GUEST POST: James Walker, PhD student (Centre for Doctoral Training in Fuel Cells and their Fuels):

If you ask any PhD student about their research topic, you’re likely to either get a response punctuated with “ums,” and “ahs,” and littered with discipline-specific buzzwords and jargon, or you can perhaps expect a three hour short course in Medieval Hungarian poetry or novel electron microscopy techniques. We aren’t really known for our capacities for distilling down our studies into concise, accessible nuggets of audience-appropriate engagement. Imagine my colleague Aimee’s horror, then, when I told her that I’d volunteered us to do a take-over of the @UoBEngage Twitter account for the day. We’ve been running the @FuelCellsCDT Twitter account for a couple of years now, and have used it to share snippets of our PhD experience, whether reviewing conference presentations or highlighting publications from our group. Realistically, though, we haven’t used Twitter to disseminate our research particularly frequently because, let’s be honest, the “Three Minute Thesis” idea is intimidating enough – how do you even begin to summarise your PhD in 140 characters?

It turns out that being forced to think about and justify the need for each and every letter can be immensely helpful in curating your message. When you have no choice but to be brief, you have every incentive to think really carefully about what you’re trying to communicate, and how best you can get the message across. Although this isn’t a particularly comfortable position to be in – when the word “nanoparticle” takes up 11% of the allowed space, the prospect of trying to explain my synthesis protocol seemed somewhat daunting – I found the perspective developed through the process quite helpful when approaching other public engagement ideas that I was having. Perhaps the next time you’re thinking about an activity you’d like to organise, imagining how you might capture the message in 140 characters might help you distil it down.

In terms of practicalities, we started our takeover by introducing ourselves and providing a broad overview of the research underway in our group. Within the Centre for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Research we have plenty of “ins” available – we started with pictures of our fuel cell test vehicles and hydrogen refuelling station. Thereafter we covered some applied practical aspects of our day-to-day work, hoping to demystify the science involved and doing our best to avoid white-coat-mad-scientist scenes. I’ve no doubt that this would be a transferrable approach, although we are lucky that our work is quite hands-on.

I’d thoroughly encourage others to volunteer to have a go at a #TwitterTakeover of their own – it’s a great opportunity to try out new approaches to public engagement and is bound to change the way that you think about your message.


 A BIG thank you James (and Aimee!) for being our first #TwitterTakeover and for walking us through a day in the life of a PhD researcher in Chemical Engineering. If you are interested in having ago yourself, find out more here and get in touch!

It’s over to you…!

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