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Laurie Winkless - Four Way Interview

Laurie Winkless (@laurie_winkless) is an Irish physicist and author. After a physics degree and a masters in space science, she joined the UK’s National Physical Laboratory as a research scientist, specialising in functional materials. Now based in New Zealand, Laurie has been communicating science to the public for 15 years. Since leaving the lab, she has worked with scientific institutes, engineering companies, universities, and astronauts, amongst others. Her writing has featured in outlets including Forbes, Wired, and Esquire, and she appeared in The Times magazine as a leading light in STEM. Laurie’s first book was Science and the City, and her new title is Sticky, also published by Bloomsbury.

Why science?

I was a very curious kid: always asking questions about how things worked. I suspect I drove my parents mad, but they never showed it. Instead, they encouraged me to explore those questions. From taking me to the library every week, to teaching me how to use different tools, they supported my hunger for learning. As soon as I found out there was this thing called 'science', I knew I wanted to get involved in it. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a paleontologist - I think Jurassic Park can take credit for that! - but physics and astronomy captured my imagination, and set me on my path. I loved being a research scientist, and I miss it. But now that I'm no longer working in a lab, I think my relationship to science has shifted a little - I've become much more cognisant of the wider context in which it sits, and feel a sense of responsibility to do more than just blindly cheer on research-for-research's sake.

Why this book?

When I was in the midst of writing Science and the City, I found myself thinking a lot about friction - mainly between train wheels and rails, and between tyres and the road. And despite having studied it in various courses, and even doing some friction / surface science-related work in the lab, I realised that I didn't truly understand it. I went off on a research tangent, to learn more about the fundamentals of friction. I found that while it was surprisingly complicated, it was also fascinating and could potentially house a rich seam of interesting stories. I also couldn't find any existing pop-sci books that focused on topics like that. So I started working on a proposal. The team at Bloomsbury weren't entirely convinced by my initial pitch, so I reworked it a bit. Thankfully, they liked version #2, and we signed the contract. Too many years later, Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces, has finally been published :)

What’s next?

Honestly, I'm not sure. As much as I'd love to be a full-time book author, most of my time is spent consulting with research labs and engineering companies all over the world - I develop communications plans, advise on strategy, train their scientists, and write different types of content. I also do lots of science journalism too, and some university-level teaching. I'm always juggling various projects. I moved to New Zealand five years ago, but for several reasons, I feel like I'm only just starting to find my feet here. So one big priority for me is to do more NZ-focused work. I haven't (yet) had an idea for book #3 - this one was such a huge undertaking, I think I'm still recovering from it - but I will continue to write, and see what happens! 

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Selfishly, I'm excited that people are reading my book, and are discovering that friction is interesting! I've also been getting lots of emails from researchers (everyone from a contact lens manufacturer to a dolphin biologist) happy to see that someone's written a pop-sci book on the topic.

Less selfishly, I'm excited that the scientific workforce is becoming more diverse (though it's happening very slowly) and more aware of just how important clear, open communication is. The pandemic has highlighted how damaging and dangerous mis- and dis-information can be. Scientists have a central role in challenging that.

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