I ran away to join the circus

Publication date
Friday, 23 Sep 2016

ANU student Kate O’Sullivan traded exams and lab reports to tour Australia with a brightly decorated semi-trailer filled with everything from bubble makers to leaf blowers. 

Before I went to the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF), if you had asked me where I would be in ten years’ time, the phrase “I ran away to join the circus” would have been furthest from my mind. I would never have thought that I would be touring all over Australia with a semi-trailer full of science exhibits and 14 other amazing people.

Let’s back up a little. Before I went to NYSF in the summer of 2006, my career trajectory was research. I was a stereotypical high school science student, with a bit of a passion for theatre and the arts, and I saw the laboratory as the place where I was going to end up, making the next big discoveries. But the two weeks of NYSF changed all that for me.

I remember being in one of the seminars and listening to a talk about science communication. This was followed by a few hours at Questacon – The National Science and Technology Centre. The idea that talking to people about science, which was something I enjoyed doing, was a career option was a revelation.

That’s where the Circus came in. After I finished my undergraduate Bachelor of Science and a one-year postgraduate diploma, I went looking for a way to get out amongst the community and continue my science communication journey. I discovered the perfect way—the Shell Questacon Science Circus, a program jointly operated by Questacon and the Australian National University (ANU) with support from Shell. This year, I am honoured to be a part of the program in its 30th Anniversary year. I get to talk about the amazing things that my scientist friends are doing, demonstrate some amazing things to the public (including safely holding fire in my hands and experimenting with liquid nitrogen) and generally making science more accessible to everyone.

The Shell Questacon Science Circus team is made up of science graduates from all walks of life. The team takes lively presentations of science to towns and schools whilst studying for a Master of Science Communication Outreach through ANU. I spend every day surrounded by lively, intelligent and enthusiastic people with a passion for sharing the science that they love with other people. More than one NYSF graduate has come through the program, and we all have amazing stories to tell. As you read this, we’ll be out somewhere on the road with our truck, bringing interactive science to communities across Australia. We’ll be engaging local school students with our energetic in-school shows and presenting public exhibitions of our ‘pop-up’ science centre, which has over 40 exhibits.

Running away and joining the Science Circus was the best decision I have ever made. I have been given the chance to inspire future generations of Australians to pursue science. And it’s all thanks to one talk and one visit back when I was at the NYSF. It really can change your life.