Birmingham physics students win science communication award

Clear Direction Award winner Maxwell Buckmire-Monro (centre) with members of Forresters law firm and staff from the University of Birmingham's School of Physics and Astronomy

Two physics students from the University of Birmingham have won this year's Clear Direction Award for their ability to communicate technical subject matter in a clear and accessible way. It is the first time in the competition's five year history that the award has been shared by two winners.

The award involves students at the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy competing to demonstrate their ability to discuss technical and complex subject matter in a simplified way that can be understood by a lay person. Around 25 students gave verbal presentations to a panel of judges and this year physics graduate Maxwell Buckmire-Monro and undergraduate Marvin Sipp shared the honours after judges were unable to split the pair.

The Clear Direction Award is a collaboration between the Birmingham-based intellectual property law firm Forresters and the University of Birmingham.

Marvin spoke about quantum chromodynamics, a theory which explains how the particles that form protons and neutrons interact with one another. Meanwhile, Maxwell spoke about the Higgs mechanism, a theory which explains how mass was imparted to particles due to symmetries in the laws of nature being broken.

Maxwell Buckmire-Monro said: “'Participating in the Forresters’ Clear Direction Award was overall a fun and very rewarding experience.

“The competition offered a new challenge of communicating at a ‘layman’ level, something which would otherwise be overlooked throughout the degree. Communicating is something which a lot of students struggle with, so the opportunity to practice and hone those skills is invaluable for many physicists - not only in the world of academia, but also for moving out of education and into their careers.”

Professor Martin Freer, Head of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham, added: “The School of Physics and Astronomy values highly its relationship with Forresters, especially through the Clear Direction competition. The opportunity this provides for physics students to understand how they can potentially apply their skills to real world situations is powerful. We also are very proud that a number of our students have gone on to have successful careers with Forresters."

Dr Jagvir Purewal, Senior Associate, Technology & Engineering at Forresters, was one of the judges and helped devise the competition, based on his own experience.

“I gained my PhD at Birmingham University and a few years ago I returned and met with one of my advisors, Mike Gunn,” said  Dr Purewall. “I told him about my interview with Forresters where I was asked about my PhD and my research. I found it quite difficult to explain my research to a non-physicist, as I had never done that before.

“From that meeting, we came up with the idea of helping physics students become better communicators and teaching them to enhance their verbal skills. We named it the Clear Direction Award because patent law can be quite a complicated area, so when we at Forresters advise clients we always aim to be as clear as possible and use language that they fully understand.

“Both Maxwell and Marvin demonstrated confidence in their presentations, they were concise and were able to clearly communicate to judges. It was difficult to separate so making them joint winners was our only option.”

Fellow judge, Stephanie Thomas, who is a trainee patent attorney at Forresters and a former student at the University of Birmingham, added: “Congratulations to the winners. Clear Direction is Forresters’ ethos, and a big part of our task when protecting IP is providing clear and concise advice, avoiding bombarding our clients with over-complicated language. 

“The key is providing just the right amount of information – accessibility without imprecision. The winners used clever analogies and everyday terms to explain their ideas in an accessible way, a skill which would serve them well in the IP world.”