From bunny tails to comet trails

Meet Ingrid McCarthy, inspiring the Australian Capital Territory one young mind at a time

How many jobs introduce a person to a Nobel Prize winner one day, and a dalek the next? New Inspiring Australia ACT program manager Ingrid McCarthy has done just that, commencing her role just a few weeks before National Science Week.

She had to hit the ground running, supporting a variety of events, including panel discussions featuring Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt, daleks visiting the ‘Science in ACTion’ festival and family fun with ‘Bio-Bounce’, a bouncing castle shaped like a giant plant cell.

Ingrid is one of eight state and territory Inspiring Australia officers and program managers who support science communication and engagement projects, help them gain publicity and enable local collaboration.
We asked her to tell us a bit more about herself:

What was your first job?
My first paid job was sticking fluffy tails on the Easter bunnies that went past on the conveyor belt at Darrell Lea chocolates!
My first “real” job was Catchment Management Officer with the NSW Department of Water Resources. My favourite day at the “office” was being greeted by a sand and gravel operator with a sawn-off shotgun in a remote river down in the hills behind Eden – I’m glad I was a good science communicator that day!

What inspires you?
I am inspired by people getting excited about learning new things – whether that’s in school, a holiday program, reading social media, attending an event, or working with each other – if I can help people learn and appreciate the sciences, I’ll be happy!

What Inspiring Australia initiatives are happening in your area?
We are developing a number of exciting programs to introduce kids to a variety of STEM careers – in the ACT we are particularly interested in marrying STEM with innovation and entrepreneurship. As a result, we’ve supported Lighthouse Innovation here in Canberra to run a Teen Startup Camp, where STEM problems were developed into business ideas by an enthusiastic bunch of 10-17 year olds. I am also working with a school teacher who took two Year 8 high school students to NASA, to run a Space Camp in Canberra involving a range of space-related researchers and industries based in the ACT to inspire more young people into the sciences.

It’s taken me a couple of months, but I’m now starting to get to the point where Inspiring Australia ACT is becoming the trusted hub where the local network of STEM and innovation communities come to me for help with projects, for promotion and to find other people in the network.

We are also looking at ways we can increase science engagement through tourism in the ACT. In particular, I am working with Visit Canberra to increase science-related content in our big events (Floriade and Enlighten), to develop a science-based itinerary we can promote to families and also science-related conference delegates that visit our amazing “city-state”!

Is there a success story or two that stand out?
We had over 5000 people attend Science in ACTion, which is Canberra’s flagship National Science Week event, which was a great turnout. Also in National Science Week, Mt Stromlo Observatory organised the world-record breaking Stargazing event at Australian National University, where over 1800 people looked at the moon at the same time – it was so inspiring to see to many enthusiastic astronomers all gathered in one place!

What are the science strengths of your state or territory?
The ACT is renowned for its knowledge-based industries. We have a Space Innovation Cluster, ICT and e-Government Cluster, and we have the National Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Precinct. We also have a great higher education and research sector, as well as being very progressive in the Innovation and Entrepreneurial field. I love being based in the ACT because we have a great connection between Territory and Federal initiatives.

What is the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is getting to work with people who are excited about science and seeing people engaging with and learning about science. I also get to name-drop a bit (I’ve met Brian Schmidt and Alan Duffy) and visit geeky, cool places (last week I was at Mt Stromlo, I regularly go to Questacon and CSIRO Discovery, and I love visiting places like the Shine Dome, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, CSIRO Deep Space Tracking Station, ANU, Canberra Uni and of course, the Canberra Innovation Network). How lucky am I?

What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
The job description could be described as a little vague – the big challenge for me is to turn the general concept of “increasing science engagement” into tangible outcomes and success stories!

If you could give science communicators one piece of advice, what would it be?
In the words of one of the greatest marketing campaigns ever, “Just Do It.” Get your message out there, using whatever means possible. And keep doing it. Science communication is not the same as writing a doctorate or getting published in a science journal —­ it’s hammering out sound-bites and messages, to help counteract the pseudo-science and dodgy messages out there. Keep fighting the good fight!

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