“It’s amazing to know all these women have my back” – Meet Merel Postma, Editor and Press Officer – Geosciences Communication and Marketing
What is your role or function at Utrecht University?
I am one of the Geosciences Press Officers and editors. Day to day, I write news articles, connect the press with our researchers and manage the Geosciences website.
How did you end up in science communication?
I never really expected to be in a press role. I did a research Bachelor and research Master and when I was nearly finished with my Master, I realised that I didn’t want to be a researcher. But I always enjoyed talking about research and science, and I was good at writing. So I decided to add an extra 6-month Science Communication minor to my research Master. I loved it and I did my internship at NEMO Kennislink as an editor, which was just amazing. I got to write a lot. When I lived in England about a year after I graduated I saw my current role advertised, and it was exactly what I wanted to do. I applied, got the call back twenty minutes before setting off to move back to the Netherlands, and now here we are, 2 years later.
How did you find the transition from research to communication?
I was never a fully-fledged researcher. It was never set in stone that I would do research, but it was always the next logical step. My Bachelor was in biology. The options presented to me then were: you can be a researcher, you can be a teacher, or you can be the next Freek Vonk (the Dutch Steve Irwin). I didn’t really like any of those options, but I never really knew what I wanted so I did what I was expected to do. I sometimes look back and wonder would I do it differently, but honestly I don’t think I would. For my work at the university it really helps to have a Master’s degree and to have the background knowledge and experience in reading and writing scientific papers. I’d already had a peek behind the curtains as to how it works. But at the end of my Master, I didn’t really have a plan, except I knew I didn’t want to do a PhD. I saw a flyer for a science communication minor and then it just clicked: that’s what I wanted to do.
Do you think there is a big gender divide in science communication?
I think science communication and communication in general are more female-dominated fields. In my team and the other press teams, it is mostly women. But then I work with fields that are more male-dominated: media (journalists) and academia (professors). When I started working at the university, I definitely had to prove that I wasn’t just ‘that girl from communication’ but that I am an editor and a press officer in my own right, that I am a professional and have a specific set of skills and expertise. It’s a funny divide; there’s a lot of women around me, which is amazing, because the things they do really inspire me and help me grow, but at the same time as a woman it can sometimes be hard to be taken seriously by people I’m working with.
Do you have role models in your field and does that help?
My colleagues are my role models. When there is a problem I have to solve, knowing that I can talk to my more experienced female colleagues makes me feel safe. I don’t feel worried or that they will question my abilities. They are open to new ideas and discussion and it’s great to know all these women have your back. My boss is also incredible, the way she leads our team and how she always has our backs, we know that we can always go to her. Whether it’s good news or bad news, or something she can improve on, her door is always open. If I would ever take on a leadership role, it would be amazing if I could do it like she does. She really inspires me. Unfortunately she is leaving our team soon, but of course I wish her all the best in her new role.
How do you experience university life as a non-researcher?
I think the supportive staff is a big family. Most of us experience the same divide: researchers need us to do their job but we, especially communication, are often an afterthought, because people often don’t know exactly what we do. On the other hand, we have this pool of expertise that is very specific, so when researchers do come to us, they have to trust us and our expertise which can be scary for them. But it can lead to really great things if they can open themselves up to receiving our input and knowledge. I’ve noticed during the popular scientific writing workshop I give, a lot of researchers say they’ve learned something they didn’t know before. The expertise we have is so different from research; part of our expertise is based on experience. There are theories about science communication and strategies, based on a mixture of research and experience. However, nothing is ever set in stone and especially the media is quite a volatile and fickle field to navigate. The world changes so much and communication has to change with it.
How do you see the role of communication in EDI topics?
Communication is what you see from the outside world, it is what ultimately spreads the message, whether that is planned and structured communication that comes from press releases, or for example informal posts from within the EDI community itself. There are conversations happening and research ongoing in academia around EDI, but that is not always seen unless you communicate about it. It can be scary, because though it shouldn’t be, diversity and inclusion are polarising subjects. Everyone has an opinion. So you have to make choices: do you want to tread carefully? Or go in guns ablaze and make a point? Both come with consequences. It is important that there are experts who know how to navigate those choices and consequences in a respectful way. Utrecht University seems to be one of the more woke universities, we are quite the activists to the outside world. Sometimes that comes with backlash and that can be scary, but I think that backlash is incredibly important to be able to hear every voice. We can and need to learn from those voices.
What do you see for yourself in your future career?
I really like what I am doing at the moment so I want to keep doing this for a while, I definitely have more to learn still. I like stability and to not constantly be hunting for jobs. I’ve always wanted to write a book. I always liked the idea of writing something. It may be in the realm of science communication but also maybe fiction. I have no experience with writing books, but you have to start somewhere.
What advice would you give to young women who are interested in science communication?
Just do it. It’s great. Especially at Utrecht University, we have a close-knit community of people who are ready to help each other and stand up for each other. We all have each other’s backs. It can be a really nice community to step into, and it is really good for your personal development because you always keep learning. Just do it and feel welcome!