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Research Zernike (ZIAM) News

Reaching out and spreading the chemistry - PhD student Jim Ottele in focus

10 March 2020

If you work long and hard on your research it makes sense that you would like to talk about it. But talking to your colleagues is a whole different story than explaining difficult chemical terms to your parents or friends. For Jim Ottelé, PhD student in the group of Sijbren Otto, this is a challenge he likes to take on. According to him, science communication should be every researchers’ responsibility.

Jim Ottele
Jim Ottele

Most PhD students spend their time doing research and trying to find out why their reaction isn’t working the way it should. But for some, just spending days on the lab is not enough. Ottelé is one of these people. He spends much of his free time talking about science to everyone who wants to hear it. “I think it is important that the general public knows what is going on in science”, says Ottelé. “There is so much misinformation going around, and people don’t know what is true anymore. I think we have an obligation as researchers to do something about that.”

And so Ottelé often gives presentations about his research and the research that is conducted in the Otto-group. The audiences he speaks to are very diverse. His last few presentations were for high-school chemistry teachers who want to keep in touch with recent research. “I gave an hour-long masterclass at the Woudschoten Chemistry conference, a big meeting of all chemistry teachers in the Netherlands”, Ottelé explains. “The audience there is genuinely interested in what we are doing and if they can use it in their classroom.”

Coincidental

Of course Ottelé didn’t start out speaking to hundreds of people at once: “Actually it was all quite coincidental. As a student I used to work at events like Zpannend Zernike and the Chemistry Olympiad, and there I met people who were interested in what I did. When they offered me the chance to spread my story further I immediately took it.” Through these events, he developed a taste for science communication. Such a taste, that he decided to start up his own project. “Together with our scientific coordinator Gaël Schaeffer and Renske de Jonge from Science-LinX we came up with the idea for a series of lectures by professors that would be fun and informative for all citizens of Groningen, called Noorderlab.”

Jim Ottele at school
Jim Ottele at school

The main goal of these Noorderlab-lectures is to introduce the public to established and upcoming researchers who work in Groningen. “Five professors from the Stratingh Institute, like Ben Feringa and Gerard Roelfes, will give the lectures. But we will also ask five starting professors to record podcasts about their research and career. In this way, we show multiple sides of science.” With a bit of luck, the project got funded and is now in development. “We have support from the KNG (Royal Natural Sciences Society), and hope to start the first lecture series in autumn.” But Ottelé doesn’t stop at his own institute: “We hope to make it a yearly event, each time introducing a different institute and different researchers. This makes it a very diverse event. In the end I hope that the citizens of Groningen have a much better idea what kind of research goes on at the university, or at least at the Faculty of Science and Engineering.”

Very lucky

Ottelé thinks he is lucky that he gets the time and space to work on projects like this. “I think not every professor would allow me to speak at all these events and spend so much time on science communication.” If you ask him it should be a core responsibility of every researcher to share their findings with a larger public: “So much public money is spend on research, and much of the results are hidden behind paywalls or in language laypeople don’t understand. I think every scientist should at least try to reach the public.” Of course not every subject is obviously suitable for the general public. “Sometimes it is very hard, but you can always find a way. It is so nice to hear that people really start to think about things you told them, and maybe even apply them in their lives. The trick is to try to relate it to something they know, use metaphors or even experiments to show how things work.”

In the end it all comes down to the willingness of the researchers. But the university can also help a lot: “In my opinion institutes can do more to encourage their employees for these kind of events. Right now you have to figure it all out yourself.” For enthusiastic scientists who now also want to work more on outreach, Ottelé has one last advice: “You have to start small and meet the right people. But you can start things up by for instance calling up your old high school and offer to give a guest lecture, or join an event like the Weekend van de Wetenschap. Just try it, if people know you like these things, they eventually will find you.”
Last modified:10 March 2020 09.21 a.m.

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