I never envisaged finding a use for this skill but I am proud to say I am now a complete convert and have discovered the addictive nature of computer programming. When I heard the team telling me that they spend a few weeks trying to allocate judges to student projects for The Science and Technology Fair, I found myself saying “I should be able to write a programme to do that automatically”. They immediately agreed to me conducting this ‘mini-project’, and suddenly I realised I was way out of my depth with no way of turning back. I looked at my options and R-Studio and MATLAB were not really suitable for the type of thing the team required. After identifying the most suitable language I set out to learn visual basic, for Excel spreadsheets, from scratch, I did this and designed and wrote the initial programme in a little over a week. As the team began to see the benefits of this programme the requirements for it started to increase and, as expected, so did the complexity of the code. Another three weeks were spent refining and optimising the code, creating suitable input and output spreadsheets and a ‘user interface’, then finally, just in time for the deadline, the programme was ready. We all sat with baited breath as my co-worker pressed the button for the first time – it worked perfectly! Learning to programme by struggling through the creation of a programme with real benefit was, for me, a turning point. I now look forward to incorporating programming into my PhD to improve the quality and speed of my data analysis by automation.
On my penultimate day I was given the opportunity to give a ‘TOM talk’ to the staff at Cawthron about my research to date – this was yet another opportunity for my personal development, to improve my public speaking and ability to convey my research to a non-specialist audience. I had great fun writing my presentation ‘The Antibiotic Apocalypse’ and it went down really well with some great questions at the end. TOM talks are typically videoed and so I was able to watch myself present, which was incredibly useful for identifying aspects for improvement.
The Kiwi’s have a very laid back lifestyle which extends to their work lives, I joined CawthRun and spent an hour or so at lunchtime running some of the most scenic routes you can imagine. Through my work, I also had the opportunity to engage in some Maori Traditions and represented The Cawthron institute by singing their Waiata at a Powhiri – a traditional Welcome Ceremony. I was privileged to see a talented Kapa Haka and Poi performance group which was a great cultural experience.
Along with this type of laidback life comes the Kiwi’s sense of humour which is fantastic and apparent in so many areas of life. A coffee shop situated among vineyards, close to where I was living is aptly named ‘The Grape Escape” and I found a café with the following public notice on the wall “Unsupervised children upstairs will be given a double shot espresso and a cockatoo”. At the weekends I took advantage of all the adventure activities available in New Zealand and went paragliding, swimming with dolphins, whale watching, visited Ngarua Caves, visited one of the sites where The Lord Of The Rings was filmed, bathed in Hanmer hot springs, and spent the evening checking out the night sky at the Mt John’s observatory to name but a few.
I would like to thank all the people that supported me on this three month adventure and helped me to get through the tough times, enabling me to not only survive but make the most of this opportunity. I now look back with pride, knowing that this was truly one of the best experiences of my life. I have met some wonderful people and made some friends for life in New Zealand and will be sure to visit again, and hope to stay in touch with The Cawthron Institute and the Community Education Team. I return home, having gained a good insight into community education, acquired and improved my skill set and have obtained inspiration and ideas for outreach and science communication in the UK.
I can’t recommend this enough, keep dreaming big, push yourself to the limit, get out of your comfort zone, do something new and you may just surprise yourself with what you can achieve – Anna York