Increasing representation in science through creativity – Heidi Gardner

by | Jun 15, 2020 | Blogposts

Increasing representation in science is key.

Whether it’s in the media or in conference panels, it’s important for those underrepresented to break down stereotypes of who can be a scientist.

Last year I discovered how this could be done through creativity. One sunny afternoon I logged onto my Twitter account and I came across a BBC Scotland interview with Heidi (you can watch it at the bottom of this page).

I was instantly hooked when I heard her story and learned about her business, Science On A Postcard.
It didn’t take long for me to reach out to her and suggest we find a way to collaborate.

A phone call and a brainstorming session later we had come up with an idea to collaborate on two products: a ‘Research communicator’ pin and a notebook with a great quote on it. They mark our 2-year anniversary, spread awareness about the role of a ‘research communicator, and raise money for charity to support young women.

Research Retold Pin and Notebook

Collaborating with Heidi was one of the highlights of our journey in 2019. In this blog post, I invited her to share some insights into her career, her company and how she balances it all while also raising awareness about science representation and inclusion.

She is wonderfully passionate about what she does and her creativity and talent are remarkable. I’m sure by the end of this interview you will agree and support her!

Divisory line

Interview with Heidi Gardner, founder of Science On A Postcard

Why the name ‘Science On A Postcard’?

When I was thinking of what I wanted to call the business, I wanted something that was really obvious and in your face, it needed to say ‘we do science stuff’! The first products I made (before the business had a name) were postcards, and I liked the idea of creating products that would help scientists and science lovers to convey their science quickly and simply – i.e. within the space given on a postcard. I wanted to encourage people to make their science digestible, and ‘Science On A Postcard’ seemed to do that.
Interview with Heidi Gardner Science on a Postcard

What was the spark and motivation behind starting Science On A Postcard?

The motivation behind starting Science On A Postcard had been brewing for a while – I love being creative and throughout the first year of my PhD I felt that I was neglecting that part of my personality because I was so wrapped up in reading, writing and doing training to get myself set up in academia.

The spark that eventually led to starting the business was a conversation that I had with a stranger. I was flying back to Aberdeen from a meeting in London and I got talking to a stranger when my flight was delayed, this person (a white, middle-aged man…) asked me what I’d been doing in London for the day and I explained that I had been at a research meeting related to my PhD and that I was a Scientist.

This guy raised his eyebrows and made a comment along the lines of ‘Oh, you don’t look like a Scientist!’.

I mulled that over and knew immediately that I wanted to do something about increasing representation in science. Try and break down those barriers.

I don’t think that guy meant anything bad by saying I didn’t look like a Scientist. It just demonstrated the stereotypes that are so ingrained into our society, and I wanted to do something to chip away at them – creativity was the obvious way for me to do that.
Watch the BBC Scotland interview with Heidi at the end of this post to learn more about the behind the scenes inspiration.

What has been the biggest learning lesson in business for you?

Pace yourself.

Holy cow, it is SO easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of designing new things, making them and then seeing them out in the hands of people. That’s all super exciting, but it’s also a fairly obvious route to burnout. It’s so important to stay focussed on what you want to do and what you want to achieve rather than comparing yourself to other similar businesses.

If you were to give some advice to your younger self before starting your business what would you say?

Oooh, good question!

Two things – 1) do it sooner, and 2) do more preparation.

Science On A Postcard has helped me to gain confidence, develop new skills, and meet incredible new people that I otherwise would never have crossed paths with. So doing it sooner would be a no brainer for me.

In terms of preparation though, it would have been so helpful for me to have done some research on how to run a business before I started.. and I’m a Researcher, the irony!

I had no idea about tax and accounting stuff, how to register as a business, or how to offer a product/service that my customers really wanted.

I learned along the way, and I also did a business accelerator course last summer with the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen – that course was really helpful, but I imagine it would have been even more helpful if I’d done it before properly starting the business.

Can you shortlist your 5 favourite pins?

This is so difficult… I think the ‘Scientist‘ pin has to be my favourite – it was the first pin I made, and the original of the STEM roles pins that are now such a huge part of my business.

My next favourite 4 (I can’t rank them, I love them all for different reasons) are:

Science Enamel Pins Science on a Postcard
I love most of these because they highlight separate issues within the STEM fields – representation, diversity and mental health. These are all deep-rooted problems causing science to be inaccessible to people.

Ultimately that inaccessibility means that people don’t or can’t work in STEM, and/or that people don’t or can’t engage with STEM in their day-to-day lives. When that happens everyone is at a disadvantage. Now, I’m not naive enough to think that a pin badge can solve the problem, but if a pin badge can spark a conversation about the problem, then I’ve done my job.

What has been one of the best reviews you got from a client?

Positive reviews from clients that have had custom pins made are always lovely, but the best reviews are the ones where individuals don’t think that they’ll be able to find their profession in the STEM roles pin series, and then I happily present their profession in pin form to them.

This happened a few times when I took Science On A Postcard to the New Scientist Live event in London last year. I had one guy who’d emailed me a few times asking if I’d make a pin for Physiologists, he came up to the stand and was chatting away about how he loved my pins and he bought a few items, and then just as he went to pay he said:

‘I’m just so gutted that there isn’t a pin for me’. Being able to show him the ‘Physiologist’ pin and seeing his face light up was so, so lovely.’

Tell us a little bit more about your research career, what do you do outside of Science On A Postcard?

I think on paper I’d be called a ‘Clinical Trials Methodologist’ which probably sounds boring to some, but in practice, it’s equal parts interesting, infuriating and challenging. I love my job! In summary, I do research that focuses on improving the way that we do clinical trials.

My PhD thesis looked specifically at recruitment to trials, and my current post-doc project focuses on the time taken to collect outcome data in trials. My work is all part of an overarching initiative called Trial Forge, where we work on the premise that marginal gains can lead to big changes.

There are so many areas of trials that could be improved, and if we can squeeze out efficiencies using research evidence, then we can potentially make trials easier, faster, and/or cheaper to conduct.

The research that I do is so dynamic; I get to use a variety of both quantitative and qualitative methods to help answer my research questions, so no two days are the same. I also work with a supportive and passionate team, which means that we always come up with new ideas and have interesting conversations. My team challenges me constantly. I wish more academics worked in the sort of environment that I’m exposed to.

How do you find balancing running your business with your research career?

Both running a business and doing research are tasks that demand brainpower and time. It’s impossible to do both at full pelt all the time. If you write a PhD thesis, present at conferences and publish your research while designing and selling products, and running social media platforms, your mental health is going to suffer. That’s exactly what I did, and I ended up taking 10 weeks off from my research job to mentally recover.

I’m back at work now, but I took that time to think about what I really wanted. I reflected on what boundaries would need to be in place to enable those goals to happen. My research job comes first. It will always be my priority. That means that I’m not willing or able to commit to the business as a full-time job.

Science On A Postcard is not a full-time job for me; it’s a passion project, a very small business, and something that I do because I love it.

Setting boundaries will mean that I can keep the passion and love that I have for my business long-term, whilst building a successful and sustainable research career.

We see on your feed that you are open about managing your mental health. What advice would you give someone about taking care of their mental health while running a business / doing research?

Manage your expectations. As I said earlier, it’s so easy to compare yourself to others. But most of the time, those people are not in exactly the same situation as you are. There’s no point expecting to replicate others’ success if you have a completely different life from them.

Success is different for everyone, so setting goals that are realistic and specific for you is absolutely key for me.

Being able to tick off items on a to-do list is brilliant for my mental health. It demonstrates to me that I have achieved something. Getting to grips with what those tasks are – size and how long they might require – is a learning curve. Yet, I think it’s essential for maintaining good mental health whilst running a business and doing research.

Many thanks to Heidi Gardner for sharing her insights with us. Support her awesome business and get yourself a science goodie from her store today!

Watch the interview with Heidi here:

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