Bright Club is a group of comedy-club style events, promoting public engagement by scientists, academics and others with specialist knowledge. It began at University College London in May 2009. The Manchester arm was the first offshoot, established in May 2010. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester and I’d attended and enjoyed a couple of Bright Club nights with friends. I never imagined getting up on stage myself. I’m not really sure what possessed me to think to do stand-up comedy about my research, but I did. It started with an email from a science communication site I subscribe to. Bright club were looking for performers and I thought, “that sounds fun”, and clicked reply. My PhD involves investigating exercise as a therapy for the negative symptoms and cognitive deficits in schizophrenia. The first half is working with animals and the second is based in the clinic. The animal work I undertook was with the PCP model of schizophrenia. When I sent the email I realised what I’d done, but it was already too late. It dawned on me that my research was in schizophrenia, which is no laughing matter. My fears were assuaged by the organisers, who said that past performers had managed to do successful comedy on subjects from natural disaster to road layouts.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRDZ3vob5zs=300&h=169&rel=0 ]
The great thing about Bright Club is that they get everyone together a couple of weeks before their performance and do a workshop to generate ideas and pass on secrets of the comedy world (I never realised that the mic stand was so important). You are allowed to use powerpoint to illustrate your points, but are warned that you shouldn’t rely on it. After all, this is a comedy night and not a conference. The first performance was a relatively small one at the Nexus Art Café in Manchester. There around 50 people in the audience, including some of my colleagues, and I was very nervous. I couldn’t remember my set and I was convinced I would trip up on stage and fall into the first row. I had been assured that the audience knew what they were in for and were likely to be pretty geeky. I remember thinking that performing to a room full of intellectual people might be worse. Imagine the heckling: “your methodology is flawed and your research has added nothing new to the field”. That’s the stuff of nightmares. Luckily, I remembered my set and got on and off the stage without incident. I told the story of how I set up running wheels and called it Rat Gym. My performance seemed to go down well and I had fun. So much fun in fact, that when Steve Cross (the founder of Bright Club) asked me if I was performing at Science Showoff the next week, I just nodded. So that was that. I’d done my first science/comedy performance and had been booked for my second. I was almost a pro.
Science Showoff is an open mic night for scientists, science communicators, science teachers, historians and philosophers of science, students, science popularisers and anyone else with something to show off about science. This particular installment was at the amazing Museum of Science and Industry and in association with the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference. I was a bit more confident this time and really enjoyed the whole experience.
I thought that was it, but a few months later I was asked to the Bright Club The Big One. This was part of Manchester Science Week’s Science After Dark programme. ). I was also asked to write a blog for the Manchester Science Festival page. The Big One is a show case of the “funniest and most enlightening researchers from recent gigs” (I’m not arrogant, honest, it was in the press release. When I agreed to this I thought I could just trot out my other material, but no. I would have to write (and remember) a new set. This time it would be a bigger audience, around 300, and we were performing in Manchester Metropolitan’s new student union. I was particularly nervous this time as my mum was in the front row. As before, I couldn’t remember any of my presentation and I had a small asthma attack before I was due to go on. Foolishly, I had forgotten my inhaler, but all was not lost because of science. I drank a red bull, stopped wheezing and then explained to the audience what had just happened. I had experience symptoms of asthma and didn’t have my inhaler, but I knew that a stimulant (like a caffeinated drink) would ease those symptoms. A side effect was that it made me jump around the stage like the energiser bunny, which might have been amusing in itself.
To sum up, public engagement doesn’t have to be done in schools or with children. There are opportunities to share your research with slightly bigger kids too. Doing something like Bright Club is a great way to practice your presentation skills in a friendly, non-academic environment. I enjoyed myself and met some great people from outside my field.
I am available for weddings, birthdays and other special occasions. I’m just kidding.