James Piercy – science communicator (#3)


James is a communications and engagement officer at a bioscience research institute and a freelance science communicator and trainer. He’s been writing and presenting science shows since 1995.

Twitter: @thepiercy

Radio 4 programme: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05w3xpk

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Maybe I’m getting a bit old but there isn’t much that ‘amazes’ me but I do have experiences which get me thinking and which I am keen to share with others. I heard a short talk on Jurisprudence recently for example which really got me thinking, and in the past week I have built a rocket launcher and extracted DNA from strawberries. Both simple but not things I have done before and are both cool.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Wonder is a feeling of awe and surprise. Something which challenges and changes your way of thinking. It might be something which is unexpectedly beautiful or delightful. Wonder is a positive response generating happiness and a desire to share what you have found. Curiosity is a drive a need to find out more, something which comes from you whereas wonder is something which happens to you. Curiosity is about asking questions, needing to know the answers to things and building understanding. Wonder is a great stimulus for those things. Wonder is the first step of a chain from ‘wow’ to ‘why’ to ‘how’. We can use wonder to stimulate curiosity in others and that’s something I try to do in my work. 


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

We are driven to find patterns in the world around us. I think our sense of wonder comes from our need to find connections between things. Anything that doesn’t fit a pattern can be scary, disturbing, delightful or wonderful.


What do you love about magic?

I like the suspension of disbelief. I like being fooled in the same way some people like being terrified on roller coasters.


One of your skills is taking the mundane and making it fascinating. It’s compelling to listen to you talk about your discoveries. How do you find the fascinating?

Honestly I don’t know. I can only think that things seem fascinating because audiences mirror my own response. For example I am fascinated and amazed by the coconut crab. Ask me about it and though I have described it many times over the years, my eyes will light up, I will get excited about the discovery as though it were new. I’m particularly interested in finding ways to share stories which connect with people directly.


If I were to describe you I’d say you’re a modern-day Peter Pan. What’s the secret of not growing up? Of being childlike without being childish?

One of the most rewarding things about my job is when other professionals recognise something I do. So thanks for that comment. What we do doesn’t happen by accident, or if it does the skill is to remember and repeat it. I deliberately keep a child-like fascination in things and hope to share it with others. The flip side is the shock of realising that I’m older than most of the ‘grown-ups’ that I meet.  The biggest challenge and something I stress in training is the importance of remembering that whilst you may have said those words or seen a demonstration a hundred times it is the first time the audience have seen it. Try to remember how you felt on your first time.


Why are plants amazing?

That’s a big question. I’ve only been working in a plant research institute for a couple of years and I’ll confess that much of the amazing life of plants was unknown to me. Being stuck in one place means that plants have evolved all sorts of ways of gaining nutrition, reproducing and protecting themselves from attack by pests and pathogens.

The enormous diversity and weird and wonderful life of plants is amazing. There is a pitcher plant which attracts shrews, feeds them and then catches their poo to gain the nitrogen it needs. Wow!


You’re in the middle of studying for an A-level in biology. What prompted that? What have you learnt? What have been the challenges as a mature student?

Working amongst a bunch of biologists has brought home to me that my knowledge of the science is limited. I’ve picked up a lot over the years of course but haven’t studied Biology for 34 years. I thought it would be useful and interesting to take a course. I’m early in the study and have been looking at membranes, cells and transfer systems. The main thing I’ve learnt so far is that biologists like to give everything a name and that those names are quite similar! I am spending some time doing practical assessments with 6th formers [Matt Notes: 16-18 year olds in UK education system], it’s odd being back in school with students younger than my own children. They are clever and focused but man they can be slow at stuff. Learning new things is very good for the brain but it does seem to get a bit harder to remember stuff when you’re older.


Why should research scientists be interested in public engagement?

Mark Wolpert famously said “Science is not finished until it’s communicated” there is some truth in that. Results both positive and negative need to be shared with other researchers for science to advance. There is also a wider audience, the public. They fund, and are impacted by, science and have a right to know what is being done and why. From the researchers point of view understanding where your science fits in the bigger picture and what people think about it can be very rewarding. In my training work with researchers I’m often told that they have their enthusiasm renewed by sharing it with other people.


A few years ago, you experienced a traumatic brain injury, one of the things that marked your recovery was your curiosity into the injury, symptoms and clinical procedures you underwent. What you learnt from that has been turned both into a presentation and into various ongoing campaigns. Can you tell me more? 

I gave my first talk to describe to friends and colleagues what had happened and to say thanks to people that helped. The other thing that happened as I wrote the show, was that it became a way of proving to myself that I could still do my job. It was a huge part of my recovery to be able stand up and talk, and for people to laugh and cry – not from sympathy but because I was actually good!

I secured funding to develop the talk and toured it round the country, in turn this led to an award-winning radio programme. Listen here. I have also become involved in research as a lay member giving a personal input to brain injury and helping medics make information accessible to wide audiences. It is very rewarding and a way of giving something back to the teams that saved my life. http://www.rescueasdh.org/


Many years on from your brain injury, what are the day to day realities and how does it impact your life?

I’m close to a full recovery from my injury although I still have some problems with fatigue and have to plan my time carefully. Long term the biggest impact has been that it has led to my involvement in raising awareness of brain injury and contributing to research projects. Recently I have been gathering stories from survivors round the world as part of a global research project. http://neurotrauma.world/outputs

My brush with death did change my perspective on life. I’m more likely to say yes to opportunities and hope I value the good things in life more.


What would you like more people to know about brain injuries? And how can survivors be best supported? 

The main thing to know is that this is a huge global epidemic.  Estimates are that worldwide 69 million people suffer a traumatic brain injury each year and it is a leading cause of death and disability. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29701556

In the UK an aging population means that the average age of brain injury survivors is rising. The leading cause of injury is changing from car accidents to falls.

Survivors need support and understanding. The range of outcomes is so vast that it isn’t possible to give advice which will apply to everyone. Being aware of changes to personality and cognitive deficits can help family members support individuals. Recovery is possible from even serious injury, but it is not guaranteed, and we still don’t really understand why some people do better than others. I’ve been exploring the process in my two latest talks on neuropsychology and neuroplasticity. In the latter I taught myself to play the left hand part of a Bach minuet ( I’m right-handed and can’t play the piano) whilst a researcher carried out trans cranial stimulation to see how the activity of my neurons changed. It was a great experience and we showed that brains work harder while learning and take it easy once they’ve mastered a new task.

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