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  • Writer's pictureMaren Hunsberger

What Do You Learn in Grad School?

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

The first two weeks of my graduate program have already flown by, and I have found my mind and horizons opened in ways that I haven't ever considered before. For starters, everyone in the program is dedicating their career, or at least their immediate future, to science communication. This is a first for most of us, as we've all had the similar experience of walking into a room and not meeting anyone else who's interested in or is pursuing the same subject. To be in a room with only people who are passionate about and can endlessly discuss the subject we've come here to study is a little bit like walking into an alternate universe. This is an incredibly exciting prospect, but also a little intimidating—we've all dreamed about getting to brainstorm and work with people who have similar goals and vision, but since this is the first opportunity we've had to do so, we may feel a little underprepared. At least, I certainly feel that way sometimes. The program is ultra fast-paced, which is exhilarating and alarming—as someone coming from work instead of school, I find myself having to rapidly adapt my style of thinking and time management. So much reading. Endless reading.

The first week of the program was induction week, where we got to know one another and our instructors through introductory group discussions and activities. The layout of the program and the expectations were laid out for us, and we got acclimated to the style of the days ahead of us and talking with each other. Everybody in the program (there are 57 of us) is passionate, eloquent, driven, thoughtful, and has a unique focus area—some are interested in museum curation, some in the production side of multimedia, some in writing and editing for print, some in in-person engagement/outreach activities, and all with different subdisciplines: climate, sustainability, technology, biology...the list of combinations is endless. About two-thirds of the program is international, and everyone in the course brings a unique background and perspective, with all of us having completed radically different and equally interesting tracks of work and study. This makes for a very enriching environment—yes we all are studying the same thing, but no two of us are too similar within our discipline. We have a lot to offer and learn from each other. During this first week I had great conversations with fellow students, and got to continue my exploration of London:

The GORGEOUS Natural History Museum--it's an actual cathedral full of science. What could be better? It's photogenic on the inside too...

London has lots of different kinds of streets, and those that are called a 'mews' are a small alley filled with colorful, charismatic, picturesque houses, like this one in South Kensington

"Tradesmen kindly make all deliveries this way", declares a sign on a housefront, hearkening back to ye olde days of 'upstairs, downstairs'

The Royal College of Music is just across the street from my university! When I was in high school and thinking about trying to be a professional cellist, this was where I wanted to go for university...seeing it in person brought back so many memories!

The last of the summer flower boxes lingering on in early October

The weather turned colder at the start of last week, and it really began to feel like true autumn. Our program started in earnest with our first week of classes, and we jumped straight into some really big ideas. The two theory classes that we take during the whole course are front-loaded into this first term: 'Science and its Social Contexts' and 'The Media Representation of Science'. These are two very classically academic courses—we ask questions like: What is science? Who gets to decide what counts as a 'fact' or an 'error'? Does it matter if an explanation is not 100% technically accurate if it conveys the correct meaning to a non-technical audience? Where and how do audiences derive meaning? How can you measure the effect that science communication has on peoples' views, behaviors, and beliefs? Is communication linear? Or is it an ever-shifting, ever-changing dialogue? Or is it a swirling web of information with no clearly defined, fixed-points of origin and termination? What is the purpose of science communication, and can we re-think and re-frame these purposes in light of how previous models of communication have fallen short or failed? Do scientists' sometimes derogatory views of science communication unfairly give the upper hand to science and scientists? Does this perpetuate intellectual elitism?

Heavy sh*t, right? And it has been so. much. fun. Getting to read research and philosophy on these topics makes me think about what I do—and what I want to do in the future—through lenses that had never occurred to me before, and getting to discuss these ideas with other people who come to the material with their own unique perspective is enlightening and challenging. So, for these two classes, we do a lot of reading, writing, and talking to each other.

My flatmate made me these wonderful encouraging sticky notes on the first day of class--it made me feel less nervous about the first day of school!

We also have our 'core practical' this term. Within a small group, we are exposed each week to a new kind of production: On-location TV, on-location radio, in-studio radio, on-location radio, etc. We get hands-on experience with how to operate equipment and conduct and give interviews—it's like an adult playground for geeks. We also have a seminar every week, where a different science communication professional comes to speak about their career trajectory and their current job. We've only had one so far and it's already been invaluable, with Imran Khan, current head of Public Engagement at the Wellcome Trust sharing his thoughts on the value of the course we're currently on and how the knowledge we gain here will translate to in the 'real world'.

In addition to these four commitments for my own program every week, we can optionally audit classes from our sister program, the masters of Science Media Production. I am auditing a class in this course called 'Film Form', for which we watch a movie every week, read criticism about the film, and discuss. This is extremely fun and highly fascinating, and it feels strange to get to this for school because I love it so much. This term's films are all fiction and next term we'll be moving on to documentaries, concentrating in both sections on the way a film speaks to the audience through style and context and technical choices. What does it mean to be the 'watcher' of a film, and how does the creator of the film build a relationship with the audience through their artistic choices? How does film inform culture, and culture inform film? I'm so psyched.

Overall, I think the best part is that this course combines academic and theoretical work with the development of practical skills and exposure to a multitude of people and opportunities. The more heady, cerebral stuff is not separate from the hands-on, however: the more thought-provoking parts of the course are essential to being able to do the technical parts well. How can I make a good, effective film about science without having studied what science actually is? Without understanding the context  of both film and science, historically and contemporarily? Without asking what it means to create an effective piece of media and if we can ever really know if it is or not? Those things are just as important as learning how to actually operate the camera. And to get to do it in a room full of really cool people—well that's just the cherry on top.

Feeling fashionable during the first week of class. I also got an Imperial sweatshirt--it's starting to really sink in that I'm actually a student again and that I actually go here. It feels real!

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