You are good enough! Meet Ann Ager

Ann Ager gained a PhD in vascular biology from the University of Cambridge and moved to Professor Judah Folkman’s laboratory, Harvard Medical School, USA, to study microvascular endothelium. She then moved to Professor Bill Ford’s laboratory in Manchester, UK, to study lymphocyte trafficking into lymph glands. She gained a non-clinical MRC Senior Fellowship before moving to the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London, UK.  She now leads a team of scientists at Cardiff University studying how cells of the immune system move around the body in order to protect against infection, fight cancer and repair damaged tissues. Come meet Ann on the 10th of June at our Cardiff event!

 

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

AA: I started my research career in Cambridge many years ago studying how to keep blood vessels healthy. This involved understanding the different types of cells that blood vessels are made of and how they ‘talk ‘to each other.  My first degree was in Biochemistry, which involves taking cells apart to understand them. The discovery during my PhD that you could study whole cells by growing them in tissue culture flasks was a revelation (the discipline of Cell Biology had not yet been established) and I discovered that I had green fingers for this!

During my PhD, a post-doctoral fellow I shared a bench with was studying a brand new area of research; how blood vessels talk to immune cells to tell them to go to infected tissues.  This excited me more than my PhD project so, from then on, I decided that this was what I was going to work on.  I have been fortunate enough to have achieved my aim.

My research career has taken me to Harvard Medical School, Manchester University, the National Institute for Medical Research (now the Crick Institute) and now Cardiff University. This work and my career would not be possible without external funding and I have been, and continue to be, supported by the UK Research Councils, Medical Charities and Pharmaceutical Industries.  I have also had the pleasure of supervising and mentoring many talented PhD and undergraduate science students as well as post-doctoral fellows who have gone on to interesting and varied careers in science inside and outside of academia. I have also benefited from having great colleagues who have enriched my life and made by career in biomedical research exciting and enjoyable.

 

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

AA: Not sure I have a simple answer to this.  I was not particularly interested in science in lower school and my focus was on foreign languages. When it came to selecting subjects for GSCE, the school Head advised me to take Chemistry, Physics and Biology (my family was planning to relocate to a different area and it was suggested that I could be a couple of years behind in some languages at a new school). With hindsight, I was at a Girls school and I think they wanted to increase the numbers of girls studying science, but maybe that is me being cynical. Since that decision, I stayed with the 3 sciences at ‘A’ level and chose Biochemistry for my first degree because I was strong in Chemistry.  I realised early on that I like laboratory work as well as the intellectual stimulation and the international nature of biomedical research.

 

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

AA: You never know what you are going to discover in your experiments.

 

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science Cardiff 2017 in the first place?

AA: The opportunity to communicate with stakeholders and inform them of the achievements they have enabled. I am still disappointed by the lack of equal representation of women in leading positions in biomedical research, despite their dominance at junior levels. Career progression comes in all shapes and sizes and there is no one size fits all formula so it is important to relate one’s own experiences.

 

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

AA: Fun, hopefully!

 

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

AA: Ditch the’ publish or perish’ attitude.

 

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

AA: If you find a topic interesting, then IT IS interesting and worth studying. Follow your instincts and stick to your guns.  Don’t disadvantage yourself by not applying because you think you are not good enough.  Let the reviewers decide!  Find yourself a good mentor or mentor(s) who can advise and support you at all stages of your career, but particularly when you are starting out.

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Are you still a scientist if you’ve left the lab bench?

Malgosia Pakulska (@SCBakes) is the Communications and Development Officer at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. She is also a science writer for Research2Reality, a blog designed to engage the public in Canadian research. Malgosia completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab at the University of Toronto studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury.

Though she has left the bench, she is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public.  In her spare time, she experiments in the kitchen and blogs about it at Smart Cookie Bakes

 

I always assumed I would become a Professor. When I start something I always want to get to the highest level possible and, after starting University education, becoming a Professor was it. That and winning the Nobel Prize.

But three years into my PhD I was struggling to find the motivation for this career path. I went from “I’ll do a post-doc if I find something super interesting” to “I’ll only become a Professor if I can somehow get a position straight out of my PhD” to “I can’t imagine studying the same topic all my life”.

It was hard to get myself to admit this without thinking of it as failure. After all, what’s the point of a PhD if you’re not going to devote your life to research?

The point is that being a scientist is a mindset as much as it is a profession and the things that you learn during your PhD can be applied to many different careers.

As a science writer for Research2Reality, a blog about Canadian research geared towards non-scientists, I have to think critically about the things I read all the time. I have to evaluate articles and pick out the most important information to relay to our readers. I have to make sure readers don’t jump to conclusions based on misrepresented data. All these things I did on a daily basis as a PhD student.

My PhD taught me not to be afraid of complicated names or things I didn’t understand – something that comes in very handy in my current job as a Communications Officer at the Fields Institute where our current focus is “Unlikely Intersections, Heights, and Efficient Congruencing”.

It taught me creativity, perseverance, the importance of asking questions, and how to rack pipette tips really quickly.

These are all skills that I used when I was a scientist at the bench and they are skills I still use today (ok, maybe not that last one).

That’s probably why I was so surprised to see this question on someone’s Twitter feed one day: “Do you still consider yourself a scientist if you’ve left the lab bench?”

Yes, definitely.

 

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Soapbox Science London 2017 is looking for volunteers!

Are you passionate about science? Do you love talking to the public about science? Are you keen to raise awareness about equality in science careers? If so, you’ve got the makings of a Soapbox Science Volunteer! We are currently looking for volunteers for the London 2017 event on 27th May on the South Bank.

 

What does a volunteer do?

Soapbox Science is not just about the speakers. Without a support team of committed, enthusiastic people, a Soapbox Science event simply cannot happen. Each event relies on an animated team of up to 20 volunteers. Volunteers play a crucial role in rounding up the public, chatting to the public informally about being a scientist and the science that interests you, supporting the speakers by managing props and helping to calm any pre-box nerves (even then most experienced speakers get a bit jittery!), as well as handing out Soapbox goodies to lucky audience members! But perhaps the most important role of the volunteers is in gathering data so we can monitor effectively the success of the event: the volunteers carry out the bulk of our streamlined, centralised evaluation process, through interviews, observations, counting footfall and advertising our post-event online surveys.

 

What sort of commitment do we need from you?
We ask you to commit to attending the Soapbox Science London event on 27th May. You’ll need to turn up 1 hour before the event starts for a briefing and training.  You’ll need to stay until up to an hour after the event ends, to help clear up.

We’ll send you a volunteer information pack beforehand, with contact details of your local event organisers, and details on what role you’ve been allocated and at what time.

 

Why should I be a volunteer rather than be a speaker?

Many of our volunteers are keen to be speakers, but don’t want to dive straight in, don’t have the time to prepare this year, or simply want to suss out the competition before they apply! We love it when our volunteers become speakers as they’ve had time to chew over ideas on how to best present their work to the public.

 

What do I get out of it?

We can’t pay you, but we can provide you with training, skills, networking opportunities and an awful lot of fun! You’ll learn how broad-scale public engagement events are evaluated; you’ll develop your skills in chatting informally with the public about science; get to steal innovative ideas on how to communicate science to a lay audience. And most importantly, you’ll make new friends with up to 20 other like-minded volunteers, meet your local Soapbox Science organising team, and build links with scientists from both your local area and further afield.  To keep your energy levels up, we’ll keep you well endowed with drinks and snacks!

 

If you would like to volunteer with Soapbox Science London 2017, please fill out the form here by Monday 8th May. If you have any questions, please contact us at soapboxscience@gmail.com

 

 

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Don’t get distracted by other people’s opinions – Meet Professor Claudia Eberlein

Professor Claudia Eberlein studied Physics at the University of Leipzig and gained her Diploma there in 1990. She then moved to the University of Sussex where she completed her PhD in 1993. After two years of postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and two years as Research Fellow at Newnham College Cambridge, she obtained a Royal Society University Research Fellowship which she took to the University of Sussex. She is now Professor of Theoretical Physics and currently also the Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Soapbox Science Brighton is grateful to SEPnet for providing sponsorship for Professor Eberlein and the 2017 event.

 

 

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

CE: My research deals with quantum physics. It is amazing how much of it is relevant to everyday life and applications all around us. I am fascinated by the insight into how things work at the microscopic scale and what that might mean for modern nanotechnology and what we can do with it.

 

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

CE: I have inherited my dad’s aptitude for maths, and I am grateful to him and all my teachers in school for not discouraging me. I have just always loved maths and hence decided on becoming a theoretical physicist.

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

CE: I was awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship in 1997 at the University of Cambridge and decided to transfer the Fellowship to Sussex in order to work with Professor Ed Hinds and his experimental physics group. In 2005 I then became a regular member of faculty and subsequently was promoted in several stages, finally to Professor in 2014.

 

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?

CE: Maths is my main tool, but I also use computer programming to some extent, and my research has applications in other disciplines, most importantly nanotechnology and biology.

 

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

CE: I love teaching and I love explaining science to others. I love demolishing people’s prejudices about science being too hard to understand or being irrelevant to them. I think everyone can understand science and it is great to understand how the world around us really works.

 

SS: Sum up your expectations for the day

CE: I am very much looking forward to the day. My daughter who is 10 will come along too and help explain some cool maths to younger passers-by. We are going to have a fun girl’s day out.

 

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

CE: Scientific culture isn’t the problem. So much of everyday culture is awfully gender-biased and from a very young age, girls get automatically pressured into supporting roles. In this way girls often get turned off science before they even had a chance to learn much about it. So, if I had a magic wand to change just one thing then I would re-design all toy shops to remove all gender bias.

 

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

CE: Just do it and follow your dreams and what you are interested in. Don’t get distracted by other people’s opinions.

 

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

CE: Science is great fun and everyone can do it. Keep asking questions about why things around you are the way they are.

 

 

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Why women in science should learn to code

By Vicky Butt, who is a PhD student studying bioinformatics and metagenomics at King’s College London.

 

With this ever-increasing amount of biological data, such as genomics, the only way to make sense of it is to write computer programmes. Principal investigators and industries are now hiring more computer scientists and bioinformaticians to do this, but there is a shortage of these individuals. Now is the perfect opportunity for women in science to learn to code. But what is really happening? More often than not, women in the life sciences tell me they do not want to learn to code because they don’t feel they have the right mind for it or it’s something only men can do. For those who want to learn to code, many do not know where to start or what support is out there. And for those of us who code on a daily basis, we have taken different paths to get to where we are now, but have all battled against the same prejudices of women’s place in computer science. Here, I share my experiences getting into computer science, and the resources I used to help me get there.

 

How I got there

Despite being labelled by my peers at school for being a massive geek for loving physics and maths, I didn’t even know what computer science was. Hear me out, I thought it was just a thing that was reserved for the male super-nerds, and if I did show an inkling of interest, I’d be an outcast. I laugh at this now, but sadly this problem of pressure on girls in secondary schools to maintain an “image” and to not being labelled a “geek” isn’t getting any better. Even the recent introduction of computer science to the UK school curriculum isn’t helping .

I did a Natural Sciences degree, taking modules in the physical sciences in first year. There was a compulsory course in MATLAB, which I more than struggled with. Little did I know at that time that it was badly taught, and I wasn’t forever consigned to being a disaster coder. And for those (mostly men) who could do the assignments with a few taps of the keyboard, they had already learnt to code before going to university. If anything, that first year just reinforced the idea I had at school. I was right – it was reserved for the male super-nerds, like the intelligent physicists who seemed to swim to it like a duck to water. I baulked majorly. I switched to biology in second year to leave the competitive male-dominated environment behind. By no means was it an easy choice, but it felt safe.

The vacation between second and third year was fast approaching, and I was applying for research experience. I wasn’t having much luck and I was getting desperate, so I applied to a computational biology project thinking it wouldn’t be too competitive. And I got it. I quickly realised the MATLAB course in first year was useless for the project, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t a “natural” at coding. The course didn’t teach me how to ask the right questions, approach the problem properly nor how to code concisely.

After my placement, I was determined to teach myself how to code in python. I tried many different resources, some being a lot better than others. Finally, I found a free online course that taught me WHY code works rather than just HOW. Then the penny finally dropped, and it all just clicked in my head. I could apply what I learnt to any programming language and approach problems in a logical way. I had the confidence to apply for a funded Systems Biology Masters, and now I’m doing a PhD in bioinformatics.

 

 

For all the women in science

I implore you to learn to code, even if the sound of it sends a shiver down your spine.

When people say “coding is hard”, they actually mean this: coding itself is NOT hard. Finding the right resources is the hard bit. So to make it easier, here they are, which I have tried to list in order of importance:

 

  • Surround yourself with a support network of women who code/are learning to code.

The network I was in at university was Code First: Girls where I met (and continue to meet) like-minded women. They are an amazing organisation providing free coding courses to women students at university and to recent graduates. The courses are two hours a week for 6-8 weeks, and teach html/CSS, python and ruby (If they don’t have a branch at your university, contact them to start one)

 

  • Bioinformatics resources

You can find lots of courses and materials from various sources here

 

  • Thinking like a computer scientist: the online course that made the penny drop

I really recommend this free online course in python from MIT. It will teach you how and why code works, how to think logically, how to write efficient code, debug – all the things you will come across in your research careers.

 

  • Learn R and python

I learnt R on DataCamp, and you can learn python here too. Python is now used a lot, and dare I say it, may supersede MATLAB. R is the best language for manipulating large spreadsheets and statistics, but also has cool packages and visualisations. Do not underestimate the power of R.

 

  • Unix will come in handy

The command line will become your friend

 

  • Learn what Github is

There are loads of great resources online to learn Github, but if you want to query something that you messed up, this is wonderful

 

  • Keep learning!

The list doesn’t stop you there. As a programmer, you will be constantly picking up new things, like adapting to trends in the community and learning other languages. This is what I love about computer science: I am constantly exploring and applying what I learn to new puzzles in biology

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Science for a Penny

Dr Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-founder

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bringing SoapBox Science to sunny Palermo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are working to bring top female Sicilian scientists to the streets as soon as possible! We are so excited about the idea of engaging the public with our research and inspiring the next generation. More soon we hope!

 

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Soapbox Science comes to Brighton Seafront for 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nikiBy Nikita Hari

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

 

Let me take you through my Soapbox Science Journey…

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

By Dr Isabel Pires (@craftysci)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Posted in Event promotion, Local organiser | Leave a comment