BIG the 5th: this time it’s Winchester

So here we are again: another year on, another BIG Event, this time in Winchester Science Centre. It’s the annual opportunity for STEM communicators to take stock, think, reflect and learn new things. I could review the conference and discuss the sessions I’ve been to but instead I’d like to reflect on what for me is an important part of the event: the sense of community and family.

Community and family

Over breakfast on the first day Jon and I discussed how supportive the science communication world tends to be: we’re a community and a family (like a family we occasionally squabble). We both have many stories of how others have helped us along the paths that eventually led to where we are now. For Jon a key moment was someone giving him the chance as a technician to deliver a lecture. For me it was someone offering me a scholarship to do my MSc Communicating Science: before then I didn’t even know STEM communication existed. Others have opened doors for us so now we do the same and pay it forward. But, I’m proud to say, Jon and I aren’t the only ones doing it: our community’s default setting is to help each other with no prospect of personal gain.

By the community, for the community

This is how the BIG Event is put together: BIG members put forward suggestions for sessions they’d like to offer, often working with others, and the Exec whittles them down into a programme. 

Building a community

Building and reinforcing the community starts right from the off at the BIG Event with the legendary Mingle. Nearly half the attendees were new to the event, so this gave them an important opportunity at the beginning to breakdown the barriers of chatting to a stranger. For us old timers it’s a chance to quickly catch up with each other. Most importantly it’s an opportunity for us to meet each other, old timer, newbie or anything in between. To further support new attendees they are given a buddy from the Exec so if they need to ask anything — a BIG Event can seem a bit overwhelming at first — they have someone they can go to.

Plenty of opportunities for talking, networking and, crucially, listening are hallmarks of a BIG Event. My photo, all rights reserved.

Is this sense of community/family the same as collaboration?

Personally I don’t think so. For me, collaboration has a tangible output that can be measured, counted or possibly at a push just pointed at. Conversely if you’re helping someone out you do it because you want to with no expectation of reward. Except perhaps a warm glow.

I don’t think this is the only sector that works like this but we are perhaps a bit unusual in that this is pretty much the default position. Listening to some academic colleagues their experiences are very different: they present their ideas at conference and others try to find the flaw (albeit I think — I hope — with the aim of improving it). In BIG we present our ideas or requests for help and others chip in with their experience and suggestions, rarely is it a negative thing. It reminded me of one of my favourite banners from Processions:


Impostor syndrome

Many people (including me) experience impostor syndrome, the feeling that, despite evidence to the contrary, you really shouldn’t be where you are professionally.  You’d be surprised who does experience it — people who you think absolutely should be where they are and have completely earned it. It’s a wellbeing issue and I was very pleased to see a session included on it this year: the community looking after itself. It was clear attendees had often experienced it in their day jobs, but interestingly few if any mentioned it in relation to BIG, perhaps because it’s a community of like minds and experiences.

Do I belong here?

When it comes to my work I’ve often asked myself this. I tend to do very niche jobs; it was hard to find a professional group to join. It was a lonely place to be, knowing you were the only one doing this particular thing in Wales and in one previous job, memorably, in the whole of the UK.

But over time I’ve come to realise it’s more about your skills, experience, capabilities, ethos and outlook. So yes, I absolutely do belong here and so do many others. If you think you do STEM communication then you’re in.

Life beyond the BIG Event

The BIG Event has finished and we’ve scattered to the four winds but we’re still the BIG community and family, just not face to face. That’s what makes it so special. We keep our community going through a number of channels; my favourite is BIG-Chat via email, a non-judgemental space where you can go to ask questions, look for support and sometimes (heavens forfend) just be a bit silly. I like the Facebook group and Twitter too, though there isn’t the same level of interaction as BIG Chat. The website has lots of useful information with even more on the members’ pages. There’s Slack too but as it’s a platform I’m not familiar with I forbear to comment.

If you’re a STEM communicator, are looking for one, would like to find out more or simply want to pop in and see what we’re up to feel free to, using the options above. See you at the BIG Event next year?


Cover photo: the conference dinner; Matthias has just been announced as the winner of the Best Demo Competition. My photo, all rights reserved.

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