Dr Jen Martin: Humans of BioSciences

Meet Dr Jen Martin, award winning science communicator, teacher and ecologist. Jen founded the University of Melbourne’s Science Communication program, was named Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication for 2019 and recently won the David White Award for Teaching Excellence. Jen is a faculty member of the Homeward Bound program, an Australian-based global initiative that empowers women in STEM through leadership training. In 2019, as part of Homeward Bound, she and 110 other women formed the largest ever all-female expedition to Antarctica. Jen is also a co-host of 3RRR’s Sunday science show, Einstein-a-go-go and every Wednesday morning she presents the Weird Science segment on 3RRR Breakfasters.

Jen portrait
How did you become who you are, and what inspires you about your work?

My interest in science communication began when I was completing my PhD in ecology. I enjoyed every moment of my research. It felt like such a tremendous privilege to follow animals around in a gorgeous forest and work out what they were doing. But I really wanted to make a difference in the world, and I realised that my work would not have an impact outside of academia unless I learnt how to communicate to a broader audience.

I started lecturing in the Department of Zoology at UniMelb straight after my PhD, and in my first year I also took part in Fresh Science, a national competition that is designed to teach early career researchers how to be better communicators. It was a lightbulb experience for me. I thought, wow! - you can actually teach people how to write and speak in a way that invites people without a background in science to understand and get excited about science.

Jen with a possum

Following this experience, I reflected on some the UniMelb graduate attributes, namely that all our students leave with great written and oral communication skills. But I couldn’t see where and how these skills were being taught in the Faculty of Science. It was clear that we needed structured classes in science communication. After all, you don't become a concert pianist by watching other concert pianists, you need to be taught the skills and do a lot of practice.

From an ecologist I became a science communicator and educator and created the Science Communication teaching program which I have taught for the last decade. It’s very rewarding to work with amazing students who are doing incredible science and quickly become better at explaining their research in engaging ways. And having taught these subjects on my own for many years, I now lead an enormously skilled and talented teaching team. I can’t tell you how much I love my team!

In your application for the David White Award, you said that, “passion, interaction, storytelling and forming genuine connections with students are essential components of engaging practical classes.” Why do you think this is so important?

As a teacher, it is essential to come out from behind the podium in the lab or classroom and get to know your students. Not only is it fun, but making connections, telling stories, having interesting anecdotes to share and finding ways to make class content relevant is part of effective science communication. If there's something you want people to listen to it, you've got to make it relevant to them. Why else would they care?

Jen delivering a class

You recently joined Homeward Bound on a trip to Antarctica. Why is Homeward Bound  important, and how did you become involved with the program?

The Homeward Bound initiative encourages and supports women with a background in STEMM to take on leadership roles. It is about bringing together and empowering diverse groups of women in STEMM and saying: let's give you some high level leadership training so you can go back to your community and your workplace to make a difference. We know woman lead very differently to men and if we want to create a sustainable future, we need both women and men in leadership roles. Homeward Bound’s mission is to increase the influence and impact of women in making decisions that shape the future of our planet.

In 2019, I was invited to become a member of the Visibility Team in the Homeward Bound teaching faculty. I’m really honoured to be part of the Faculty - an incredibly accomplished and extraordinary group of women leaders who are dedicated to supporting other women to step up and achieve more. Working with 99 incredible women in STEMM from 34 countries throughout 2019 and particularly in Antarctica at the end of the year, was an unforgettable experience.

Homeward Bound

What gives you hope for the future?

My students give me hope for the future. It gives me so much pleasure to work with them every semester because they're smart, committed and willing to try new things. Our science communication subjects can be very challenging, particularly via Zoom where there is a screen full of faces and we're asking students to speak up, practice public speaking, share their written work and get feedback from each other.

I find that my students are very keen to learn how to be better communicators: how to network more effectively and how to have impact with their work. They are thinking big picture about how to solve the problems that the world is facing. I absolutely love teaching them. While I am just one tiny cog in a big machine, I am helping them to go out in the world and make a difference. Every time someone suggests to me that I could work fewer hours and make more money doing something else, I say, are you crazy? I love my job.

What to do you outside of teaching science communication?

I run a lot (it’s keeping me sane during the pandemic) and I love reading, writing, cooking, talking about science on the radio and camping with my family. I also sing in a wonderful women’s choir that I am really missing at the moment.

Jen running a race

Find Out More

Science Communication at the University of Melbourne

Homeward Bound

David White Award for Teaching Excellence

Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication

Fresh Science

3RRR Radio Programs:  3RRR Breakfasters - Weird Science and Einstein-a-go-go

Dr Jen Martin (Twitter)

'Humans of BioSciences' is a special series to introduce the School of BioSciences' undergrad and postgrad students, our academics, professional staff and associates.