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A tale of two science communicators    Nov 28, 2018

A tale of two science communicators
Nov 28, 2018

Every year, the ‘Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and Art’ and the ‘Young Academy’ honors researchers who have showcased exceptional efforts when it comes to communicating about their research and doing outreach. They are awarded the ‘Year Prize’ in science communication. Yesterday, two UHasselt researchers, dr. Hannelore Bové and dr. Ruben Evens (together with Eddy Ulenaers), received this prestigious distinction. But what is their research all about? And why do they communicate about it?

Q: So what scientific question captivated your interest?

Ruben: “My research revolves around the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). Ever since I was twelve, I was captivated by this magnificent and illusive creature. You hardly see them and they are very shy, resulting in a lot of things left to discover. On top of that, this trans-equatorial migrant spends most of its time in Africa. During my Ph.D., I focused on their ecology in Belgium and migratory behavior. For example, we discovered that they migrate to Congo during the winter period, which was in contradiction to previous beliefs, and were able to map their foraging habitat in Belgium during their four-month-breeding season.”

Hannelore: “I try to answer complex biological questions using new microscopy techniques. I want to unravel the effects of air pollution, more specifically the carbonaceous particles that are present in fine dust, on the human body. The major problem when it comes to these particles is that they are an invisible enemy. Up until this day, we have no clue where these harmful particles end up in our body and the exact damage they cause to it. Together with the KU Leuven, we developed a novel technique that allows us to visualize these particles in human samples like blood or urine.”

Q: Why is this so important?

Hannelore: “Air pollution has an impact on our body from the moment we are conceived to the day we die, which results in higher incidence of a whole list of diseases. However, the number of particles that can enter our body and the exact mechanisms behind the adverse effects of those particulates remain unclear. Our technique allows us, for the first time ever, to measure exposure on a personal level, which provides a lot of future opportunities. For sure, it will result in better insights on what the effective impact is of the pollutant particles on our health. With the results that this technique will produce, governments are hopefully triggered to finally adapt their policies and create exposure limits for the carbonaceous particles to ensure the safety of our society.”

Ruben: “The same goes for my research. It indicated the importance of specific zones and highlighted the vulnerability of certain bird populations, like the nightjar, to a variety of factors that are impacted by events like climate change. Some examples are the destruction of their habitat and mismatch between their arrival times and food availability. With all the generated data we can now take the nightjar into the equation when we make policy decisions.“

Q: What is the reason for you to communicate about your research?

Ruben: “The main drive for me to communicate is that I want to share my fascination for the nightjar and the field I am working in with the world. I always hope that I can pass on a little spark for science to them. On top of that, I want to showcase the value of my research to society.”

Hannelore: ”Indeed. There is a lot of demand for science communication from society itself. People really appreciate it when you inform them about your research and feel more involved. As we are using their tax money to do our research, we should take care of keeping them informed and up-to-date with our findings as well as create scientific literacy. This also results in more informed decision making by stakeholders. You can do this through events organized by others, like our UHasselt science communication platform inSCIght but also by yourself through social media. Twitter, for example, is a fantastic tool to reach out to others, both local as well as international. It allowed me to connect with the WHO for example.”

Q: Does science communication help you as a researcher?

Ruben: “There is often the misconception within academia that communicating about your research has a negative impact on your career as a scientist. But this could be not further from the truth. It actually allows you to build and strengthen your academic profile and helps you to develop your communicative skills. It also lets you reflect as a researcher about what the societal and ethical implications of the research you are doing on a daily basis are.”

Hannelore: “Exactly! I have noticed myself that by participating in outreach, I have learned to look more critically at my own research. I also learned to communicate more efficiently about it, which benefits me a lot in grant writing, giving conference presentations, talking to policy makers and companies, etc. Even other scientists are not experts in your field. But also, it is simply very fun to do and gives you a break from the lab now and then. The children at a competition called the ‘Battle of the Scientists’ was the most enthusiastic and incredible audience I have ever had.”

Q: How do you feel being awarded this prize?

Hannelore: “It is a true honor. It feels nice to be appreciated for all the hard work and the effort you put into it. It gives me and extra push and motivation to keep doing science communication.”

Ruben: “I couldn’t agree more.”