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This article was written on 09 Mar 2015, and is filled under Medicine, Radio, Science, TV, Writing.

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Dr Kat Arney: Science Communications Manager at Cancer Research UK

Kat-ArneyKat Arney is a Science Communications Manager at Cancer Research UK as well as a freelance science writer and broadcaster. She’s presented two BBC Radio 4 documentaries; ‘Fighting the Power of Pink’ and ‘Whatever Happened to the Chemistry Set?’ Kat is currently working on her first book, ‘Herding Hemingway’s Cats’, to be published by Bloomsbury Sigma. BBC America called her one of the ‘Top 10 Brits who make science sexy’. She also plays harp and other instruments with the bands Talk in Colour and Sunday Driver in her spare time

OM: Can you describe an average day at work?

KA: There isn’t really such a thing as a typical day. I work within the press office at Cancer Research UK, so we’re often driven by the news agenda. I might be writing a post for our blog about an over-hyped cancer story in the media, speaking to supporters, briefing a journalist about a breaking story, editing audio for our podcast, heading off to the TV studios for an interview, reading scientific papers, planning or delivering media training for our scientists, or sitting in a meeting (sometimes boring, sometimes not) – and more. And then when I get home in the evening and at weekends, I could be working on my Naked Genetics monthly podcast, writing a freelance article for various outlets, preparing for recording for a Radio 4 documentary, or working on my book about genetics, which I’m writing for Bloomsbury. Or playing with my bands, Sunday Driver and Talk in Colour. I don’t sleep much.

OM: Have you always wanted to be a science communicator ?

KA: Yes and no.

I always wanted to be a scientist. And I always wanted to be a writer. And I always wanted to be on telly. I’m very, very lucky to have found a career where I get to do all of these. I’m no longer working in the lab but I spend pretty much all day thinking, writing and talking about science.

OM: What was the hardest part about becoming a science communicator?

KA: Getting experience and building a portfolio while I was still working in the lab. I would come home exhausted, and then have to write all evening. I still do that now, but at least I get paid for it… Also knowing the point at which I could turn round and say”No, I won’t work for free” was hard to get to. I think it’s inevitable that you have to work for free to start with to get experience and meet with the right people, but at some point you need to realise what you’re worth. And pay the rent.

Another tough thing was getting into the network – I can’t stress how important networking is to this type of career. There’s a wonderful, vibrant community of science communicators, writers and broadcasters in the UK – you just have to find where they hang out! The Psci-Com mailing list is a good place to start hunting them down.

OM: And what’s the best part of the job?

KA: All of it! But mainly getting to track down fascinating stories about science and scientists, and getting to tell them. Also my mum gets to see me on telly, which is nice.

OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?

KA: Not in the charity sector, as it’s mostly women here. But certainly in the media there is a bit of a bias against women (particularly clever women), which a lot of people are trying to address. My main problem is that I’m very short, and tall men tend to talk over my head at each other and ignore me. I really hate that.

OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

KA: Don’t expect to be brilliant straight away – practice your craft and don’t be afraid ask more experience people for advice. A good editor who will critique your work and make you a better writer is a wonderful thing to find. It’s taken me over a decade to get good at this, and I’m still learning.

OM: And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become a science communicator?

KA: Just do it.

Writers write. Broadcasters broadcast. Presenters present. If you have to start your own blog or podcast, or set up your own Youtube channel with science videos filmed on your phone, just DO IT. Also read, read, read – blogs, books, scientific papers, magazines. Listen to the radio. See how others are telling stories about science (or any other complex topic), and take them as your inspiration.

OM: What qualifications and experience do you need?

KA: I personally have a degree in Natural Sciences and a PhD in Genetics from Cambridge, as well as a postgraduate diploma in Science Communication from Birkbeck College. I don’t really think any of those are vital – the main thing is a reasonable knowledge of an area of science (degree level helps), a passion for telling stories and a good grasp of English. Being able to read complex information and simplify it down quickly also helps.

OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?

KA: I would probably say turning down a great opportunity in a lab in Edinburgh and moving to London because of a man (who I then came to resent and broke up with). But if I hadn’t moved here, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunities in science comms that I’ve had. I tend to see mistakes as opportunities – it’s not what you’ve done, it’s what you do next that counts.

OM: What does success mean to you?

KA: Superficially, being able to buy a new dress or pair of shoes if I want them, although my budget runs more towards Converse than Louboutins. More deeply, I like to feel creatively fulfilled – to feel that I’ve told a story well, or made the best programme I can make, or seen that “lightbulb” moment when someone I’m talking to really understands. And, obviously, nice emails or comments on social media are always very much appreciated, particularly from scientists or other writers. I had a message from a scientist I’d interviewed who said that the feature I’d written was “one of the nicest things that has occurred over the course of my scientific life”. That meant a huge amount to me.

OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?

KA: That society will stop explicitly or subliminally seeing science as something ‘for boys’.

Science and technology are too important for society to be left to just one gender. If we don’t get more women into science and technology, we won’t get the innovations that serve women (and everyone else in society) well and the cycle just repeats.


Tweet Kat here.

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  1. Bruce Hood
    13th June 2015

    Hi Kat,
    Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend the BSA SCC2015 as I have to coordinate an open day to potential Bristol Students that weekend.
    I was hoping to be at SCC to talk to you about Speakezee.org which launched in Feb and now has 1,000 expert speakers who are prepared to give talks to various audiences.
    I wanted to know if this is something you would like to either join/use in your capacity at the Cancer Research UK.

  2. Michael Tucker
    10th September 2015

    I was reading in the daily mail that you maybe looking for volunteers for a trails into a new drug test for. cancer I have just be told I. have cancer of the gullet and would like put my name to see if any little help people in position can help future generations. to survive cancer

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    21st February 2016
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