Science Communicator, Guest Speaker
When asked to explain her research in a tweet, Dr Alison Woollard smiles and says, “Worming around in biology for cool stuff.” Pun intended. She is a Fellow in Biochemistry at Hertford College, University of Oxford and Associate Professor in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford, where she heads the Cell Biology, Development and Genetics research theme and leads a group working on C. elegans (roundworms) genetics.
According to Dr Woollard, her career trajectory in developmental genetics was shaped by three experiences: working with the late Dr Simon Wolff in his research lab, doing her PhD with Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, and experiencing the generosity of the late Nobel Prize winner Sir John Edward Sulston during her postdoctoral years. Thanks to these encounters, she fell in love with genetics and C. elegans, and realised just how important collaboration is in science. She also emphasises the value of having good mentors, the idea of seeing science as a craft, and the reminder that good science is not selfish: “This [science] is a craft. I’m a craftsman, and I’m going to pass on my craft to the next generation.”
Dr Woollard’s collaborations are not limited to the academic field. She also works with the industry, including a collaboration with a start-up interested in using C. elegans as a drug discovery model in neurodegenerative disease. She says it might sound mad, but crazy science is “where the discoveries happen.” She remembers this particular collaboration fondly, highlighting the excitement about working with such a small company.
Along with research, Dr Woollard is highly passionate about science communication. She has always loved explaining concepts simply, but it was not until the 2013 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series “Life Fantastic” that her public engagement journey really started. There, she had her eureka moment.
She recalls how it went: She was explaining an ordinary technique that scientists commonly use in the lab, when she realised that the cameraman had stopped filming to stare at her. He could not believe that such things were possible and was so intrigued that he put his work down to ask her more about the science. For both Dr Woollard and the cameraman, this was a transformational moment. It was then that she realised how important science communication truly was.
Dr Woollard believes in science communication as a way to not just share science, but to democratise it. She says that it is about everyone feeling like they have an equal stake in where science takes us. To young scientists, she gives this advice on how to communicate their science better: “Tell a story. It’s all about telling a story. Stories are what make us human.”
For her public engagement activities, Dr Woollard was awarded the 2015 JBS Haldane Award and appointed as the University of Oxford’s Academic Champion for Public Engagement with Research.