Kathy Sykes

Scientist for the people

15 November 2013

Professor of Physics. TV presenter. Co-director of the Cheltenham Science Festival. Talent spotter for new scientists. It's easy to see why Kathy Sykes' multi-faceted career has earned her the title of the 'people's scientist'.

She credits an A-level physics project for first getting her hooked on the creative aspect of research. A degree in polymer physics followed, culminating in a PhD in biodegradable plastics, both at the University of Bristol. This is where Kathy became Professor of Sciences and Society in 2002 - the UK's youngest professor at that time and where she is currently based.

Her increasingly high-profile role has put her in a leading advisory capacity, whether she's chairing public platforms or presenting BBC programmes. As Kathy says, "I was unbelievably chuffed to be labelled the 'people's scientist'. A lot of my work revolves around encouraging scientists to be more human, communicate better and make research more relevant.

Two-way listening

Her ability to communicate research and understand different points of view comes to the fore in her broadcasting roles such as BBC1's 'Hot Planet' in 2010. On this, she joined geologist Professor Iain Stewart to look at global warming, based on the findings of over 4,000 climate scientists. While Iain described how global temperatures are rising, Kathy examined positive, technological inventions such as artificial trees that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release it as oxygen.

Kathy Sykes - People's Scientist Kathy has also gone on to initiate groundbreaking projects for promoting science communication and engagement. One of the most well known is the Cheltenham Science Festival. It began in 2002 when she became a co-founding director with fellow science communication guru, Professor Frank Burnet. Right from the start, their goal was to attract adult audiences - not just school kids. From nanotechnology to nuclear energy, I try to promote public dialogue with people of different backgrounds and ages. This results in a diverse range of perspectives which I pass on to the governmental policymakers."

Two-way listening

Her ability to communicate research and understand different points of view comes to the fore in her broadcasting roles such as BBC1's 'Hot Planet' in 2010. On this, she joined geologist Professor Iain Stewart to look at global warming, based on the findings of over 4,000 climate scientists. While Iain described how global temperatures are rising, Kathy examined positive, technological inventions such as artificial trees that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release it as oxygen.

Kathy has also gone on to initiate groundbreaking projects for promoting science communication and engagement. One of the most well known is the Cheltenham Science Festival. It began in 2002 when she became a co-founding director with fellow science communication guru, Professor Frank Burnet. Right from the start, their goal was to attract adult audiences - not just school kids.

The Met Office exhibited at this year's festival in June. Along with showcasing our work on climate science with EDF Energy, people had fun presenting the weather and doing hands-on experiments such as making a cloud in a bubble or tornado in a bottle.

Entertaining science

As Kathy says, "Unlike some science festivals that consisted of dull lectures held in dusty, grey university rooms, we wanted Cheltenham to be edgy, playful and challenging - with the festive feel hitting you the moment you walked in. It's a fantastic mix of the serious and the frivolous, with comedians like Marcus Brigstocke and Dara O'Briain performing alongside chefs and scientists such as Dr Brian Cox and space scientist Dr Maggie Alderin-Pocock."

Opening new minds

These days, rather than battling to shift the mindset of an older generation of scientists, Kathy concentrates on nurturing and training the next generation of young scientists. One of the ways she has helped launch budding careers is through FameLab, also held at the Cheltenham Science Festival. Running across 23 countries, it's a unique opportunity for any scientist or engineer to present to judges in just three minutes how relevant and exciting their piece of research is.

Looking to the future, Kathy believes the public's engagement with science is undoubtedly brighter. As she says, "When I got a female engineer coming up to me saying she became an engineer because she saw me on BBC2's Rough Science, it blows your mind knowing that as an individual you can make such a positive impact."

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