The post: Educator, W5
The post holder: Sean Greer
Good people skills and the ability to communicate are at the heart of Sean Greer’s role as an educator.
Give a brief outline of your career to date.
A lot of the jobs I’ve done seem unconnected but when I look back I can see that a pattern was forming all along. I think this is the same for many people. When I left university, I went to live in Japan where I taught English as a second language. On return I worked for a while as a programme assistant and researcher at the BBC in Belfast. After this ended I went back to Japan and worked as an advertising copywriter. Back in Northern Ireland after nine years away I began working at W5 and have been here ever since, putting my disparate knowledge, skills and experience together in the form of a science communicator.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I enjoyed biology, mainly because I love animals and wanted to learn how they work. However, I also liked English. My father always told me that the ability to write well is an invaluable skill. He was right. Whether it’s a report, a job application, a blog, a letter or even a short e-mail, whatever job you do you will always, at some point, need to write something down clearly, precisely and well. I believe that using the right words can open many doors.
Did you go on to further/higher education, if so what did you study and where?
I studied Environmental Science at the University of Ulster. I chose this subject for two reasons; awareness of environmental issues was growing and I thought it would lead to many job opportunities. Also, I thought there would be lots of field trips to interesting places. We went to Portnoo and Torremolinos.
How did you get into your area of work?
It was 2003. I came back from Japan uncertain about what I might do. I thought about continuing the copywriting but my portfolio of work for Japanese companies didn’t seem to impress in Belfast. I’d heard of a friend who was writing and doing science-based shows at an exciting new place called W5 and I was intrigued. It appealed to my inner-nerd and, as an occasional amateur actor, my inner thespian too. Could I possibly combine science and performance I wondered? I scouted the place and then when a vacancy came up I applied.
Is this what you always wanted to do?
Yes. I realise, when I look back, that I have always wanted to be involved in some way with communicating. In a parallel universe I might have been a teacher, I might have been an actor or a writer. I might even have been David Attenborough but whatever you call it, it’s about sharing experiences and inspiring others. That’s what I enjoy.
Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?
A science degree helps of course. You can also study science communication itself and as it becomes more and more popular, due to the celebrity effect of people like Brian Cox, more and more people are doing this. But apart from that, the essential thing is a love of all science and learning and the desire to share knowledge with others.
Are there alternative routes into the job?
The paths that lead to this job are as varied as the elements in the Periodic Table. In other words, they are many. You might be an academic with a speciality, a teacher who enjoys practical demonstrations, a doctor who wants to speak to a bigger group of people, an engineer who also likes to construct stories. In a sense, anyone can do it, but you must have imagination linked with scientific integrity. The facts have to be right.
What are the main personal skills your job requires?
Good general knowledge and a strong sense of curiosity. Obviously, it’s a very interpersonal role so you must enjoy working with others and meeting and talking with people. It also helps not to be too self-conscious. Paradoxically, sometimes you might have to act the fool to demonstrate the truth.
What does a typical day entail?
I don’t know. One of the really great things about working at W5 is the variety. In my time here I’ve met two astronauts, been 100m underground at CERN, looked at my own DNA and dressed up as Santa at Christmas. Every day is different – different schools, different subjects, different people. I could be storytelling with a nursery group then replicating genes with an A-Level class in the afternoon. Because our visitors are wonderfully diverse every day is fresh. I suppose Mondays can be a bit typical, but only for the first five minutes.
What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?
As I’ve said, the variety is one of the best things. I’m required to be something of a jack-of-all-trades in terms of science, so I get to cover so many fascinating subjects. I sometimes feel that I learn as much as I teach and that is very rewarding. The challenging aspects however, are almost as varied. To bring back visitors we have to keep things new and fresh. Science can change quickly too so we have to stay up-to-date.
Why is what you do important?
I firmly believe that science is for everyone and though we might not all be Newtons or Einstein’s nonetheless we innately understand fundamental concepts like forces, gravity and so on. If we can demystify science a little and also inspire the next generation then we will have been successful. As Einstein said: “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” I also believe that learning for its own sake is a noble pursuit.
What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?
Welcome but also be wary of advice. Trust your instincts but examine your motivations. Look for the connection between all the things that interest you and therein lies the core of what you really want to do. Everything is interesting if you look at it the right way.
If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?
I’d like to work for a while at the post office in Antarctica.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?
Most jobs are about teamwork so embrace the team. Get to know everyone in your workplace as soon as possible. They will be your teachers.
Describe your ideal day off.
With my wife Clare, a good walk, a visit to St. George’s Market followed by the art gallery in the Ulster Museum and to finish, a Japanese film at QFT.
And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?