Bringing Soapbox Science to Germany

Soapbox Science: the Berlin experience

By Dr Carolina Doran and Dr Ana Faustino

Whilst navigating the complex roads of academia in a foreign country, two Portuguese female scientists embarked on a new mission: to organise a Soapbox Science event in Berlin. We were motivated by the idea of communicating science undertaken by women in a free, public outdoor format, and saw that it would be the perfect setting to promote scientific literacy whilst at the same time increasing the visibility of female scientists in their fields. We were particularly inspired by the very unique design of Soapbox Science events and how they referenced a time in the UK’s history when people protested for civil rights. We immediately connected with this idea – We want better gender equality in science!

We couldn’t fulfill this mission alone, we needed a team of motivated people. That was the easy part, after just a few emails we had a team of people eager to get involved. The team, composed of five biologists – four women and a man (see photo above) – met for the first time in October 2016. After that first encounter we started meeting regularly so that we would be able to cover all tasks required to organise an event like this in Germany. We faced several challenges.

The language: Would the speakers want to speak in English or in German? Would non German speakers feel comfortable giving their talks in English only? Would Berliners be open to an English only event? How would we attract a younger, possibly non-English speaking, audience? – Our talented speakers rose to the challenge without even blinking. With such a diverse, international environment in Berlin we were even able to talk to passing Italian tourists in their mother tongue!

Finding sponsors and a venue. Would we be able to find sponsors to fund the event? How could we convey our enthusiasm and passion for this cause so that funding would no longer be a question but a certainty? How much money would we need? What type of location would be best – park, train station? What to do in the case of rain (a big problem – rain is unpredictable in Berlin, even in the summer!)? – And again, of course, challenge overcome, we were able to secure very generous sponsors that certainly helped us guarantee a highly successful event.

Finally, and this was certainly a big challenge – Our personal expectations. Would the speakers be able to enjoy their experience? Would the event be able to accomplish its goals? Would we be able to attract a broad audience in terms of age and background? Would the audience go home just a little bit less biased in their idea of who a scientist is? We truly hoped so! The point is we made it all the way to the first Soapbox Science event in Berlin (1st June 2017, Tempelhofer Feld (see picture)- a former airfield now a huge public park) and we were so excited! ~150 participants showed up, despite the horrible weather (torrential rain and horrendous winds, followed by even more rain and more wind). Everyone seemed hungry for newly found discoveries and to learn from the 12 amazing women scientists in topics ranging through ecology, neuroscience and engineering. At our networking dinner for the speakers and volunteers after the event, all we heard were complements from the speakers, alongside the question “How soon can we do it again?”.

The sense of accomplishment the five of us felt was immeasurable! This event was such a success that the Soapbox Science Berlin team was invited to organise another event integrated into the Berlin Science Week 2017 (see picture). This time most of the initial challenges had disappeared – we had found ways to maneuver the language difficulties, had fixed sponsors and had experience in meeting our expectations. We all felt confident we could handle everything!

However, we had a new challenge: time – we only had two months to organise everything. Once again, despite the tight deadline, we put together another very successful event. Soapbox Science Autumn Edition took place in the modern Sony Center commercial centre (Potsdamer Platz) on 7th November 2017. Eight female scientists stepped on soapboxes and talked about their work in the fields of neuroscience, structural biology and ecology. This time we had 256 visitors with ages ranging from 12 to 89 and we couldn’t have been happier. Our female scientists were able to motivate and inspire high school students in pursuing a scientific career and show them that women can also be scientists! Now, with two events under our belts and another one to come (1st June 2018, location TBA), we are proud to be a local organiser of such a fantastic initiative and would like to end this post with a word to all the local teams around the world: “Soapbox Science would not exist without you and we feel very inspired to bring science to the streets and raise the profile of women in STEMM alongside all of you.”

If you have been inspired to be a Soapbox Science speaker for the Berlin event in 2018 and want to take your science to the streets, you can apply here!


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Time to get crafty: Samantha Furfari’s experience at Soapbox Science

Sam Furfari is based at the University of Sussex as a Research Fellow working on the development of transition metal complexes. She took part in Soapbox Science Brighton on July 29th 2017 where she gave a talk entitled: “Coordination Chemistry: What is it and what can it be used for?”





My experience with Soapbox Scienceby Sam Furfari

On a rather rainy afternoon on the 29th of July 2016 I participated in the first Soapbox Science event in Brighton. It was a nerve racking and ultimately rewarding experience that I would encourage any female scientist to get involved with!

I was encouraged to apply for the event and I had several of my own reasons for doing so. I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone, I also wanted to showcase organometallic chemistry to the general public. I wanted to be able to show how many different ways metal-containing complexes can impact everyday life; from the production of fine chemicals, such as the Monsanto process which converts methanol into acetic acid (vinegar) using a rhodium catalyst, to enzymes that carry out important biological functions such as haemoglobin which transports oxygen around the body using an iron centre. The next challenge once I got accepted as a speaker was to deliver on that! I admit this was the hard step for me, trying to distil the work that I do into a manageable amount of information for the public to digest. I must give thanks to Katy Petherick, Leanne Harris and Beth Nicholls (from the Soapbox Science Brighton Committee) for helping develop my ideas.

Once I had a clear idea of what I would present on the day, it was time to get crafty! Making my main prop involved a lot of glue, Styrofoam balls and paint to make up a model of the complexes that I was working with. Plus, I borrowed some glassware from the teaching lab and model kits to show some other metal complexes that have uses in a variety of ways, from catalysts to anticancer therapeutics.








Prop construction


I think the most nerve-racking part of the experience was I had no idea what to expect from the audience and trying to prepare accordingly. Would they be mostly adults? Kids? Other scientists? Would I be able to answer all the questions that are thrown at me? Would they be interested enough to stay for the whole thing? What if I don’t know the answer? These were a lot of the questions that kept going through my head in the lead up to the event. I also tend to speak fast when I am nervous, so trying to make sure that I spoke clearly was going to be a challenge. The training session held at the University of Sussex helped to prepare me and answer some of these questions, but ultimately I just made sure that I was comfortable with the material I was going to present and the transitions when audiences moved between speakers and hope for the best on the day.

In the end, I walked off my Soapbox after my allotted hour on the biggest adrenaline high. I had a mixture of all sorts of people in the audience: kids that were interested in my colourful conical flasks; one bright student who threw me for a second asking about bonding structure of carbonate (CO32-); adults interested in the work I had done in Sydney and also what my current research could lead to in terms of ‘real-world’ applications. I had a lot of support from the organisers and it was nice to see some familiar faces in the audience to help calm the nerves. It was pointed out to me that my Aussie vernacular kept creeping through, calling ‘crisps’ ‘chips’ which would explain some confused looks I got.







A couple of shots from the day


I believe Soapbox Science is a great way of not only showcasing women in STEMM subjects, but also demonstrating just how varied science subjects can be. I think it is a great way of breaking down the stereotypes in the different disciplines and I hope that events like this can provide more role models in STEMM subjects that young girls can aspire to.

Dr Sam Furfari took part in Soapbox Science Brighton 2017 and was sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry Downland Section.

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Taking my Indoor Positioning System Outdoors to Edinburgh: Meet Manisha Ajmani

By Manisha Ajmani

If a boy from a small town becomes something in life, it motivates people from his town to work harder. If a country’s sports team wins a trophy, young people are motivated to take up sports. Similarly, if women do something good in the field of science, then more young women would follow, and, Soapbox Science is one of the platforms which gives an opportunity to encourage young women to pursue the field of science and prove that women can and have contributed to science. Women researchers can share ideas, come together and make the general population aware of what is currently being done in the field of science. It also helps generate new ideas and thoughts among the general public. This time I was a part of Soapbox Science held in Edinburgh on July 22nd, 2017!


Let me tell you about my Soapbox Science Journey…

I am a second year PhD student at the School of Engineering and Built Environment at Glasgow Caledonian University. One fine evening, I received an email from my supervisors, Dr Sinan Sinanovic and Dr Tuleen Boutaleb, informing me about the Soapbox Science event. I thought it would be just like any other outreach event, but later on while doing some research on the event I realized that I have to stand on a box in the streets and explain my research to the general public! I was a bit anxious about how I was I going to describe my research in simple words so that even children could understand it. I started thinking of props which I could use to make them understand. My mind was wreathed with ideas and thoughts.

Then I applied for the Soapbox Science event in Edinburgh in hope of positive feedback and after a couple of days I got an email stating that “We are delighted to let you know that you have been selected to take part in our event which will take place on Saturday 22 July 2017”. I was elated on being selected as one of the 12 scientists from Scotland and representing the Glasgow Caledonian University. I had a great experience of meeting other women scientists and volunteers, knowing different fields of research, their research experiences, how passionate they are about Science, while attending the training session.

On 22nd July 2017, Saturday Morning arrived, I left from Glasgow for Edinburgh around 10 am for the event. While traveling, lots of questions were running in my mind. Also, I was hoping for a nice and warm weather, but it’s Scotland! So it’s raining as usual. I was a bit nervous and kept thinking about how I will start and how I am going to proceed, how I will catch the audience’s attention, how many people will be there and so on..!! Upon reaching Edinburgh, I reached the venue “The Galleries precinct on The Mound”. The Soapbox Science event was from 12-3pm and my slot was 1-2pm, so I arrived early to listen to the first four speakers. It was raining, but still no one could stop Science from reaching out to people.

Now, it was my turn. At 1 pm I wear my white coat and stand at the Soapbox ‘box’ which had my name and the title of my research “Developing a low cost indoor positioning system using optical wireless communication”. By the time I stood on the box, it started raining heavily, but I have to thank the Soapbox volunteers who supported and helped us throughout the event. Though it was raining, people were still very enthusiastic and keen to know about our research. I used pictures to share my ideas. People were interested in knowing about my research, they had many questions about the applications, how lights can be used for tracking, what will be the cost of a device and so on. For the first 15 minutes, I was a bit nervous, but later on I didn’t even realize when the clock turned to 2 pm and my time was over.  I felt so happy and proud of myself.

After the event, we had a group picture and now it was time to say “GOODBYE” to everyone. We are now connected with each other and their respective research on social media and I would like to thank Soapbox Science for giving me this opportunity and wish all success in the years to come.

This is one of the most beautiful moments of life which will always remain with me!

A quick overview of my research:

My research focuses on developing a low-cost alternative for indoor positioning systems by proposing positioning algorithms based on Optical Wireless Communication (OWC) technology using light. Using these algorithms we can extend help to dementia affected people and make their life a bit easier. This technology can be used in large facilities like hospitals, convenience stores, manufacturing units and apartments to locate large objects or people by installing OWC based indoor positioning system using LED lights.

So, in simple words, we use lights to locate people and things inside a room

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Apply and collaborate with artists to help tackle gender issues in science careers

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


In addition to our usual events, Soapbox Science’s 8th year is set to bring innovative, awe-inspiring, and mind-boggling science to arts festivals around the UK. Thanks to continued funding from STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council), Soapbox Art & Science embarks on its second year of uniting female scientists with artists from local research/education institutions 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 active 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?

Soapbox 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 artists (from a variety of disciplines); the pairs work together to produce a new, innovative and engaging way to help communicate their science, which they then co-present at an Arts Festival.

We are a non-profit initiative who runs free science engagement events, and so sadly 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 it is not essential that new art work is produced for these specific events. Moreover, time commitments are decided by the artists & scientists themselves, depending on what they are able to offer.



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 550 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 UK cities (exact dates TBC)


Perth – May 2018

Cambridge – June 2018

Manchester – July 2018

Bournemouth – September 2018

Plymouth – September 2018

Lincolnshire – September 2018

We can match you with a local artist with similar interests, or if you are already working with an artist, you can apply together.

You will need to be available for a workshop in the second half of January (for Perth, Cambridge and Manchester) and first half of February (for Bournemouth, Plymouth and Lincolnshire) as well as one afternoon at the festival you choose to participate in.

The deadline for applications is 08/01/18 and we will be in touch at the beginning of the week starting on 08/01/18.

Apply for one of our events here


We could not run our Soapbox Art & Science events without the kind support and funding from the STFC

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Mummies can be scientists: Meet Dr Elizabeth Boakes

Dr Elizabeth Boakes (@BoakesE ) is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at UCL. She took part in Soapbox Art & Science London 2017 where she gave a presentation alongside Danica Desilva entitled: “Mind the Gap… in the ecosystem”






I have a vivid memory of herding my children out of the house one summer afternoon in 2011, en route to the first Soapbox Science event.  We met our neighbour on the doorstep who politely enquired where we were going.  My daughter, ever keen for an opportunity to chatter, explained in detail about Soapbox Science finishing up by announcing proudly, ‘My Mummy is a scientist.’  These words have stayed with me.


Soapbox Science speakers never fail to awe me and that first event certainly set the bar high.  I remember my then PI, Professor Georgina Mace, gamely dealing with audience heckling whilst discussing consumption versus population.  One speaker held aloft a knitted breast, another explained the science behind pruning plants.  Most impressive of all, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock gave her talk holding her toddler on her hip!  I was blown away by the scientific competence and confident engagement styles exhibited by all the speakers.  However, rather than being inspired to emulate them it just deepened the gap I felt between their brilliance and my mediocrity.  Never could I follow them onto a soapbox.


(photo: Lizzie at Soapbox Art & Science London)


Yet one summer afternoon in 2017 I found myself herding my children out of the house to another Soapbox event, this time as a speaker.  Admittedly I was sick with nerves and it was only the heavy giant Jenga that I was lugging along that prevented me from running fast in the opposite direction.  What had happened in those intervening years to persuade me to put my unconfident self through this?  Well, my daughter’s words had resonated with me.  I wanted to show other girls that Mummies can be scientists.  To my surprise it was actually quite fun.  And like Dr Alderin-Pocock I managed it all with my son on my hip!  So if you are thinking of becoming a speaker, or becoming a scientist, or simply considering studying science, please please go for it.  Take it one step at a time and you can reach the Soapbox!

(photo: Painting by Danica Desilva)

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Ask as many questions as you can: Meet Helen Hugh-Jones and Rehemat Bhatia

Helen Hugh-Jones (left) (@nells_originals), Nell’s Originals, &  Rehemat Bhatia (right) (@rehemat_), University College London are taking part in Soapbox Art & Science  in Thamesmead, London on 16th September 2017. You can catch them giving a presentation called: “Fossil plankton and the big climate stories they have to tell!” Here we catch up with them about what they have been working on together.


SS: How did you get to your current positions?

Rehemat Bhatia: I completed my undergraduate MSci Geoscience degree at Royal Holloway (University of London). Alongside my undergraduate degree I also volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London, with a volunteer scheme called V Factor, which at that point was collaborating with an EU funded paleoclimate research project called Throughflow. This research project introduced me to the world of palaeoclimate and made me realise I could apply my favourite geological facet (geochemistry) to fossil archives. I subsequently interned with another Throughflow researcher in Kiel who was working on plankton geochemistry during the summer of 2012, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to apply for a PhD with a similar focus

Helen Hugh-Jones: By a rather roundabout loop really! I read Classics at Cambridge, then an MA in the history of 15th century Florentine art at the Courtauld – so I don’t actually have any fine art or illustration training. I was continually drawing though: if you look at my old homework or lecture notes, they’re covered in sketches. My Latin teacher at school used to give me bonus marks for illustrating my translations! It was only when I had a few weeks off between jobs that I started drawing properly again, and I now split my time between an interior design firm and doing freelance illustration. I’m currently working on a few children’s books by different authors, and have just completed a big re-branding for an international music school.


SS: What, or who, inspired your career choices?

RB: I was always fascinated by the natural world growing up, whether it was seeing mountains on trips to visit family in Canada or hanging at the beach and looking in rock pools. I guess it wasn’t until I was a teenager that my interest really started to develop. My geography and geology teachers at school were always really enthusiastic and I was captivated by all the concepts they taught me. They also made me realise that geology was something I could turn into a career.  The Throughflow researchers who I volunteered and interned with as an undergraduate were also incredibly encouraging and supportive, and great mentors too.

HHJ: I first really started using watercolours in earnest when I was about 15. My teachers were very supportive and encouraged us to use the art rooms whenever we wanted. I was very inspired by artists like Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

RB: I work on fossil plankton made from calcium carbonate, called foraminifera, which live in the oceans all around the world. The chemistry of foraminifera skeletons record the environmental and seawater conditions that were around them at the time they lived. We can use these chemical signatures to reconstruct past climate conditions like sea surface temperature and continental ice volume. The fact that a single celled organism that’s really no bigger than a sand grain can record all of this is something that never fails to amaze me. (Pic: a species of planktonic foraminifera under a light microscope. credit Rebecca Brownlow (RHUL))

HHJ: I love seeing how commissions come to life. People sometimes have quite a set idea of what they want from me, whether it is a book or a painting or a logo: this can be hard to meet their wavelength, but it’s incredibly satisfying when they’re really pleased. On the other hand, some people have no idea what they want, and offer a completely blank slate. It really helps to have a good relationship with the client. I love how calm drawing and painting makes me feel, especially if I feel secure in the scope of the project, and how I can while away hours without really noticing. And then when something is printed or created with my designs or drawings on it – the feeling is amazing!


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Art & Science in the first place?

RB: I really enjoy taking part in science outreach events, and Soapbox Science is one event which really helps to tackle some of the biggest problems in the geosciences – the lack of women and diversity. There are many conferences I’ve been to during my PhD where you see so few women and the environments aren’t super multicultural either. Being a woman of colour I feel like it’s crucial to be an advocate for both of these causes, and I hope the amount of exposure that Soapbox gets will help to contribute towards them and inspire more young people.  Being able to showcase the world of microfossils to the general public through artistic means is also awesome – they’re so beautiful and definitely deserve more exposure!

HHJ: I think it’s incredibly important that we start to see the Arts & Sciences as integral, complementary skills, not antagonistic fields that have nothing to do with each other. Historically, you could happily be a person of Science and of Art  – yet nowadays there seems to be little crossover. Soapbox tackles many different issues, from outreach to gender equality, never mind the fascinating work that will be presented, and I’m glad I can contribute to its ongoing work in the community.


SS: What ideas are you working on together?

HHJ: Rehemat’s PhD focuses on tiny tiny fossilized organisms called foraminifera. We thought it might be fun to bring these to the big page. Using her scanning electron microscope images, I then sketched them out and worked up a sort of storyboard that would illustrate some of the things she wanted to say in the talk. We’ve touched on a few different aspects of the history of these fossils: the story of the great explorer ship HMS Challenger; the wonderful Scientist-Artist Ernst Haeckel; and how scientists today use them to show the story of climate change.

RB: As Ernst Haeckel is a SciArt micropalaeontology icon, I was super keen for our presentation to include his artistic style. Microfossils from all groups are stunning, but I decided to focus my presentation around foraminifera as these are the group I research. Helen has produced some fantastic sketches based on the ideas we discussed together – I can’t wait for everyone to see them!




SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

RB: Work hard, persevere and be persistent at what you’re researching and look after yourself. Practice your writing skills regularly throughout your PhD too – it’s really hard to get back into this if you have had a long break from it. But most importantly, in your final year, don’t lose that enthusiasm that you first had when you started your PhD – you set out to do cool and exciting science and if you’ve made it this far, you can totally do it!

HHJ: (I’ll change this slightly – I don’t have a PhD!) Work hard, persevere and be persistent at what you’re [drawing] and look after yourself – this all echoes perfectly with what I would recommend to young illustrators. You have to really love it and to throw yourself in, to open yourself to new ideas and techniques, try new things, read around the subject, talk to people, write stories, read stories, go to exhibitions… For me it’s perfect as I can work on my creative side parallel to my work in the office – it can get lonely by yourself too!



SS: What would be your recommendation for working with people from other subjects and disciplines?

RB: Definitely give it a try! By collaborating with researchers in different disciplines, you can broaden your knowledge and learn how to explain scientific concepts in ways you’ve probably never considered before. Helen has definitely asked me some questions that I had previously never thought of, which is great prep for my PhD viva!

HHJ: It’s fascinating! This is one the first projects I’ve done on a subject I know so little about beforehand, and I feel I’ve learnt so much from it. The nature of Rehemat’s work has also made me study other artists who’ve worked on similar scientific projects, which has opened my eyes to new and exciting ways of depiction – not to mention the science itself. It’s definitely worth asking as many questions as you can, and getting to know the subject on more than just a superficial, visual level: not only does it help form your images better, but the act of drawing also becomes more engaged and interesting too.



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It’s important to embrace a different perspective: Amy Knight and Sophia Goldberg in conversation with Overleaf

Soapbox Art & Science London 2017 is being sponsored by Overleaf. Here they catch up with two of the speakers from the event- artist Amy Knight (left) and scientist Sophia Goldberg (right), who will be giving a presentation together entitled: “How does Einstein’s v Newton’s gravity effect structure on the largest scales: from clusters of galaxies to the universe” on Saturday 16th September in Thamesmead as part of Thamesmead Festival.


Overleaf is a London-based startup, supported by Digital Science and Bethnal Green Ventures, and founded by two mathematicians who were inspired by their own experiences in academia to create a better solution for scientific collaboration and communication.
Overleaf is building ‘Google Docs for Science’, making science and R&D faster, more open and more transparent by bringing the whole scientific process into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication. Overleaf has 750,000 users who’ve created more than 10 million documents, and is being used in hundreds of universities worldwide for teaching and research. Read our interview with Software Developer Hugh O’Brien to find out more!


Overleaf: Thank you Sophia and Amy for answering these questions for us! First of all, how did you get your current positions?

Sophia Goldberg: I’ve always been passionate about Physics and Mathematics, so when it came to choosing what to study at university Theoretical Physics was the natural choice for me. It was great being able to study one of the most fundamental sciences. My masters thesis was in complex networks, which was really interesting but I felt that I had unfinished business with Theoretical Physics. I loved studying General Relativity – the maths behind it was elegant and beautiful – and understanding our Universe, how it works and evolves, has always fascinated me so I decided to specialise in cosmology and gravitation at Queen Mary University of London, where I’ve been studying for my PhD.

Amy Knight: I am currently studying MA Art and science at Central Saint Martins, I came to do this after studying an Undergraduate in Mathematics at King’s College London and a Foundation in Art. The MA combines my lifelong artistic endeavour with my natural ability for scientific thinking.


O: What, or who, inspired your career choices?

AK: Whilst studying for my A levels, I read a book by Alex Bellos called ‘Alex’s adventures in numberland.’ It was whilst reading that I was able to visualise Mathematics as beautiful images within my mind and appreciate it with a logical and aesthetic viewpoint -this encouraged me to study math at a higher level. It was then, in my first term at University where a professor exclaimed ‘Mathematics is Art, if you don’t believe that you should leave now’ that I realized I could marry my interest in Art with my scientific thinking together and go on to pursue the connection of Art and Science on into my MA.

SG: I shared a love of all-things-science with my parents growing up! I’m very fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to pursue my passion in STEM subjects: getting me maths books and taking me to the Science Museum on countless occasions. My mum’s a strong role model for me: she’s taught me resilience – something you need lots of in research. Over the years my supervisors, teachers, colleagues and friends have also been a great source of inspiration for me, showing the diverse and exciting paths a STEM career can lead to. The great motivator for me though, has to be an ever-curious itch of wanting to know how stuff works, not always being satisfied with the first answer that comes my way, and being my own hardest customer to convince.


O: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SG: We’re living in a fascinating era in theoretical cosmology where we’re not only asking interesting and important fundamental questions, but it’s also necessary that we find the answers to them for observations. It’s at this intersection where my research sits: how does Einstein’s general relativity affect the largest structures we see in our Universe, like clusters of galaxies? Creating a mathematical framework which formalises this regime is exactly what I’ve been doing during my PhD. With ever-increasing technical advances in observational cosmology, it’s pressing to characterise the effects of Einstein’s general relativity, rather than just Newton’s theory of gravity, for up-coming high-precision observations. (Pic: Me on a deserted train in Uyuni, Bolivia, with Einstein’s field equations graffitied onto them. These are the equations I use every day!)

AK: The most fascinating aspect of my work as an Artist is being able to choose the topic that I wish to research and develop into a physical piece. I can carefully attack topics that may be a larger issue and in doing so, raise an awareness to a group of people who may not access this information by themselves; this includes the ideas of science. It’s about communicating and being the mediator between two realms that do not usually integrate.


O: What attracted you to Soapbox Art & Science in the first place?

AK: I was attracted to Soapbox because I wanted to get a more scientific grounding within my Art Practice. I also wanted the opportunity to raise the profile of Art and Science as a subject of its own – it is my intention to persuade as many people as possible that they are not so different disciplines. It has offered me a fantastic opportunity to be inspired by real scientific research which will continue within my MA and art career.

SG: I’ve been so lucky to have such great support in pursuing a STEM career but I know that’s not the case for everyone; I’m hoping to reach out to people who think: ‘it’s not for me’. I think exciting public talks on science, where you can keep the content and drop the jargon, can be really effective at communicating difficult scientific concepts. However, everyone thinks and learns differently, and I think that including art with Amy will help bring complex ideas home and allow people to understand scientific ideas in a new way. Additionally, including art in Soapbox Science will hopefully mean that a more diverse set of people will come to the events. (Pic: Me recording for an outreach video I made on explaining integration by parts!)


O: What ideas are you working on together?

SG: Amy’s idea is to use audience participation, so she’s making a piece that’s hands-on. Two (lucky) people will represent our Solar System and galaxy, the Milky Way, by wearing hi-vis jackets and helmets (with our Sun and galaxy printed on it). We’ll then ‘build’ a Solar System from planets, and a galaxy from stars, which we’ll stick onto the hi-vis jackets. This should be fun for the kids (and grown-up kids!), but also should help me explain the vast array of gravitationally bound structures that exist in our Universe on gigantic astronomical scales.


O: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

AK: As someone who is yet to reach this level but certainly aspires to it, I would say, choose a subject which you know you can sustain interest in; truly love what you are researching.

SG: My advice is: you belong in this space, so if you want to pursue an academic career, go for it! Surround yourself with role models, people who do things the way you want to do them and to whom you can relate. Join your local women in STEM group too, it’s great for support and inspiration!


O: Overleaf is a champion of collaborative writing – in your opinion, why is it important to have collaboration as a part of your work and have you got any advice for researchers who are looking to increase collaboration?

SG: Collaboration is key in science for several reasons. Firstly, everyone brings different knowledge and skills to the research problem at hand, so a once unsolvable problem can quickly turn into a solvable one. A diverse collaboration should mean that although your skills may be similar (e.g. all experts in differential geometry and gravitation), your experiences and ways of problem-solving may be different, leading to really original ideas and results. Finally, working on a project alone can be pretty solitary, but also ineffective: with two people working on a project the time taken to do the research is often cut by more than a half. For researchers who want to increase collaboration I’d encourage them to attend workshops, meetings and conferences that interest them: it’s a great way to meet other researchers and, followed up with an email, often leads to new collaborations.

AK: I second Sophia!


O: What would be your recommendation for working with people from other subjects and disciplines?

SG: There is normally some overlap material in different fields for interdisciplinary collaborations. When approaching a problem I’d recommend first covering some commonalities before diving into the complex intricacies relevant to individual fields.

AK: I would highly recommend interdisciplinary work, it is something that feeds a lot of my research and ideas. It is important to embrace a different perspective and to be well informed and this can be achieved by meeting and working with people from other fields of research. (Pic: My with piece ‘Mr Higgs Hat Stand’ – it’s inspired by CERN)






Since 2014, our overall whole initiative is supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. We are very grateful for their financial support of the new Soapbox Art & Science projects.

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Soapbox Art & Science London is being sponsored by Overleaf: We catch up with Software Developer Hugh O’Brien about supporting science outreach.

Soapbox Art & Science London is being generously sponsored by Overleaf. We catch up with one of their Software Developers, Hugh O’Brien about supporting science outreach.


Overleaf is a London-based startup, supported by Digital Science and Bethnal Green Ventures, and founded by two mathematicians who were inspired by their own experiences in academia to create a better solution for scientific collaboration and communication.

Overleaf is building ‘Google Docs for Science’, making science and R&D faster, more open and more transparent by bringing the whole scientific process into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication. Overleaf has 750,000 users who’ve created more than 10 million documents, and is being used in hundreds of universities worldwide for teaching and research.



Hugh, what is your background and how did you come to join Overleaf?


I’ve had a somewhat indirect route to Overleaf. I have a BA in psychology from Trinity College Dublin, with the original intention of working in clinical practice in some capacity. While there I got involved in publishing the Irish Student Psychology Journal. There we published peer reviewed research and reviews from psychology students across Ireland. The interest in publishing lead me to try a career in publishing. I worked at at PLOS for 2 years on their Biology and Medicine flagship journals. The consistent push inside the company to use technology to simplify academic publishing and improve scholarly communication increased my interest in what other paths I could take. It became increasingly clear that was the direction the industry was moving in. After spending a couple of years learning to code outside of work I left publishing for an MSc in computer science at Imperial College London. While working on my masters research I started working part time at Overleaf, went full time when I finished and haven’t left since. Being a pretty heavy user of the platform during my masters and seeing how the company operated it seemed like a good way to bring together my interest in scientific communication and my new skills.



What attracted Overleaf to Soapbox Art & Science?


Overleaf is always looking for fun ways to interact with and reach out to the scientific community. Soapbox Art and Science is a great way to do that! Bringing together women scientists and the community in a fun and interactive way. We’re very happy to support your mission “to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by some of our leading scientists.”




Why is it important for researchers and companies to make their work accessible to the public?


There are so many good reasons but let’s just name a few obvious ones.

For a start, people will be interested if you give them the chance. At public science events, I’ve always found the unexpected bits of research the most interesting. Things that have made me go, “oh, I didn’t realise anyone was working on that!”. A well curated explanation can really catch peoples’ imaginations. This is especially necessary for publicly funded research where, to be fair, they paid for it; however, let’s not forget the marketing opportunity from making what you do sound cool. Certainly this can be easier or harder depending on the field, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying to explain their work.

It’s also a great opportunity to re-assess your own work. Tunnel vision can be a real problem in science (and software development for that matter). Having to re-explain your work to someone other than the editor and expert reviewer at a journal has a value. It forces you to take a step back and see a bigger picture once in a while.

The public can also be a good collaborator in some cases. In the same way it can be good to get input from other fields, a new perspective or opportunity could come from a source you haven’t thought about yet. You won’t know until you get your research out there in a different way.



Overleaf is making it easier and quicker to collaborate, write and publish academic papers. If you could change one other thing about academic culture what would it be?


From working in the industry and from talking to active scientists it would have to be the peer review process. There’s a lot of interesting innovation going on and people experimenting with different ways you could change it. Post publication peer review, publishing the reviews and commenting systems are all steps in the right direction I think.

A lot of work needs to be done and there’s probably no one easy fix, but I find that to be a common issue stakeholders have with the current publishing system. The right combination of solutions is probably the one we haven’t thought of yet.


The London event will see art mix together with science and Overleaf champions collaborative writing. Why is it important to have collaboration as such an integral part of your work and have you got any advice for researchers who want to work with people from other disciplines?


Collaboration is really at the core of what Overleaf does. In my experience the best parts of the platform are the ones that have had insights from different parts of the team. We have a team with a lot of different backgrounds. I’ve found it does mean you have to work more on communication but the end product is generally improved. Having completely switched academic disciplines myself I think the biggest challenge is knowing how to explain your point of view to those with a completely different background. Getting this right is also probably the most important step for collaborating with different disciplines in research. Think about how to explain your research to those without a deep prior knowledge, understanding is the first step to collaboration.


And finally, if you were stood on a Soapbox telling people about your what Overleaf does, what is the one thing you would hope they would take away with them?


Overleaf aims to ease a common pain point in science: writing collaboratively. The science itself should be hard, everything else is a problem waiting to be solved.


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Science can take you to unexpected places: Meet Millie Watts

Millie Watts completed a geosciences degree with the Open University whilst qualifying as a teacher, followed by a MSc in Environmental Dynamics and Climate Change at Swansea University. She has been doing her PhD since 2013 at the National Oceanography Center, focusing on dating prehistoric underwater landslides from the Norwegian continental shelf, specifically the Storegga Region. She will be giving a talk at Soapbox Science Brighton on Saturday 29th July called: Will climate change cause more tsunamis in the UK?” 



SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

MW: My research has focussed on accurately dating a series of massive underwater landslides from the Norwegian continental shelf. The reason this is interesting, is that these landslides are capable of generating tsunamis that can reach the UK. We know that the most recent of these slides, the Storegga Landslide, which occurred 8200 years ago created a wave that was over 25 m high in the Shetland Islands, and still 5 m high around Scotland. Not only is this a fascinating field to work in, but it also involves a wide range of field and lab work that has revealed some fascinating new information about these slides. The sediment cores I work on, were collected during a month-long expedition to the Nordic Seas, and document a history of these landslides over the last 125,000 years. Through understanding the timing of these slides, and the conditions within the ocean at the time they were triggered, we can estimate the future risk to the UK population.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

MW: My mum: she taught me that I could do anything I wanted and always encouraged me to pursue my interests. She taught me to work hard at school, and how to handle difficult subjects, and study effectively. I am forever grateful that she made learning fun when I was young, and that I have been able to pursue a PhD because of her continued support.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

MW: My route to a PhD was far from traditional. I did very well at school, and started a degree at university when I was 18, but had to drop out before finishing. I found a teaching role at a local college, and finished the last two years of my degree at home through the Open University, I studied hard, and finished two years of study in under 18 months, at the same time as completing a part time teaching degree with Plymouth University, and teaching A-Level geography and Geology full time. It was a very challenging two years, but I had huge support from my mum, and my employer, and I really wanted to finish my first degree and go on to get a PhD. Whilst I was teaching, we had visitors from a number of universities come in to speak to the students who were applying through UCAS, and one of them was Dr. Geraint Owen from Swansea, we were chatting and he encouraged me to apply for an EU funded Masters at Swansea. I was fortunate enough to be offered the Masters and the funding, and once I returned to studying, I was even more convinced that a PhD was the right path for me. I started looking early, and one came up working on the Arctic Landslide Tsunami Project. Natural disasters have always been a particular area of interest for me, and this PhD was focussed on Quaternary dating methods applied to the risk of tsunamis affecting the UK. It is a fascinating topic, and one with a significant real world application, and that is what has kept me interested throughout the course.


SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work? In particular, how does maths play a role in your research?

MW: My PhD has been very multidisciplinary, the wider project is led by my supervisor, Professor Peter Talling, a sedimentologist, but crosses the fields of civil engineering, risk management, marine geology, palaeoclimatology, ocean modelling and geophysics. My background is geology and Quaternary science, but through my research group I have learnt a lot about modelling, fluid dynamics and statistics. Maths, in particular statistics has been a key component of my work, I use statistics to show that my conclusions are robust and significant. My personal research makes use of a variety of methods for dating sediments, radiocarbon, tephrochronology and biostratigraphy, and each of those dating methods has a different estimate of uncertainty. The use of Bayesian statistics takes my collection of data points, and combines them to form a meaningful conclusion. In this case, being able to accurately date natural disasters that happened thousands of years ago, and use that date to understand what may have caused them.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and why Brighton? 

MW: I enjoy outreach, I think it is an essential component of research, and more PhD students should engage with events like this. Being able to justify your research and give interesting presentations to your peers is an essential skill. But it is not the same as being able to enthuse younger students, or the general public about your work. Both types of communication are important, and both take practice. I have been fortunate to have been generously sponsored by the school of Ocean and Earth Science, and given some time to develop a new activity, that should be a lot of fun – just hoping it doesn’t rain!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – Excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

MW: Thrill.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

MW: More post-doc opportunities with longer term contracts. Short term roles are the norm for the first few post doc positions, and it can be hard to manage relocating every year or two.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

MW: Find something you love, and will continue to excite and interest you. Build a suitable network amongst colleagues and supervisors, and use the resources and opportunities available to you at the university. Whether it is additional training, demonstrating for undergraduate modules, accompanying fieldtrips or organising conferences. Experiences are valuable, and will help you develop a broad skills base during your PhD.


SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

MW: Science is fun, it is surprising, it takes you all over the world to unexpected places. Science isn’t just maths, physics and chemistry, science is also icebergs, fossils, mud, volcanoes, and helping people understand the planet we live on, and how to adjust to a changing environment.

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Make your ideas stronger by talking about them: Meet Bridget Penman

Dr Bridget Penman is an assistant professor at the University of Warwick. She has a DPhil from the University of Oxford Department of Zoology and a BA in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford, and was previously a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford. She studies the co-evolution of humans with parasites, viruses and bacteria in order to help us understand infection and combat disease. She is taking part in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday 29th July 2017.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

BP: Why does one person get sick from a virus, whilst another doesn’t notice they’re infected?  The answer may well be in their DNA.

I try to understand these differences in susceptibility to disease, and how we can use this information to better fight infections in the future. To do this, I study how human genes have evolved in response to infectious diseases. I get to think about the most fundamental process in biology: evolution by natural selection.  I also think a lot about human health, which it’s hard not to find fascinating!

My day to day research involves using computers to simulate human populations living with infections. If you’ve ever enjoyed playing a simulation-based computer game (e.g. SimCity), you’ll know how quickly you can become absorbed in a simulated system, making changes that you think will have one effect, and being surprised when something else happens.  My research is full of similar moments.  I test whether the biological processes I have simulated give rise to the patterns I expect, or something even more exciting.


SS: How did you get to your current position, and what inspired you to pursue a career in science?

BP: When I was studying biology at university, I met Professor Sunetra Gupta, who uses mathematical models to understand infectious diseases.  Sunetra is a hugely inspiring scientist, who gave me the chance to do a PhD in a diverse team of biologists, mathematicians and computer scientists.  I am now working at the University of Warwick, in a similarly interdisciplinary environment at the Zeeman Institute

For me, being able to apply mathematical techniques to biological questions was just as important as my interest in human disease in leading me to where I am today.  However important the scientific question, it helps if you enjoy the techniques you are applying as well, and can take pleasure in developing and excelling at those skills.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place? 

BP: Challenging stereotypical ideas about who scientists are and what they do is a great idea, and I think it’s wonderful that the event has become such a success over the past few years.  Even though the thought of getting on the soapbox is daunting, I also want to see what sorts of questions people ask on the day, which I hope will help me understand how best to communicate my own scientific ideas to the widest possible audience.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

BP: Adrenaline!


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia or research?

BP: Take up every opportunity you can to present your research to others: volunteer to give a lab meeting talk; apply for an oral presentation rather than a poster presentation at a conference.  I had to be encouraged to do those things myself, but I’m so glad that I received that extra push.  Every time you have to talk about your ideas, you have to refine them – so your ideas get stronger, and each time you present your work, you build up the confidence you will need to successfully apply for grants and jobs.


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