Professor Alice Roberts began her talk at ‘Leading Academics’ with an outline of her career, from working as a medic in Cardiff, to her time as an anatomy lecturer in Bristol, and finally to her current role as Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Birmingham. Professor Roberts was refreshingly candid regarding the role of serendipity in her own career, but it was clear that this was paired with long hours of hard work.
A theme that has been present throughout Professor Roberts’ career is her passion for public engagement, which she argued is as important in academia as research and teaching. Professor Roberts described how she set up a school outreach programme at Bristol University, focussing on getting academics involved. This passion also led her to become an expert contributor on TV series such as ‘Coast’ and ‘Time Team’, in addition to presenting her own programmes such as ‘The Incredible Human Journey’. She was keen to stress that these different commitments and experiences enriched other areas of her career; for example, her work on ‘Time Team’ gave her access to old bones (her main interest) that would otherwise have been unavailable.
Professor Roberts argued that public engagement should be separated from other aspects of University policy, such as student recruitment, stressing that universities have a ‘moral imperative’ to disseminate their research to the wider community, thereby creating a dialogue. The delegates were also encouraged to visit http://thinkpe.wordpress.com, which lists the public engagement representatives in each department of the University and provides informative case studies. Additionally, Professor Roberts stated that it is important to create a sense of community around public engagement and commented that, in her experience, the most successful public engagement is a ‘grass-roots exercise’, much like academic research itself, with creativity playing a vital role.
In the questions, Professor Roberts underlined the importance of following your passions. Moreover, she stated that, in order to get the wider public interested in your own subject area, you should remember what makes you excited about it, and convey that enthusiasm to your audience. She concluded by encouraging the delegates to consider breaking out of the more traditional career pathways, creating their own opportunities, as it was this that enabled her to have such a varied and enjoyable career.
Overall, Professor Roberts’ talk was an honest, inspirational, and sometimes very personal account of a truly unique career, which demonstrated that it is possible to stay true to your passions.