You’ll develop many transferable skills in science: Meet Maggie Lieu 

Dr Maggie Lieu (@space_mog), The European Space Agency, is taking part in Soapbox Science Brighton on 1st June with the talk: “Why dark matter matters”




SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

ML: Science + beach? What could be more attractive? I’m most excited about the sea. I have to say, I‘ve given a lot of talks before but usually it’s in a dark dingy room and not on a beach.


SS: Tell us about your career pathway

ML: I did an integrated masters in Astronomy Space Science and astrophysics at the University of Kent with a year at the University of Los Angeles, straight out of school. I wanted to be an astronaut and I still do, but I got distracted on the way by this mysterious thing called dark matter which led me to doing a PhD in Astrophysics to study dark matter in cluster of galaxies. I currently work at the European Space Agency continuing on with that research – best of both worlds I’d say J


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

ML: I have always had an interest in science. It’s always been my favourite subject in school and I think my teachers had a huge role in that. I loved the experiments we did in class, it didn’t feel like work at all, it just felt fun… and as a researcher it still does! I think having a good or bad teacher in any subject can make or break your career path.


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

ML: The most fascinating part of my work is that no one in the world is working on exactly the same thing I am. I am the expert in my field and what I’m doing is completely unique but could change our understanding of the Universe as we know it.


SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

ML: This is definitely true. I use a lot of physics and maths in my work, but often I write papers and proposals so English. I also use a lot of coding but unfortunately computer science was not a subject I had the option of doing school. I live and work in Madrid, so Spanish was useful for me. You’ll find that many scientists move all over the world and travel for work quite often so knowing lots of languages is useful.


SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?

ML: Enthusiasm – Like every job, research has highs and lows. We need to make the most of the best parts.

Problem solving – many of the problems we work on have never been solved before so this helps a lot!

Determination – if it doesn’t work first time, keep trying. You’ll get it in the end even if it takes some time.


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

ML: I wish it was easier for people to stay in academia if they want to. Many people who are great researchers find that they need to leave because contracts are short, salary is low, and there is huge pressure to publish (even if its bad science).


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

ML: I had imposter syndrome. Everyone I know had imposter syndrome. It’s worse being a woman in a male dominated field, but just know that it’s just a phase and eventually you will grow out of it.


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

ML: Welcome to the world of science, here you will develop many transferable skills that even if you change your mind later on you will still be set for life.


Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Replace competitiveness with team spirit: Meet Vicky Boult

Dr Vicky Boult (@vlboult), University of Reading, is taking part in Soapbox Science Reading on 8th June 2019 talking about: “An elephant’s appetite”.





Q: Vicky, how did you get to your current position?

I have always been fascinated by wildlife. It led me to study Zoology as an undergrad at the University of Southampton. I learnt a lot during this time, but the one thing that bought me to where I am today was studying the feeding behaviour of elephants in South Africa. It instilled in me a desire for research, for uncovering new knowledge and for using this knowledge to create a better world. I therefore chose to keep studying, this time a masters degree in Wildlife Management and Conservation at the University of Reading. Again, I learnt a lot and became even more inspired. And just as I was worrying about what to do next, I saw a PhD studying elephants advertised (also at Reading). I jumped at the opportunity and got offered the position. Never was the learning curve so steep, but I pushed through and came out the other side as a well-equipped scientist! I’m currently a post-doc in Meteorology at Reading, using many of the skills I learnt during my PhD to support agricultural and humanitarian decision-making in Africa. I hope at some point in the future to pull together my passion for wildlife and my new-found understanding of meteorology. Watch this space…

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

My inspiration comes from three exceptional ladies. Firstly, from my Mum, who is a chocolate sensory scientist! She is incredibly brilliant at what she does and has always just got on with it. I’m very proud to be her daughter and to have inherited her drive. Second, is my friend and mentor, Heike Zitzer. She welcomed me wholeheartedly into her world of elephants back in 2013 and opened my eyes to just how incredible these animals are. With Heike I found my passion. And finally, and maybe you’ll laugh, from a very special matriarch of a 50-strong elephant family, Antares. Antares taught me that women can be kind and caring and also strong and brave. This lady is a great leader and in her I found who I hope to be.


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

I love studying animals as individuals. Each elephant I have come to know has their own personality, their own likes and dislikes, and their own friendships. For instance, Shayisa is the dominant male but is a total gentleman. Lucky is relaxed, Khumbula is curious, Ntini is a good mentor and Kohlewe has short-man syndrome! By considering animals as individuals, we can follow them throughout their lives and understand so much more about what makes them, them. It’s fascinating to get to know these animals as individuals, and I feel very privileged to have done so.

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

I am a passionate conservationist and am determined to secure coexistence between people and wildlife. Throughout my career I have worked actively to identify threats facing biodiversity and to propose practical solutions. Yet increasingly I recognise that successful conservation must first consider people. That’s why I believe that communication is a fundamental tool in a conservationist’s toolkit. Through communication we can raise awareness of the threats facing our planet, we can discuss solutions which balance the needs of people and wildlife, and we can inspire the change that is so urgently needed in the world. Soapbox Science will give me a platform upon which I will not only share my knowledge about all-things-elephant, but also my passion in the hope that people will learn and love a little bit about elephants.


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

Sharing – I hope to share my excitement about all-things-elephant, and I hope others will share with me their own experiences and perspectives.


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

I had a great network of peers throughout my PhD, and the team mentality – going through the same challenges together (and coming out the other side!) – was invaluable. I would love to see this team spirit extend throughout science, replacing the competitiveness which is commonplace. It’s tricky, what with competition for jobs and funding, but we all face the same challenges working in science and many of us are in it for the same reasons. I think tackling it as a team and being supportive of our peers would greatly improve the working atmosphere, and probably the productivity, of science!

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

It’s easy to get bogged-down by the seemingly endless bad experiences of women in science. But, there are more opportunities than ever for women in science. Soapbox Science is a great example, giving female scientists a platform on which to share their hard-earn experience. My advice is to focus on the possibilities and your potential rather than the challenges. If you have the passion, the drive and determination for science, you can do it. You are a scientist. Believe it, and so will others.



Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Remember that your skills are transferable: Meet Sofia Gripenberg

Sofia Gripenberg is a Royal Society Research Fellow at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading. Her work investigates the interactions between plants and their insect enemies. Her current main project assesses the role of insects attacking seeds and seedlings in maintaining and structuring the extraordinary diversity of plant species in tropical forests. She will be taking part in Soapbox Science Reading on 8th June with the talk: “What would a forest without insects look like?”


Q: Sofia Gripenberg, how did you get to your current position?

After my undergraduate and MSc studies at the University of Helsinki I was trained as a teacher in Biology and Geography. I then went on to do a PhD on the interactions between oak trees and leaf-mining moths. Since obtaining my PhD degree I have worked in the UK, Panama, and Finland on a range of topics related to the ecology of insects and plants. Getting to my current position has required some stamina and hard work, but for the most part it has been a very enjoyable journey.


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

As an undergraduate student I became interested in ecology as an academic discipline. My choice for field-based ecology was partly triggered by my love for nature and the outdoors. Becoming a research scientist was not an immediately obvious career choice: the uncertain job prospects made me hesitate on a few occasions. I have been very lucky to have encouraging supervisors and colleagues who have helped me see the potential of my work.


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

As a scientist working on tropical insects I routinely encounter species that I have never seen before. Seeing all these weird but wonderful life forms and trying to work out how they fit into the larger rainforest food web is very satisfying. I also enjoy the many interactions I have with students and other scientists through joint research projects.


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

As a scientist it is easy to get absorbed by your work and the specific projects you currently work on. I see Soapbox Science as a great opportunity to get out of the research bubble and tell other people about what we do, and why we think it matters.


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



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

Although I think that the importance of having a healthy work-life balance has become more emphasised in the scientific community in recent years, there is certainly scope for further improvements. Science should be an option also for people who do not want to, or for various reasons cannot, put in excessively long hours of work.


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

My recommendation for women – or indeed anyone – studying for a PhD would be to try to make the most of training and networking opportunities offered and not to get locked into a too specific research trajectory very early on in your career. It is also worth remembering that the skills you acquire as a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher are transferable – your efforts will not be wasted even if you were at a later stage to decide that academia was not for you.


Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Science should be accessible to everyone: Meet Rachael Chandler

Rachael Chandler, Biomedical Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, is taking part in Soapbox Science Reading with the talk:“Parkinson’s, DNA and… microscopic worms?!”

Hi! I’m Rachael, a doctoral researcher at the University of Reading in the first year of my PhD. I am researching how certain changes in DNA, called mutations, cause brain cell death in Parkinson’s Disease. This is a common brain disorder with no cure, which reduces a person’s ability to control their movements. To try and find out what could be going wrong in Parkinson’s brain cells, in the lab I study microscopic worms, which have been genetically engineered to include Parkinson’s related mutations in their DNA. It is a real puzzle how brain cells are lost in Parkinson’s and hundreds of scientists around the world are tackling this question in many different ways. Through combining pieces of the puzzle, we are gaining an understanding of what is happening in brain cells to cause Parkinson’s. If we can understand what happens, new medicines to treat Parkinson’s could be developed in the future. When I’m not peering down a microscope, I enjoy swimming, socialising, hiking and talking about science!



Q: How did you get to your current position?

Last year, I graduated from the University of Surrey, with a first-class BSc(Hons) degree in Biochemistry, with later specialiations in neuroscience, toxicology and genetics. As part of my degree, I undertook a work placement year, in which I was a research assistant in a lab at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Genetics. From working in a busy research environment, I gained practical experience to compliment my studies, had interesting discussions with colleagues and obtained so much insight into the workings of a lab and scientific careers. I have always been very intrigued by genetics and how neurodegenerative diseases work, so after this experience, I decided I would like to pursue a PhD in this area to start my scientific career.


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

Throughout my studies, I have been very lucky to have had many brilliant teachers, lecturers and supervisors who have taught, supported and encouraged me to pursue science further. Since school days, I have enjoyed and been interested in science, particularly biology and chemistry. I can still remember at the age of 14 being introduced to and taught about DNA, what it was and how it works; I was (and still am!) absolutely amazed! I’ve always had an awareness of neurodegenerative diseases and their impact upon people’s lives, as they have affected 3 of my grandparents (Multiple Sclerosis, Motor Neurone Disease with Dementia and Parkinson’s). Always with a desire to question and learn, I wanted to understand what I could see from a very early age. After studying neuroscience modules at University, I was so fascinated by how brain cells are damaged and die in these disorders, I hoped to eventually be part of the community of scientists trying to tackle them.


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

There are always new questions to be asked! When you complete an experiment in the lab and get some interesting results, there are lots of new angles to take to try and build a better picture of what you’re trying to understand. It also amazes me that a microscopic worm, less than 1 millimetre long, which is so simple and different to humans, can have things in common with us and act like a simulation to better understand human disease.


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

I love talking about science and sharing my amazement! I strongly feel science should be accessible to everyone. Many people initially dismiss science as being too complicated, but when it’s broken down there are really interesting stories to tell and amazing discoveries to discuss. In relation to my research, I feel that this is particularly important, as it is supported by the charity Parkinson’s UK- wonderful people work tirelessly in charity fundraising to help fund our work. There should be opportunities to engage, understand and ask questions about current research. Interactive science fairs and informal talks are brilliant, fun places to communicate science with people of all ages and there are always great questions, which give us new perspectives as scientists. Furthermore, I feel it’s important to challenge gendered stereotypes of scientists and that we are very ordinary people, working together on some extraordinary projects.


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



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

I’m quite new to this environment, but from many discussions with others, career progression in academia seems difficult and sometimes a little tenuous in the years following your PhD. It’s very competitive.


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

Currently, I am this woman, but what I feel I’ve learned so far is to embrace opportunities that come your way- there’s so much that you could do!

Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Share your failures more openly: Meet Maria Christodoulou

Maria Christodoulou is a postdoctoral researcher in Biostatistics at the University of Oxford. Trained both as a statistician and a biologist, she is interested in the development and application of statistical tools to big evolutionary questions. In her current position, she is studying how we age as individuals, and the impact of genetics, environment, and pure chance on our life trajectories.

She is taking part in Soapbox Science Reading on 8th June with the talk: “Why do we grow old?  Ageing, demography, and the fun of biostatistics.”


Q: How did you get to your current position?

In a completely indirect way… I started off doing a BSc in Mathematics with Statistics at Imperial College London, and in the process discovered that I was fascinated by absolutely everything that had to do with biostatistics and mathematical biology. I was nowhere near done with biology after that so I did another BSc, this time in Biological Sciences, and then I followed it with an MSc in Plant Diversity and a PhD in Biological Sciences at the University of Reading. When I started looking for postdocs, I realised that I had to be flexible in what I wanted to do as few positions out there matched the research area I was in. In my case that was much more easily done, as I had two disciplines that I could fall back to. And so I became a postdoc in Biostatistics.


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

I think it takes a village when it comes to this but if I had to pick, I’d have to say my mother. She always took the time to answer questions, and she answered them clearly, and honestly. Being a nuclear chemist, she always gave explanations to natural phenomena using science. Her incredible storytelling abilities meant that she made science even more magical than it already is! Even when she taught me how to bake, she explained every aspect using chemistry and physics – which helps when I am trying to troubleshoot a baking catastrophe…


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

The chance to take data describing many different and varied life courses, and extract the signal from the noise through mathematics is what keeps me coming back for more – finding the stories that are hidden in the numbers.


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

Seeing one of your previous events in Reading. I found the speakers engaging, inspiring, and incredibly refreshing.


Q: Sum in one word your expectations for the day.

Animated – not in the cartoon sort of way, although that would be cool too.


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

As a culture, the scientific community deals with rejection in a very toxic way. We are bombarded by rejections, from publications, to jobs, to grants. They are the constant. But we don’t speak about them. We hide them and make everyone around us believe that they are alone in a sea of rejections. If I could change one thing (and if that one thing can’t be not to get rejections…) then I would make people share their failures more openly. Tell others about all those times when they just wanted to curl up and eat ice-cream to forget the rejected grant.


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

The archetype of academic scientist was designed to describe men. You don’t have to be that archetype to be successful. What academia needs is your voice, and for you to find it, you probably need a good mentor. Look for academics who care both about your progression and for you as a person and ask them to mentor you, however informally.

Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Try everything, and don’t give up: Meet Leah Morabito

Dr. Leah Morabito, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, is taking part in Soapbox Science Reading on 8th June with the talk:Super massive black holes: how do they shape galaxies?


I am a radio astronomer, working as a Hintze Fellow at the University of Oxford. My research focuses on understanding how super massive black holes, which live at the centres of galaxies, help shape the Universe we see today. I have always been passionate about science, although I had a brief hiatus between my undergraduate and graduate studies when I served in the US Air Force. I love what I do, and couldn’t imagine anything better than carrying out scientific research! Radio astronomy in particular is fascinating — I get to make beautiful images from a telescope that is essentially collections of dipole antennas in fields across Europe.  It’s very low tech but we can use it for incredible science!


Q: Leah, how did you get to your current position?

When I was finishing my PhD, I had to think about what I wanted to do next. I knew I wanted to continue as a researcher, and I thought about where I could bring my radio astronomy expertise and also learn more about other wavelengths. I applied to the position I currently hold at Oxford because of the opportunities to work with experts on using telescopes across a broad range of wavelengths, who are also experts on galaxy evolution. Fortunately I was successful in my application, and here I am!


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

As a child, I was always fascinated by space, and learned all I could about it. My parents were both geologists, and instilled in me a curiousity for learning about the world around me in a critical way. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, the movie “Contact” came out — it’s based on a book written by an actual astronomer — and at that moment I decided I wanted to be a radio astronomer like Jodie Foster’s character.


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

The most fascinating aspect of my work is making radio images of the sky. The telescope I use, the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), is fairly new, and I am helping develop observing strategies and data calibration techniques to make extremely high resolution images, with 10 – 20 times the typical resolution people achieve with standard observations using LOFAR. That means that for some of the galaxies I look at, I am the first person to see the detail of their internal structure, and that is really cool!


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

Soapbox Science is a great opportunity to share my passion for astronomy with people who want to learn. Science can seem daunting to those uninitiated in it, but I find that when I explain my research to non-scientists, it can be really accessible to them! I love what I do, and there is nothing better than communicating it to a broad audience in a way that they can appreciate it.


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

I expect that the day will be exciting, challenging, and rewarding!  Exciting because I will get to share my research and passion with people; challenging because there are always interesting questions I have never considered; and rewarding because at the end of the day, I will have taught at least someone something about super-massive black holes and how they shape the galaxies they live in.


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

The scientific culture today is still entrenched in an old-fashioned idea of what it means to be “A Scientist.” We need more diversity, and more people who are willing to exchange ideas and work in a collaborative fashion.


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

My top recommendation for a woman studying for a PhD and/or considering a career in academia is this: try everything, and don’t give up! The worst that can happen if you ask for something (or apply for something) is that the answer is no; but you’re no worse off than you were before. And if you keep asking often enough, sometimes the answer will be yes! I have had a lot of rejections for job applications in my time, but I have also had several key successes, which led me to where I am today.

Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Follow your passion and build a support network: Meet Daisy Shearer


In the spintronics lab with our superconducting magnet ‘Emily’

Daisy Shearer is an experimental quantum physicist and first year PhD student at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute. Her PhD project focuses on spintronics in the semiconductor InSb for initialization of electron spin quantum bits. With a background in designing semiconductor lasers she wants to shed light on the applications of quantum physics that we take for granted in everyday life.

She will be taking part in Soapbox Science Reading on the 8th June with the talk: From lasers to quantum computing: how quantum technologies impact our lives”





Q: NAME, how did you get to your current position?

After I graduated from the MPhys course at Surrey in July 2018 I decided to apply for several quantum computing based PhD programs. My research placement in a telecommunications company, designing and testing semiconductor lasers, had given me a passion for research, particularly in exploiting the quantum mechanical properties of semiconductors for quantum technologies. In the end I decided to stay put at the University of Surrey as the project I was offered in the photonics and quantum sciences group had the most flexibility and was the most interesting to me!

Graduating with an MPhys last July


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

I’ve always had that inherent curiosity about the world around me, which I think drew me to physics. It’s the most fundamental of the sciences and I love exploring the workings of the universe in depth. Both my parents are vets and my dad has a PhD so I always knew that science was an option for me. Once I decided to do a degree in physics I discovered I was a good experimental physicist and the subjects that engaged me the most were optics, photonics, quantum and condensed matter physics. The research that some of my lecturers showed us during my undergraduate courses really made me think seriously about becoming a researcher.


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

The potential! Quantum technologies and especially spintronics is still a very new field so I get very excited by the prospect of there still being so much to be discovered. I do a lot of nanofabrication and even in the time I’ve been at university the techniques have improved so much we can now manipulate single atoms. I also enjoy the fact that I get to do a really nice mixture of things in my day to day research– from fabrication in the clean room and using a focused ion beam, imaging using scanning electron microscopy, carrying out experiments using amazing equipment like a superconducting magnet and lasers, simulating the quantum transport properties of my devices, to keeping up to date with the latest research.


Quantum transport simulations and analysing images


Nanofabrication with the Focused Ion Beam

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

I saw a poster for it in the physics department and decided to apply. I’m really trying to push myself and public engagement is a priority for me as a researcher. It can be really beneficial to take a step back and look at the bigger picture once in a while rather than getting bogged down in the details. Being able to explain cutting edge scientific research to the general public is difficult but I think it’s so important that people know what kind of work we are doing and maybe even to inspire future generations of scientists!


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



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

“Publish or perish”. The pressure to published and get citations as a metric for our worth as researchers. I think this mindset is incredibly detrimental to mental health in academia and adds so much additional stress that good quality science can’t be done very easily. I would also change the lack of diversity in science. It’s been shown that diverse research groups are more productive and diversity of thought from people from different backgrounds is important when carrying out scientific research.


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

Follow your passion and build a support network around you for when the going gets tough.

Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Niche Gaming- developing a bird game for SoapBox Science: Meet Theresa Robinson

Theresa Robinson (@snorkel_maiden), Zoological Society of London/University of Reading is taking part in Soapbox Science London on 25th May 2019 with the talk: “Three’s a crowd? Mating system diversity in the Mauritius Fody”




As I started preparing for SoapBox Science, I knew I had to choose just one aspect of my PhD to discuss, for my own sake- so that I can keep on topic on the day and not gabble at people too much. A neat good news / bad news aspect of my current analyses is how the environment is determining how my Mauritius Fodies breed, and in fact how it’s (probably) changing their breeding behaviour, so that was an easy choice to make.


A male Mauritius Fody

Then during the excellent training and introduction session at London Zoo I had the idea of making chocolate Shredded Wheat cakes with Mini Eggs to represent successful breeding, as a prize. A prize for what, though? So I’ve spent many hours since then inventing a game that I have, with CONSIDERABLE imagination, called Great Eggspectations. It’s possibly the world’s only game designed to illustrate environmental limitations on bird breeding, though I realise that niche is small.

Mauritius Fodies are insectivorous, and so to successfully fledge a nest they need to gather insects, in the game represented by small wooden butterflies which you draw (without looking!) from a tub. If you collect five butterflies you fledge a nest and win a chocolate Shreddie cake! However there are many perils along the way. A lot of Fody nesting attempts are ended by predation, so if you draw a dragon you lose all your current butterflies and must start again. Many birds, fodies included, don’t like to forage in the rain; so if you draw a raincloud with a rainbow you miss a turn. And there are increasing threats to nests from unpredictable and changing weather patterns and cyclones, which can devastate large areas of ecosystem literally overnight. So, if you draw a heavy raincloud, all players lose their current butterflies and must start again.


Great Eggspectations play shapes

All of this is within a time, set by an egg timer (!!), to determine the available length of the breeding season, which is where the good news comes in. The majority of the world’s Mauritius Fodies, and my entire study population, live on a tiny offshore islet reserve called Ile Aux Aigrettes. The habitat here is different to the mainland where they lived previously, with more of the year being suitable for breeding, and the Fodies are making the most of this by cramming as many nests as they can into each season. Some breeding seasons last for more than a calendar year before they take a break. This has played a part in the recovery of the Fody from Critically Endangered to Endangered, and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation are working hard to get the species downgraded further. Reduced pressure on the breeding time available will be represented in the game by a longer time set on the egg timer for some rounds, although of course the other limitations of predation and unpredictable weather still apply.

Game rules

The Fodies are making things even more interesting by practicing polygyny, where a male has more than one nesting attempt at the same time, with different females. So I might try to incorporate this into the game by getting people to team up and drawing twice each go instead of once; males that are polygynous raise more fledglings than those who remain monogamous.


Play board. A fledged nest wins chocolate!

This process has been a fascinating learning tool for me to try to condense some complex ideas (that I don’t even fully understand myself yet) into bite-size chunks that I can easily communicate to others. My son Leo and his friends Emily and Charlotte (aged 6-8) have had fun recently testing Great Eggspectations for me, and there was laughter and lots of questions, so I’m feeling fairly confident that it will work on the day. They weren’t even being bribed by winning chocolate at the end!

Please come along to SoapBox Science London, on the Southbank, on the 25th May, and play Great Eggspectations for yourself and see if you can win a cake!

A female Mauritius Fody

I am very lucky to be sponsored for SoapBox Science by ASAB, the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Thanks also go to the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, IOZ, and CAER at UoR.

Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

Why am I a research scientist? Parce que j’étudiais le français: Meet Sarah Harris

Dr Sarah Harris (@sarahthephd), Research Assistant in Regenerative Medicine, Keele University is taking part in Soapbox Science Stoke-on-Trent on 6th July 2019 with the talk: “Why would you want to make your spine glow in the dark?”

Hello, my name is Sarah. I am currently part of a team that works on coming up with novel and exciting spinal cord regeneration therapies, looking at ways of helping dogs and humans regain mobility after injury. I am a board gamer, a contemporary romance reader, a knitter, a party planner, an occasional musician, a total nerd, a walking encyclopaedia of song lyrics and film/TV quotes, but if you ask anyone who has met me what my defining *me* thing is, they’ll tell you I’m a fish person. Why a fish person, I hear you ask? Well, that is because I spent the best part of a decade studying fish health and as far as novel characteristics go, outside of fish biology circles it’s a pretty unique one.

When you look at the research field, fish biology is actually reasonably well balanced in terms of gender however the stereotype still often falls in favour of it being a male area. Fishing as a hobby, working as a fisherman or fishmonger, these aren’t things that are regularly associated with being a woman. So, when asked what I do, I often get a quizzical look whenever I have said that I am a fish biologist followed by the question “how did that happen?”. At this point, the expected reply is something along the lines of “oh I’m a keen scuba diver” or “I have a brother/father/uncle who got me into fish”, and I will always take great delight in turning that quizzical look into one of outright confusion when I say, “because I studied French”.

I never really knew what I wanted to do when I grew up until I hit 20. I worked part time as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool, and also as a private music teacher. I kept my options open at school studying sciences, electronics, music, and languages. By the time I got to university at 18, I had been able to narrow it down to studying Biochemistry and French, but I still had no real plan as to what it was that I wanted to do with my life. This all changed in the third year of my undergraduate studies. As part of the syllabus for the French half of my degree, I had to spend a year living in a French speaking country. Most people in my class went to universities in France and studied their other subject. If I had done that, my life would probably have taken a very different route. What I did instead was secure a Leonardo Grant (a subset of Marie Curie EU funding) and this meant I could spend the year working in a laboratory abroad. I spent several meetings discussing my options with Dave, the tutor in Life Sciences responsible for study abroad students. What I wanted was to go to the Pasteur Institute but, as Dave pointed out, whilst I was a good student, I wasn’t a great student with firsts across the board. The Pasteur was also known for taking its time in deciding whether or not they would actually take students on and because I had to go to France to get my degree, this would be a risky gamble to wait for them. So I went with my back up choice; a lab at the Natural History Museum in Paris.

I know. Worst back up plan ever, right?

Dr. Sylvie Dufour (left) and the rest of the team at the Natural History Museum, Paris after a PhD viva.

Going to the Natural History Museum was probably the best decision I have ever made. It is where I truly found my passion for science and research, and my career choices since have been because of my time there. My supervisor was an amazing woman by the name of Dr. Sylvie Dufour. Sylvie isn’t just a fantastic scientist, she’s one of those humans that is excellent overall. She always had time for me, no matter how ridiculous my questions. I was included in everything from conferences, grant meetings and visiting a collaborator’s salmon farm in the Loire Valley where we got to join in with releasing fry into the river, to celebrations in the lab and acknowledgements in papers. It didn’t matter that I was just an undergraduate, I was one of the team. There was no specific “aha!” moment for me, but I was in the second half of my degree and starting to think about what I wanted to do afterwards, and being in such a supportive, exciting environment I realised that I didn’t want to leave – I wanted to do research and be in a research lab.

Releasing salmon fry into the River Loire.

I had picked my placement because I got to go to Paris rather than based upon the science so when I first started, my project looking at gene expression in eels (and other fish) was just one of those random things that you do as part of your degree that doesn’t necessarily mean much beyond being a mechanism to learn techniques. As the year went on, I fell in love with fish biology. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is an amazing creature. It starts its life as a clear leaf shaped larva in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic on the American side. It swims across the Atlantic to Europe where it not only changes into a more classic eel shape, but also goes from a saltwater to freshwater fish. It then lives in rivers throughout Europe for up to 20 years before changing back into a saltwater fish and migrating back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. This second migration of over 3,000 miles is made even greater by the fact they do this whilst fasting. I can barely make it the 2.5 miles into work without a snack to tide me over, never mind traversing an ocean unfed. Unfortunately, eel numbers are falling fast. Over the past 20 years, their numbers have reduced by as much as 99% and they are categorised as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. There are several reasons for this; overfishing, pathogens, dams blocking their migration down rivers to name a few. One of the biggest challenges faced by scientists to try and deal with this crisis is no one can get the leptocephali (eel larvae) to survive long enough so there is currently no way of artificially inflating the populations through breed and release schemes (although I believe one of the Danish groups is getting pretty close). I hadn’t done any “real” research before this point in my life and it blew my mind that I was part of a project that was working towards trying to ensure the survival of an entire species.

By the time I got to the end of my placement, I had made two very big decisions: I had decided I wanted to go into research, and I had decided what field I wanted to work in. The rest is history. After my undergraduate studies, I moved to Germany for 2 years (brilliant use of my French degree, I know) where I worked on fish immune responses and gut microbiology, and eventually combined both of these things in my PhD back in the UK. I doubt I would have done any of that, though, if it hadn’t been for my year at the Natural History Museum. Would I have done a year abroad even if I hadn’t been studying French? Probably not actually. For all I loved the Museum, I was massively homesick at the start of my placement and I hated where I lived. I initially stuck it out because I had to, not because I wanted to, and if it hadn’t been integral to my degree, I may even have quit and missed out on all the experiences I got to have.

So that is my story about how studying French set me down the path to becoming a research scientist. Mostly, I really like it because it is just weird enough whilst actually being the most natural thing in the world in the way it happened. Is studying abroad for everyone? No, but I will always vote in favour of giving it a go. Will I ever go back and work in Paris again? Erm, it’s half an hour on the train from Disneyland. Obviously the answer is if there was a project available for me to do so. Would I go back to the Museum? In a heartbeat.



Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment

I’m never worried that I will get bored!: Meet Elisabeth Wetzer

Elisabeth Wetzer is a PhD student in Computerised Image Processing at the Dept. of Information Technology at Uppsala University, Sweden. She will take part in the Soapbox Science event in Uppsala on 25 May where she will talk about “Training Machines to Detect Cancer”




I grew up in Vienna, Austria where I went to school and later studied at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien). I did my Bachelor in Technical Mathematics followed by a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering as I was eager to learn more about the possible applications of the rather theoretical knowledge obtained in the first years of my university life. During my Masters I had the opportunity to go on a year of exchange studies to Umeå University which was an amazing experience.


I’ve tried to join as many summer schools and research schools as possible and did a few internships throughout my studies to get a glimpse into academic life in other institutions and make friends all over the world who share my passion about science and technology.


My cousin Regina Wetzer was probably the most influential person in my decision to study Mathematics and to become a scientist. She is a marine biologist and when I was little I loved going on walks through forests or along beaches with her as she had an answer to any and all of my many questions – the name of a beetle, why a flower had a particular shape, how to tell male crabs from female ones, and so on. It seemed like she had an answer to anything and in a way, every answer just led to another long list of questions. This led to me wanting to learn more about science and nature early on in my life. When the time came to pick a study program the choice was however far from easy, my interests were broad and I had a hard time picking only one track. In the end I chose mathematics and I’m very happy I did. Mathematics is so fundamental to all the sciences that it is really easy to work with exciting application in close to all fields. I love the variety and multitude of applications I work with.


I’m very flexible in finding a project or an application I think is exciting and challenging to work with. As there are mathematical tasks and problems to solve in basically any scientific study, from data analysis in geo science, to epidemiology, to medical imaging to cryptography. I don’t know in which area I will work ten years from now, but I’m absolutely sure that in every project you’re involved in you learn something that’s bigger than the immediate application, which in turn you’ll be able to apply to something seemingly unrelated later on – or it will give you a fresh outside-of-the-box idea to tackle a hurdle. In short, I’m never worried that I will get bored!


If I could change one thing about the scientific culture right now it would be to remove all the financial barriers that accompany science and academia. Education is expensive and unaffordable to many in way too many countries. Even in countries without tuition fees, it can be a big financial burden that hinders very talented minds to reach the education level needed for an academic career and in turn deprives the world from scientific and technological progress. Furthermore, the prices of open-access publishing, conference participations, and journal subscriptions are so high and unaffordable for many scientists in many countries, that it has created a highly unfair system in which talent and hard work does not outweigh geographical location.


I’m very excited to participate in Soapbox Science and to give people outside my field a glimpse of what is possible with mathematics and some computational power! It will be a lot of fun to meet other female scientists and learn about the questions they work with. I hope we will be able to shed some light on why mathematics is great, the many problems you can solve with it and answer a few questions some listeners might have!


My advice to young women considering studying a STEMM subject is to simply go for it and not to listen to voices doubting that a woman will strive in such a male dominated field! Don’t doubt yourself just because others around you don’t believe in you or your decision. Work hard and attend as many summer schools, conferences, internships and exchange possibilities as you can – and never give up!

Posted in 2019 speakers blog | Leave a comment