‘Everything is on fire. You’re on fire. The desk is on fire and you’re just terrible!’ Shaun O’Boyle’s soft Donegal lilt instantly warms up a conversation. He has an openness and sense of humour that puts people at ease. He’s deeply interested in people, allowing them to talk about themselves with a reassuring smile. But when it comes to relaying his achievements he seems bashful, perhaps it’s from lack of practise. ‘I think it’s this horrible dichotomy of self doubt and ambition because I’m a very ambitious person and I doubt everything I do! Maybe this pressure is relatable to people that work in or adjacent to that freelance world. You feel that responsibility to be self directed but you’re so busy that you don’t feel you have the time to dedicate to figure out your next project. I find that terrifying but also exciting.’
O’Boyle is the research coordinator for the Science Gallery in Dublin, which their website describes as ‘a new type of venue where today’s white-hot scientific issues are thrashed out and you can have your say. A place where ideas meet and opinions collide.’ Research co-ordinator is his fourth job title for the Science Gallery. ‘I refuse to leave,’ he laughs. Whilst in the Science Gallery he has worked as a mediator, in PR and in events prior, highlighting his versatility and curiosity. But first let’s delve into the history that lead him to where he is now.
A PhD & The X-Files
It was whilst growing up in Killybegs in County Donegal in the 80’s that a series of elements activated his love of science. First there was ‘my parents encyclopedias from the 60s. I was reading this incredibly out of date information, I thought there were canals on Mars. We didn’t have the internet or computers so when I started watching sci-fi shows on TV, I thought wow everything has moved so fast!’ Then there was Ms Stephenson, his science teacher that got struck by lightning*, ‘she was a fantastic teacher.’ He also got a telescope, ‘I know it’s a scientist cliché but I never took apart my toys like children that grow up to work in the sciences usually do, I protected mine with terminal force!’
After finishing school he went to the University of Galway to study science, he stayed there up until his PhD which explored the area of zebrafish embryos. ‘I did a lot of work around how they develop. It involved the study of genetics and evolution, I was completely fascinated by it. Doing a PhD was really important to me, it made me feel like a scientist. Because it’s about trying new things and getting things wrong and having to start again. I had to come up with my own way of doing things as nobody had done it before.’
On completion on his PhD he started working for the Science Gallery ‘I did always think that I want to be involved in telling people about science but I didn’t have an idea of what form that would take for me.’ That’s why when the Science Gallery came into being it took on a huge importance to him, it was a physical space to go to and share ideas.
Falling In Love with Radio
’It’s a running theme in my career, that I really enjoyed giving presentations. I was the freak in the lab that really loved putting a power point together and speaking to a large audience!’ His desire to engage people about science through engaging mediums serendipitously drew him to radio. ‘I met Jonathan McCrea of Newstalk through the Science Gallery. I ended up producing his show Futureproof for two and a half years. That’s when I got really into radio, I loved it so much! I didn’t realise that producing could be such an enjoyable process.’ This experience has made him realise that his goal is to cross science with entertainment. It was that formula that spurned him into science in the first place, when he was a boy watching X-Files and reading sci-fi comics but now he’s aware of it.
He continues to make radio pieces with his reluctant boyfriend. ‘I convinced my boyfriend to make radio with me, he hates radio but it works out really well for that reason,’ he says with a wicked grin and then leans in to make his point. ‘I don’t have a radio background but I enjoy it. He doesn’t have a radio background as he’s an artist and a choreographer. It means that whatever we make is not informed by what either of us have listened to our studied.’ This approach highlights two things about O’Boyle, he’s adaptable as mentioned earlier. But he also approaches radio with a scientific mind, without a background in it he can test and explore new ways of creating a story. Mixing two very different minds together to get a unique result. He’s not bound by learned radio rituals.
‘I’m always thinking what is the narrative that we can tell and Maurice is always thinking what’s the human story that we can tell. For me it’s all about scientists seeing themselves as part of human culture. I think that happens by not seeing the scientific process as independent from the people who do it.’ Their first radio documentary that they created together is called You Are Here, it’s about walking through the science and history of time and space. It uses a walk through Dublin as a time scale. The scope of contributors and the production value of it is extremely impressive. He describes it as one of his proudest moments and how supportive Newstalk were in encouraging him to create it.
+ Felicia Day
Dublin is home for him now even though he does pine for Galway with a nostalgic look that translates as relaxed pace of life mixed with great conversation and delicious pints. ‘Dublin is really interesting at the moment science wise. Science communication has been happening here for decades and public engagement has been happening for decades but I’m interested in where science overlaps with entertainment. That’s only really emerging now.’
He has tapped into the local zeitgeist and he feels exhilarated by the possibilities. ‘There’s a group of us not bound by traditions, the Festival of Curiosity is a perfect example as it’s a new science festival. If you look to the UK they’ve science festivals that have been running for years but it also makes them less flexible and less able to experiment. ‘What I love about places like the Science Gallery and this emergent programming on radio and TV is that we’ve been given a little bit of leeway, we’ve an opportunity to shape what happens next.’
He cites Felicia Day as his inspiration. Day used to be an actress on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. She worked in Hollywood for ten years but didn’t conform to the traditional Hollywood model. She was told that in order to have a successful career she’d have to get a nose job, bigger breasts, get her teeth straightened as well as a myriad of other conformist behaviours for a borderline misogynistic industry. However she was and is successful in spite of that.
She decided to write and make a project that reflected her life, nerd subculture. She created a web series called The Guild about gaming sub-culture with a few hundred dollars. ‘She ended up creating videos that we never saw online before. I think when someone can create something from nothing by just making use of things like the internet and people that are available to you,’ he spreads his arms and says, ’well it’s just really inspiring, she makes it less scary.’
O’Boyle is keen to stay true to his scientific tendencies, that is to use and test new media technologies but his focus is on entertainment. ‘For me it’s about moving away from science that needs to be explained towards something that needs to be enjoyed.’
* Ms Stephenson is alive and teaching. She’s still relaying how she got struck by lightning to her pupils, Shaun’s niece and nephew testified to that.
You can listen to Maurices’ & Shauns’ podcasts here.