Communicating Science at ESO

A conversation with previous Science Communication interns

26 August 2022
What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • The diverse daily tasks as a science communication intern at ESO’s Department of Communication
  • The people responsible for writing many of ESO’s communication products
  • What you learn as an intern, and what you might end up doing afterwards

Have you ever wondered who writes ESO’s press releases, comes up with the image captions, scripts the videos and checks on social media activities? Perhaps you, too, are interested in science communication? Meet some of the people behind the texts: the Science Communication interns at ESO’s Department of Communication.

The Science Communication Internship programme, also known as the Science Journalism Internship programme, started with work placements in the early 2000s in what was then the ESO Public Affairs Department. Anna-Lynn Wegener, the current Head of ESO’s Department of Communication, joined as one of our very first interns in 2005. Since then, over 60 interns from all over the world have worked at ESO, and some are now part of the communications team at ESO.

I knew I would meet brilliant people and have the chance to learn a lot from each of them

All interns strive to bring the mysteries of the Universe closer to the public and have a passion for writing about science. This aptitude has brought several aspiring science communicators to the Science Communication Internship at ESO.

Actually, the person writing this blog post is one of them (hello!) and we aren’t perhaps as anonymous as I make it sound: sometimes we write for this blog, where we get to either dive into the details of astronomical research, or interview the people behind the science and the telescopes. Here I’ve had the pleasure to talk with some of my predecessors, about their experiences as interns at ESO, their background and favourite tasks, and take a look at where they are today.

A longing to learn and reaching out

“I knew I would meet brilliant people and have the chance to learn a lot from each of them, and this was indeed what happened!” says Giulio Mazzolo, who did the internship in 2021. Originally from Italy, Giulio already had a PhD in astrophysics and some expertise in science communication, but wanted to gain experience specifically in astronomy communication. With ESO being one of the world’s leading institutions in astronomical research, Giulio felt like it was an unmatched opportunity to gain experience.

Giulio Mazzolo
Giulio Mazzolo, Science Communication intern from May 2021 to November 2021.
Credit: Giulio Mazzolo. This image isn’t released under our usual CC-BY licence.

Vanessa Okafor
Vanessa Okafor, Science Communication intern at ESO in 2019.
Credit: Vanessa Okafor. This image isn’t released under our usual CC-BY licence.

Vanessa Okafor from the UK had a somewhat similar background with a degree in physics and previous experience with communicating science verbally at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. Her longing to grasp the pen to explain the Universe brought her to ESO: “the internship was more writing-focused, so I feel like it made me a well-rounded science communicator and really improved my writing skills”.

I really wanted to work in a multicultural workplace doing cutting-edge science – ESO was a perfect match!

Having science communicators of different backgrounds and experience is key to bring a diverse view, and ESO welcomes interns without degrees in astronomy. This was the case for French-Australian Mathieu Isidro, who prior to his internship in 2012 had a background in language and communications.

“I’d been an enthusiastic amateur astronomer from a young age, which is how I knew of ESO and its telescopes in Chile. I was getting near the end of my studies in language and communication and I really wanted to work in a multicultural workplace doing cutting-edge science – ESO was a perfect match!” says Mathieu.

But the road to the internship was not a straight path for Mathieu, and it was only on his third time applying that he got offered the internship: “I like to joke that ESO finally gave up and had enough of seeing my CV, but it just goes to show that if you really want something you shouldn’t give up and that you should keep learning and growing to get there”.

Mathieu Isidro
Mathieu Isidro during the ALMA inauguration ceremony in March 2013. After his internship, Mathieu worked for over a year with communications for ESO in Chile.
Credit: Mathieu Isidro. This image isn’t released under our usual CC-BY licence.

Similarly, Thea Elvin from the UK did not have an astronomy background, but joined ESO with a masters degree in Climate and Atmospheric Science: “science communication was something I enjoyed and the ESO internship seemed like the ideal opportunity to gain some experience.”

What do you actually do as an intern?

Interns do a little bit of everything related to communication, such as writing drafts to many of the texts published by ESO. “Being able to explain difficult concepts in simple language is an important part of the job of an ESO intern and putting this into practice by writing press releases, pictures of the week, and blog posts really helped me take my existing writing skills to the next level”, Thea says. On top of the tasks Thea mentions, the interns also get experience captioning images, writing announcements and scripts for explainer videos, partaking in various meetings, working with the social media team and keeping statistics on ESO’s coverage in news.

Learning from the other professionals at ESO was always fascinating

With such an assortment of tasks and things to learn, there are various ones that end up being the interns’ favourites. For instance, Vanessa enjoyed the morning routine of checking that the webcams at the observatories were online –– ”Some days the sunrise and sunsets were so beautiful!”, she says –– and interviewing staff for blog posts.

Many of us have a special place in our hearts for the ESOBlog. ”I really enjoyed the creative freedom in terms of writing style and story angle to follow”, says Giulio, and remembers back to all members of staff and astronomers whom he got to interview when working on texts for the blog.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Thea ended up doing her internship remotely[1], but even so she felt like she got the ESO experience: “the whole team was fantastic at making me feel welcome and involved, even from a distance! Learning from the other professionals at ESO was always fascinating – such as learning about storytelling from the Head of the Creative Team, Martin Wallner!”.

Behind the press releases

The press releases are one of the key science communication products at ESO. Scientists will send us their papers and it is up to the ESO News Team, consisting of communicators and scientists, to decide if the research should be featured or not, and how best to highlight it. The interns are part of this process: they give their views on whether they think a paper could be interesting for the media or the public during the ESO News Team discussion, and they draft the release text. Reading scientific papers can be a bit intimidating, even with having a science background like Thea: “my background definitely helped when starting the internship but I didn’t have much experience studying anything astronomy-related, so reading through some of the scientific papers to review for press release was a steep learning curve!”

Thea Elvin
Thea Elvin, Science Communication intern from March 2021 to August 2021.
Credit: Thea Elvin. This image isn’t released under our usual CC-BY licence.

I got to interview [Michel Mayor] over the phone, and in a true fanboy moment, told him he was the reason I was there!

But once Thea overcame the learning curve, she was greeted with the joy of seeing her pieces featured in various media news outlets. “I’ve been an avid New Scientist reader since I was 16 so it blew my mind to see a story that I had helped to break being covered in there. I wish I could go back in time and show my 16-year-old self because it would have blown her mind too!”

Mathieu, too, had a thrilling moment related to a press release, when he got to interview one of his long-spanning inspirations: “A few weeks into my internship I got to work on my first press release about a major exoplanet discovery by Michel Mayor and his team. I couldn’t believe it! His discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star in 1995 was one of the main reasons behind my passion for astronomy growing up. I got to interview him over the phone, and in a true fanboy moment, told him he was the reason I was there!”.

Golden moments from the everyday life at ESO

The entire internship gave me some of my favourite memories

Besides producing texts and getting experience in media activities, the internship takes place at a central hub for astronomical research, the ESO Headquarters near Munich, Germany. As an intern, you get access to the weekly seminars, journal clubs, and the everyday social life at Headquarters. One of Giulio's fondest memories is when members of the communications team went stargazing, admiring shooting stars, which turned out to be ”a lovely evening made of great chats, good food, and some wishes for the future!”.

Vanessa even took the initiative to start a sci-fi movie club, much enjoyed by the students at ESO, and by the end of her stay, the communications team and others at ESO got together for an informal goodbye: “the entire internship gave me some of my favourite memories”.

Where are they now?

The internship is a stepping stone for longer-term positions, and interns value the experience and expertise they gain on the job, applying it as they move forward in their careers. Vanessa is currently studying towards a PhD in exoplanets at the University of Warwick, and brought with her many important skills obtained during the internship: “I think the independence I got as an intern and the useful skills such as time management and writing are definitely things I still implement in my daily life”.

Learning how to distil scientific results into press releases is something Thea uses in her day-to-day work as a press officer for the medical journal The Lancet. “When the process for selecting papers to press release was being explained to me, I was relieved to find it was similar to the process at ESO – it helped me quickly go from being quite nervous to thinking ‘I’ve done this before, I can do it again!’”.

As for Giulio and Mathieu, they now have careers related to science communication. Giulio currently manages the support office of Copernicus, the satellite constellation of the Earth Observation programme of the European Union and is an associate editor at astroEDU. Mathieu is the Communication & Outreach Manager for the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) collaboration.

And to wrap up this trip down memory lane, Giulio sends a message: “I would like to encourage any astronomy enthusiasts willing to pursue a career in science communication to apply for this internship. For me, it has been an invaluable learning and personal experience, which I totally recommend”.

The basics and how to apply

The internships, which have a duration of six months, are paid. ESO offers a monthly allowance and pays for accommodation (rent and bills) in a shared apartment near ESO's headquarters. ESO also covers the costs of a return flight from/to the intern's home station. You can find all the details under the “Internships: Science Journalism” job ad on ESO’s recruitment page. The deadline is always set to the end of the year, but you can send in the application whenever suitable for you, and the Department of Communication will go through your application at the earliest possible time. In the coming months, we plan to recruit for internships starting in 2023.

For additional perspectives from students and fellows at ESO, check out the links below.

Notes

[1] Remote or hybrid internships are not possible in normal times, but as Thea was an intern during the covid-19 pandemic, she could not do her internship on site due to travel restrictions.

Rebecca Forsberg
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Numbers in this article

  • 6 months is the duration of the Science Communication Internship at ESO.
  • 2005: The year the current Head of the Department of Communication Anna-Lynn Wegener did her internship. She was one of the very first science communication interns at ESO.
  • 64: Persons that have done the Science Communication Internship so far.

Biography Rebecca Forsberg

Rebecca is a science communication intern at ESO. Prior to this position she has completed a bachelors and masters degree in astronomy & astrophysics, and is currently (when not working at ESO) doing a PhD at Lund Observatory, Sweden. Rebecca found her passion for writing and communicating science as a science reporter for the Swedish magazines Populär Astronomi and Lundagård.