‘Tales from a plant accountant’ at the Northern Ireland Science Festival

Open University ‘plant accountant’, Dr Julia Cooke, will take you through a unique series of stories about some of the world’s most interesting plants. From giant sequoia trees, bigger than the blue whale, to festive mistletoes that are ingenious parasites. Dr Cooke will tease out the ways that plants invest, get returns and make bets in ways that are as extraordinary as they are beautiful.” reads the blurb from a talk I gave at the Northern Ireland Science Festival.

The festival includes over 150 events across 11 days from 16-26 February 2017.  I talked about the wonderful diversity of strategies that have evolved in the the way plants obtain and allocate resources in order to compete, survive and reproduce.  I explored different types of pollen, seeds, leaves, flowers and stems before looking at some whole plant strategies through 15 of my favourite plants.  This is what blows my hair back and where my research interests lie, and I really enjoy doing this sort of presentation.

However, it can be hard to determine the impact of a public talk. I can see an audience responding (nods, smiles, various facial expressions) and there are usually questions.  But are people temporarily entertained?  Just being polite?  Or are they really inspired and armed with new knowledge?  Have they gained a different way of looking at the world and bigger appreciation of plants? The event ends, the audience leave and I rarely know any more. A presentation takes time to prepare, and there’s travel time, not to mention the work of staff organising the presentation space and publicity. Does an event like this  impress, persuade or inform? Does it inspire people to find out more about the topic? Is it effort well spent?

Following my talk in Belfast, I received an email from an audience member who had found my website (which I had neglected to include in my slides), read and listened to the contents and then taken the time to write to me.  She wrote: “It was a superb talk. […] I realise that it is how plants live that fascinate me, and not gardening as such. Your talk tuned in completely with my developing interest and I since have enjoyed looking at your website and have listened to podcasts about your work. I am grateful for your enthusiasm, knowledge and ability to communicate about plants…

Many thanks friend, for taking the time to write and let me know my talk was worth any effort. Thank you for reminding me that science communication is so very important – talking about our science to peers, politicians and the public.  There is value in leaving the jargon and any unnecessary detail at the door and giving a clear, accessible message that is the best of what we know.  And enthusiasm? That’s the easy bit for me, because it’s just my genuine excitement about plant and their incredible strategies.  But it is very nice to know it inspires others!