Why Soapbox Science?

IMG_5243By Miss Lydia Bach (@lylubach), Queen’s University Belfast.

Lydia will stand on one of our soapboxes in Glasgow, on the 7th of June.

She will be talking about food webs, with a talk entitled:  “Food (webs) for thought – Or when I realised that marine food webs behave just like Facebook does”



Soapbox Science is an engagement project promoting female scientists and the cutting edge science they are doing. Over the past five years Soapbox Science has been an incredibly successful initiative expanding to Exeter, Newcastle, Belfast and Glasgow this year.

IMG_0358I am looking forward to be part of the Soapbox Science speakers team this year to chat about how networks like Facebook are similar to my PhD research – coastal food webs. If you find that hard to believe, come and chat to me about it: 7th of June, Glasgow. As most scientists will probably tell you, their science is particularly important. I’d like to say mine is too. Working on food web and food chains in coastal areas around the UK will help us to understand how these ecosystems work, and how we depend on them. By understanding the structure of the food web network, I might be able to predict how species invasion and extinction will affect the coastal areas we depend on, and the services we gain from them.

Journal publications are the currency in science and to be able to get a position after my PhD I really should be focusing on my analysis and publishing. So what am I doing at Soapbox?


1/ Communicating science

Learning to communicate science: Particularly as an early career researcher it is important to learn how to engage with the public, and speak about the science I do in a less formal manner. Soapbox Science is a great opportunity to learn how to do just that, to improve my engagement skills and to chat to people at the event. It is motivating to get out of the lab to chat about the science I am passionate about, but might also help me to think of new ideas and gain insights that might help me with my work.


Publish or perish (not): The benchmark of research is publishing work in peer-reviewed, often highly specialized journals. In the world of academia, scientists are assessed by the journal publications, and to a much lesser extend by science communication or engagement. In reality, article publications are the currency of science, although engagement with the media or public is becoming more important. I’d like to think that Soapbox Science contributes to pushing that boundary, by giving scientists a platform to encourage science communication as an important part of the science career.


Accessible science: Most scientific studies published aren’t accessible to just anyone in the public. The majority of peer-reviewed research is published in subscription journals, which are only accessible to those who work in institutes such as universities. In 2011, only ~2.5% of all journal articles published were open access. That’s quite shocking, given that we should be able to disseminate and share new knowledge fast to make a greater impact.


Papers aren’t read: Ironically, those papers don’t get read or cited (referenced in other papers) all that often. About half of all scientific papers have less than four citations and one fifth of the papers have no citations at all. So who benefits from scientific research if many papers aren’t read or referenced by scientists, or we fail communicate our research in other ways?


Language: Even if scientific papers were accessible, I doubt that the language used and scientific jargon would in mainstream media or with the public. Most times even I find it hard to get through a scientific paper without being particular switched on or on the appropriate coffee dose (2 cups). I’d like to learn how to accurately communicate what I am working on, without losing scientific integrity or my audience.


Building trust: It is vital that people trust that the work that is being funded using taxes is important and feel that it has direct positive implications for society. I think only if we succeed in emphasizing the importance, implications and novelty of what scientists are doing, we can gain the trust back science may have lost because we’ve been sitting in our ivory tower for a little too long.



2/ Women in science

Jane with Uruhara pant-hooting, 1996.Role models: I would argue, when we think scientist, we don’t immediately think women. The first thing that comes to my mind is the picture of elderly bearded lab coat wearing geek (- I too think in stereotypes). Younger girls (and boys) need more female role models to look up to. When I was at school I had an amazing and encouraging biology teacher and I read all of Jane Goodall’s books about science, chimps and conservation. I don’t know if I had pursued a science career without having role models to look up to when I was younger. I would like to think that it makes a huge difference for girls to see women do jobs they didn’t expect them to do.


Role models in academia: I am still looking for role models, and they are a bit harder to find in academia. In the Royal Society, one of the UKs most prestigious societies recognising excellence in science, women only make 5% of the fellows and in 2012, only two of the 44 newly appointed fellows were female. Sure things are changing; the number of female professors for example is increasing slowly. However, more than four in five professors are men. It can only be beneficial to connect to other female academics during Soapbox Science events and seek out the role models especially female early career researchers are looking for.


Vanishing females: What is fantastic is that nowadays many girls decide at university, with about 59% of undergraduate degrees went to women. However, that figure doesn’t look so rosy once we move past the undergraduate degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) sciences, where women make up only 35% of PhD graduates, 32% of academic entry level and 23% of the middle rank positions, and only 11% of professors.

Although at the beginning of their studies, 72% of women express an intention to pursue careers as researchers, by their final PhD year that number drops to 37%.

This is because of a large number of things including family planning, inconvenient working hours, and lack of mentoring, career support or role models. A lot is done about it. For example, the Athena SWAN initiate is actively promoting equality in the workplace. The Soapbox event is part of doing just that.

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