Science for a Penny

Dr Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-founder


At Soapbox Science HQ, we get quite a few invitations to come and speak about the initiative and the issues facing women in science generally. Between our day jobs (of being scientists!), family and other commitments we sadly have to turn down many of these. However, we found it difficult to turn down a recent invitation from Morley College, one of the most valuable resources in London for public education for all ages. The founding principles of Morley College and Soapbox Science have a lot in common: education for the masses, and equal opportunities.  It is rare to come across organisations that promote both: this is why we simply had to find time to squeeze the Penny Lecture into our hectic lives.

And so it was that on one windy March evening last week, I found myself trekking down to Waterloo to deliver a “Penny Lecture” at Morley college about Soapbox Science. It was a thought-provoking experience, with a small but perfectly formed audience (blamed dually on tube delays and the free wine reception next door…). I was reminded how Soapbox Science is founded on the very same societal battles as Morley College was, and with sadness I reflected how they persist today.

One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, an extraordinary woman did an extraordinarily brave and unusual thing. The philanthropist, Emma Cons, took over the notorious Theatre Vic in Waterloo and turned it into the ‘Royal Victoria Coffee Hall’ – an establishment offering affordable education and ‘improving’ entertainment for the local community. Emma threw out the drunks, the prostitutes and the debauched; she imposed order and provided meaningful and useful entertainment for the working classes. At the time, Waterloo was an extremely disadvantaged district, ridden with poverty, overcrowding (4 times the number of people who live there today), high mortality (1 in 5 children died before they were 1), lawlessness and ‘low-life entertainment’. It was an unlikely site for an adult education college! Yet, the ‘Royal Victoria Coffee Hall’ was one of a number of establishments in London striving to improve life for the working classes.

Emma Cons set up the “Penny Popular Scientific Lectures” as a weekly series of lectures given (unpaid) by well-known scientists of the day. The punters paid anything from a penny to three pence, making it affordable for anyone to come along and learn about important scientific breakthroughs: ‘The Telephone – How to talk to a man a hundred miles away’ was the first lecture, given by William Lant Carpenter in 1882. Emma recruited her lecturers by writing to Nature, appealing to the magazine’s authors to come and speak. Later speakers included the founder and editor of Nature, the astronomer Norman Lockyer. Interestingly, these science events took place within an otherwise entirely arts-driven enterprise, and they were introduced in order to save money (not needing to pay artists on nights when there were science lectures)! The Penny Lectures became so popular that audiences were 800-900 people strong. I felt somewhat humbled, 127 years later, to be giving a Penny Lecture about Soapbox Science and the current state of gender equality in science (albeit to a much more modestly sized audience!). The punters to my lecture paid a penny, just as those in 1880 would have done. I couldn’t resist working out that 1d (one old penny) in 1880 would be equivalent to about £3.50 today, based on the proportion of a full-time “working man’s” salary from 1880, and the London living wage today. So, a Penny Lecture, in today’s money, would cost you (a lot!) less than a pint of beer.

The other extraordinary thing that Emma Cons’ institution did was to admit women on an equal basis to men in an era when women had no voice or power to access education. The Penny Lectures were so popular that Emma also set up science classes which ran in the disused dressing rooms of the theatre. It was these classes that led to the formal establishment of the ‘Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women’, in 1889; Morley College claims this to be the first (or one of) working man’s (people’s?) colleges to admit women. To put this in perspective, University College London was the first UK further education institution to admit women (in 1878) and award degrees to women (in 1880). But of course, only the wealthy would have attended a university. Gender equality in education became accessible to the working classes of London 11 years later, at Morley College.

Interestingly, Morley College was named after the man who coughed up the funds (Samuel Morley), rather than Emma Cons, the woman with the brains and brawl to dream it up and make it happen. Predictably, it was Emma herself who suggested this….

Giving a Penny Lecture about Soapbox Science evoked a strong sense of history in me: it is an historical lecture series that promotes science as important, entertaining and for everyone; the lectures were established by a trail-blazing woman in an era where women rarely had voice or power; they embodied education for the masses from all backgrounds; they played an important role in the slow seep of educational rights for women. Uncannily, these are also the key elements on which Soapbox Science was founded. I find this depressing – have we progressed so little in 127 years?  It has also instilled a special nostalgia in me and I am sure it is an experience that I won’t forget. That, along-side a comment from a friend who, when realising my lecture would cost him a penny, said: “That won’t do much to address the gender pay gap!”


Posted in Opinion piece | Leave a comment

Bringing SoapBox Science to sunny Palermo

Hi! I’m Cristina, the local organiser of the Soapbox Science event in Palermo this summer! I’m a marine ecologist interested in the study of community patterns induced by disturbances (including environmental and human driven changes) and the effects on seabed biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. I completed my PhD in 2014, studying the effects of fishery disturbance on benthic communities. I then moved to the University of Palermo’s Experimental Ecology Laboratory as a postdoc in the framework of a regional research project at the Italian Research Centre (IAMC-CNR). Here I have lead a systematic review process to produce an inventory of regional (Sicilian) biodiversity conservation which is among the most common spatial management measures of protection (now extended to a global scale). During both my PhD and postdoc, I’ve spent long periods of time in the United Kingdom learning new techniques which can be applied to a Mediterranean context. Recently I’ve started to explore the role of species interactions in the marine ecosystem; invasive species monitoring and the study of ecology of invasion; the study of multiple stressors on marine habitats; climate change effects on marine resources management; and models for sustainable exploitation of marine resources.

Working at sea, in close contact with fishermen, I’ve started to realize how hard it can be to be a woman in a “sea of males”. Stereotypes mean that you are expected to prove that you can be strong enough to do everything: that you can help with fish discards; that you are not scared about being sea sick; that you can go weeks without a mirror and manicure; that you can cope with being covered in mud all day, not to mention fish scales, blood and sea salt; that you are loving your work, needing it, dreaming about it and missing it.

As a woman and marine ecologist, in a world of lab coats and waxed jackets, spending hours both at sea and in front of a screen waiting for a good result, I often think that if you learn something you must communicate it; your good experience can inspire someone in the future. Last summer, after a long night’s work, I found a little violet woman (the Soapbox Science logo) in a newsletter and started to research this big community who hold the same beliefs as I do: explain your science to the public and highlight the role of women in science.

On the Soapbox Science website I read the story of wonderful women researchers, engaging people on the streets to communicate the joy of working in science. There was lots of good scientific content, colours and happiness… I was so inspired!

I went to sleep very excited, thinking “We must bring Soapbox Science to Italy- to Sicily!”

I’m a very enthusiastic person and a little hardheaded.  If I have an idea I can talk about it for hours. Travelling back to the laboratory after a long sampling day with my supervisor, Prof. Gianluca Sarà, I told him about Soapbox and he suddenly said “YES”. We started to imagine how the event would work and planning how to involve the University. Even though men are more numerous than women in STEM fields, this is a problem that affects everyone who values the work that female researchers do and we have had great support from people such as Prof. Gianluca Sarà. That same evening I wrote to Nathalie and Seirian, at Soapbox Science.

And now here we are! Rector Prof. Fabrizio Micari at the University of Palermo has offered us complete support. The Scientific Council of the University (coordinated by Prof Anna Maria Puglia) is also involved and they share our ideas and passion.

We are working to bring top female Sicilian scientists to the streets! We are so excited about the idea of engaging the public with our research and inspiring the next generation. So if you are near Piazza Verdi (in front of Teatro Massimo) in Palermo on on the 10th of June, join us from 16:30 to 19.30!!!


Posted in Event promotion, Local organiser | Leave a comment

Soapbox Science comes to Brighton Seafront for 2017

Imagine yourself stood upon Brighton Seafront, the Pier behind you, talking about science with passers-by and inspiring them to find out more about your research…sound inviting? Well, this summer you have your chance as Soapbox Science comes to Brighton for the first time!

Soapbox Science hosts events across the UK and the world that celebrate women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine), breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes about who a researcher is.

Soapbox Science Brighton will take place on Saturday 29th July 2017, 1-4pm, on Brighton Seafront. “Soapbox is a brilliant initiative for raising the profile of women in science. What started out in 2011 as a single event in London has now gone global, with 21 events planned for 2017 in locations across the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany and Italy. We can’t wait for Brighton to be part of this celebration of science next summer!” says Beth Nicholls, Brighton Event Co-Organiser.

Soapbox Science Brighton is a fantastic opportunity for female researchers in any field of STEMM to connect with the general public, discuss their research and show-off the diversity of research that women are involved in on the South Coast. “We are really pleased to be bringing the event to the people of Brighton and excited for the discussions that will take place. Having a number of previous Soapbox Science participants on the event committee demonstrates the positive impact that the event has, not just for the general public, who really get stuck in asking questions, but also the researchers taking part” adds Katy Petherick, Brighton Event Co-Organiser.

I was very excited to be selected, but also very nervous, in particular at the moment when I had to step onto the soapbox. However I need not have worried: I had a fantastic audience and I got some interesting questions. On top of that, a passer-by mistook me for a busker and gave me 10p! Who says science isn’t lucrative?” tells Kayleigh Wardell, Research Fellow in Genome Damage and Stability, University of Sussex (London event, 2016).

Speaker applications for Soapbox Brighton are now open – we welcome any female researchers (PhD students to Professors) from STEMM subjects. Deadline is 24th Feb 2017. We look forward to celebrating Women in STEMM with you on the seafront this July!

Posted in Event promotion, Local organiser | Leave a comment

Soapbox Science: Taking My GaN Research into the Cambridge Market Square!

nikiBy Nikita Hari

Soapbox Science is a truly innovative roadshow where research takes to the roads, where public spaces are transformed into arenas of scientific learning, engagement and inspiration. Starting with the vision to transform and challenge the perceptions of people about scientists – showing them how fascinating women scientists are and how learning science could be fun, this initiative has come a long way. This year, it was hosted in 13 locations across UK and Cambridge was witness to its first Soapbox Science event this year on July 2nd at the Market Square!


Let me take you through my Soapbox Science Journey…


I’m a Doctoral Scholar in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, Social entrepreneur, Science Communicator and Stem Ambassador. When I heard of this event, I thought it was just like the other outreach events I have done – little did I know when I was applying to this that I would need to ‘stand in the market and sell my research’. And little did I know then, that I had the courage to enthusiastically shout in front of strangers, successfully grab their attention and get them interested in ‘electric power!’

I applied to speak at this event in Feb 2016 and one fine morning in March I received the email congratulating me on being selected as one of 11 scientists from the University from a big pool of applicants. The run up to the event was exciting and productive. From a training event in London to discussions, media talks and meet up sessions in Cambridge, these informal meetings helped me understand more about other women researchers, their fields of work, aspirations and vision. From PhDs, to Post-Docs to Professors, they were the most passionate and vibrant women in science I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with! I thank Soapbox Science for making this happen – for giving me this amazing platform to connect with these fantastic women!


Let me walk you through my world of GaN Power Electronics …

In simple words, I work on improving the way ‘electric power’ is used by the world! As you all know, the world deals day in and day out with electrical power conversion— trillions of adjustments are made daily to deliver electricity from wall outlets to virtually any electronic device. And I research the systems that do this converting –called ‘Power Electronic Converters’, mostly built using silicon. On average, these converters are only 90 percent energy-efficient and the rest is lost as heat between a plug and whatever a converter is powering. These losses cost us billions every year and this problem, though astronomical, remains invisible to the common man.


So basically, I’m on a quest to explore a better way of converting this ‘power’ through -Gallium Nitride which is poised to jumpstart the next generation of smaller, faster, denser and efficient power converters. I’m passionate about my work as it directly influences the world – our way of life with electric power is everywhere and thus I can make a tangible contribution to the advancement of science and sustainability of the world. Since it was all about electricity which is ubiquitous, I decided to use picture posters to get my idea across.


niki3On the morning of July 2nd, I felt a little nervous, it suddenly hit me that this kind of science talk was totally alien to me. I had to actually stand in the market and get the people who have come to buy fruits and fish to buy my ‘GaN’… – seemed like rocket science …a science I wasn’t familiar with …!

The event was scheduled from 12-3pm and each speaker was allotted one hour to engage with the public from the soapbox. As my slot was from 1-2 pm, I arrived early to breathe in the air of the market and to listen to the first four speakers. I felt at ease as I saw the market sprawling with people, many people and kids gathering around the soapboxes … the soapbox volunteers …. journalists…. it was all very exciting….


niki4I made myself at ease near my stand by 1 pm with a delicious coffee offered by my sweet and very supportive volunteer Sarwat Howe. As I put on the white coat and climbed on to the soapbox with my talk ‘Electric Power Knows No Gender, Science Knows No Gender’, my heart was thumping, but I was proud and happy as well … it was a cocktail of emotions running through my head! Coming from a very small town of Kadathanad in Kerala to addressing the public at the market square of the historical University of Cambrigde, I realised I have come a long way. It struck me then, that this was one lucky and beautiful moment of my life that I would always be proud of – my nervousness was gone and I was ready to bang on….!

The first few minutes were tough as I had a fantastic company of speakers drawing audience and my initial awkwardness to shout from the market did not help me. But 15 minutes in and I was in the game. I was delighted and engrossed and found different ways and means to engage with the passers-by. It was only when the next speaker lined up that I realised my time was up! I bid goodbye to the market square emphasising ‘I’m not a Super-Woman, If I can Do It, You Can Do It Too …!! I thank my sponsors – my ever supportive Churchill College, IOP Physics East Anglia and STFC, my friends Karen, Alina and Sarwat Howe for making this happen for me!


From electricity, marshmallows, butterflies, bees, dancing plants, balloons to polarising glasses and more… the market square was beaming with scientific curiosity, discussions and excitement. From Biologists, Meteorologists, Chemists, Physicists to Engineers, the air was filled with various scientific revelations, thoughts and demonstrations. Though the weather turned wild for few minutes, the rains did not let down the spirit of the final slot of speakers, the show continued till 3 pm as planned.


niki5After the event, we gathered at the David Attenborough building to celebrate the success of the day! It was a great team effort – the fabulous organising committee led by Dr.Alison to all the wonderful volunteers played their part sincerely to make this happen. I thank them on behalf of all the speakers and wish Soapbox Science all success in the years to come. May you continue to inspire and encourage young minds into science and expose many fantastic women scientists to the world!



Posted in 2016 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Bringing Soapbox Science to Hull: a local organiser’s perspective

By Dr Isabel Pires (@craftysci)


isabel-and-helenaI am a cancer biologist and biomedical science lecturer at the University of Hull, and this year I coordinated the first Soapbox Science event in Hull and in Yorkshire. Science communication has always been extremely important to me, so much that my earliest forays into the wonders of science were done through reading books by Carl Sagan and other such wonderful science communicators, and watching science documentaries. I have been involved in science communication and public engagement since I was a PhD student, and have done a bit of everything, from science festivals, open days, science busking, to SciBar, Cafe Scientifique and Pint of Science. In 2013 a colleague sent me a link about Soapbox Science and encouraged me to apply. I was thrilled to be selected as one of the speakers for the London Soapbox Science in 2014. I utterly loved it and on the train back decided that I was going to organise a Soapbox Science event in Hull, and the rest is history… Two years later we had our first Soapbox Science event in Hull this September and it was a great success, and extremely well received.


soapbox-science-hull-all-speakers-collageMy favourite thing about the 2016 Hull Soapbox Science event was bringing all our amazing scientist speakers together, seeing them deliver their talks whilst always being so enthusiastic, even in all the rain we had on the day! They are all truly inspiring. I also really enjoyed how it all came together on the day. It had been a lot of work and prep up to then, so it was a relief when we got started and it all worked really well, even in the rain…


In 2016 we made a conscious decision to have all our speakers from the University of Hull or the local hospitals to bring attention to the amazing work being done here, but next year we want to draw in scientists from other Yorkshire Universities to join Hull-based talent. We are also hoping to have at least one industry-based scientist as a speaker, to show listeners that female scientists have a variety of fulfilling career options.


From my own experience as a speaker and from all the talks during our event, I think the most important qualities for a great Soapbox Science presentation are having a clear message, keeping it simple, and having at least one take home message that will make an impression on your audience, and enthuse them to go and learn some more. Talking about a ‘catchy’ topic and having cool props also helps, especially to draw your audiences in. As a speaker you also need to be able to think on your feet, as some members of the public can ask really interesting but challenging questions!


Organising the event in Hull has been really rewarding, and has been recognised and valued by colleagues and senior management at the University. It also opened up opportunities to engage with the media and to participate in other scicomm events. Science communication and public engagement are rightfully being perceived as increasingly important aspects of a successful academic career at my institution and many others throughout the UK HE system. For example, we now have a Professor in Science Communication at the University of Hull.


soapbox-science-hull-in-the-rainFor those interested in setting up a Soapbox Science event, my advice is to set the date and location really early, tap into any Marketing and Communications departments for support, contact specialist organisations and learned societies for funding, and be persistent! Chasing people up for information and confirmations might feel uncomfortable but is absolutely necessary. Most of all, don’t forget to enjoy the process, it is easy enough to get caught in all that planning… And final piece of advice: be prepared for sunshine and rain! I still regret not buying those emergency ponchos…





Posted in Event promotion, Local organiser | Leave a comment

An experience I will never forget – Oxford Soapbox Science 2016

soapbox-science-jess-3By 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.


soapbox-science-props-jessPrior 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?

soapbox-science-jess-4I 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)…



soapbox-science-jess-2I 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!

Posted in Speaker feedback | Leave a comment

Soapbox Art & Science: Call for Scientists

Soapbox Science is proud to announce a new collaborative project between artists and scientists to inspire a new generation of scientists and tackle gender issues in science careers



We are excited to announce that the call for artists to take part in Soapbox Science’s new Art & Science collaborative project is NOW OPEN!

Soapbox Science (11 of 79) copyOn top of our usual events, Soapbox Science’s 7th year is set to bring innovative, awe-inspiring, and mind-boggling science to arts festivals around the UK. Thanks to our new STFC-funded project, Soapbox Art & Science will now also be uniting artists and female scientists to explore fresh and engaging ways of communicating scientific ideas through art, and testing them out on audiences at arts festivals.

Are you a female scientist who is passionate about your work, and eager to explore your topic in creative ways? If so, then Soapbox Art & Science needs YOU! We are looking for female scientists in all areas of science, from PhD students to Professors, and from entry-level researchers to entrepreneurs, to take part in this cutting-edge project.

Any area of science can inspire art: from string theory to laser technology to elephant behaviour! And artistic approaches can provide new, fresh ways to explain science to a non-specialist audience.



What is Soapbox Science?

485A1498Soapbox Science is a grass-roots science event that brings science to the masses, and tackles inequality issues in science. Female scientists stand on soapboxes on busy urban streets and chat with the public about their work. Our Art & Science events will match scientists with an artist (from a variety of disciplines), who will work with them in the run up to the event to produce a new, innovative and engaging way to help communicate their science. As a non-profit initiative who runs free science communication events, we are unable to pay artists and scientists for their time. We are mindful of the financial and time pressures experienced by many artists and scientists, and therefore do not expect new art work to be produced for these specific events. We moreover expect time commitments from the artists & scientists to be kept to a minimum.


Why should you apply to be a Soapbox Art & Science scientist?

  • Help us improve the visibility of women in science
  • Develop engaging and innovative ways to communicate your science
  • Make valuable connections with artists and other scientists
  • Engage with people who might not otherwise encounter science


What other benefits will you gain from taking part?

  • Training at one of our bespoke Soapbox Art & Science workshops
  • Chances to meet other fantastic women in science from around the country and join our growing Soapbox Science Alumni community of over 350 inspirational speakers
  • Join the conversation about equality in science and highlight your ideas of how best to increase the visibility of women in science


Soapbox Art & Science will be running in the following cities (exact dates TBC)


Soapbox Science (14 of 79) copyOxford – July 2017

London – September 2017

Lincoln – September 2017 (digital art)

Leeds – October 2017



You can apply together with an artist or we can match you with a local artist with similar interests. You will need to be available for a workshop in January (date TBC) as well as one afternoon at the festival you choose to participate in. The deadline for applications is 18/11/16.

Have we convinced you? Apply for one of our events here

Posted in Event promotion | Leave a comment

Soapbox Art & Science: Call for Artists


Soapbox Science is proud to announce a new collaborative project between artists and scientists to inspire a new generation of scientists and tackle gender issues in science careers



We are excited to announce that the call for artists to take part in Soapbox Science’s new Art & Science collaborative project is NOW OPEN!

Soapbox Science (11 of 79) copyOn top of our usual events, Soapbox Science’s 7th year is set to bring innovative, awe-inspiring, and mind-boggling science to arts festivals around the UK. Thanks to our new STFC-funded project, Soapbox Art & Science will now also be uniting artists and female scientists to explore fresh and engaging ways of communicating scientific ideas through art, and testing them out on audiences at arts festivals.

To do so, we are looking for artists from any discipline who want to collaborate with a top female scientist to put together a small presentation, performance, painting, dance, poem or any other piece of art inspired by scientific research.


What is Soapbox Science?

485A1498Soapbox Science is a non-profit, grass-roots, science festival that brings science to the masses, and tackles inequality issues in science. Our free 3h events see up to 12 female scientists stand on soapboxes on busy urban streets and chat with the public about their work. Our Art & Science events will match scientists with an artist (from a variety of disciplines), with the hope that the pair will come up with new, innovative and engaging ways to help communicate their science. We recognize that many scientists are also artists: these scientists/artists can choose to apply as scientists or artists.


Why should you apply to be a Soapbox Art & Science artist?

We expect participating artists to have an interest in developing connections with the scientific community. Participants will be primarily provided with opportunities to:

  • Initiate and develop a collaboration with a scientist
  • Meet other fantastic artists and scientists from around the country at one of our bespoke Soapbox Art & Science training workshops
  • Advertise your work in various media and at a dedicated art festival, and share your ideas on how best to facilitate collaboration between art and science

As a non-profit initiative who runs free science communication events, we are unable to pay artists and scientists for their time. We are mindful of the financial pressures experienced by many artists, and therefore do not expect new art work to be produced for these specific events (but will provide a small budget for materials if needed). We moreover expect time commitments from the artists to be kept to a minimum.


Soapbox Art & Science will be running in the following cities (exact dates TBC)


Soapbox Science (14 of 79) copyOxford – July 2017

London – September 2017

Lincoln – September 2017 (digital art)

Leeds – October 2017



You will need to be available for a workshop in January (date TBC) as well as one afternoon at the festival you choose to participate in. The deadline for applications is 18/11/16.

You can apply for one of our next year’s four Art & Science events here

Posted in Event promotion | Leave a comment

Talking quantum physics from my soapbox: Meet Helen Cammack

helen-cammack-photoHelen Cammack is studying for a PhD in theoretical physics at St Andrews University. She enjoys communicating physics with anyone who’ll listen, and has produced several videos on quantum and particle physics (visit Helen’s blog for more insights into a physics PhD). Here, she talks about her recent experience as a Soapbox Science speaker at our recent Edinburgh’s event.



SS: What made you want to get involved with Soapbox Science?

HC: Soapbox Science combines two things that I’m passionate about – communicating research to the public and raising the prominence of women in science. So when I heard that Soapbox Science was coming to Edinburgh, I had to get involved! It was a bit outside of my comfort zone, but in a good way.


SS: What was your presentation about?

HC: My presentation was about my work in quantum computing, which is the subject of my PhD. Quantum computing is something that sounds tricky just because it has the word ‘quantum’ in it, and some people aren’t really sure what that means. So I started by introducing quantum – the world of the really small. This is a place where things don’t behave as we would expect, because our expectations are built upon our everyday experience, and we don’t have everyday experience of the quantum world. However we can still gain understanding of how quantum particles behave.

Two of the most important properties that quantum particles can display are called ‘superposition’ and ‘entanglement’, and in my presentation I used analogies and props to help explain these. I used a massive spinning disk to explain superposition and a pair of gloves to talk about entanglement! I also talked about my PhD project, which looks at ways of protecting quantum particles for use in quantum computers.


SS: Did you have a favourite memory from the day?

HC: It’s not a specific memory, but it was amazing to see the members of the public who were so interested in science and what the speakers had to say that they were prepared to stand out in the torrential rain to listen to us! Having the opportunity to chat with them and answer their questions in a relaxed environment was fantastic.


SS: Was there another speaker’s presentation you particularly liked?

HC: I loved Valerie Bentivegna’s use of the ukulele! Dr Megan Davey’s presentation on “The Chicken, the Emu and YOU!” was also cool, particularly as she gave out little fluffy chickens and had lots of interesting props such as eggs from different birds.


SS: Why is it important to talk to the public about new research in Physics?

HC: Physics suffers particularly badly from a public perception that it is hard. Like, really hard. And because it’s perceived to be so difficult, this puts a lot of people off having a go with physics, particularly girls. It has been found that girls tend to be more afraid of failing than boys (see e.g. ), and more likely to give up when things do get difficult. So I feel that it is especially important to demystify physics, and show people that there’s lots of interesting and significant things happening in physics that they can get involved with, no matter their background or their gender.


SS: Has anything from the event particularly stuck with you or had an impact on the way you work/ think about science communication?

HC: I’ve developed some new analogies as a result of that event that have been really useful when communicating about my research since then. My favourite is the ‘gloves’ analogy: There are two packets, one with a left glove in and the other a right. These are like two entangled particles. We separate the gloves and look at one, and immediately know which glove is contained in the other packet. Entanglement works a bit like that – once we measure one entangled particle, the state of the other is immediately determined, even if the two particles are separated. The difference between our gloves and quantum particles is that each of our entangled particle pair is both a left and a right until one is measured, whereas the left glove is always the left glove, it’s just that we didn’t know that until we looked at it.


SS: Would you encourage other women to take part in the future?

HC: Definitely! It’s a great opportunity to think about how to present your work in an entirely new light. And it’s a lot of fun!

Posted in 2016 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Soapbox Science Contributes to UK Government Inquiry into the Public Engagement of Science.

In their capacity as Soapbox co-founders, Nathalie and Seirian were invited to give evidence to the UK Government’s Science and Technology Committee on Science Communication. This is the third evidence session on the government’s ongoing enquiry into science communication in the UK. The session focused on science communication as a profession, the difference between science communication and public engagement looking at cultural perspectives and evaluation. The session also examined the use of popular science and the role of government and the media in influencing engagement. Seirian reports on the highlights of the session.


If you ever find yourself visiting Portcullis House to attend a UK Government Select Committee Inquiry, BRING YOUR OWN COFFEE! I arrived to find my Soapbox co-founder, Nathalie Pettorelli, entrenched in a caffeine-low canyon: the House of Commons visitors’ room ‘coffee machine’ delivered a pathetic watery-sludge as an excuse for coffee, which couldn’t wash down a mars bar (all the nutrition you need to take on a panel of MPs, apparently!).  Luckily, Nathalie had warned me, and accordingly I battled through Portcullis House security, armed with a couple of highly illegal lattes and spicy bean wraps from Café Nero round the corner.

We recharged on my smuggled Nero-delights, and took to the Thatcher Room to meet the UK Government’s Science and Technology Committee. We were joined by the fabulous Dr Penny Fidler (Chief Executive, UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres) and seasoned select-committee panelist Tracey Brown, (Director, Sense about Science). Our panel was to be cross-questioned by the Committee on approach, success and challenges facing UK scientists and science communicators in contributing to the public understanding of science. We were encouraged to make recommendations to the Committee on how the Government can help improve this.

The Committee were a formidable line up of 11 MPs. The chair, Dr Tania Mathias, appeared well-informed, switched-on and receptive to our responses, encouraging a good dialogue between us all.


So, what was our message? Here are some of the highlights.


UK scientists communicate their science widely to the UK public; government support is needed to assure effectiveness and evaluate impact  

We (the panellists) presented a united front of evidence on how the UK is improving in science communication: more scientists are engaging, and it is no longer just a few ‘usual suspects’ and ‘science celebrities’ who engage the public. We are also engaging wider audiences by exploiting a broad range of media, including radio, blogs, TV, social media, and outreach. But there are still some key challenges facing scientists in effectively engaging the public.

Firstly, the public wants clear answers. Yet, scientists are trained to be cautious and non-committal. Both Tracey Browne and Penny Fidler were able to provide evidence on how their respective organisations facilitate and train scientists to communicate their work: research on the more contentious science topics (e.g. climate change, GM crops) and sensitive issues (e.g. cancer, childhood vaccinations) need to be very carefully communicated. There is an art in achieving an optimum balance between assuring integrity of the science/scientist, but providing the public with a clear and simple explanation, which our Panellists’ organisations do very well. The concept that progress in science is largely incremental and not sensational is important to share with both the public and the government. There is considerable pressure from the media to over-egg the slow-cooking science pot: this leads to public misconceptions, and can alienate the public, fueling their distrust of science and scientists. Soapbox Science helps address these problems: the public has direct dialogue with scientists, removing the media-middle-man; face-to-face interactions with a scientist help build public trust.

A second problem is that sci-comm activities are simply not valued by the science community and not included in current government measures of scientific success; there needs to be better recognition of scientists’ efforts in sci-comm. The Government has the power to make this happen by improving recognition of sci-comm activities in their assessments of university excellence (e.g. REF).  Paul Manners (Director, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement), and Matt Goode (Director of Communications and Public Engagement,  Research Councils UK) picked up on this in the subsequent Panel Inquiry, where they discussed the recommendations made by Lord Stern on his independent review of university research funding allocation in the UK. We are encouraged by this report, as it would mean that the efforts of our Soapbox Science speakers are likely to be suitably recognised as important science ‘impact’ in the next Government assessment of UK universities research excellence. The Stern recommendation is very welcome. But, as Paul Manners highlighted in the subsequent Panel Inquiry, the challenge now is working out how to report on the impact on the public – what is a tangible way of measuring this?

A third challenge is the lack of funding: there are relatively few grants for science outreach initiatives that offer enough funds to employ dedicated staff that can help produce high quality, long-term programmes to promote the work of active scientists. A notable exception is the Science and Technology Facilities Council Public Engagement Awards, which currently fund Soapbox Science. We urge the Government’s Science and Technology Committee to consider channeling more funding into providing large grants to help scientists develop more effective, long-term science outreach programmes. This should also provide resources and training for scientists to properly evaluate the impact of activities on the public perception and understanding of UK science, and also the impact on the scientists who invest effort in outreach.


Science is for the masses not the elite: efforts to achieve wider participation in science would benefit from high-level government intervention in the education system and resources for long-term evaluation

Soapbox Science aims to achieve wider participation in the public understanding of science, bringing local scientists to local communities, and people who would not normally seek out a science event. We were pleased to report how our events achieve this, reaching audiences that would not have actively sought out a science festival. We pride ourselves on filling a niche left vacant by the many science festivals that take place annually in the UK: events such as the Cheltenham Science Festival, The Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition, and the Big Bang Fair are all top hitters in the sci-fest junkie’s schedule. But we’d like to reach members of the public who do not have the means, inclination or capacity to attend one of these festivals.

Penny Fidler explained how the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres also achieves impact in diverse groups: they use a lovely ‘golden ticket’ strategy to tempt families and schools from deprived areas around the UK to their science centres. She gave an impressive account of how they successful entice their target audiences to learn about science, meet scientists, and try out their hands-on activities to promote informal learning. Tracey Browne’s charity ‘Sense About Science’ also plays an important role in achieving wider participation too, directing questions from the public to a scientist for expert answers on some of the most contentious issues in modern science.

We, the panel, recommended the promotion of both formal and informal learning. It is crucial that science communicators and scientists actively target diverse cultures and sectors of society. Both depth and breadth of knowledge are important to engage the public. Celebrity-science and TV shows can help hook the public without bombarding them with too much detail. If celebrities or TV-science can engender a love of science that is ‘sticky’ enough, then the role of the teacher (in schools and universities) in nurturing breadth in understanding of science will be easier. The ultimate goal is to propagate a life-long love of science. We recommended that scientists would be better able to contribute to science education if the national curriculum were ‘relaxed’, to allow teachers the time and space to accommodate visits from local scientists. The importance of first-hand interactions with a scientist, and hands-on experience with science equipment and experiments cannot be overstated in setting seed for a child’s ambition to be a scientist.

Measuring the impact of sci-comm activities is challenging; longitudinal studies are imperative. Government support for standardised evaluation programmes that deliver long-term robust and repeatable data is recommended. Dr Penny Fidler very aptly described the ‘Holy Grail’ of sci-comm as the ability to measure the impact of a sci-comm experience on a child of 7 when they are 17. This ‘Holy Grail’ clearly struck a chord with the Science and Technology Committee. Let’s hope this filters down to policy and spending, and that we see some serious resources made available to captialise on our nation’s sci-comm efforts.


Science communication is an important vehicle for challenging the stereotypic image of a scientist; government support and promotion of sci-comm activities can therefore help challenge cultural barriers and social norms.

The committee were interested to know how gender inequalities in science could be more effectively tackled. Matt Warman (MP) suggested that main stream TV might be better used to improve the image of women in society: should gender quotas be imposed on the cast of Eastenders? Carol Monaghan (Scottish National Party, MP) enthused about us being the first all female panel she had seen in the Science and Technology committee. Not sure whether to be pleased or sad about this! The BIS report on Public Attitudes of Science (2014) identified UK women as a demographic group that lack confidence in science. Despite this, the same report showed that women were likely to be the instigator in the family of a trip to a science event. These findings highlight the importance of targeting women, both as role-models for science careers, but also as communicators: women like to talk to women.

Unconscious bias can impede good science engagement. Unconscious bias is a problem in all areas of science, and many other career paths: it is a product of our culture. Think you’re not biased? Try this test. High profile science communicators tend to be male. The lower profile ‘donkey work’ of sci-comm, however, tends to be more popular among women. Women tend to be the ones that volunteer to take part as bit-parts at science festivals. The science community is working hard to reverse this: Sense About Science’ and the Science and Discovery Centres actively invite and train women to do high-profile sci-comm work. Addressing gender balance among high profile sci-comm is important as it helps challenge the gender stereotype of who a scientist is.

Soapbox Science directly addresses the need for women in sci-comm, and helps tackle the issue of diversity by promoting females scientists. Soapbox cannot change culture over-night, but it can challenge it today. Change is slow. It is important to provide accessible female role models for a career in science to encourage a new generation of equality in science. It is equally important to influence the social network of these young people: if their peers and family see science as an acceptable career for a girl, then that child is more likely to fulfil her aspirations.

The dialogue about gender equality in science is alive and open. This is progress. Soapbox Science is a case-in-point for how the interface between gender and sci-comm initiatives can be extremely powerful: Soapbox Science is becoming a mainstay activity in the Action Plans of science department Athena SWAN proposals. The Government can do more by recognising the important role of science communication in tackling inequality in science, and helping raise the profile of such initiatives.



The Panel Inquiry covered a lot more ground. Watch the full inquiry online at Parliament TV. The above are the issues that lie closest to the ethos of Soapbox Science. We are grateful to the Science and Technology Committee for inviting us to contribute. It was fun! We hope the Committee embrace the recommendations we made. My final recommendation to the UK Government? Get a decent coffee machine!


Dr Seirian Sumner co-founded Soapbox Science with Dr Nathalie Pettorelli in 2011. She is a Reader in Social Evolution, University of Bristol. Twitter: @WaspWoman

Posted in News | Leave a comment