Aaron McKinnon on making a career in Science Communication at the European Commission

After graduating from Hamburg specialisation in 2018, Aaron McKinnon launched his career as a Science Communication Supervisor at European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Italy. In this interview, Aaron tells Mundus Journalism how combining knowledge from the worlds of social sciences and communication with science is creating more opportunities for journalism graduates.

When Aaron McKinnon was writing his thesis in Hamburg last year, he knew exactly what he wanted to do after graduation - find a communication related job in the scientific world and become an expert in the field. 

One year on and this Mundus Journalism alumnus from the United States is doing just that. Acing his job as a ‘Communication Supervisor’ (External Contract Agent) at European Commission’s  Joint Research Centre communication for science. 

In this interview, Aaron tells Mundus Journalism why he decided to opt for a career in the world of science and how other Mundus Journalism students can move their careers in this direction.

Mundus Journalism: What motivated you to start a career in science communication? 

Aaron: I was influenced by a course taught by Dr. Imke Hoppe at the Hamburg specialization. The course was on Media Effects and I was fascinated with the topic. After reaching out on the first day, Dr Hoppe hired me as a science research assistant for her ongoing research project on climate science communication. Working for Dr Hoppe introduced me to the field of science communication in a totally new way. I saw the potential for crafting communication strategies based on social science research and population statistics. I wanted to stay in this field. So, I started looking for jobs in the field of science communication on LinkedIn.

After a number of cold-emails, one connection on LinkedIn sent me a list of open vacancies at the European Commission and there just happened to be one traineeship vacancy in science communication. I applied and after an enthusiastic interview got hired. This was different to the Schuman Traineeship programme where Mundusians usually apply. This position was based in the Commission’s supranational research lab located in Italy. There I could work directly with the scientists and help communicate their ideas into actionable policy.

I really soaked up the experience of my traineeship and enjoyed the workplace atmosphere. I was invited to apply for two jobs at the end of my traineeship, one as an independent Expert Consultant and another as an external contract agent. It was a bit tricky because they usually don’t contract Americans for such positions but my years of experience in marketing and research on science communication, made me a perfect fit for that position.

These opportunities came to me as a result of my networking and hard work during my traineeship. I used to go around and give a short presentation on science communication to scientific units that would let me. I even created a communication strategy for two departments during weekends. That seminar demonstrated my social science research skills and my expertise in the video projection. I was recommended for one of my current jobs by an audience member from a unit meeting.

So that’s how I moved towards this career path and now I am moving further in this direction.  I now work full time as an external contract agent on the Copernicus satellite program and part time for a pilot project on seismic retrofitting. I am also volunteering for the next six months as a volunteer video editor for EU Aid.

Mundus Journalism: How are the jobs in the scientific communication field relevant for a Mundus Journalism graduates who have more of a background in social sciences and journalism research?

Aaron: Speaking of myself, my undergraduate studies in the US and the skills that I developed while studying in a research heavy programme like Mundus Journalism in Hamburg have made me highly relevant for a career in scientific communication. In general as well, there are 3 main facets in science communication where Mundus graduates fit well.

First, the biggest component of SciCom is writing papers for journals. Within the JRC scientists receive support on how to write papers and use communication strategies in a way that connects with different segments of audiences. Scientists often welcome input and assistance with communicating their science because their time is, of course, focused on scientific output. My two years as a Mundusian and the thesis written for Hamburg University helped me to master my skills as a professional writer and communication expert, and I bring these skills to work every day.

Second, science communication is becoming more  commonly perceived as a tool for science engagement- Within the scientific community there is more and more emphasis to understand how different groups in a given population respond to the scientific messages and how to create scientific messages in a way that leads to the desired response from those groups.

Existing science communication is dominated by ‘Risk perception’ which is one way of how people usually look at scientific issues. Stakeholders like policy makers and educators understand and respond to different issues in a more dynamic way than risk perception alone. There is a growing realization in the scientific community that we can develop a dynamic understanding of different groups in the population and create messages that can gain an audience’s attention and make the science relevant to their daily life. To develop such a dynamic understanding of human behaviour, the scientific community is borrowing the knowledge of social sciences and applying it to the scientific issues to devise more targeted communication strategies. This means that in the field of science communication there is more need of Mundus Journalism students with similar skill sets who graduate with a substantial knowledge of social sciences.

Thirdly, like any other field, scientific communication also makes use of the visual and verbal communication tools to create messages. In fact, science communication  has benefited greatly from employing info graphics and interactive videos, visuals communications and virtual reality- For example for something like climate change, virtual reality experiences can be very helpful to create an understanding of the issue among people who have not experienced extreme weather or plastic pollution. Need for devising such technical messages makes the journalism graduate like with my Mundus profile more relevant for careers in science communication

Mundus Journalism: The way you describe it, it seems there is a growing potential for Mundusians to find related jobs in science communication field. What skills are usually required to get hired on SciCom jobs and how does studying at the Mundus Journalism programme helpful in acquiring those skills?

Aaron: Writing is probably the number one skill that is needed in science communication. Second, working effectively and respectfully with people from different cultural and academic backgrounds. Third skill will be the knowledge of social sciences.

SciCom demands writing above all else, for translating ideas to writing video scripts, project proposal or emails to stakeholders or for technical reports. Your words are dollars in this field. If you write well and your project is approved it could mean money for the institute. If you fail to resonate and carry your message across, it means you could miss an opportunity.

Mundus programme is writing intensive which can act as a gift to students interested in SciCom related jobs. In my traineeship. I was asked on job to write emails and project reports and because of my refined writing skills I am able to contribute well to the team.

Similarly, in the Mundus Programme you meet with people from different cultures and you learn to work and collaborate with them. This internationalization aspect of the programme develops your cultural competency. These competencies help me navigate my way in this vibrant research community and work with people with different expertise in the scientific world.

Thirdly, it is very important to know how your videos and visuals will be perceived by different people and communities. The knowledge of social sciences, media effects and audience responses to media messages which I acquired through various courses in Aarhus and Hamburg gave me a better understanding of how to tailor my messages to reach audience and attract their attention to the issues. The foundational coursework in globalisation at Aarhus gave me the political savvy to understand and appreciate the dynamic EU system.

Mundus Journalism: On a related note, how was your traineeship experience with the JRC and what kind of tasks did you perform?   

Aaron: The traineeship was 5 months long and it was a great experience. I got full support from JRC. They gave me and the other trainees housing, travel, and even a bike to get to campus. The monthly stipend was enough to live comfortably in Italy. Most of all, it was a great learning experience. One of my job tasks was to help communicate the ideas to the policy makers in Brussels and make sure that projects gain visibility. With my team, I accomplished this through writing project reports, papers and workshop facilitation. My work required me to collaborate with other units within the institute.  Some of these tasks and fields were new to me. I had never run a workshop before. And, scientific workshops are very specific. You have to keep the scientists travelling from all over Europe to keep interested. You also have to build a community of scientists and keep it close together to use as a launch pad for future events. I ran two workshops and learnt a great deal from this experience. I also learnt how to author official reports and technical reports. Additionally, I gained an in-depth understanding of how EU policy making process works. I can’t recommend this traineeship enough to Mundusians. I encourage others to reach out to me on LinkedIn or on my website if they want advice on applying.

Fancy making a career at the European Commission? The next round of Schuman Traineeship Application will be open in March 2020.

Or, if you'd like to join the next cohort of Mundus students and join a network of people just like Aaron, applications are only open until January 10th, 2020 12:00 CET, so go and get your application in!