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Let’s face it, finding scientists who can communicate their science effectively, understand the needs of the media and the public and are able to respond in times of crisis are rare.

Dr Mark Quigley and Dr Wayne Mapp at the NZAS Awards

Dr Mark Quigley and Dr Wayne Mapp at the NZAS Awards

It was pleasing then to last night see the University of Canterbury’s Dr Mark Quigley pick up the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Science Communicator’s Award at a ceremony in Wellington, attended by the Minister of Science and Innovation, Dr Wayne Mapp, and other various science leaders.

Dr Quigley is Senior Lecturer in Active Tectonics and Geomorphology in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Canterbury and really became the science face of the earthquake recovery as he stepped up to provide as much information to the people of Canterbury and the country in general.

What made him so effective? As he explained himself last night, respect for and knowledge of his audience. Whether he is talking to a three year old about the earthquakes or a crowded town hall of traumatised Cantabrians, he knows how to connect to his audience and adapt his message for the best effect.

This is something that a lot of scientists fail to do – when faced with a media interview or public presentation, they continue to communicate as though they are talking to their scientific peers.

I judged the NZAS Science Communicator’s Award and while there were some excellent nominations this year, Dr Quigley’s stood out. Here’s what I wrote in my judges notes:

Judge’s comments:

From the morning of September 4th, 2010 when Cantabrians were awoken before dawn by the violent shaking of the ground beneath them, Dr Mark Quigley has been are the forefront of science communication around the forces at work beneath the Canterbury plains that caused the earthquake and its devastating follow-up on February 22.

Dr Quigley was on the front foot from the beginning, handling media interviews across print and broadcast and doing so in such an engaging way that he became the go-to scientist for independent commentary on the science-related aspects of the earthquakes.

Notably, Dr Quigley was instrumental in allaying fears generated by pseudoscientific earthquake predictions, appearing on Campbell Live and Close Up to address the claims of “Moon Man” Ken Ring.

Throughout, Dr Quigley has maintained a blog where he writes about his research, contributes extensively when called on by the media and participates in public lectures and presentations that have been greatly appreciated by the people of Canterbury. He is a scientist who understands the need for effective science communication and is willing to step up and engage with the media in the name of improving the public’s understanding of science. He is a great asset to natural hazards research in New Zealand and to science communication in general.

From Dr Quigley’s letter of nomination: Kevin Furlong, Professor of Geosciences, Penn State University comments:

“One of the reasons that Mark was seen as authoritative was that he combined his own understanding of the underlying processes with insight he gained from detailed discussions with people whose expertise complemented his, so that he had a holistic understanding of current best thinking about the earthquakes and thus was able to communicate that to a general audience.”

I didn’t realise until Mark produced some numbers last nigh,t just how much communication work has done in the last 15 months – including around 50 media appearances, 40-odd lectures here and internationally and tens of thousands of visitors to his blog.

His work on the science communication front has been hugely impressive and shows what can be achieved when scientists get on the front foot communication-wise when their area of expertise is in demand.

Other NZAS Medal winners

Marsden Medal – Professor Geoffrey Jameson, Director for the Centre for Structural Biology (chemistry and biophysics group), Massey University.

Research Medal – Associate Professor Alexei Drummond, Associate Professor of Bioinformatics, Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland

Shortland Medal – Professor Harjinder Singh, co-director of the Riddet Institute, Massey University.