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Physicist and Educator Shane Bergin, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, Receives the 2014 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has honored physicist and educator Shane Bergin, a senior research fellow at Ireland's Trinity College Dublin, to receive the 2014 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science.

Bergin was lauded by AAAS for his "remarkable talent for promoting physics to the general public and potential students of physics."

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Shane Bergin third
Courtesy Shane Bergin

In particular, Bergin was recognized for spearheading a public-engagement campaign on Dublin's rapid-transit system (the DART) — an effort to generate interest in science and science careers. His "DARTofPhysics" project sought to change the perception of physics in Ireland by prompting commuters to ponder intriguing questions about physical phenomena. Posters on train cars asked, for example, how many leaves fall in Dublin every autumn, and how gravitation draws people together.

After having their curiosity "zapped," many Dubliners responded by logging onto a website featuring fun science content, profiles of physicists, and more. For his campaign, Bergin enlisted the support of some 200 undergraduate physics students, 50 Ph.D. candidates, and 50 staff members from the physics and education departments of Trinity College Dublin. The team leveraged both social and traditional media to help raise awareness of the importance of physics, and science in general.

One question, for example, asked commuters to think about the concept of mass. Posters asked, "Is the person next to you standing too close? They're mainly empty space." Commuters who clicked on a related web page then learned about the work of nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), who helped to overturn the historical view of atoms as "like a plum pudding: lots of bits baked together into a more-or-less solid blob." Rutherford bombarded a thin sheet of gold with tiny particles, noting that some passed straight through the material without any deflection. From this, Rutherford concluded that atoms were not solid blocks at all, but rather, a core, or nucleus containing most of the mass, surrounded by clouds of negatively charged electrons with very little mass.

Though still at an early stage of his career, Bergin has developed many other educational and communication-focused activities, including the Trinity College Pitch Drop. In 2013, he used a video camera to capture a rare physical event: a drop of pitch (tar) falling from an antique funnel. The resulting video, which dramatically illustrates the effects of viscosity, has been viewed more than 2 million times.

Bergin earned his Ph.D. in physics from Trinity College Dublin, where he has worked as a senior research fellow since 2012. From 2009 until 2012, he served as the Marie Curie Fellow in chemistry at Imperial College London, and earlier, he held lecturer and researcher-in-residence/postdoctoral roles at Trinity and at Intel Ireland. He has remained focused on communicating science and teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students in physics, engineering, and other STEM fields. Bergin's research has explored nanomaterials as well as innovations in STEM education, and he has so far published two-dozen scholarly articles encompassing both areas.

Established in 2010, the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science recognizes the achievements of individual early-career scientists and engineers who have demonstrated significant contributions to public engagement activities while simultaneously pursuing a research career.

The award will be bestowed upon Bergin during the 181st AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, California, 12-16 February 2015. A ceremony and reception will be held in Room 220C of the San Jose Convention Center on Friday, 13 February at 6:15 p.m.

Author

Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs