Women in STEM: Ioanna Eleftheriou and Science Communication in an era of misinformation #S05
With misinformation on the rise, the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and the visible fourth industrial revolution (4.0), the exchange of precise and accurate scientific information is more important than ever. In light of the above, and of the absence of science and technology communicators in Cyprus, we spoke with Ioanna Eleftheriou, another scientist, who is added proudly in our stories.
Ioanna has obtained her degree in Biological Chemistry from the University of Cyprus and thereafter in 2016 obtained the very interesting Masters Degre (MSc) in Science, Technology and Society) from University College of London (UCL).
Ioanna has been working the past 6 years as a Professor in Chemistry in a private tutoring school, mainly for students in the age range of 14-18 who choose chemistry as their specialization subject.
You decided to continue with a Master’s degree in London, England, specifically with a Master’s subject ‘Science and Technology Communication’; a field we would say that in Cyprus of 2015, would be considered quite innovative. What prompted you to make this choice? Tell us a bit about this experience.
Indeed, this Master’s Degree was and remains to a great extent an innovative and pioneering course. From an early age, it seemed to me that Science Communication was a subject of vital significance which was missing from my country and I would very much like to integrate it here in Cyprus. Furthermore, what prompted my choice to undertake this Master’s was that although I wanted to try something new which would have led me onto new paths beyond the confines of laboratory science, at the same time I did not want something which would alienate me from scientific knowledge.
Regarding the whole experience I can say that it was fascinating, a very strong combination of knowledge, which included studies in history, philosophy, sociology, education, museum education, media techniques through film, television, radio, print journalism and mass media.
When I read the the course description, the academic experience seemed fascinating and intense straight away, and I had no choice but to follow my instincts and initiate myself into this world.
It is our understanding that although the term ‘ science communication’ exists for 50 years, there is no universal common definition, in some countries it is called the ‘public understanding of science’, the ‘ cultivation of scientific temper’, whilst each definition delivers insights into how science and society are positioned, whether it associates with social issues, whether it lessens or strengthens the perception of science. Could you attribute a meaning to this term and could you explain to us the importance of science and technology communication in the 21st century?
I would say that academically, this field is better represented with the term ‘ Science Communication and Technology‘. In particular, this term encompasses everything that one might say is associated with this field.
Its significance does not end with the fact that the science communicator has to inform the public regarding science and technological events in a sound and timely manner, always in a way that people can understand. At the same time the science and technology communicator must take the pulse of society and transfer it to the scientists. The science communicator could be described as the missing link between the scientific community and society.
Ιs there a market and demand for professions with people that have specialized in this field in England? In Cyprus?
Unfortunately in Cyprus,there are no official job openings particularly in this field, or if they exist these are limited or next to nil, whilst they come mainly from the private sector. In my case, when I came back to Cyprus I was hired in a private school where I teach/communicate science to young people until today.
Unlike Cyprus, abroad and more specifically in England, this industry has been thriving for many years. Science and technology communicators work for example in Universities, Academies, Public and Private Institutions, Companies, Ministries, Schools, Museums etc.
Why do you think this is the case (that there is no such profession in Cyprus)?
I believe that in Cyprus the tasks of the science and technology communicator in the field of science and technology are still being carried out by other people with limited qualifications to meet the demands of the position. For example, as far as informing the public about science, technology, medicine etc. is concerned, this task is assumed by presenters, journalists etc.
Also, in Cyprus the labour market is generally limited for many sectors and scientific and technological events do not run at a dizzying pace as in foreign countries, so the creation of communication teams until recently may have been something that the authorities considered unnecessary.
Despite all the above, I now believe that such job vacancies are not opened, not because there is no immediate need, but because the competent bodies have not identified or are unaware of the urgent need to create such job opportunities.
Especially after the latest data (covid-19) that paralysed the planet, we see how vital it was to have communication groups, which would undertake the collection, investigation and dissemination of scientific information to society in order to avoid various unpleasant consequences of misinformation.
Is it safe to say that the persons to represent and communicate science, technology and society on behalf of the Ministries of Cyprus are not specialised in this field? Do you think it is necessary to be qualified in Science and Technology Communication in order to practice and communicate science to society? If so, tell us your thoughts.
It seems that this is what is happening! I don’t like nullifying every situation and do not wish to be alarmist. I understand that some people may not have the specific expertise but have gained the relevant experience and opinion because of their experience with specific issues. We are not proposing to exclude them completely from the scene, but to bring in additional people with new skills, scientific background which also comes from role- model countries that have been investing, developing and establishing themselves for years in this field.
Ultimately, as my involvement with science communication has taught me, the secret lies in the following three ingredients: knowledge, collaboration and innovation, without excluding anyone from this trinity who is able to integrate and apply fresh knowledge for the advancement of society.
Firstly, as a communicator it is important to acquire the ability to separate and choose your sources. Above all, specialising in this area will provide you with a forum to platforms, sources, people who can be useful for documentation and cross-referencing of information. In other words, you are being trained in how to be a proper receiver and giver of information with equal accuracy and efficiency. It does not in any way mean that you are a know-it-all person, but you are in a position to be informed in order to inform.
If we look at it objectively, someone who has the ability to inform, collect and extract information can do so to a large extent in an interesting and correct way. But he/she does not know exactly why he/she does it and where he/she is basing it, where the techniques he/she can apply come from.
Science hides in many paths and it certainly takes expertise and vigilance to be able to walk in the right direction and “take others along” with you.
Do you think it is necessary to οpen job vacancies in Cyprus for such such a specialised profession? Do you think it will help bridge any gap of trust between society and scientists in Cyprus?
Undoubtedly, the pursuit of scientific debate is of public interest. Communicating science has made research more accessible and soliciting the the public opinion and its reactions easier. Most importantly, communication invests in communicating, in as simple a way as possible, a scientific topic is always based on a thorough opinion that comes from people who are skilled in the method and source from which to obtain reliable information while keeping it 100% objective.
Have you experienced sexism, during your academic or professional career to date and/or any discouragement towards your scientific academic choice?
I personally have not experienced such behavior at any point in my studies or professional career so far. However, as an active member of society I realise that things have not reached the level of equality that treats all people with the same respect.
Unfortunately, some elements of racism and isolation for various groups or minorities are often found and through various examples that we are all unfortunately aware of.
How would you respond to those who claim that it is difficult to be a female science and technology communicator considering that you have to deal and compromise with politicians and people in power and politics, which is male-dominated?
Science is for all of us, it is not open to discrimination and negotiation. Being a woman among male-dominated landscapes can,unfortunately, make your work more difficult, but not impossible! Work should always be handled by setting boundaries, goals and zero tolerance for anything that might insult or diminish your work or your status. I dare to say that nowadays there are measures in place for new openings in healthier paths where regardless of gender, age and diversity we must all earn the respect we deserve.
Of course, we do not turn a blind eye, nor do we live in a utopia where we do not see that despite all the efforts sometimes the difficulties women have to face seem insurmountable. However, with fortitude, solidarity, appropriate information, consultation, and optimism, we hope for a better tomorrow for all women.
Considering that there are limited career options in the private sector and none in the public sector here in Cyprus , would you change your choice in 2015 in specialising in Science and Technology Communication?
I wouldn’t change any of my choices! Although some of them may have affected me, I made them consciously, they all taught me important life lessons and helped me evolve into the person I am today.
It is good to reflect and be self-critical to avoid future mistakes, but by regretting them is like invalidating a part of ourselves that we should love with all our being.