In our first Communicator’s Corner for 2017 we chat with scientist, communicator, and new mum @DrLaurenAyton. We know Lauren as a Hugh Rogers Fellow through our friends at the Melbourne Boston Sister Cities Association. She’s also the Bionic Eye Clinical Program Leader and Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Eye Research Australia & The University Of Melbourne. And she’s been known to talk science on 3RRR’s Einstein a Go Go.
Your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?
I am a clinician-scientist, working in the field of vision restoration. My professional background is as an optometrist, and I still work in the clinic occasionally, but my passion now is research. I have been incredibly lucky in my career, and have been able to work on some truly amazing projects that aim to save sight – from a laser treatment in early age-related macular degeneration to my current role in the Bionic Eye programs. I am the Lead Clinical Investigator for both Melbourne-based bionic eye projects (based at the Centre for Eye Research Australia, and at Monash University), and in these roles, I am responsible for the coordination of the clinical trials for novel bionic eye devices. In my personal life, I am a new Mum! My husband and I welcomed our son Charlie 8.5 months ago, and he is an absolute delight and my greatest achievement.
Tell us about your typical day in communications?
I use communication strategies and methods in many ways in my work; firstly, for patient discussions, so that I can make sure they are aware of their eye condition, treatment options, and the like. In my research roles, accurate and effective communication is absolutely vital. The Bionic Eye project is a very emotive concept, and it is important that people are well aware of the realities of vision restoration technologies. Whilst the work is very exciting, we are not able to restore “normal” sight to people who are blind, and the technology is still in its relative infancy. There is no “typical” day for me – I might spend one day talking to journalists, the next with patients, and then over to a school for a talk about eyes.This is why I love my job!
When did you first know you wanted to work in communications?
In high school, I wanted to be a journalist. I was lucky enough to meet the most influential teacher of my schooling, Mr Glasgow, who was a passionate scientist and an amazing communicator. He instilled a love of science in me, and made me realise how exciting a scientific career could be. I was in Year 11 when the human genome was fully sequenced, and I still remember that he spent our entire class talking about the potential ramifications of that achievement. From that moment, I wanted to be involved in the next generation of ground-breaking discoveries!
Who’s your communication hero/mentor?
There are so many! Of the big-name, international communication gurus, I have always had a soft spot for Sir David Attenborough. His work to communicate environmental stories to the public is just beautiful – educational and artistic at the same time. On a more local level, my mentor is Dr Shane Huntington, who hosts the science communication radio show I present on (Einstein A Go Go, Sundays 11am- 12pm, 102.7FM). Shane is a spectacular communicator, and is a sought-after public speaker. I first met Shane when I did an interview for the University of Melbourne UpClose podcast, and he has been the most supportive ally in my science communication career since that time.
Which tools can’t you live without?
I am sure I am not alone in being completely and utterly addicted to my smart phone! Whilst it does make it hard to leave work behind sometimes, I love the ability to be flexible in where and when I do my work.
What are the biggest challenges in your role?
As a research academic, my biggest challenge is the lack of security in funding. This is the time of year where all academics go to ground, furiously writing applications for research grants that have an appalling low success rate (close to 10% now for our main federal programs). The amount of time spent trying to get money to keep your work alive is ludicrous, and becomes an extra challenge when you must provide for a growing family.
Tell us about the best campaign you’ve ever worked on?
One of the most exciting media experiences I have had was the announcement of the world-first clinical trial of our novel bionic eye device in Melbourne. With the help of our wonderful media consultants (Mira Image), we prepared a series of media interviews in 2012 to make the announcement. It was incredibly exciting to wait until the embargo was lifted and the news hit the media – it was international news, and finally my family and friends knew what I had been up to in the prior months!
Which campaign do you most admire?
I am a fan of the #LikeAGirl campaign by the US company Always, in which young girls are asked to “run like a girl”, “throw like a girl” and “fight like a girl”. They approach the tasks with gusto and unbridled enthusiasm, like girls always do! However, when older participants are asked the same, they act out the stereotypes; unconsciously deciding that “like a girl” is an insult. I love the way that the video makes you stop and think. As a passionate advocate for gender equality, I believe it is these tactics that will make people stop and think about our responses to these terms. Words can hurt! And the fact that the video has had over 63 million hits on YouTube is evidence of its power.
What’s been the biggest change to communication/marketing/public relations since you began your career?
Science communication is a rapidly evolving field. When I finished my PhD eight years ago, there was very little emphasis placed on the need to communicate our work. However, science is publically funded, and working towards publically beneficial goals, and so it is essential that people be informed about the work. This is now changing, and there are many initiatives to help promote science and science communication, and it’s an exciting time!
If you had to cut/keep something in your communication budget, what would it be?
I think there should always be support for early career researchers, PhD students and young scientists to learn communication skills; that will always be something I aim to provide for those I work with.
What quality do you look for in your communication team members?
I think the most important quality in a science communicator is passion. When someone loves their work, and loves science in general, it shines through.
What’s your favourite brand?
This tends to change day to day with me! I am not particularly loyal to brands, and always am open to new suggestions from colleagues and friends. I am a fan of Who Gives a Crap, though; an Australian-owned toilet paper company who use environmentally friendly products and donate half their profits to build toilets in developing countries. I love that they started with a hilarious crowd-funding appeal (with one of the founders sitting on a toilet for 50 hours!), and they also have very cool wrapping.
What book/blog do you think every communicator should read?
Due to my recent motherhood and decrease in free time, I am a huge fan of science communication podcasts. They are great to listen to during your commute, or when walking the baby in the pram! There are a number of brilliant examples of these podcasts, but I do love the Naked Scientists (UK), RadioLab (USA) and ABC’s The Science Show (Australia).
What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?
Just do it! I was so nervous before starting with science communication events; as a scientist, you are so used to specialising in specific areas, and it can be nerve-wracking to talk about your work without the jargon. A few years down the track, and I count science communication as one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my job; I’m glad I just gave it a shot!
Finish this sentence: ‘Communication is…’
Essential in every aspect of life.