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UCL’s got talent: a microcosm of communications brilliance

By Ruth Howells, on 8 April 2014

Michael Arthur

What do a supernova discoverer, a sex researcher, a chemistry demonstrator, a doctor of fluid dynamics, a materials scientist/engineer, a toilet festival and a history project about slave ownership have in common?

As well as being a brilliant microcosm of the breadth of activity and expertise bubbling away at UCL, they were all recipients of UCL Communication & Culture Awards at an event on 2 April in the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre.

Organised by UCL Museums and Public EngagementUCL Communications and Marketing and the UCL Development and Alumni Relations Office, this is the first time that the awards have taken place.

They were designed to recognise the hard work that the UCL community put in to sharing their research, teaching and learning through media and cultural partnerships – to include activities such as television, radio, blogging, festivals, public events, arts projects and exhibitions.

Why so vital?
Introducing the awards, Professor Steve Caddick (Vice-Provost, Enterprise), recognised the myriad public engagement activities taking place every day around UCL, but felt as an organisation we needed to “stop hiding our light under a bushel” and be better at celebrating the achievements of our staff in this area.

Professor Michael Arthur (UCL President & Provost), speaking next, cited the need to engage effectively with the world as a key pillar in the new UCL 2034 strategy.

He also recognised that those staff who see the value of communicating and do it well also encourage others – acting as crucial ambassadors and role models around UCL.

The all-important envelope opening
The winners of each category were revealed by Professor Arthur, with citations read out by Mark Sudbury, Director of UCL Communications & Marketing.

Many of the recipients had brought along colleagues, friends and family to the event – making for a friendly and relaxed atmosphere – and they all looked visibly chuffed when their names were read out.

Media Communicator of the Year (Online) – Dr Hannah Fry (UCL Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis) **Award collected by Dr Martin Austwick**

Martin Austwick collecting Hannah Fry’s award

Hannah was nominated for a range of media work, including a vast amount of online engagement. The TEDxUCL talk she gave ranks in the top 90 TEDx videos ever. The research she published on the 2011 London riots gained a great deal of media attention, which she backed up with further engagement and a film, available online, about the human side of the riots.

On a lighter note, Hannah has recently started presenting a BBC Worldwide Youtube channel called Headsqueeze, exploring subjects from “How to find the perfect partner” to “Why your friends are more popular than you”.

Hannah gets involved in discussions with members of the public about her work on twitter and other social media, and is dedicated to sharing her love of mathematics with people outside UCL in a fun, accessible and innovative way.

Media Communicator of the Year (Broadcast) – Professor Mark Miodownik (UCL Mechanical Engineering and Institute of Making)

Mark has been a frequent contributor to science television through his series The genius of invention and through a regular slot on Dara O’Briain’s Science Club, both shown on BBC2. Both shows allow Mark to explore and share materials research with a prime time BBC TV audience of over one million people per show. Mark has also participated as a guest on programmes such as Any Questions.


Mark Miodownik

Mark’s enthusiasm for communicating engineering at all levels has led to repeated commissioning as a BBC science presenter in mainstream slots.

However, he still participates in UCL activities at every level, teaching students on the Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree, participating in Open Days and outreach at the Big Bang Fair and in the daily life of his department, and representing UCL Engineering in corporate partnerships.

Media Communicator of the Year (News Story) – joint winners Dr Steve Fossey (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Dr Cath Mercer (UCL Infection & Population Health)

On 21 January 2014, Steve discovered a supernova in nearby galaxy Messier 82 while giving a practical astrophysics class at UCL’s observatory in Mill Hill. His discovery was recognised by the International Astronomical Union shortly afterwards, and the supernova was catalogued as SN 2014J.


Steve Fossey

In the following days and weeks, Steve communicated extensively with the public and media about the discovery, giving a great deal of visibility to UCL, while raising the profile of astrophysics more generally.

He gave interviews to broadcasters including BBC Radio 4’s Today and World Tonight programmes, BBC World Service Radio, and Germany’s ZDF. Steve was also featured in numerous print articles in local, national and international media.

Cath was a key part of the team publishing results from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal). It was the single biggest story of 2013 from the School of Life and Medical Sciences in terms of media coverage. As a story, it demonstrated how academic research is relevant to people’s lives.


Cath Mercer

It resulted in more than 1,000 pieces of media coverage around the world. As a committed and accessible UCL spokesperson, Cath’s work was crucial in ensuring a significant amount of the coverage communicated UCL’s role in the research – always a challenge with large-scale research projects involving multiple organisations.

Media Communicator of the Year (Events and Festivals) – Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry)

Andrea’s dedication to communicating at events and festivals is quite incredible, with his nominator suggesting that his talks must directly reach 20,000 adults and children each year.

He approaches these talks with apparently inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm. Unscripted, Andrea carefully chooses chemistry demos and talks to thrill his audiences and make an impression that is not quickly forgotten. His venues have ranged from small primary schools to the Hammersmith Apollo.


Andrea Sella

In Andrea, UCL is fortunate to have the most important communicator of chemistry in the UK. His impact on student recruitment through his talks and media appearances must not be underestimated. In September 2012, BBC Radio 4 dedicated a 30-minute Life Scientific programme to Andrea, marking him as a stand-out character in public science.

Cultural Partnership of the Year – Legacies of British Slave-ownership, collected by Professor Catherine Hall (UCL History)

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership team has succeeded in making their research findings a topic of engaged and informed debate across a wide range of audiences. The centrepiece of their activity is the online database of British Slave-ownership. The team’s publicity drive, cleverly designed to appeal to geographically specific audiences, made an impact in Jamaica, Australia, North America and South Africa as well as across the UK.


Catherine Hall

Alongside their media work, the team has been proactive in developing new ways of working with people particularly through partnerships with activist groups, schools, art galleries and museums. The project blog, its newsletter and a willingness to give detailed email feedback have enabled audiences to engage with researchers in an accessible and interactive way.

Public Event of the Year – UCLoo, collected by Dr Sarah Bell (UCL Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering)

UCLoo was a two-week festival running at UCL and around Bloomsbury last winter. The impressive programme of events accompanying this included a filth-themed Bright Club, a toilet makeathon, and a tour of local toilets.


Sarah Bell and Barbara Penner

The event was featured in Time Out as a lead news story, reaching an estimated readership of 227,000. This brief encounter will have seen Londoners exposed briefly to UCL as a quirky, bold establishment tackling a societal issue in an approachable way. The festival also inspired an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Costing the earth programme, entitled A toilet for the 21st century, which featured several of the UCLoo team.


View a slideshow of photos from the awards below:

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