By Jessica Davies
When I signed up to Soapbox Science I had just moved to Oxford to start a post-doctoral position in multiple sclerosis genetics and I was looking for ways to promote and share science with the public. I had done public engagement events before, including Café Scientifique , Cambridge Hands on Science and Pint of Science Oxford. I loved discussing what research involves, showing people how exciting and accessible science can be for anyone. However, I had never stood up on a wooden box outside and spoken to a crowd of unknown size, age and science background; nor had I ever presented without the security of a PowerPoint presentation! And talking somewhat ad lib about my research?! Yikes! But I thought: well, let’s just apply; it sounds like it would be great for my confidence, career… I can deal with the inevitable fear if and when I actually get accepted!
And I got accepted…
And I wasn’t that scared…
Hmm. I definitely wasn’t expecting to feel so calm…!!
I volunteered for Soapbox Science not just because I loved sharing my scientific enthusiasm with others, even though I really do L.O.V.E. genetics; it was also because of the subtle message that this event gives: that women can be successful scientists. I have become increasingly aware during the past few years that successful scientists, particularly group leaders, are often stereotyped as male (and to kids, with crazy white hair), and actually that is the reality (and yes, some do have crazy white hair, but I don’t know the ratio of scientists:non-scientists with crazy white hair I am sorry to say). For example, 22 % of professors in 2013-2014 were women. This is becoming less so, but it is still harder for women to be successful, partly because having children is unavoidably a timely thing. Therefore, disseminating the subtle message that Soapbox Science gives, that women can be successful scientists, is important to me.
Prior to the event I prepared my props – a fun opportunity for scientific creativity! (I know that “scientific creativity” sounds like an oxymoron, but honestly, scientists can be creative and imaginative when that rare opportunity arises!) I was talking about DNA – what it is and how we can study it to increase our understanding of diseases; and in relation to my research, what is multiple sclerosis (MS) and what have we learnt about MS genetics?
I decided to make a cell, a nucleus, and DNA. This was actually easier said than done (try finding a blank and empty spherical container about 10 cm in diameter, inside another larger spherical container. Even Amazon doesn’t sell these things.). I made the cell and nucleus from my two year old nieces’ stacking spheres, and the DNA from beads and string. Simple, yet effective! I also needed a monkey toy and a banana – I emphasise need, because who doesn’t need a monkey and banana when talking about genetics?
I attended a great workshop by the Soapbox Science team; a brilliant opportunity to meet likeminded, enthusiastic scientists, and to prepare for the event. I came away feeling motivated, eager and ready for the day. I also got the opportunity to experience standing on a soapbox for the first time in my life (a momentous occasion). This was actually the most terrifying part of the workshop. On the soapbox I felt like a giant, the centre of attention; I also felt a tad unstable and worried a bit about falling off [“note to self – do NOT wear heels”].
I wasn’t anxious about the main event until just before I was standing on my soapbox on the day. I decided to head over to the event early to get a feeling for how it was set up, to support and listen to other speakers, to give myself plenty of time to prepare, and to see the public’s response. The event was going down incredibly well. There were huge crowds coming and going to each of the boxes; so many engaged listeners. Great, but a little bit terrifying…Then it was my turn. I put on my Soapbox Science labcoat, and then I stepped onto the box of fear, torture and – sorry, I mean the box of… education, enthusiasm and science!! I took a gulp and a reality check that I was about to start talking about science on a tall box in the busiest street in Oxford and was therefore absolutely insane. And yes, you know it’s coming (after all, I wouldn’t have written this otherwise)…
I LOVED it.
I actually LOVED standing on top of a box in the middle of a busy street, wearing a white coat, shouting to passers-by to draw them in: did you know that we are 50 % genetically identical to bananas?! And 99 % similar to monkeys?! (That’s where the banana and monkey cuddly toy prop came in by the way). I loved talking to larger crowds of people, and people asking questions – the larger the crowd, the more questions, the better; the sorts of situations that you would think are most terrifying, right? What I really loved though was the ability to inspire others about science. To show them how fascinating each and every one of us human beings is, how we are all linked by this molecule of life, a code of letters, a molecule invisible to the naked eye. To talk about how this molecule is intricately complex and fascinating, and how scientists are studying it to understand disease and ultimately make better treatments. I felt like all the speakers that day had ignited enthusiasm, awareness, and scientific understanding in many people. Everyone seemed to be buzzing with the success of the first Soapbox Science Oxford event; I know I was!