An experience I will never forget – Oxford Soapbox Science 2016

soapbox-science-jess-3By Jessica Davies

When I signed up to Soapbox Science I had just moved to Oxford to start a post-doctoral position in multiple sclerosis genetics and I was looking for ways to promote and share science with the public. I had done public engagement events before, including Café Scientifique , Cambridge Hands on Science and Pint of Science Oxford. I loved discussing what research involves, showing people how exciting and accessible science can be for anyone. However, I had never stood up on a wooden box outside and spoken to a crowd of unknown size, age and science background; nor had I ever presented without the security of a PowerPoint presentation! And talking somewhat ad lib about my research?! Yikes! But I thought: well, let’s just apply; it sounds like it would be great for my confidence, career… I can deal with the inevitable fear if and when I actually get accepted!

And I got accepted…

And I wasn’t that scared…

Hmm. I definitely wasn’t expecting to feel so calm…!!

I volunteered for Soapbox Science not just because I loved sharing my scientific enthusiasm with others, even though I really do L.O.V.E. genetics; it was also because of the subtle message that this event gives: that women can be successful scientists. I have become increasingly aware during the past few years that successful scientists, particularly group leaders, are often stereotyped as male (and to kids, with crazy white hair), and actually that is the reality (and yes, some do have crazy white hair, but I don’t know the ratio of scientists:non-scientists with crazy white hair I am sorry to say). For example, 22 % of professors in 2013-2014 were women. This is becoming less so, but it is still harder for women to be successful, partly because having children is unavoidably a timely thing. Therefore, disseminating the subtle message that Soapbox Science gives, that women can be successful scientists, is important to me.

 

soapbox-science-props-jessPrior to the event I prepared my props – a fun opportunity for scientific creativity! (I know that “scientific creativity” sounds like an oxymoron, but honestly, scientists can be creative and imaginative when that rare opportunity arises!) I was talking about DNA – what it is and how we can study it to increase our understanding of diseases; and in relation to my research, what is multiple sclerosis (MS) and what have we learnt about MS genetics?

soapbox-science-jess-4I decided to make a cell, a nucleus, and DNA. This was actually easier said than done (try finding a blank and empty spherical container about 10 cm in diameter, inside another larger spherical container. Even Amazon doesn’t sell these things.). I made the cell and nucleus from my two year old nieces’ stacking spheres, and the DNA from beads and string. Simple, yet effective! I also needed a monkey toy and a banana – I emphasise need, because who doesn’t need a monkey and banana when talking about genetics?

 

I attended a great workshop by the Soapbox Science team; a brilliant opportunity to meet likeminded, enthusiastic scientists, and to prepare for the event. I came away feeling motivated, eager and ready for the day. I also got the opportunity to experience standing on a soapbox for the first time in my life (a momentous occasion). This was actually the most terrifying part of the workshop. On the soapbox I felt like a giant, the centre of attention; I also felt a tad unstable and worried a bit about falling off [“note to self – do NOT wear heels”].

 

I wasn’t anxious about the main event until just before I was standing on my soapbox on the day. I decided to head over to the event early to get a feeling for how it was set up, to support and listen to other speakers, to give myself plenty of time to prepare, and to see the public’s response. The event was going down incredibly well. There were huge crowds coming and going to each of the boxes; so many engaged listeners. Great, but a little bit terrifying…Then it was my turn. I put on my Soapbox Science labcoat, and then I stepped onto the box of fear, torture and – sorry, I mean the box of… education, enthusiasm and science!! I took a gulp and a reality check that I was about to start talking about science on a tall box in the busiest street in Oxford and was therefore absolutely insane. And yes, you know it’s coming (after all, I wouldn’t have written this otherwise)…

I LOVED it.

 

soapbox-science-jess-2I actually LOVED standing on top of a box in the middle of a busy street, wearing a white coat, shouting to passers-by to draw them in: did you know that we are 50 % genetically identical to bananas?! And 99 % similar to monkeys?! (That’s where the banana and monkey cuddly toy prop came in by the way). I loved talking to larger crowds of people, and people asking questions – the larger the crowd, the more questions, the better; the sorts of situations that you would think are most terrifying, right? What I really loved though was the ability to inspire others about science. To show them how fascinating each and every one of us human beings is, how we are all linked by this molecule of life, a code of letters, a molecule invisible to the naked eye. To talk about how this molecule is intricately complex and fascinating, and how scientists are studying it to understand disease and ultimately make better treatments. I felt like all the speakers that day had ignited enthusiasm, awareness, and scientific understanding in many people. Everyone seemed to be buzzing with the success of the first Soapbox Science Oxford event; I know I was!

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Soapbox Art & Science: Call for Scientists

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

What is Soapbox Science?

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

 

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

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

 

What other benefits will you gain from taking part?

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

 

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

 

Soapbox Science (14 of 79) copyOxford – July 2017

London – September 2017

Lincoln – September 2017 (digital art)

Leeds – October 2017

 

 

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

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

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Soapbox Art & Science: Call for Artists

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

What is Soapbox Science?

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Soapbox Science (14 of 79) copyOxford – July 2017

London – September 2017

Lincoln – September 2017 (digital art)

Leeds – October 2017

 

 

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

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

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Talking quantum physics from my soapbox: Meet Helen Cammack

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

 

 

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

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

 

SS: What was your presentation about?

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

HC: Physics suffers particularly badly from a public perception that it is hard. Like, really hard. And because it’s perceived to be so difficult, this puts a lot of people off having a go with physics, particularly girls. It has been found that girls tend to be more afraid of failing than boys (see e.g. http://time.com/4008357/girls-failure-practice/ ), and more likely to give up when things do get difficult. So I feel that it is especially important to demystify physics, and show people that there’s lots of interesting and significant things happening in physics that they can get involved with, no matter their background or their gender.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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“Be in the world” for a bit before getting on with research: Meet Elizabeth Evans

7_elizabeth_evansElizabeth Evans is coming up to the end of her second year of her PhD at Swansea University. Her PhD project is about studying volcanic ash layers that have been deposited in ocean and lake muds and looking at the shape of the layers. She does this by using a high powered X-ray CT machine which works the same as medical CAT scanners to generate 3D images of the inside of objects (and people!) using X-rays. Her Soapbox Science talk will be focusing on the wonders and impact of volcanic ash. It can have negative and positive effects and Elizabeth wants to highlight both while hopefully capturing people’s imagination about something that’s looks like ash from a fireplace but is, in fact, complex, helpful, sometimes harmful and even quite beautiful.

 

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

EE: A combination of luck (spotting the PhD on the listings at Swansea and getting accepted!), aptitude (my Master’s project related directly to the analysis techniques I use now) and hard graft (lots of work during my undergraduate degree at Durham University and lots of other applications to other places and jobs). That’s the method, the reason why is that I absolutely loved the sound of the proposed PhD project and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

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

EE: Learning got me into science and I don’t just mean at school. When I was little my most heavily thumbed book was my children’s encyclopaedia. I really enjoy finding out how things work and learning about the universe. I always had a particular interest in geology, especially minerals and volcanoes and when I took geology at A level I was definitely hooked. But I took a year out as a youth worker before applying to University. That was because I needed the time to work out whether University was really going to be for me and also whether it was geology I wanted to pursue or my other great love, which is reading and writing. My school was the type where they made it seem like the only option was University or bust. It wasn’t a rebellious act to delay applying for a year but instead I wanted to get my exams done without additional stress and “be in the world” for a bit before studying again.

 

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

EE: Although the volcano side of things is the bit closest to my geologist heart my work with X-rays definitely generates the most fascinating science. Every time I put a sample, be it one of my specimens or something odd from the garden, in the CT machine I don’t know what’s really going to be inside. Every new sample scanned is seeing something we’ve never seen before and never would unless we destroyed the sample and cut it open. It’s really great to work with such photogenic data too; it really grabs people’s attention and gets them asking questions.

 

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

EE: I heard about the event last year and volunteered to help do video filming of the scientists. I was there all day and really enjoyed not only watching the speakers but seeing the interactions with the public. I think public engagement is a really important part of being a scientist so when the call went out this year, I thought, “well, I can but try!”

 

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

EE: Energetic

 

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

EE: Probably the funding structure. I see my supervisors and more senior colleagues caught in an endless cycle of grant applications and worrying about when their current batch of money will run out. I think it’s really off-putting to young researchers as short or fixed term contracts offers no stability. There is never the guarantee that you’ll be able to stay in the area after your contract ends. Moving around all the time isn’t really compatible with creating a stable home life and feels like a lot of constant stress as well as time away from the research itself.

 

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

EE: Although I’m not out of those woods yet myself I’d say the best thing I can recommend, and I don’t know if it works yet!, is find someone who is doing what you want to do in academia, teaching, running a lab, post-doc et cetera, and listen to them. For those who are thinking of applying for a PhD, if you love the sound of the project, go for it!

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My love of chemistry started in high school in Iran: meet Shirin Alexander

image2Dr Shirin Alexander completed My PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Bristol in 2012. Her principal research interest is in surface chemistry, materials, polymers, and colloids. Shirin took a postdoctoral research position after her PhD in the Surfactant Research group at Bristol University, developing a range of Low Surface Energy Materials (LSEMs). After that she started a new position as a research officer in Swansea University. Her current work in the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI) is focused mainly on material chemistry, functionalization/synthesis of nanoparticles and microparticles, where she combines the LSEMs with aluminum oxide nanoparticles for obtaining green superhydrophobic (waterproof) surfaces.

 

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

SA: My undergraduate degree was chemistry with a year in industry, where I spent my third year in a polymer company in Essex. Up to that point I didn’t know that I wanted to do a PhD, I always wanted to go into industry and sometimes I was even thinking about going into teaching. However, during that year I developed an interest in Research and Development, especially in polymer and colloid chemistry. I returned to the University knowing that I wanted to continue my studies and start a PhD and that turned into a postdoc position and here I am now, soon to take a new position as a Welsh Research Fellow in ESRI.

 

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

SA: I would say my love of chemistry started in high school in Iran. I used to love our chemistry teacher, she was a young inspiring lady who was very enthusiastic. I was always wanted to be like her, and then I remember that I used to enjoy the chemistry experiments in the lab so much and I was always looking forward to it. My highest mark in high school was in chemistry and all of those helped me decide to study chemistry in the University.

 

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

SA: The most fascinating aspect of my research is the connection of it with the real world. I think about real issues and how to solve them. I believe that this was one of the attractions of the research in the polymer company in my placement year. I was working on the products and the issues around them that we use in our everyday life, from paints and adhesives to detergents.

 

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

SA: Be able to explain the cool chemistry to people and make them think about the natural phenomena that exist around us.

 

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

SA: Excitement

 

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

SA: One thing that really frustrates me is the temporary positions that exist for scientists after their PhD. A lot of these positions are based on one year fix term contacts which makes it so hard for a lot of scientists to plan for their life and becomes a huge barrier for many people to stay in academia.

 

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

SA: If academia is your passion, don’t let your gender stop you achieving it. Academia, especially in STEMM subjects is very male dominated and competitive. You need to be very determined and persuasive no matter what barriers you will face and for sure you will get there!

 

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Researching the Internet of Things: Meet Cinzia Gianetti

image1Dr Cinzia Gianetti currently works as a postdoctoral researcher in the CHERISH-DE project at Swansea University, providing research support to a range of multidisciplinary projects in the area of data mining and computer security. From September 2016 she will join the College of Engineering at Swansea University as a Senior Lecturer in the Zienkiewicz Centre for Computational Engineering (ZCCE). The main focus of her research is the development of autonomous, collaborative and intelligent production systems by using knowledge-intensive and advanced ICT technologies. In collaboration with other researchers at Swansea University, Cinzia has contributed to the development of a novel methodology that combines predictive analytics and organizational knowledge management to support quality improvement of manufacturing processes. She is actively researching in the area of Internet of Things (IoTs) and Big Data for engineering and medical applications. In the Soapbox Science event in Swansea she will give some insights on how Big Data and sensor technologies can improve our lives.

 

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

CG: During my undergraduate studies in Applied Mathematics, I became interested in algorithm development and software programming and I decided to pursue a career in Software Engineering.  After graduating I worked for ten years as a Software Engineer in senior roles for large organisations. Having moved to Swansea for family reasons I decided to take up the opportunity to study for an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in Manufacturing Informatics at Swansea University and successfully completed my doctoral studies last year. Although I had never considered a career in academia before, during my EngD I realised that I like the challenges and opportunities of working as a researcher. After only one year of postdoctoral research, I am now very excited to start in a new academic position as a Senior Lecturer in Engineering at Swansea University, starting from September.

 

 

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

CG: I have always loved science and especially Mathematics since I was a little girl. My dad, now retired, used to work as a telecommunications technician for the Italian Navy. I have always been fascinated by his technical capabilities and especially his broad knowledge about telecommunication systems and computers. Funnily enough my first job as a Software Engineer was actually in a leading telecommunication company. Of course the support and encouragement of my family (especially my husband) has been crucial for me to complete my doctoral studies and follow a career path in academia.

 

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

CG: I work as part of a multidisciplinary team to solve complex engineering problems. My research focuses on the development of autonomous and intelligent systems to support smart production processes. I like developing new algorithms that use large volumes of data to predict system behaviour and aid the development of more efficient production systems. I especially enjoy using mathematics to model real word engineering systems and subsequently use these models to optimise system performance, for instance, improving use of resources, reducing industrial waste and environmental impact. I like spending time tackling scientific and technical challenges and hopefully provide suitable solutions that can create a wider impact for our society.

 

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

CG: I have been lucky to have had the opportunity and encouragement to pursue a career in science and engineering since an early age. Having a teenage daughter, I realise that, despite the fact that many girls are doing well in STEM subjects, they do not consider pursuing a career in science or engineering. I hope initiatives like Soapbox Science will help young girls to become more confident to follow a career path in science and engineering.

 

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

CG: Fun!

 

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

CG: Improve mentoring for early career researchers to help them to plan and develop career paths in research. Also improve job security with longer fixed term contracts and more competitive salaries.

 

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

CG; Working in academia requires commitment and working long hours. Regular travelling is also required. For a young female researcher, a career in academia may seem incompatible with raising young children. My suggestion to a young female with both family and career aspirations is to not give up one at the expense of the other. Consider working part time for a few years taking advantage of family friendly policies offered by Universities. A career break to raise children can also be an opportunity to start a new and exciting job.

 

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Soapbox Science co-founders giving evidence in the House of Commons at the Science Communication Inquiry, 7th Sept 2016

Soapbox Science co-founders Dr Seirian Sumner and Dr Nathalie Pettorelli are delighted to be giving evidence to the government Science and Technology Committee today on science communication.

 

This is the third evidence session on the government’s ongoing enquiry into science communication in the UK.

 

The session focuses on science communication as a profession, the difference between science communication and public engagement looking at cultural perspectives and evaluation. The session will also examine the use of popular science and the role of government and the media in influencing engagement.

 

The panel discussion is live at 1.45pm from Portcullis House, London, and includes two other leading figures in UK science communication, Dr Penny Fidler (Chief Executive, UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres) and Tracey Brown, (Director, Sense about Science).

 

A second panel convenes at 2.45pm, with Paul Manners (Director, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement), and Matt Goode (Director of Communications and Public Engagement,  Research Councils UK)

 

Watch it live online at Parliament TV at 1.45pm, 7th Sept. 2016

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Improving people’s quality of life: Meet Natalie Vanicek

IMG_1137Dr Natalie Vanicek is a Senior Lecturer in Sport, Health and Exercise Science at the University of Hull. Natalie’s area of expertise is in biomechanics, which is about understanding and describing how the human body moves. A lot of biomechanics relates to sport, to help athletes improve their performance and to prevent injuries. But the area of biomechanics that Natalie is interested in relates to studying how people move as a result of disease or trauma. Most of her work involves lower limb amputees, helping them walk better and further and helping them achieve daily activities that many people take for granted, such as walking up and down stairs. Gait analysis (the study of how we walk) is usually done in a clinical setting and Natalie works with other healthcare professionals, such as consultants and physiotherapists.

 

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

NV: I started studying Sports Science because I was active in sport and enjoyed areas related to health and well-being. After I finished my BSc, I wanted to do more research and enrolled on a Masters degree in Canada. This was when my research switched from sport to more health-focused. At this time, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD degree and work in academia. I liked the mix of research with teaching and enjoyed having different roles (supervisor and teacher) and doing different tasks (writing and testing in the lab). I started working at the University of Hull in 2004 and completed my PhD while I was working full-time as a Lecturer. It was a challenge, but I worked in a supportive environment. Twelve years later and I haven’t looked back since.

 

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

NV: I was always quite good at sciences at school, but I also enjoyed languages and philosophy. I discovered Sports Sciences as an undergraduate degree pathway which combined my two passions. Now my interests are more clinical. I enjoy asking questions and then uncovering the answer (or one answer and more questions). My supervisor from my undergraduate dissertation helped guide me through my first proper research project and this inspired me to pursue more research studies.

 

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

NV: I think the most rewarding aspect of my work is talking to participants and understanding how my research has improved their quality of life. I like hearing about what activities they are able to do now that caused them problems previously. My work has also impacted on national clinical guidelines related to the physiotherapy of lower limb amputees. I continue to work in this area and plan to develop exercise programmes for the prevention of falls for amputees specifically.

But I also enjoy travelling to conferences in exotic locations. I’m fortunate to have had the chance of discussing my research with some interesting people in some beautiful places around the world.

 

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

NV: Soapbox Science will take me out of my comfort zone, standing up in front of a large crowd of people and trying to get my message across to those who aren’t experts in my area of work. I guess I like a good challenge and hope that my message will inspire others. Scientists don’t just work in labs, I work a lot with the public (although perhaps in smaller groups). Soapbox Science is another platform to share my message to get people to move more and be more health conscious.

 

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

NV: Can I have two words? Anticipation and excitement

 

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

NV: Encouraging more young girls to pursue science at GCSE and A levels and to continue their involvement in sport.

 

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

NV: Explore different areas (don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as the saying goes). Find out what your future career might be like and how you can get there. Go for it, work hard, and surround yourself with strong people who inspire you, professionally and personally. Be proud to be a female scientist, in high heels, trainers or lab sandals (personally, I prefer trainers).

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