Dr Merryn McKinnon’s original degree was in marine science where, after the novelty of moving intertidal snails with a paint scraper wore off, she discovered that talking about her research to other people brought her far closer to her conservation goals than her actual project ever could.
This led her to the field of science communication where she has stayed ever since, working in a range of roles and countries. Merryn enjoys the diverse issues science communication allows her to explore, applying her innovative thinking and problem-solving skills.
Merryn has worked and conducted qualitative and quantitative research nationally and internationally, in both non-academic and academic roles. She regularly contributes to ABC Radio on ABC Sydney’s Nightlife and Radio National’s Research Filter, talking about interesting science from around the world. Merryn designs and delivers science communication workshops, as well as workshops specifically for women in STEM.
Merryn’s research contributes to a better understanding of the relationship between science, media and publics. She conducts research which explores why publics react and respond to scientific issues the way they do in a variety of different disciplines including public health and conservation science. She is actively building a research program exploring the influence of equity, inclusion and intersectionality in STEM, especially STEM communication.
In our conversation, we talk about science communication research and perceptions of women STEM communicators.
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[01:04] The best laid plans.
[01:17] Merryn’s interest in marine science.
[01:38] A life-changing encounter with children while counting intertidal snails.
[03:01] Considering potential career direction.
[03:57] The Science Circus program.
[04:19] The rules of science communication.
[05:47] The transition from outreach to investigating issues in science communication.
[06:11] Travelling for outreach.
[06:33] Better understanding of the scope of science communication.
[07:01] Exploring development in teaching/learning.
[07:13] Realising media and journalism was also an important factor.
[08:36] Starting a family and doing a PhD at the same time.
[09:01] Returning to marine science and discovering academia.
[09:31] Finding a job combining her accumulated skills teaching science and the media.
[10:11] Merryn’s work on perceptions.
[10:29] The relationship between science, media, and public.
[10:54] Perceptions of who does STEM.
[11:24] The topical nature of diversity and inclusion.
[11:42] Michele’s Honours thesis in psychometrics.
[13:54] “Perceptions of stereotypes applied to women who publicly communicate their STEM work”
[14:41] Observations and anecdotes from other women in STEM.
[15:19] A lot of existing research, a lot of unanswered questions.
[15:52] Women and social conditioning and expectations.
[16:27] Running focus groups.
[16:34] “Research that makes you drink”.
[17:28] Finding the common themes, trying to flip and reclaim them.
[18:45] How we apply stereotypes to each other.
[19:24] Overarching societal problems.
[20:03] The surprising number of stereotypes.
[20:28] The tightrope we have to walk.
[21:02] The impact on well-being.
[21:25] Challenging your own personal expectations.
[22:10] A diagnostic Merryn took as part of Homeward Bound.
[23:33] Sometimes you just need perspective.
[24:17] Getting a critical ally.
[24:41] Now we’ve identified the problems, how do we move forward?
[24:48] Individual and societal action items.
[25:38] Subtle consumer reinforcement.
[26:51] On social constructs and the need to rebuild.
[27:51] How do we approach the issues from within?
[28:54] Eliminating the element of surprise from diversity and inclusion.
[29:51] “You can’t be what you can’t see” - Sally Ride
[30:22] Acknowledging that increased visibility has both positive and negative outcomes.
[30:34] We need to support our role models.
[32:13] Social media is a double-edged sword.
[32:49] The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
[33:57] The response from the workshops reframing these concepts.
[34:55] Self-reflection and adjusting your perception of stereotypes and labels.
[35:21] Adjusting your own language and behaviour.
[35:52] “The first step is admitting you have a problem.”
[36:44] You are in control of what you say and do, and how you affect others.
[37:23] Increased awareness of casualised behaviours.
[39:01] Exploring initiatives and how we can affect change in this area.
[41:32] Many programs exist in this space, but we need measurable outcomes to know what is working.
[43:35] Policy and community push to ensure programs are effective.
[44:58] Bonus Question 1: What hobby or interest do you have that is most unrelated to your field of work?
[45:03] Developing an interest in soccer.
[45:57] Bonus Question 2: Which childhood book holds the strongest memories for you?
[47:26] Bonus Question 3: What advice you would give someone who wants to do what you do? Or what advice should they ignore?
[47:35] Communication is a muscle. Just start exercising it.
[48:06] Know your audience and your objectives.
[48:56] Get involved.
[49:41] Plans are overrated.
[50:19] Merryn’s thought processes when she was considering her career options.
[50:59] Science communication has evolved.
[51:24] Find roles and organisations that align with your values and goals.
[53:02] Finding out more about Merryn.
- Questacon Science Circus
- Australian National University (ANU)
- Australian Science Festival Limited (Encyclopedia of Australian Science)
- Jasmine Fellows (STEAM Powered (#12))
- Double Helix
- McKinnon, M., O’Connell, C. Perceptions of stereotypes applied to women who publicly communicate their STEM work. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 7, 160 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-00654-0
- Christine O’Connell (@coconell2)
- Homeward Bound
- Sally Ride (wiki)
- Academy of Science
- Decadal Plan for Women in Stem
- The Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador
- Enid Blyton (website) (BookDepository) (GoodReads)
- Watership Down by Richard Adams (BookDepository) (GoodReads)
- Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science
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