An interview with a science communicator and outreach officer

Dr Simon Foster

Imperial College London
Outreach Officer

Simon Foster had a love for space from a very early age; he attended a normal state school in London but struggled to read and write. Nevertheless, he achieved good GCSE grades in everything and went on to study maths, physics, chemistry, politics (for fun!) and French at A Level. Achieving a mixture of C and D grades, Simon went on to study Physics with Space Science and subsequently for a PhD in solar physics at the University of Southampton. It was only after the completion of his PhD that Simon learned he was actually dyslexic. He continued in the field of solar physics, working as a researcher at Imperial College London under Professor Jo Haigh, investigating the link between solar spots and climate change. Following that, he became a climate change consultant and subsequently a physics teacher in a sixth from college. Simon now works at Imperial College London as the Engagement Lead, helping to make the work of researchers there accessible to all; he also features in several science related TV shows, including ‘Duck quacks don’t echo’. We caught up with Simon to hear about his trajectory, his work and what inspired him to take this path.

It’s clear you’re very passionate about science, but what sparked your interest?

When I was a child, I was given a book on space by my neighbours, I remember looking at all the pictures and one in particular, it was a swirling image of how the sun was formed - staring at that picture is one of my earliest memories. I loved looking at space, I had lots of space books and always wanted to be an astronaut. When I was in primary school, (British astronaut) Helen Sharman went up into space and she was a huge inspiration to me. I work with Helen now and we’re friends, the first few times I saw her I couldn’t even speak! I was always guided in the direction of science, my parents actively encouraged it.

You undertook a PhD in Solar-Terrestrial Physics, can you tell me a bit more about this?

So, I got into this field accidentally. I forgot to enter in a project for my final year of my undergraduate degree, I got the date wrong and all the good projects had been snapped up. While I was there looking for a project, Mike, my PhD supervisor turned up, he had forgotten to enter a project for students too! I was put with him, we hit it off and I just loved the subject.

Sunspot recordings that had been made using telescope images and hand drawings had just been digitised, my project was to start looking at this data. We found loads of interesting stuff. After the end of that, they asked me to carry on and do a PhD.

Sunspots are dark patches on the sun’s surface which are nearly 2000 Kelvin colder than the rest of the surface of the sun. Now, you’d expect that the sun’s energy output would be lower when there are more sun spots, however, it actually goes up. My work was to find out why. I found the ratio between the amount of sun spots and the bright patches, and then, with that record, we were able to go back and analyse the sun’s energy output over the last 150 years or so which was really important for studying climate change.

We’ve only got reliable satellite records of the sun’s output from about the 1980s onwards, but, when I did my PhD in the early 2000s that meant there was only 20 years of data, if you wanted to work out how the Earth has warmed in the last 100 years that data was useless. So, I used these records to go back and we saw the solar cycle, which is 11 years long and includes periods with more sun spots and periods with fewer sun spots, gradually changing over time. There was a continous trend where the minimum temperature for successive cycles was actually slightly hotter than the last, this continued to give an upward trend. This was really important for climate change because we needed to be able to say with a large degree of confidence what the sun was doing, so we could take it into consideration when investigating what the effect of human beings was on climate change.

I still dabble in research a bit, I’m about the only person that understands these sunspot records so well because I was the only one who looked at them in such detail and became obsessed. Occasionally I’m called upon because of this.

What inspired you to transition out of academia and into outreach?

A big problem with being a scientist and working as a researcher is you have to move around, if you want to stay in the job you have to move to where relevant research posts become available and I didn’t want to. I’m from London, I like London, I have my friends and family there and I didn’t want to start traipsing all over the world, or even over the country. I think Reading was about as far as I was willing to go, which limited my options somewhat! I left academia and became a climate change consultant for a while, but I didn’t enjoy the corporate lifestyle, then I became a teacher in a sixth form college for three years, which I did enjoy. Really though, I hated talking in front of people, I had to do it as part of my PhD, I was told if I wanted a career in academia I had to do it. I gave two talks during my PhD, both of which were terrible, I did a few more as a postdoctoral researcher but nothing I ever enjoyed. However, I didn’t mind teaching, I could stand up in front of kids and teach, I think, because it wasn’t my research, there was less at stake because the physics had already been proven, whereas, when you stand up and talk about your research, you are putting yourself out there.

While I was teaching, I participated in something called FameLab [an international science communication competition]. One of the reasons I did it was because there was a £10,000 prize which looked quite attractive and I actually came third! I carried on teaching and did bits and pieces of science communication on the side through people I knew at FameLab. Luckily, a position came up at Imperial doing their outreach and public engagement, I was lucky enough to get it and I’m still here today!

What does your day to day job entail and is there such a thing as a typical day for you?

There’s not really a typical day! Some days I could be emailing all day, I could be developing demonstrations for undergraduate lectures or for live events such as science festivals. I also provide a lot of training to help people to get their message out there. Communication is important for grants, researchers are funded by the government so it’s important that the public know what we do.

My job is changing a lot, I started working with the controlled quantum dynamics group, who are looking at making quantum computers, but now I work with many different groups. My role is to help the researchers to explain their research. The role has changed a lot over the years. At first, I’d go out to schools and give talks and that was just about it, however, I don’t think one person should do that alone, we are now providing CPD to help give everyone the skills so many people can do it. This will mean we can do more outreach and have different voices doing it. I think this is super important to have a far wider breadth and depth of people communicating.

Also, at the moment, as a department, we have started to support a lot of schools in west London, we are concerned that many year 10 and 12 students have missed a lot of learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic and so we have started to provide tuition for those students with our PhD students, so organising this has become part of my work as well. We hope that this will encourage more people to go on and study physics.

Alongside your work at Imperial College London, you are also a TV presenter and script writer and have worked across a number of popular TV channels, how did you get into this and what is it that you enjoy most about this work?

I got into that through FameLab and the press team at Imperial. I’d only ever done a few minutes of public speaking for FameLab, but, to be honest, I just really enjoyed presenting. There were quite a few dead ends of things that things I applied for and was meant to be on that never actually went ahead. I’ve never pushed it, I could have probably done a lot more but I’m lucky in the respect that because I have a full-time job, TV presenting isn’t something I need to rely on for money, I can therefore just do it as and when I like, as a hobby. I did a couple of programmes through Imperial, one called ‘How to put a human on Mars’ which came through the Imperial press team and ‘Duck quacks don’t echo’ for Sky, which the press team put me forward for. I’d actually turned it down many times because the premise of it sounded impossible! The idea was that anyone could come up with a scientific idea or fact, present it to me and the other presenters and we would have to say whether it was true or false. I thought that would be impossible! In reality, we actually got to see the questions in advance, which was obviously better, and meant I could research things. I haven’t got an agent or anything, I just very much enjoy it. It’s been 5 years since filming ‘Duck quacks don’t echo’, it was so fun, so enjoyable, everyone on the show was really nice so it was just so lovely to work on. I do miss it but it’s very much a luxury I enjoy.

What transferable skills do you think you’ve gained throughout your journey?

I suppose one of the main transferable skills is critical thinking, being able to look at something impartially and realise what you’re actually seeing. Data analysis, computer programming and communication skills are other huge ones. Communication skills are crucial, you have to be able to explain your ideas to other people, even if you can’t stand up in front of a group of people, you still have to explain your ideas to colleagues in an understandable way, which is hugely important, even outside of academia. Research skills are also transferable, being able to research a new topic, sift through it and find true information from reliable sources, in this day and age it’s hugely important. A skill like research can be taken from science and into politics and life in general. I think society needs this, everyone is expected to have an instant opinion, however, sometimes you need to go away, gather information and form a coherent understanding of something first.

What advice would you give to young people who hope to pursue a career in STEM, particularly in outreach and public engagement?

I would always recommend taking STEM subjects, if possible, triple science, science A Levels and science degrees, simply because from an employer’s point of view they will always be valuable. Skills like research and programming, in this day and age, are the skills that lots of people are looking for and even if you don’t carry on in academia, the skills you gather are hugely valuable.

In terms of outreach and public engagement, I’d say nowadays there are so many opportunities at undergraduate level to get involved in public engagement. There are so many avenues you can go down. One of the best things you can do is start producing stuff on YouTube, I wish I did that, I actually recorded podcasts for my students when I was in teaching, but I kick myself for not making those on YouTube instead.

The big thing is for people to find their own ‘voice’, everyone has their own angle, I’d encourage people to find that, make mistakes and refine things. For outreach and public engagement, your biggest selling point is you and your ‘voice’. Just like music and TV shows, everyone will have a slightly different audience and finding your own voice works as you will attract an audience that likes that. It could be quite niche but it makes it easier as you can speak to an audience that likes you and you don’t have to pretend to be someone else. I always say don’t pretend, if you act, you’re performing, you become rigid and don’t relax so aren’t comfortable. Finding your own voice can only be done by doing things over and over again, making mistakes and learning from them. There’s a big need for science communicators, we need the public to understand the research that is being done. We get an awful lot of money from the government and people need to see value in research.

I’m aware you’ve been a big supporter of the Quantum City initiative through your outreach work, what is it that excites you about the potential applications of quantum technologies?

I think the weird thing about quantum technologies is how they are already here and people don’t realise this. Lasers, which are all around us, are quantum technologies. You could say this is the second or third generation of quantum technologies that we’ve got coming up. I think the big thing is quantum computing and what that can offer us. Many people, when they think about quantum computers, think they are just a better, faster, more powerful computer than they use at the moment, however, this is completely incorrect. Quantum computers will allow us to solve very big problems, quicker. From a science point of view this will be huge, for example, if drug research could be simulated by a quantum computer, it would be accelerated rapidly, this would take decades with a conventional computer. Quantum computers will change materials research and will massively change our lives. I think it’s what you don’t know that’s so important and exciting, quantum computers will be able to do things we can’t even think about or imagine!