Keep it light: the benefits of seeing science’s funny side

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield of NUI Galway on the lighter side of science


You are a comedian and a scientist. That’s a funny combination.
I see what you did there. I think comedy and science have a lot in common. For one, they both require that you don’t take what you are told for granted.

I am a scientist – I research nanomaterials that could have a type of memory for information processing – and I was doing improvisational comedy. Then I got to thinking about how comedy could be used to communicate research.

And now you run an event where researchers do comedy?
Yes, it’s called Bright Club, and it’s a regular event across Ireland where academic researchers get some training beforehand and on the night they do a stand-up routine about their work. The original format started in the UK and now it is supported by Science Foundation Ireland here.

Researchers don’t want to make a joke out of their work but you can often find humorous ways of talking about what you do, and find things that are surprising. There are also professional comedians and musicians, so lots of different performances.

You are also getting people up on their soapboxes this summer
One of my first moves into science communication was doing Soapbox Science in Dublin, where I got to stand on a wooden box in public and give a talk about my work on nanomaterials.

Now my colleague, botany lecturer Dr Dara Stanley, and I are organising an event in Galway this July for female scientists and engineers to talk in the centre of town on a soapbox, too. It’s a great way of engaging an audience that wouldn’t normally go to an outreach event; they are just walking by and they hear about the research you are doing.

And what research are you doing at the moment?
“I am looking to develop materials that can enable a computer to work like a brain does. I work with materials with tiny dimensions – silver nanowires, polymers, semi-conductors – and these can be engineered to make it harder or easier for an electrical current to move through them based on their history. It’s a bit like the way our brains strengthen or weaken connections based on use. Ultimately the idea is to have devices that have a form of memory based on these material properties and they can “learn” over time.

You have an interesting trip planned to the Arctic, too. What’s that about?
I’ll be taking part in an expedition to the Arctic for two weeks around the summer solstice. It’s made up of scientists and artists and we want to look at ways of highlighting the importance of the Arctic and how the changes there will affect humanity.

On the trip I will be building a detector out of ice to capture energy from cosmic particles passing through. There’s a giant one in Antarctica that looks to capture particles called neutrinos. So I figured, why not make a small one at the other pole as a demonstrator?

Are you looking forward to it?
Yes, although I get seasick, so I’m not relishing that bit. But I am looking forward to the wilderness aspect. I grew up in New Mexico, which has vast, uninhabited spaces, its really sunny and we used to go camping and have to be completely self-sufficient. I miss that intensity sometimes, and I’m hoping I can reconnect with that kind of environment on this ship out in the Arctic.