Why bother with outreach?

One of the main goals of the International Year of Light 2015 is to ‘reach out’ to citizens to show them the importance of light and optical technologies in their lives, for their futures, and for the development of society. ‘Outreach’ is a concept that we, researchers, are all acquainted with, but probably only few of us already actively contributed to an outreach activity for the public at large. I must confess that initially I was also slightly reluctant about getting involved in exhibitions, workshops, science shows, and light talks, aimed at inspiring young minds for a career in optics and photonics. For me – and I believe for many researchers – the reason for holding back was that such activities can consume a significant amount of our ‘precious’ time. And in the academic world one generally does not obtain as much credit for contributing to outreach events as for writing top-level papers and project proposals.  However, over the years I experienced that reaching out to the public at large can be as rewarding for the event organizers as for the public itself.

Explaining the basics of infrared imaging. Credit: B-PHOT.

Explaining the basics of infrared imaging. Credit: B-PHOT.

One particular showcase I would like to highlight in this respect is the “Photonics Science Show” that our research group the Brussels Photonics Team at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel organizes every year for more than 800 secondary school pupils. During this event, our aim is to entertain our young audience with spectacular life-on-stage photonics experiments while also explaining the basic physical concepts that support these experiments.

Illustrating the difference between macro- and micro-lenses. Credit: B-PHOT.

Illustrating the difference between macro- and micro-lenses. Credit: B-PHOT.

Both PhD students and PostDocs are involved in the organization of this large-scale event, and some researchers need more convincing than others to prepare their part of the show and get on stage in front of such a lively audience. But often those people, who were a bit reluctant at first, afterwards regret that they hadn’t participated any earlier, since they really enjoyed the thrill of reaching out and feeling the vibes of an enthusiastic public.

Getting the audience involved through a 'Mexican wave' to illustrate the concept of a wave. Credit: B-PHOT.

Getting the audience involved through a ‘Mexican wave’ to
illustrate the concept of a wave. Credit: B-PHOT.

I think experiences like these can be quite refreshing in a world focused on publications and projects. If in addition outreach would obtain a little more weight in the academic evaluation criteria for a researcher’s career, also the most sceptical-minded could be persuaded to give it a try. In my opinion, intensifying our efforts for reaching out to youngsters really could make a significant difference in how pupils perceive STEM classes, and as such could have an important impact on who will staff our research groups in the future.


LIGHT2015 Young Women in Photonics Award Applied-Technology Category - N. VermeulenNathalie Vermeulen is professor in the Brussels Photonics Team at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium. Her research is focused on generating light with multiple wavelengths in optical chips. In 2013 she obtained a prestigious European ERC Starting Grant, and she also became coordinator of a European FET project.

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