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Talking dirty

It is widely acknowledged that, in public engagement some science and technology topics are a slightly easier ‘sell’ than others. Where overt relevance to day-to-day life or technical spectacle are involved, stories write themselves. Soil, however, is not generally regarded as one of these topics. In this already tough field (excuse the pun) for my PhD research I chose to combine some of the more obscure and less ‘sexy’ elements of soil science: inorganic geochemistry and soil engineering. Setting a more challenging bar for an avid science communicator.

On a seemingly separate track, my descent in to comedy started early in life as an avid viewer of old British comedy series. My propensity for comedy writing, evident and variably received by my long-suffering school teachers, came in to its own in my teen years as an editor for college publications and a freelance music journalist. Stand-up comedy became a regular outlet only once I embarked on my geosciences PhD, giving me the opportunity to share something I loved with a captive audience. It also had an oddly cathartic effect in the face of research challenges and forever reduced any fear of presenting at conferences. At least you don’t need comic punchlines and there is much less risk of being heckled!

How did I come to bring these two elements of my life together? It was surprisingly simple.

Once you scratched the surface of my research, there was a whole world of wider relevance. Soil is seen as distant from our day-to-day experience, particularly in the city. For the most part, in the busier cities, it is invisible, hidden beneath buildings, pavements and other pieces of built infrastructure. Many of the field sites I worked on were right in the middle of urban areas, with various homes and business immediately overlooking – meaning lots of people free to observe me making trudging, hi-vis-clad transects of the site collecting samples. The sites in question often offered great opportunities for development or at least interim use as community spaces, with a variety of social and environmental benefits (the topic of a future blog post). And my work on soil carbon storage had the potential to directly inform this. Comedy provided a way of reaching audiences that I normally wouldn’t engage with in my everyday work in the lab or with our usual partners. It provided an irreverent way of talking about an important topic, a kind of ‘stealth learning’. My hope for my comedy performances on this topic is always simply that people will laugh, think, and at the very least walk away with an appreciation of the different ways in which soil can affect our lives.

You can see some of my early performances immortalised here:

Clip 1:

Clip 2:

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