Grad Series: Public Affairs Volunteer

‘One thing I’ve learned freelancing and volunteering is that the idea of going into a career straight away isn’t necessarily the way things work.’

From meeting Jon on a picnic bench outside of our student union, to attending my first ever comedy club with him; I always find myself learning something new in his company. Now that he’s left Birmingham to live here in sunny Scotland, I love dragging him along to all my favourite restaurants and pubs! We caught up this weekend at Nom De Plume with a few beers in hand to chat about our graduate lives. 

Jon, Not Evie

Name: Jon Roden

Studied: BSc (Hons) Genetics at The University of Manchester and MSc Science Communication and Public Engagement at The University of Edinburgh.

Occupation: Freelancer and Public Affairs Volunteer at Cancer Research UK.

Location: Edinburgh

What made you choose to study genetics?

I was always very interested in health and I did want to do medicine at one point, but being squeamish, that never happened. There was a teacher I had at school who did genetics at university, and he made it sound exciting by talking about the sequence programmes of the 90s. I was hooked. I love how it is who we are. Human evolution is interesting…it is why we are who we are. It sounded cool.

Why was science communication the next step?

So I went to do genetics and from the first practical I realised I couldn’t work in a lab. Nothing worked, even my final year project gave me no results. I did enjoy the atmosphere of working in a lab though, and one of the reasons I’m doing policy in science communication is that I realise how hard people work in labs, and I want to use my non-lab skills to promote that. I love being able to say what genetics is, and being able to answer the question I’m always asked.

What’s genetics?

Damn you! It’s the study of DNA, and how DNA affects who we are. I’m out of practise…everyone just asks what science communication is now!

What was the best thing you learned studying science communication?

To be critical of scientists. By doing genetics, I have seen that there have been a lot of advancements in a short space of time, and this made me question ‘infinite wisdom’.  I also learned to understand and back up my opinions more. With genetics, you question things, but you’re taught a certain way of thinking. Science communication showed me how to be more critical and more entertaining. I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with interesting ways of communicating things as opposed to just relaying facts.

Who would you say is your idol in science communication?

David Attenborough. He’s one of the reasons I studied biology, he just knows how to make it interesting. I loved ‘The Hunt’ series – he made me feel sorry for the predators! They had to do what they’re doing, he showed that they’re not evil.

So now you’re volunteering with Cancer Research UK. Why are you volunteering?

Essentially because these jobs (science policy) want experience. It’s a very competitive field. It’s a growing field, so to get in it usually needs a bit of interning or volunteering first. It’s a necessity.

How did you find the opportunity?

I was signed up to a job bulletin for Cancer Research UK, and it came up. I also have a freelance job outside of this, so it was possible to fit the volunteering position around my work.

What’s a typical day like as a Public Affairs Volunteer with Cancer Research UK?

I get there about 9-ish and settle myself in. The policy team is separate from the fundraising and science communication team. Generally I’m doing admin because it’s the run up to the Holyrood elections and the staff members are busy attending conferences. I also do a bit of social media research which involves identifying which MSPs are engaging with the charity’s campaigns the most.

Cancer Research UK, Not Eive

Why is your department interested in elections?

Well, the charity wants politicians to make health and research pledges, and the staff here need to make connections. It’s a good opportunity at this time of year (around elections) as politicians are at their most visible. The Cancer Research UK campaign (Scotland vs. Cancer) is aiming for quicker diagnosis in Scotland, so we’re trying to get politicians to pledge to improve this. On Tuesday, we did a stunt on Waverley Steps to try to push the campaign. We don’t want politicians to forget about cancer! The stunt was an 8ft high cancer sign, and members of the public could stick a saltire on it. A bit like a visual petition!

This week I also got to attend an evening reception in Parliament which was a gathering of Cancer Research UK researchers, partners and MSPs to promote the work that Cancer Research UK have been doing.

How is this opportunity likely to get you where you want to go?

Being around politicians and having experience of pushing forward policy, as well as talking to politicians – it all helps. You don’t get very long to talk to a politician – it’s a very specific way of talking. It’s eye-opening to see the way Public Affairs people go about doing it – it’s exciting and feels like something I could do.

Do you need a degree for this kind of job?

You do need one (it’s on every application form I’ve seen), but you don’t need a science degree necessarily, even for science policy. As long as you can show interest in and knowledge of the subject, you should be okay. Any degree is good, but I’d say communication is a large part of it.

What do you think the top three skills are that a Public Affairs officer needs to have?

Communication, passion for the subject (if you don’t care it comes across, and you can’t grab politicians if you’re not passionate), and a general interest in politics. It’s a good job for people who like politics, but don’t really want to become a politician.

You also earn money doing freelance, what does that involve?

Essentially I write teacher guides and extension activities for school biology and geology textbooks. It’s for a Spanish company who produce textbooks for schools which teach in English.  But one thing I will say is that the idea of going into a career straight away isn’t necessarily the way things work. You have to be willing to deal with some period of time where you’re working to get to where you want to be.

If this job didn’t exist, what would you want to be?

A stand up comedian, but I’m not very funny – it does appear to be an issue.

What’s funny about your situation right now?

What, in life? Everything, I’m a hilarious guy. No don’t write that, do not write that! Oh for goodness sake. I guess there’s something funny about working for a Spanish company and Cancer Research UK at the same time. I’ve kind of stumbled into it!

Leave a comment if you’ve got experience in the #scicomm sector or want to know more!

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