Smart people bringing their work to the stage

Research is all around us, whether it’s bubbling away in the labs, or out in the world changing the way we live and think.

Research is all around us, whether it’s bubbling away in the labs, or out in the world changing the way we live and think. These days, it’s also on the bill of your evening’s entertainment. John Hill talks to some of the smart people bringing their work to the stage as part of the Bright Club variety night.

Mags Pullen

DOCTOR Mags Pullen is doing some extremely intriguing stuff as part of her day job with Durham University. But it’s not always easy to find someone outside of campus who’s itching to hear about it.

“My husband is a musician, and he often shuts his eyes when I talk about my work”, she says.

“But there’s always a way for each of us to relate what we’re interested in. Everything has a story, but maybe sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper.”

Dr Pullen is a post-doctoral research associate at Durham’s Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Her work involves investigating the signal relays that enable plants to react to stresses such as a cold snap or bug attack.

While the team’s study could eventually be invaluable in breeding new, more resistant strains of plant for food, it’s not necessarily the sort of thing that makes good cabaret.

Actually, stop there. It’s exactly the sort of thing that makes good cabaret. But, like all the best routines, it’s all about how you tell ‘em.

Pullen is one of the participants in Newcastle’s second Bright Club, an event which encourages researchers, academics and students to present their work on a different type of stage. The event transforms people’s academic passions into a entertaining talk or routine, giving the audience a taste of what makes it exciting without mocking it for cheap laughs.

It was cooked up at University College London by Miriam Miller and former Centre for Life employee Steve Cross, and the first event hit the stage in May 2009.

It has since been held in locations such as Brighton, Manchester and Edinburgh, and popped up at Newcastle’s Bridge Hotel in July.

The Newcastle offshoot is funded by Beacon North East, and run in association with the Centre for Life. The second of three events will take place at the Black Swan on Westgate Road next Thursday, and interest is so high that it’s already sold out. Another is being pencilled in for November.

The academic line-up has been nudged toward the bright lights by Helen Keen, whose own space-themed Edinburgh Festival stand-up show has been transformed into a Radio 4 series.

Keen is offering a helping hand for the first three events as the Centre for Life’s “comedian in residence”, leading workshops that offer advice on presentation and the art of injecting comedy into a presentation.

“I’m going to use Bright Club to encourage people to empathise with plants”, says Dr Pullen.

“Plants get stressed just like us, and we’ve got some things in common in how we experience stress. Plants respond in milliseconds to changes in environment. Humans respond in nanoseconds, but that’s still impressive.

“Plants use calcium as a signal relay. It’s like when the Spanish Armada approached Penzance, and someone lit a bonfire as a pre-arranged signal. That caused someone else to light a bonfire, and another, until the information eventually got to Francis Drake.

“They use different signals based on whether they’re cold, being eaten, or being invaded by an insect.

“Plant biology tends not to get the headlines because plants aren’t fluffy and cute. But what I’m hoping to do is to give people an impression of how a plant feels.

“In preparing a routine, I’m already beginning to think in a different way about how to put some of these ideas across. The poor people in my pub have been bombarded with many of them. Once something’s been personalised, it’s relatable, it’s human, and it’s a story.”

Helen Keen spent her childhood scouring the space and science fiction sections of her local library in Yorkshire, and plonked a rocket- themed show called It Is Rocket Science! on open-minded Edinburgh Festival audiences in 2008. She has since turned it into a BBC Radio 4 series, and it took off so impressively that she’s been asked to do another.

“Something I always say to people is that it’s not about sending up your subject”, she says. “It’s about finding that thing that’s a little bit peculiar or intriguing.

“You can go to a regular comedy night and laugh, but people can come out of Bright Club with their heads buzzing, wanting to find out more about something and talking to people at work about it the next day. You can come out of a gig with a joke, but Bright Club can give you those jewels of information that make a really interesting night.”

Keen will be involved until the end of the year, and hopes Bright Club will continue into 2012 and beyond. She’s preparing a second series for Radio 4 while working on her next Edinburgh Festival show.

“Its working title is Robot Woman of the Future”, she says. “It’s about the ideas the past had about the future. I love the artwork from the ‘20s through to the ‘60s about how the future would look. It’s a mix of science and personal stuff.”

Keen’s tips for Bright Club participants include getting them up to talk about simple things, such as their own names and life experiences.

“They say the real trick is not to put on a persona or to be a stand-up comedian,” she says. “Most people can be interesting or compelling on stage if they’re talking about their passion. It’s when they start worrying about how they’re coming across that they get into difficulties.

“I wanted to dissuade people from having endless graphs. It’s not that I don’t believe you can have funny graphs. I have a Venn diagram in my show that often gets a round of applause. But the most engaging moments happen when someone comes up and just explains what they’ve dedicated their whole lives to exploring.

“I love costumes as well. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to come out in a lab coat, but you can’t go wrong with a papier mache space hat.”

James Lord is part of a bioengineering research group at Newcastle University’s School of Mechanical and Systems Engineering. As part of his PhD, he’s involved with a team which aims to improve the engineering of artificial hip replacements by looking at how and why they break down.

“There’s so much going on that it’s hard to know when to start”, he says. “We take several different designs of hip replacement, and we look at the different methods and materials that are used to manufacture them and how they respond to things within the human body.

“I’ve done some general public engagement events talking about this, but nothing like Bright Club.”

Once they get beyond the stage fright, one of the big things that academics have to adapt to is the audience, and specifically what the audience wants to hear.

Lord says: “When you do general presentations to your peers, it’s very technical. They’re very interested in data points you’ve collected. There are still a lot of scientists that don’t get into public engagement, and just drop a piece of paper off at the Press office.

“Bright Club is more about telling the story. I’m going to be talking about hip replacement and how it came about. It’s my first attempt at comedy. I don’t think I’ll be going too much into exactly what I do in front of my computer, but there’s no point in doing research if no one hears about it.”

Kathryn Bedford has an advantage in getting people’s attention in that she can mention dragons. The Durham University PhD researcher is investigating literature from the 12th and 13th centuries to see how it created fictionalised tales from the lives of recent historical figures, including Fouke Fitz Waryn, Eustace the Monk and Richard the Lionheart.

“I’m starting off by talking about dragons, because who isn’t interested in them?”, she says.

“In the academic world, you tend to be much more hidden behind the language, but this is much more personal and you’re putting yourself up there a lot more.

“My research involves looking at what it was about certain people’s lives that made people write stories about them. The people I’m focusing on lived before or during the reign of King John, and there was a distinct difference between the time they lived and the time after King John's reign when their stories were written.

“Bright Club is a great way of changing the image of academics. There can be a tendency to assume someone following the academic path hides in the library and never talks to anyone. It’s important that this isn’t a world separated from everyone else.

“It’s quite easy to justify research into things such as renewable energy, but just because something doesn’t have an immediate benefit in that way doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. It’s valuable in that it represents the endless and boundless curiosity for what’s going on around us.”

Keen believes programmes such as the BBC’s QI panel show has encouraged people to think warm thoughts about more intellectual comedy.

Indeed, Centre for Life special projects manager Andy Lloyd thinks performing isn’t that different from what an academic does in presentations and other public events. The key is that it’s much more personal.

He says: “What’s interesting is that once people have agreed to do it, it feels like much more of a high-stakes commitment. The nerves start to build up, but immediately afterwards people say they feel like they’re walking a couple of feet off the ground. That lasts a few days, but it also has an impact on what they do next.

“Audiences are interested in learning and information. If you look at some of the people that do comedy professionally, there are a few that have a science and math element to their material. Your subject matter can influence your style of comedy too. I would imagine that medical humour is probably coarser than something more esoteric like astrophysics.

“Events like Bright Club are a sign of a gradual cultural shift. There’s something incredibly personal about the way people perform, in which someone’s personality is a much stronger force than their academic background.

“Increasingly, younger researchers see talking about their work and sharing it with a wider audience as something that’s just part of their job.”

For information on Bright Club, go to www.life.org.uk/whats-on/events/bright-club-newcastle.

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