Academic workplaces should discuss mental wellness: Meet Nicole Morrissey

Meet Nicole Morrissey, a first year PhD student in the University of Exeter Medical School. Here, Nicole writes about her passion for anything to do with the brain, her commitment to engaging with the public about her research and her push for more openness about mental health in academic environments. She will be speaking on June 24th at Soapbox Science in Exeter, giving a talk titled ‘Food for thought: What happens in our brains when we eat!’




By Nicole Morrissey


Living the dream; doing a PhD in Neuroscience!

I am absolutely ecstatic to be undertaking a PhD in a research area that I love. I cannot quite believe that I achieved my ambition! It is a fantastic opportunity, and I work on a fascinating topic with wonderful people in a beautiful city! The study of why we eat – the neuroscience of appetite regulation – is incredibly interesting. There are multiple routes by which our brains control food intake, and it is important to research this to understand why some people struggle to eat the right amount of food for them – for example, in overeating and undereating. My PhD project, although in the early days, is investigating a potential role by which the different cells of the brain (it is not just neurons!) communicate and whether this is involved in the ‘inflammatory’ response of brain cells to eating a lot of food high in saturated fat.






Astrocyte – a type of brain cell


I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience at The University of Manchester, which gave me a lot of varied research experience. For example, I undertook a placement year working for a start-up biotechnology company designing on a medical device to detect infection. While this project was very different to neuroscience, it enabled me to develop important research skills that led me to the opportunity to do a Masters by Research at Manchester. It was in my Masters degree that I was able to pursue the neuroscience of appetite control; investigating how the sensations of satiety and sickness are communicated from the gut to the brain. This work explored the role of different types of neuron – the brain’s main cell – that are responsible for passing on different information from the stomach. For instance, the neurons that respond to the feeling of ‘fullness’ will send this information to different areas of the brain to neurons that respond to ‘sickness’. This experience paved the way for me to apply to my current PhD project.









Me getting hands-on with appetite research by eating a delicious pie


I applied to Soapbox Science for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is incredibly important that we bridge the gap between scientific research and the knowledge available to the general public. After all, especially in the medical sciences, what is our research if we cannot inform the public? In obesity research, there are a lot of myths on what food is healthy/unhealthy. For example, people who diet may focus too much on avoiding fats and sugar – yet they are very important sources of energy for our bodies! People also know that a bad diet is bad for our health, and I think it is interesting to learn why people would still continue to eat unhealthily. There is evidently a gap to fill in making our research accessible to everyone.


Secondly, I applied for personal reasons. Like many others, I have anxiety problems which lead to a diagnosed disorder a while ago. While it is mostly recovered, it still provides challenges. So I decided to challenge my anxiety by doing something new and out of my comfort zone! This is something I would change about the scientific culture: the taboo of speaking about mental health. Though I am sure this is the same in many career paths. I believe we would all benefit, in our research as well as our wellbeing, if the academic workplace could be more open to discussions of mental wellness.









Me slicing brain sections in the lab


Thirdly, while the biological sciences have proportionately a lot of female academics, there are still challenges that women face in biological and other STEM subjects. I really admire the motion of Soapbox Science, to both boost the view of female researchers as well as providing a route by which anyone can learn about scientific research!


Looking towards the day: I am pretty scared, but also thrilled to spread the excitement of studying neuroscience!


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It is our responsibility as scientists to tear down barriers: Meet Leila Moura

Dr Leila Moura is a Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. You can catch her on her soapbox in Belfast on Saturday 24th June where she will give a talk called: “From clouds to crystals: finding the balance”





SS: How did you get to your current position?

LM: Networking, hard work and some amount of luck! I really wanted to work with the current PI in my project. He was part of the jury in my viva (not accidental!). After the viva, I went to talk to him and asked him if I could work with him. We applied for a Marie Skłodowska‑Curie Individual Fellowship with a project called HyLITE (Hydrophobic Ionic Liquid Technologies). Ionic liquids and physical-chemistry are two of my passions so I felt right at home!


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

LM: My mother says that I was born a scientist. She says that from a very young age I tried to explain things around me in a methodical and rational way. I also disassembled and assembled (more or less successfully) the VHS player more than once (among other things). My family thought that I would be either a chef or a chemist because of the amount of experiments I did in the kitchen, including in the family’s restaurant, as proven in the photo. They were right, I still do both today. So, I think what inspired me to follow a career in science was mainly curiosity!


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

LM: Learning new things every day. A new technique, a new method, a new compound, something that someone else learned from their work… whatever it is, it is a new challenge and a new opportunity and I find that very exciting!


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

LM: Two things. The opportunity to bring science to the public and the opportunity to show to both boys and girls that science is for everyone! When I was younger I felt that women did not get as much recognition or representation in science in the eyes of the public. I feel that this view is slowly changing and I hope that my participation in Soapbox Science can be a positive contribution towards this change.


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

LM: Excitement!


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

LM: Whenever I talk to a member of the public about what I do, I get the feeling that there is still a barrier between scientists and the public. There are several factors that contribute to this but I think that science IS for everyone and it is our responsibility as scientists to help tear down this barrier.


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

LM: Follow your heart, follow your passion and believe in yourself. If this is what you want then don’t let anything stop you!

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You need to find your niche in science: Meet Helen Fones

Dr Helen Fones is a plant pathologist and researcher at the University of Exeter. Here she tells us about her work and the challenges she is determined to overcome. She cannot imagine being anything other than a scientist and if you read on you will find out why. You can come and see Helen on her soapbox on the 24th of June 2017 in Exeter’s Princesshay Square where she will give a talk called: “The fungal threats to food security”



By Helen Fones

You need to find your niche in science…

I’m a plant pathologist, studying the interactions between crop plants and disease organisms that reduce yields –at great economic cost, or worse.  As global demand for food increases, every possible option to prevent crop losses will need to be explored.  Currently, my research ranges from the fairly fundamental – studying the lifecycles of fungi responsible for diseases including Wheat Leaf Blotch and Ash Dieback–to the applied, testing potential fungicides for activity against ‘Panama’ Disease of bananas.  I’ve always been fascinated by plants – at least since my mother explained the alternation of generations in ferns to me, when I was about six and wanted to know why our ferns only grew in damp places.


It started here?

Later, I realised that microbes fascinate me equally: so, plant pathology.  Although I chose to be a plant pathologist, I don’t think I chose to be a scientist.  Research simply claimed me as its own.  I have never found anything as fulfilling as the moment when the data I’ve collected start to speak for themselves, confirming or denying hypotheses, but most of all throwing up new ideas and new avenues to explore.  My second biggest thrill in life is the fizzing-brain feeling of ideas queuing up to be thought; my biggest is seeing a student I’ve worked with experience that.


Unexpected infected of ash leaves (red) by asexual spores of the ash dieback fungus (Image by Dr Helen Fones; from: Fones, H. N., Mardon, C., & Gurr, S. J. (2016). A role for the asexual spores in infection of Fraxinus excelsior by the ash-dieback fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. Scientific Reports, 6.).



Right now, though, I’m at the point in my career where women leak from the leaky pipeline of scientific career progress: numbers of men and women are near equal in my field up to the postdoctoral stage, but far fewer women go on to principle investigator.  So, it seems that the barriers between postdoc and PI are higher for women.  I love a challenge, though, so I’ll give this my best shot.  I’ll need to be pretty resilient.  I have been discouraged; knocked back repeatedly by advice such as: 90% of postdocs won’t get an academic job, so get real; If you don’t work seven days a week you’re a no-hoper; You can’t expect to make PI when you’ve been postdoc-ing for seven years.  I would be interested to know whether men at my age and career stage hear this litany as loudly as I do, but, whether or not that’s the case, I want to fight this attitude, on behalf of and along with early career researchers – male and female – everywhere.

To succeed, researchers need to find a niche.  I’m hoping to build mine by viewing plant-pathogen interactions through a holistic lens, considering not just the host and its defences, nor the pathogen, but the system they create between them.  Pathogens, living within the plant, shape their environment just as the plant itself does, influencing and contributing to nutrient usage, for example.  The plant responds to pathogens, but those responses are part of a broader network in which it is also responding to temperature, soil nutrients, herbivory, and more.  All of this may in turn affect the pathogen and disease outcomes.  And that’s not all.  Many pathogens spend parts of their lifecycles in niches other than those where we see them causing diseases.  These expose them to additional evolutionary pressures.  My recent work has shown that the wheat leaf blotch fungus can survive on the leaf surface for days, instead of invading the leaf tissues.  Non-infecting variants of this fungus may simply remain on the surface, where they might continue to grow and reproduce, using nutrients from the leaf surface without alerting the plant to their presence.  This lifestyle would need a whole array of adaptations not used by fungi that grow within the plant, and, if it turns out to be important, might explain some of the genetic variation we can see in the fungus.  Factors like this might also help us to understand more about whether a particular pathogen is likely to emerge as a new or serious problem on a particular crop.


Leaf surface fungus: Scanning Electron Micrograph by Dr Helen Fones, false colouring by Dr Dan Bebber (University of Exeter).




Along my journey, I hope to help others on the same career trajectory to support each other.  I’m currently part of an attempt to strengthen the Early Career Researcher’s Network (ECRN) in my department.  I really want to create a space for sharing practical tips, bouncing ideas around, but also just being there for each other: sharing careers advice, mental health advice, advice on how to balance the demands of different aspects of life.  I believe that science should be a supportive and collaborative effort, both in terms of the work scientists do and the ways in which we interact.  I hope the ECRN can grow into a forum that helps people to contribute and realise their potential within science.  I have benefitted massively from having three incredible mentors: my PhD supervisors at Oxford, Prof Gail Preston and Prof Andrew Smith; and my current boss at Exeter, Prof Sarah Gurr.  I hope to encourage, inspire and support others as they have done me.

You can read more from Helen here:

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Overcoming the career insecurity in academia: Meet Emma Stevenson

Meet Dr Emma Stevenson, Research Associate in bacterial signalling at the University of Exeter. Her work centres on bacterium that can cause disease in humans with the ultimate aim of finding ways to prevent them from harming us. Here she reflects on her journey so far as she prepares to start a family, a journey that has not always been easy, or straightforward, but one that she is glad to have persevered on – she feels that nothing is ever out of reach if you have a goal you want to achieve. Come and meet Emma at Soapbox Science in Exeter on the 24th of June, 2017 where she will be talking about how bacteria glean information to make decisions!


By Dr Emma Stevenson

The Journey to now…….

My job has me investigating life on a very small scale. In fact, so small, you need a microscope to see what I actually work on! Our lives are full of life that we can’t see with the naked eye, but without which we wouldn’t be able to function. I’m talking about bacteria…tiny organisms that live everywhere, from the soil, to the sea and all the space in between; including, our bodies. Most of the time bacteria are harmless and even function to keep our body in balance. But sometimes, things go out of sync and we get ill. That’s where I come in!


Where the path to science began……

I attended a local comprehensive school in Torquay, which, at that time was not fairing too well. Despite its troubled nature, I was determined to get the best out of it, and I soon realised that my lessons in science were important for me to do this. Science lessons became the ones I enjoyed the most, which was not common among my peers at school!

I knew that I wanted to get a good education, so I could have a professional career in STEM, as opposed to staying in my local town where the economy was heavily based on leisure and tourism. I came out of school with some pretty decent GCSE’s and decided that science at the local Grammar school would be the best place for me to work towards the career I now wanted.

The transition from GCSE to A-level was by far the toughest part of education for me. I really had to learn for myself, as no-one else was going to push me or make me do anything I didn’t want to. But I got on with it, ended up with a handful of A-levels (including Biology and Chemistry) which would be enough to get on to the course at the university I wanted to go to.


The passage of University….

Applied Biological Sciences at the University of the West of England, Bristol was my chosen degree program. It covered a vast array of modular subjects including human physiology and pharmacology, from data analysis to microbiology, genetics and plant sciences. Plus, there was the added bonus of a sandwich year which meant I could spend a whole year as a paid employee in a research lab or industrial company. This, I would later find out, proved an invaluable experience and secured me a Masters Degree course place at Imperial Collage, London.  Through the modules on my course I was able to discover the subjects I really enjoyed (microbiology and molecular genetics) and thus excel at. Getting good marks meant I was selected for an overseas placement in my sandwich year (2003-2004), which I spent in a research lab at Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA. I gained a lot of lab experience and it enabled me to get a taste of what academic life could be like. I enjoyed it so much, that I applied (and got accepted) to go back to do a PhD after my final year of University. However, due to the difference in the PhD training schedule between the USA and UK, I decided to instead, accept the Masters of Research degree place at Imperial College……London was calling!


The uncertain cross road…

The period of my Masters degree was a turbulent one. I was in the very early stages of becoming an independent researcher and although I loved my research projects I found the whole experience really tough. I didn’t enjoy living in London, was constantly in debt, (though my masters program was funded) and it really made me question whether a life in academia was for me.  What had once felt like a natural career progression (Undergraduate course, Masters, PhD) didn’t feel right for me anymore. All of a sudden I was questioning my whole career choice and at 23/24years old, it was pretty frightening!

When I think about it now, I realise I wasn’t ready to transition from masters to PhD. I wasn’t a confident researcher and I still didn’t really know what area of science I wanted to be in. And, as any researcher will know, you commit yourself 100% to a PhD, so you have to know and love what you do. I decided that after my masters, I should take a break from academia. By now, having lived in Bristol, the USA and London, I had also realised that Torbay wasn’t such a bad place to live. So, like the proverbially bad penny, off I trotted back to my parents place in Torquay. To relax and figure out what I really wanted for my career.

I took a job at a local petrol station to help pay my way whilst living at home with my parents and to keep me busy, as I didn’t know how long it would take to find another ‘career worthy’ job. Low and behold, seven months later, I had secured a job at a sequencing facility for a company called GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (a world leading pharmaceutical company) which was based in Harlow. So, I was off again, but this time to explore a largely unknown side of science in the industrial sector.


The Industrial expedition

I only spent two years at GSK, but they were a great couple of years. The sequencing facility at GSK was a core platform, which meant my role was supporting hundreds of different projects being undertaken at the various R&D GSK sites in and around Essex and further afield. What I felt in this job was a great sense of pride, knowing that my efforts were facilitating other important projects. I realised that having a career in industry could be (and was) just as rewarding as one in academia, but in a slightly different way. To me, academic pride comes from publications and grant awards. Pride in my job was supporting projects, taking on mini projects and being good at what I did. This, as I found out many times, was rewarded in bonuses and small prize awards. Something that I didn’t even know existed before!! It was great! I really began to focus on what I enjoyed; at University it was microbiology and molecular biology and through my job at GSK I had begun to experience the wonder of DNA sequencing and the power that was taking shape in this field. But, deep inside I also craved more independence, so in earnest I began searching for a PhD.


The slightly looped road to the South West

My time living in Harlow cemented the need I had been feeling to try and settle back in Devon permanently, as for me, nowhere else compared to this little gem of an area! I don’t hold any religious beliefs, but I have to admit, when I found a PhD advertised at the University of Exeter, in the area of microbial DNA sequencing, I really felt fate was on my side! So, I applied, had an interview and in November 2009, started my PhD working on genetic and phenotypic characterisation of a bacterium called Clostridium difficile. A nasty bacterium which infects an elderly population of hospitalised patients and will give them an awful bout of diarrhoea…..Yuk!

I was ready for this PhD, it was the right time for me, I was more confident, experienced and 100% sure what I wanted to do. I worked in a terrific lab, which was doing some fantastic research, met great people, had a supportive supervisor and absolutely loved my subject area. So, four years after I started, I gained my PhD, along with a fiancé who I’d met in my home town in 2010! Things were great, I could finally settle… or maybe not!

Academia is a world of constant change; grants, contracts and inevitably, people. I wasn’t able to secure funding to stay on at Exeter so was looking for jobs elsewhere. I was selected for interview for a job so closely related to my field of research I thought the post must have been written for me! The only down side is that it was in Nottingham!!!! My fiancé and I discussed it at length and decided that if offered, I would take the job, but he would stay in Devon. Our decision was hard but was reflected in the fact that we both wanted to eventually settle in Devon and his job was permanent. Something which is not guaranteed in academia until you are much, much further on in your career. I did get offered the job, which I accepted. I spent three years as a post-doctoral researcher in Nottingham, met some great friends and even got married along the way! But, after three years it was time to make the commitment to come back to Devon.  This was both a joyous and scary time, I wanted more than ever to be with my husband, but scientific jobs in Devon were very rare, so there was a possibility I would have to move back with no job to go to!


The arrival at now

So, as I write this, I am one year into my second post-doctoral position, at the University of Exeter. The timing for this position was great, just before I was due to leave Nottingham, a job opened up in the lab in which I did my PhD. So, not only could I go back to Devon, I could have a career in a great research group! It was a win win situation for me. I now work on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, another nasty bacterium that causes infection.

The world of academia still full of uncertainty, contracts are (mostly) short term and when you have a mortgage, bills and possibly children to think about, the threat of impending redundancy is just another worry! But…. I love my career, and what makes it even better is I get to spend time outside of work in beautiful Devon. This is important to me, as many academics make the difficult decision to move away from areas they love to chase that all important climb up the career ladder.

The path to now has been convoluted…. But if you stick to what you are passionate about and never give up trying, then I really believe you will get where you want to be and be happy in what you are doing!

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I’m a Nerd (and a Geek) and That’s Okay: Meet Maria Weber

Dr. Maria Weber is an astrophysicists based at the University of Exeter. Here she tells us how she has come to embrace two aspects of her identity as a “space nerd” and “science fiction geek” and her wish to challenge the stereotypes around each of these. Come and hear Maria speak at Soapbox Science in Exeter about her cutting-edge work on this and other solar systems on Saturday 24th June 2017 at 1 pm.




By Maria Weber


I’m a Nerd (and a Geek) and That’s Okay

Soapbox Science’s mission is to challenge the public’s view of women in science. In most branches of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), we are certainly the minority. I’m an astrophysicist. Across the UK and the United States (where I grew up and obtained my degrees), women make up only ~20-25% of the membership in professional astronomy and astrophysics societies.


My subject of expertise is theoretical solar and stellar physics. I study the fundamental physical processes at work in the interior of stars, well beyond the reach of telescopes. To do this, I use sophisticated computer models and often manipulate mathematical equations in a very ‘old school’ way with pen and paper. I use the results of these models to understand observations of intense magnetic fields observed on the surface of the Sun and similar stars.

Here I am juggling the Sun (yellow), a star ~46% of the Sun’s mass (orange), and a star ~12% of the Sun’s mass (red)


In addition to being a scientist, I’m also a self-proclaimed nerd and geek. The terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ often have negative societal connotations, and usually bring to mind male-gendered images. As part of my Soapbox Science platform, I also want to challenge the typical nerd and geek stereotype.


At this point you may be wondering ‘What is the difference between a nerd and a geek?’ This is still a heavily contested debate that will likely never be settled. I envision ‘nerd-dom’ and ‘geek-dom’ as something like a Venn diagram, with traits unique to each, but also traits that overlap. Often the differences can be subtle.


To me, a nerd is someone who is a scholar and expert in a field of study or artistic expression, particularly to the point that he or she may be consumed by this pursuit. On the other hand, a geek is perceived as knowledgeable and excitedly enthusiastic about a hobby or a niche interest. Typically, nerds are likely to prefer solitude, while geeks often enjoy their hobbies with others who share their same interests. Some people may interpret ‘overly studious and over-the-top enthusiasm’ as negative traits, but I would regard them as signs of passion about a topic or interest of great value to the individual.


I was first labeled as a nerd at age nine, interestingly, by other girls in my class. Most days, I preferred to read encyclopedias rather than playing games during recess. Twice a week I would reshelve books in the school library instead of playing outside. I was viewed by my female classmates as ‘too serious’ and ‘no fun’. But I was having fun! I was reading cool new facts about rocks and space, learned about the Dewey Decimal system, and discovered books on so many interesting topics. I was unsure how to react to my new nickname…surely only boys could be nerds. Even at this early age, my female classmates (myself included) were buying into the gender biased nerd stereotype.

I now have very messy desk. Most days, I have papers everywhere and at least two computers going at the same time.


I was in denial about my nerd status for most of my adolescence. I loved learning and continued to do well in school, but I was afraid to say ‘I’m a female, I really love science and maths, and that is okay.’ Part of this may stem from the fact that I had no female scientific role models in my earlier years. Around the age of twelve, I discovered Dr. Dana Scully and the American science fiction television show ‘The X-Files’. Scully is a female FBI agent, a medical doctor, scientist, and skeptic who logically questions the world around her. I admired her very much, and began to realize that I too could be a scientist, and that was going to be really cool.


I was in denial about my geek status for an even longer time. I didn’t fully embrace it until I went to university and graduate school. I discovered a population of students that were interested in video games, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, and midnight showings of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’. The most important thing for me was the realization that there were a number of women involved in this aspect of geek culture, which I had totally missed out on in high school.


Now I am proud to proclaim that I am a space nerd and fantasy and science fiction geek. My only regret is that I resisted it for so long. I am much happier, and have much more fun now than I did years ago. My advice to everyone, male and female, is this – pursue anything and everything you are passionate about.  Sometimes you may be in the minority. In which case, be a positive role model for others who may be nervous or afraid to join.  Sometimes you may be in the majority. In which case, be welcoming to those unlike yourself. I’m here to tell you that you can be any gender, and a nerd, and a geek, and there are others out there like you.

Here I am giving an outreach talk about stellar magnetism and planetary habitability.

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Good role models are important: Meet Lana McClements

Dr Lana McClements is a lecturer and researcher at Queen’s University Belfast. You can catch Lana on her soapbox at the Belfast event on 24th June 2017 giving a talk called: Diabetes and Pregnancy”






SS: Lana, how did you get to your current position?

LM: My path in academia followed an unconventional route for a scientist. I came to the UK from Serbia 17 years ago, following a turbulent time of war and uncertainty. I completed a Master in Pharmacy at King’s College London and embarked on the clinical path as a Resident Pharmacist at the Imperial College Healthcare Trust in London. I spent three years working as a rotational (different medical specialities) and resident (a lot of on-calls) Clinical Pharmacist and completed Postgraduate Certificate in Pharmacy Practice. Following this fantastic experience, which equipped with solid clinical skills I became a Senior Clinical Pharmacist at the biggest private hospital in Europe, the Wellington hospital. During this time I also completed Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Pharmacy. Having gained substantial clinical and leadership experience I came to Belfast to pursue my dream of working in translational medicine research field which I always felt passionate about. I was very fortunate to have a supportive supervisor and a great role model, Prof. Tracy Robson, who was instrumental in my career progression from a Postdoctoral Research Scientist to a Lecturer at the Centre for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast.



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

LM: Throughout primary and secondary education, I have always enjoyed studying. However, it was not until I started my degree in Pharmacy that I realised science is what I feel passionate about. Being in a position to discover something new, which can change people’s lives, is what excites me the most about science. Through my clinical training, I was able to witness first-hand how science can be applied to practice and change people’s lives, which is truly satisfying.



placental cells

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

LM: Pregnancy is the most exciting and fascinating experience in every woman’s life. However, fear of the unknown and the fact that body goes through major changes can scare people and make them anxious. This is particularly difficult if there are no reliable options to predict or prevent dangerous conditions during pregnancy. One of these conditions, pre-eclampsia, characterised by high blood pressure and kidney or other organ damage is problematic only in a small percentage of women without any pre-existing conditions however in women who suffer from diabetes this can become an apprehensive issue. The physiological changes during pregnancy including the development of placenta are truly fascinating however these processes are not well understood. My research is aiming to provide an insight into the mechanisms which can put women at risk of developing pre-eclampsia, and to devise strategies for targeting these irregular processes. We are striving to develop reliable markers of this disease which can predict the risk of pre-eclampsia early in pregnancy. This will enable us, then, to develop preventative treatments, which are currently lacking.



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

LM: I have engaged in many public science events previously however Soapbox Science represents a different way of engaging with the public. Soapbox Science’s grass-root approach to science is very interesting and a challenging way of engaging with passing public. I am particularly attracted to the fact that it is based around women in science who I have been an advocate for over a number of years now. I have been a member of Gender Equality and Initiative committees at Queen’s University Belfast as a PhD student, Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer. I am excited to be part of an inspiration team of women who have been involved in running these events.



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

LM: I expect to inspire budding scientists to get involved with science and discovery, and learn about placenta.



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

LM: Better female to male balance, particularly at higher positions, is a necessity in science right now. However, this is not just the issue of our industry but a cultural issue because women are expected to give up their professional dreams so that they can be called good mothers and wives. There are various ways to achieve this such as becoming a good role model and inspiring children to follow their dreams and passion even if these are not what society expects to see.



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

LM: Do it but only if you feel passionate about science and research! Make sure you find a good balance in life that will make you happy.

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It’s adversity that helps us learn how to cope: Meet Karen Galway

Dr Karen Galway is a Lecturer in Mental Health at Queen’s University Belfast. You can catch Karen on her soapbox at the Belfast event on 24th June 2017 giving a talk called: “Can science fix broken emotions?” 




By Karen Galway


But for the Grace of God go I…

I’m not religious, but this phrase has driven me to devote my research efforts to the ‘Cinderella services’. My job is to answer questions about mental health (MH) – what works, what doesn’t, who needs what and how to avoid becoming mentally unwell and reduce the number of suicides. MH problems represent a third of all GP visits and 28% of the total cost (burden) of disease and premature death but MH services receive only 13% of the NHS budget. Equally disappointing is that staggeringly only 6% of the money spent on health research in the UK focuses on questions related to mental health.  After many years working as a researcher I have gathered lots of facts and figures about MH, but I know that unless you have walked in a person’s shoes you are no expert on how they think, feel and act. Even when people have similar experiences, they can react very differently. MH is a complicated, messy, human and very personal ‘system’ to get a scientific handle on.


In a relatively short period of time the global scientific effort towards understanding MH allows us to confirm some key facts. For example, psychologists have discovered that behaviour is reinforced by rewards and discouraged by punishment. This provides scientific legitimacy to the well-known idioms about carrots and sticks, catching bees with honey and once bitten, twice shy. We also know that certain physical and emotional systems are connected through common biological processes. For example, the production of stress hormones (cortisone) interferes with digestion, reproduction and the immune system. So constant or chronic stress is scientifically established to be bad for your physical health. The same applies in reverse because we know that chronic physical health problems require practical and emotional adjustments and these can compromise MH.


From studies that look at patterns of MH problems in the population over time we know that a person can be born lucky into an affluent, safe and loving environment. Or born unlucky into poverty, into homes with a threat of physical or emotional violence or into a minority group, or all of the above and more. So our emotional development in the early years of life shapes our future risk of emotional problems. The statistics also show that MH problems are associated with poor educational attainment, addictions in later life and involvement in the criminal justice system. In short MH problems are very costly.


When I’m chatting to people about what I do I sometimes get the slightly awkward ‘taboo’ face.  Increasingly these days I might be met with a personal account of a relative or friend (rarely first hand) who experiences mental health problems, suggesting that people are starting to feel more comfortable discussing mental health, with a ‘safe’ audience. Scientific studies have found that an effective way to address these fears and prejudices (known as stigma) is to involve people with experience of MH problems in the delivery of training and awareness about MH.  Personal testimonials break down taboos. The current “I’m me” dementia awareness TV campaign is a good example of this.


I often wonder why mental health still sits in such a sacred space for so many people?  It’s comparable to how we used to talk about The Big ‘C’ but a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence not so long ago and death has always been a difficult taboo. In contrast poor mental health only rarely kills people. If you have a chronic long term mental health problem you are at least ten times more likely to be hurt through violent crime, than to hurt others or yourself. However, being mentally unwell can have a huge impact on quality of life, relationships, financial stability, physical health and independence. So can cancer and we’ve addressed that taboo, so we can address this taboo around mental health.


I work on suicide research, the ultimate MH taboo. Suicide is a huge issue in Northern Ireland (NI), where I live and work. A recent media report pointed out that more people have died by suicide since the Good Friday Agreement brought relative ‘peace’ to NI (in 1998), than the total number of people who died in ‘The Troubles’ over more than 30 years of terrorism and civil unrest.  That’s a shocking headline. In NI where we have around 2 million residents, and traditionally close knit communities, as a result almost everyone knows someone who has died by suicide. Yet our UK and Ireland rates of suicide are not even in the top 10 across Europe.  That is also quite shocking.


The relationship between MH and suicide is well accepted, with a mental health diagnosis almost always reported as the most important risk factor. However, in NI over 40% of those who die by suicide do not have a diagnosed MH problem. That figure may partly reflect the taboo around disclosure to a medical professional.  Equally the figure might partly reflect a lack of faith in services to address social and personal anguish, seen as outside the traditionally medical remit of the GP. Or it could be that GPs chose not to categorise or do not recognise MH risks when they are presented.  Very few do not seek any help at all prior to their death. Whatever the reason, we might all agree that something about a person’s emotional regulation is not quite right when they chose to end their life this way. An exception could perhaps be the choice to end suffering in terminal illness.  Can we accept that every person who ends their life is choosing to end unbearable suffering?


Herein lies the problem. I have heard people vehemently deny that there was any mental health problem present when their relative died of suicide. What do they think of as mental ill health? Would they agree that their relative had lost their sense of perspective? This leads us to a deeply philosophical debate about the meaning of mental health. We need to have that debate and to keep on having it to raise mental health literacy and reduce the very real fear of the stigma associated with mental vulnerability.  We all have a state of MH and we all have vulnerabilities.  We’re human.


Knowledge is power, so we do need more and better information about how to support people. Although there are many successful, evidence-based coping strategies to help us manage difficult emotions and chronic mood problems, there is no “one size fits all” solution.  Help seeking may therefore fail, time and again, until a connection is made, until a strategy matches the individual needs that are presented, until a person finds a solution that works for them.


For me, good mental health means laughing, crying, experiencing all kinds of acute and chronic, positive and negative emotions, and understanding that fluctuations in how we feel are what make us human. I am very grateful to have had a good grounding on some rules of engagement for life that certainly help me protect my mental health.  For example, that we reap what we sow, that good effort usually leads to a good return, that balance is important, that time for your loved ones is key, and time for yourself probably more so. Social isolation is a challenge to mental health and people can feel isolated even when they are surrounded by family and friends or in a crowd.


People generally recognise that some days are better than others and that the vast majority of mistakes or failings can be rectified or improved, with a little confidence, will and determination. When your mental health is fragile, these important characteristics of strength can be difficult to maintain. For example, to get through a crisis of confidence, “sometimes you’ve got to fake it until you make it.” I’m very grateful for this mantra from an academic colleague and mentor.


It’s adversity that helps us learn how to cope.  The difficult times make us appreciate the fun and the laughter, and that elusive idealistic work-life balance is what we are all striving for, to maintain good mental health.  If you feel you have achieved it, for even for one minute of one day, give yourself a massive pat on the back and just keep doing what you are doing. We are all wonderfully, eccentrically, complexly, human. Embracing your vulnerabilities can help you learn about yourself and others.  If I can use the Soapbox Science event to share this message and raise the MH debate with even one person I might indulge in one of those back-patting moments myself.


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We need to share our ideas and skills: Meet Jiawen Sun

I am Jiawen Sun, a PhD student in High Performance Distributed Computing at the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Queen’s University Belfast. My field of research is large scale graph analytics in big data analytics. This blog tries to tell people how and why I decided to go for a PhD in the UK  and how big data in graph analytics has an exciting potential to change our lives for the better.



You can catch Jiawen on her soapbox at the Belfast event on 24th June where she will give a talk called:  “How big data analytics could help us to know our life better”.



SS:  How did you get to your current position?

JS: When I got my master degree in Mobile & Wireless Network, my grandma encouraged me to go for a PhD. My grandma is my mentor to guide me on the science road. At first, I wanted to have a job instead of further study. While searching for a job, I realised that I was basically looking for a challenging one, like researching new technology to improve our quality of life. So, the PhD turned out to be a better option. In the beginning, I looked for PhD positions in China, but also started to realise that an overseas experience would be more interesting. After my wide search to work with leading experts, I started my PhD with Queen’s University Belfast. My research is about graph analytics, and I find it exciting because it has the potential to help people understand their lives better in a positive way, e.g., you could use social network analytics to find out more quickly what the popular news stories or topics are at a given time. So, I am here.






(Left is a night view of my hometown— Tianjin, China. Right is my grandma)



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

JS: My family believes that science is essential in changing the world. They always say, “Science and technology are primary productive forces.” When I was very young, they tried to give me a lot of magazines and books about science to read and when I started to learn more about science, I had more of an interest in it. Now in Queen’s, I learn a lot from my supervisors and classmates, e.g., passion, patience and a cautious attitude in research. Their behavior has a profound influence on me.


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

JS: Graph analytics in data analytics is a relatively novel approach. In general, the volume of the data is very huge, so we need to use our limited resources in an effective way. I am fascinated by this research in particular because it offers opportunities to improve or change many aspects of our daily lives, such as: predicting and managing climate and weather; detecting health issues of individuals and enabling timely treatment; and social network analytics. As a research student, I like the freedom in science- whatever your idea, you can explore, learn, research and possibly discover new things. I like the creativity and endless opportunities for enriching our lives through data analytics.



(Social Network Analytics)






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

JS: I enjoy sharing my knowledge, thoughts and ideas with people. Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them that my main subject is computer science. They think the computer science, graph analytics and data analytics are very hard or complex to learn. In fact, computer science is not very complicated at all- once people have some basic background knowledge, they will easily pick it up and see how interesting it is. It makes me feel good to highlight exciting new research topics or applications, or positive outcomes in daily life. I like to show people how data is being collected and then analysed from our daily activities and how these analytics could help us to understand our lives or make changes for the better.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? Anticipation?

JS: Excitement, and maybe a little anticipation.


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

JS: I would join together academia and industry, because a lot of researchers in universities are only focusing on their own research- they do not consider how to transfer their ideas or research into real life. People in industry are always having fantastic ideas, but they may not be fully aware of the research that is happening in universities. If we could have a joint program, to share our ideas and skills towards one goal or one project, we could create a strong professional approach to doing our work, with less effort.


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

JS: At first, find what your interesting topic is, and ask yourself, do you really want to do research? A scientist does not have to be male or female. We need many women to put themselves forward without hesitation to do research. From my own experience, everyone will love the atmosphere of research departments, and personal objectives can only be dictated by what the science demands. Research work is very rewarding, builds your confidence and contributes to the science community.

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Ask the Impossible Questions! Meet Lauren Barr

Lauren Barr (@lauren_emily_b) is a PhD researcher, in the third year of study, at the University of Exeter. She is a member of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Metamaterials there. She looks specifically at metamaterials which are twisted, or chiral, much like a lot of the objects we encounter in our daily lives, from hurricanes to our DNA. You can catch up with her, and hear more about the twisted world around us, at Soapbox Science Exeter on 24th June where she will give a talk entitled: “Left or Right Handed? And Why Does It Matter?”


SS: Lauren, what is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

LB: I work in the field of metamaterials, which are materials that have unusual properties determined by their structure, rather than their atoms like in natural materials. We try to design materials that interact with light (and other longer-wavelength radiation) in ways that were always thought to be impossible.

In particular, I study metamaterials that are made of twisted structures, and so will interact with and create light that is also twisted. I think one of the most fascinating discoveries I made was that some beetles have made their own metamaterial in their shells that does exactly that!


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

LB: It all started when I was in secondary school. I went to a very small school, set in the middle of a barley field in Loughbrickland. There weren’t many students, and not many at all who wanted to study Physics for A Level. Luckily it was also a very lovely school! After a long struggle with timetables, one teacher decided to put on an extra class for the only two Physics students in the school. It was during that time that I really started to enjoy Physics – I could understand a little bit more about how the world worked with each lesson – I was addicted!

After that, I knew I wanted to keep learning, and I haven’t wanted to stop since! I think it shows that if you have to fight for something, like your chance to study a subject, the results become even more rewarding.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

LB: I studied Physics at Queen’s University Belfast, where I completed a Master’s Degree. The best part for me was working in a lab on my own project – I loved getting to build a microscope, and use it to study how patterning the metal around a tiny hole affects the light that gets through.

During my project there I was lucky to meet my then-future-PhD-supervisor while he visited the University. We talked about Physics (another thing I thoroughly enjoy!) and I decided I would move across the sea, and start my PhD in Exeter.


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

LB: I have attended the event as a spectator for the past couple of years, and always had a great day out! I was fascinated by the diversity of subjects that people are working in, and loved learning a bit more about different sciences in such a fun environment.

One of the most important things I have to do when I learn something new is tell others about it. Otherwise, the new thing I learned won’t really be very useful. So when I got the chance to tell lots of people about my work at Soapbox Science, I couldn’t resist!


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

LB: Inquisitiveness-encouraging!


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

LB: I would like to remove some of the uncertainty about the future. I absolutely love going to work every day, because I never know what I will discover – that kind of uncertainty makes the job interesting! But not knowing whether or not I will have a job, or if I will have to move to a different city or country, that kind of uncertainty makes the job more stressful.


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

LB: My advice would be to think about what you do that makes you really content. If you love reading about the stars, or learning how cells work, then you should just keep doing that! If sometimes it gets really difficult, you shouldn’t be discouraged because science gets more interesting the longer you study it. And once you have solved one problem that seemed impossible at the time, you know that you can solve any other problem that seems impossible too!

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Bringing behavioural science to the streets: Susan Michie at Soapbox Science London

Susan Michie is Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL. Her research focuses on developing the science of behaviour change interventions and applying behavioural science to interventions. Susan took part in our event on 27th of May 2017 in London, where she gave a talk called: “What does it take to change your behaviour?”


By Professor Susan Michie 

Standing on a Soapbox addressing the crowds on a sunny afternoon by the River Thames is not my normal weekend activity. It was the result of an email from a University College London colleague encouraging women scientists to apply to Soapbox Science.  I had never heard of Soapbox Science before but quickly found out about its laudable aims of promoting women scientists and the science they do, with its catchphrase “Bringing science to the people” (

Such a great idea – instead of waiting for the public to come to us, get out there and take our science to them.  It was brilliantly organised with four women scientists spaced along the side of a wide part of the walkway with our names and topics in front of us and helpers milling around the crowds drawing them to us.  An hour each over 3 hours, allowing 12 women scientists to talk in an afternoon.


My topic was “What does it take to change behaviour?”.  One of my research group, Lucas Michaut had created some props – large signs saying ‘Why is behaviour important?’, ‘What is behaviour?’, ‘What influences behaviour?’ and ‘How to change behaviour?’ and a large poster with the COM-B model of behaviour; this provided the framework for the talk.


People were interested and engaged, and ready to share their experiences.  I used what they had to say to illustrate wider principles of behaviour change.  A recovering alcoholic talked about successfully being dry for 10 months and I elicited some of the strategies he had used to bring about change in the short-term and then to maintain it long-term.  A man volunteered that he sometimes struggled to keep his temper and wanted to find other ways to respond to aggravating situations. I managed to bring several of the audience in to the conversation about possible strategies, which included changing the situations that aggravated him which, in turn, raised other questions of how to achieve this.  The most memorable interlocutor was a man who said he had bipolar disorder and struggled to find his ‘middle’ and keep there and wanted advice as to how to achieve it.  This led to a discussion about how emotions and behaviour interacted and the importance of recognising patterns so that one could intervene early on when things were going awry.  As he left, he turned around and pointed at me and shouted ‘You are legend!’ – praise indeed.

The experience was heart-warming and energising.  I was pleasantly surprised at how ready people were to give me personal examples to use in outlining principles of behaviour change and how easy it seemed to be to get conversations going.  I think my willingness to give examples from my own life helped – I think I wasn’t what most expected from a ‘woman professor’. Although most of my research is in behaviour related to promoting health, most people were interested in behaviour in relation to their emotions and their communication and relationships with people.  The continual interplay between real life examples and theories and evidence from my work seemed to go down well.

I would wholeheartedly encourage others to have a go at this unusual but effective way of ‘bringing science to the people’.  Not only does it feel good to get out there and think about how to make one’s science relevant to all but engaging with such a wide range of curious people stimulates one’s own thinking.  There were many young people, including children and I hope that I may have planted seeds in people’s heads about areas for further enquiry and even study.



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