Spotlight on... Dr Ben Littlefield

This week we meet Dr Ben Littlefield, Public Engagement Manager at UCL Culture, who chats to us about working on an ambitious new staff training programme and the time he was contracted by Quebec City, Canada, to film hovercrafts on the Solent.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am one of three Public Engagement Managers based in the Engagement team, part of UCL Culture. Each one of us balances core work such as managing our internal funding schemes or cross UCL training, with a particular focus on an area of UCL’s activity. I focus on supporting and enabling colleagues across The School of the Built Environment (The Bartlett), the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MAPS). It is an incredibly exciting and varied role, one day working with a PhD candidate on how first to make contact with community groups, the next supporting major funding bids with engagement intertwined throughout the research. The thing I take the most joy from though is helping people tell their stories, learning from people different to them and sharing the curiosity and delight underpinning research. 

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I started at UCL in October 2019. Before joining UCL, I was Head of Curiosity at Winchester Science Centre. I led both the public and schools education programmes and had a fantastic team of curiosity officers and inspirers. It was an exciting role, which ranged from writing and starring in science-themed pantomimes, designing exhibits on programming and geology hosted in a ’crashed spaceship’ right the way through to creating pop-up science centres in local shopping centres.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

In my previous role, I was the lead consultant on a major public engagement project ’The Secret World of Gases’. This was led by the Association of Science and Discovery Centres and funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the British Oxygen Company (BOC). I designed, developed and refined a whole series of demonstrations to tell the hidden story of gases to families visiting Science Centres across the country. It was incredible to know that the stories I’d written and demonstrations I’d found were being used everywhere from the Eden Project to Glasgow Science Centre. Most importantly to me though it was building confidence in staff at the Centres in embedding chemistry into their practice and conversations with their visitors. 

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list

I am currently working on UCL Engagement’s flagship staff training programme: Public Engagement: Skills and Practice. This is an ambitious project providing practical, toolkit and case study based training around different aspects of public engagement. 

I am working with an amazing team to create and curate it: Sylvia Kluczewski (Creative Producer and Programme Manager, UCL Culture), Oj Akhigbe (Learning Officer, Organisational Development) and Niccola Hutchinson-Pascal (Head of the Co-Production Collective) as well as wider colleagues across UCL and external contributors. This has provided a real diversity of ideas and creative approaches to how we do training and a huge amount of learning!

It is particularly exciting as not only does the content range from storytelling to impact but it is modular, meaning that any member of staff (academic or professional services) can pick and choose which module they feel is most relevant to them. It’s open booking now so if you are interested, head over to our website to check out what is on offer. 

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

I always find this type of question tricky as it varies with mood! As I write this I’d have to go for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours for album, The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition of course) for film and Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett for novel. Ask me on another day and it will be completely different! 

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Did you hear the one about the empty house? Ah, there wasn’t much in it... 

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

It would have to be a mix of laughter, appreciation for the natural world and storytelling; Stephen Fry, Helen McDonald, Michael Palin, Bill Bailey, Gideon Mantell and Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm 

What advice would you give your younger self?

Always be curious, do not strive for perfection, and instead learn to love learning - especially from failure.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I was once contracted by Quebec City, Canada, to film hovercrafts on the Solent (Southampton, UK), one of the more random parts of my Public Engagement journey...!

What is your favourite place?  

It is low tide on a clear, dark, moon-free (very) early morning at the beach near Lyme Regis (Dorset, UK). I am wrapped up warm, with a thermos of tea in my rucksack. Faintly fluorescing crabs scuttle out of the beam of my UV torch as I search for fluorescent sea glass. Later there will be laughter, pasties and coastal walks, but at that moment, with the soft crunch of the waves brushing the shore, the search is everything.


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