Be kind to yourself: Meet Kirsty Lowe-Brown

Kirsty Lowe-Brown is a PhD student and the Psychology Technician and Demonstrator at the University of Buckingham. Her research is on children’s understanding of the expression and regulation of emotions.  She is taking part in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday 29th July 2017.





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

KLB: Initially it was a bit of battle between my two loves of art and science. After I originally applied to study art at university, I then had a change of heart and science won out and I ended up doing a BSc in Psychology at the University of Buckingham. I loved my undergraduate experience and left Buckingham with the intention of applying for Postgraduate courses in Educational Psychology. I sought to gain some experience working with children and so I worked in a primary school and helped run a children’s play scheme organized by an Autism charity. I learnt about the vacancy for my current position at the University of Buckingham and so I decided to follow a research doctoral path instead; but still focusing on my interest in children’s development.


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

KLB: I have loved science as long as I can remember; I think I was a very questioning (annoying) child, always asking “why?” and “how?” My father had a career as an environmental scientist and I’m sure he encouraged my scientific interests. I always thought it was very cool telling my friends my Dad was a scientist, although to be honest, I never really understood what it was that he did.

I became interested in developmental psychology through watching the BBC television series ‘a child of our time’.  The series (still ongoing), follows the development of 25 children, born in 2000. The program is presented by Professor Robert Winston, who has, arguably the best moustache in science.


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

KLB: Well certainly the thing I enjoy most about research with children is you can never predict what they will come out with. I used interviews in my research studies, which meant I had to spend extensive periods of time sat transcribing my data. If it wasn’t for the often hilarious and very imaginative responses of the children, I’m sure I would’ve gone mad.

The best thing about studying emotions is that they impact all of human experience; this makes affective science (science relating to moods, feelings, and attitudes) a really diverse area for research as you can look at the role of emotions in so many ways.


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

KLB: I attended the Milton Keynes event in 2016, when a colleague was a speaker. She was amazing and I thought it was such a fantastic way of engaging the public in scientific research and promoting girl power (I grew up in the 90s, so the spice girls were my heroes).


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

KLB: Nervous. However, as I’m a very anxious person (and as such nervous anticipation is my default state) I try to tell myself that my nervous feelings are really just excitement. This is a strategy called anxiety reappraisal; fingers crossed it will work on the day!


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

KLB: I wish there was less academic snobbery in scientific research. Often at conferences you will hear academics talking down to presenters about their research. I think ultimately everyone is working towards the goal of furthering knowledge and understanding; so the culture should be supportive and focused on encouraging research within each scientific field.


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

Be kind to yourself and try not to compare yourself to others. I think academia inevitably involves a lot of juggling and it can be hard to find the right balance between teaching, research and your home life. I often feel when spending time on one thing that I am neglecting the other aspects, but I think most academics would tell you the same.

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Thrown yourself outside of your comfort zone: Meet Emily Dowdeswell

Emily Dowdeswell is a PhD student at Cranfield University, researching the effects of climate change on soil erosion. Her research investigates the impacts of predicted climate change regimes on soil microbiology and how vulnerable soil is to erosion. She will be talking about soil erosion and climate change at Milton Keynes Soapbox Science on 29 July 2017.




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

ED: I first studied BSc Geography at the University of Leicester, after which I moved on to a Masters by Research at the University of Bedfordshire. My year completing a Research Masters degree introduced me to the ups and downs of research in science and was an excellent learning curve. After this, in October 2016, I began my current position as a PhD student at Cranfield University. To get this far I have had to work hard, but more importantly I have had to seize the opportunities that have come to me and persevere when times get frustrating.


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

ED: My family are keen gardeners and when I was younger we often went out on walks where they would point out the wildlife to me as we went. From this I think they taught me to be curious about the natural world around me. They encouraged me to ask questions and when they didn’t know the answers to then go and find out. They still inspire me today, when I’m struggling with an idea I always talk to them and they often help clear my thinking and send me to back to my research with more enthusiasm.


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

ED: I am working on untangling the complex physical, chemical and biological mechanisms in soil using controlled laboratory experiments. I find it fascinating that neatly designed experiments can reveal so much about our environment and help us move a step in the right direction to solving challenging questions.


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

ED: In Soapbox Science, it is great to see the breadth of science out there and the cutting-edge questions people are working to answer. I am also proud that the event champions women and highlights different careers.


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

ED: Fun!


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

ED: Sometimes there is the idea that you should be constantly working on your research and that if you don’t you will fall behind and not be good enough. This idea is extremely damaging for scientists, as it feels like your research is all-consuming and if you’re not working then you should feel guilty. This idea might also put others off a career in science where they think that a good balance between your personal and work life isn’t possible. I’m working on getting the right balance for me and I have found that keeping my evenings and weekends for the other parts of my life helps give me perspective, so when I return to work on Monday morning I don’t feel burnt out. I think that it’s great if your research is your passion, but it shouldn’t have to be the only thing you enjoy doing.


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

ED: In any career, I think it’s important to decide what compromises you are willing to make, whether it’s the location, type of work or your expected hours. With this in mind, if an interesting opportunity comes your way then have a go – even if they seem daunting and mean you have to push yourself! The biggest lessons I have learnt so far are from when I’ve thrown myself outside of my comfort zone and it’s a great confidence builder!

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Putting your enthusiasm to work: Meet Dani J. Barrington 

Dr Dani J Barrington is a Research Fellow in Water Engineering for Developing Countries at Cranfield University. She studied at The University of Western Australia and holds a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours (majoring in Environmental Engineering), a Bachelor of Science (Majoring in Chemistry and Environmental Chemistry) and a PhD in Environmental Systems Engineering. She will be speaking at the 2017 Milton Keynes Soapbox Science event about her research on water, sanitation and hygiene in developing countries.



Putting your enthusiasm to work

by Dr Dani J. Barrington


My job revolves around getting to talk, think and write about poo.


Obviously this is not what I imagined myself doing when I was a kid. I grew up next to the ocean, so “saving the whales” was high up on the agenda of what I wanted to do with my life (I even learned Japanese in high school in the hope that I would one day get to ride on a Greenpeace anti-whaling ship yelling “not in the name of science!”). I was always one of the loud kids, and known to become passionate about anything I could sink my teeth into. I was particularly good at science and maths, so I assumed that I would end up studying for a profession in that field.


At university I first studied a double degree in Environmental Engineering and Environmental Chemistry. It was there that I realised just how important the interactions between people, engineering and the environment really are. I was a founding member of The University of Western Australia Pantomime Society, so I spent the five years of my undergraduate degrees making a fool of myself on stage, being part of a team and learning to be a leader as President and Producer of several shows. Between my degrees and pantomime, I decided that what I really wanted was to be an engineer that focused on people. What reason could there possibly be for engineering if it weren’t for people? I could do the technical calculations, but what I was really interested in was how engineering designs could have a positive influence in the world. I wanted to work in improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for the health of people and our environment.


My PhD investigated wastewater treatment in rural Australian towns, and whilst refining my research and writing skills at the university, I volunteered with the Western Australian Chapter of Engineers Without Borders Australia, eventually becoming President. This culminated in a secondment to Nepal for almost a year, where I worked with remote communities to develop water safety plans for their newly built water systems and toilets. This is when I truly recognised the importance of both technical and social skills in improving the WASH situation.


A wonderful moment in my career came when I realised that my interests and ambitions meant I was unlikely to develop some crazy advanced water treatment technology, and be a Nobel-Prize winning mad-scientist. Instead I was a good engineer with other skills which I’d previously discounted as “just a bit of fun” – I was naturally enthusiastic, had high emotional intelligence, and actually enjoyed public speaking and meeting new people. All of these could be combined to help me make a useful contribution in the field of WASH!


So on returning to Australia, PhD certificate and overseas work experience in hand, I threw myself into job-hunting and grant writing where I felt I could be the best version of myself – at the intersection of WASH technologies, people and the environment. So far this has seen me working in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, India, China, Uganda, Indonesia and the Republic of South Africa. The best part of traveling for work is all of the awesome people I get to meet, both in communities and in various institutions. In September I will begin a new role as a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at The University of Leeds. I can’t wait to start the next phase of my adventure!


My advice to young women and men is that if you’re unsure what it is you want to do with your life, don’t let yourself get trapped in the idea that you have to know when you’re a teenager. The “grown-ups” may put pressure on us to ace exams and choose our university courses wisely, but we really never know where our own skills and passions will take us. Our skills are not just those that are written on a piece of paper handed to us whilst wearing a Harry Potter-style graduation gown. Our career path is our choice, and we can combine different qualifications and interests to devise the path we think is best for us, even if that turns out with us being referred to as “The Poo Water Lady” at family gatherings.

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Food spoilage or not, that is the question: Meet Carol Verheecke-Vaessen

Dr Carol Verheecke-Vaessen (CVV) is currently a Research Fellow at Cranfield University. Her research investigates the contamination of cereals by fungi able to produce toxins that pose a threat to human health. Here, she tells Soapbox Science (SS) about her interest in preventing those toxins from occurring in the food industry, how she wants to communicate her knowledge to the public and how she wants to encourage the next generation to become scientists. Carol will be standing on her soapbox on Saturday the 29th in MK:Center – come and meet her there! You can also follow her on Twitter: @CaVaessenVe

Food spoilage or not, that is the question

SS: Carol, welcome to Soapbox Science Milton Keynes! It’s great to have you on board. As is now traditional, we’d like to know a bit more about you – starting with your career path. How did you end up as a Research Fellow atCranfield University? 

CVV: As a Biological Science student, I had a part-time job in a company specializing in Decision Support Systems to better manage “Mycotoxins” risks. Mycotoxins are toxins produced on food by various fungal genera. The discovery of this food safety issue led to my graduation as an MSc in Food Quality and Safety. I followed that path focusing on aflatoxins, the most potent mycotoxins known, during my PhD in Applied Mycology and my temporary teaching assistant position at The National School of Agronomy in Toulouse (ENSAT – France). Nowadays as a Research Fellow in the Applied Mycology group at Cranfield University, I focus on other mycotoxins called T-2 and HT-2 which are regularly found in oats and there are concerns their abundance may increase with climate change.


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

CVV: When I was a child, I always told my mother I wanted to become a naturist (laughs)! Of course, back then, I didn’t know how to describe someone studying and understanding natural mechanisms. Much later, in high school, I got interested in biological science and most particularly into the examples on how our understanding of biological processes could help us to provide food and safety to everyone in the world. Since then, I have discovered how mycotoxins could increase the food insecurity of millions of Africans. Since then, I have been working on finding solution to mitigate mycotoxin occurrences.


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

CVV: The potential to understand the many mechanisms within a microscopic organism. That we can understand what is happening within a 2 μm cell (1 μm is 1,000,000x less than a meter)! Thanks to special fluorescent microscopes, molecular biology (DNA, RNA) and analytical chemistry (ie. which compounds are in my sample), I can understand which conditions lead to the fungi producing toxins. This understanding is then key for designing prevention tools.


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

CVV: Too often a gap is felt between scientists and the public. How many times I have seen people’s behaviour changing when I told then I had a PhD? This change is often due to a lack of communication between scientists and the layperson. Yes we are scientists, but we are also humans with our thoughts, our dreams, our family and our friends. Events like Soapbox Science are extremely important because they can give another face to scientists. Meeting together is a way to remove this gap and to show to the public that scientist are humans like others trying to make our everyday life easier for the great of good.


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

CVV: Sharing


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

CVV: I would like to improve how we communicate with the rest of the world. As a young researcher, I need to improve my communication skills to be sure that what we do can be transmitted to everyone and our publications don’t end up being read only by other scientists. I hope that an event like Soapbox Science can enhance the people’s will to have a closer look at what we do.


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

CVV: As an early scientist, the only recommendation I would suggest would be to try to find a good work-life balance as early as possible. Working as a scientist can be time consuming and can be stressful. Finding a good balance is a key to prevent you from being eaten by your work.


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Hot Science in Newcastle City Center: Meet Marloes Peeters

Soapbox Science in Newcastle (Hot Science in the City Center)

Human vs Superbugs: Screening for Bacteria with Thermometers


by Dr Marloes Peeters



My name is Marloes Peeters, I am a lecturer in Chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University. I signed up for Soapbox Science because a friend encouraged me to do it. I had never heard of it before and decided to look at some videos online. Even though it was raining in most of them, everyone seemed to have so much fun! After putting in my application, I was a bit disappointed that there was no event in Manchester. Luckily the organizers had a slot available at Newcastle, which was the perfect opportunity since I am currently a visiting scientist at the university there.


Most of the outreach events I have done were at secondary schools and as a chemist, you normally have a few cool experiments to show. This is obviously not possible in the middle of a town center and I was quite anxious to talk to people from a small Soapbox (and afraid to fall off the tiny box). We had a workshop a few weeks before the event, which was very helpful but also completely changed the format of my talk and activities, thanks to the help of other amazing female scientists. I decided to make my own bacteria from foam and buy some furry friends online. It showed that bacteria, just liked all of us, come in different size and shapes. The sensors that I develop have a porous structure that are tailored towards their target; if you are detecting a rod shape bacteria there will be a binding site on the surface that looks like a rod, if the bacteria are circular there will be a binding site that is circular, etc. The idea of my sensor is that we can discriminate between ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ based on their unique structure. Imagine it as a lock that you can only detect with one key, that is the bacteria we are looking for!


On the day itself, nothing went as planned. Rather than a rainy day, it was incredibly warm in Newcastle. It was busy at Monument with quite a varied crowd; ranging from stag dos, to people giving free hugs and families with kids. Luckily, I had the last slot and I could see how my fellow scientists managed to draw the crowd to their Soapboxes. Especially the balloons seemed to be very popular and it was good to see a mix from all different ages. My nerves were soon over as there were already people there who listened to the last speaker. The hour passed very quickly and I had a great volunteer in Vi- we did not have a table so we were juggling around with our props. I was surprised with the genuine concern people expressed about antimicrobial resistant and drug resistant bacteria; it made me realize the public might know more about it than I initially thought. My idea was to mainly mention how we detect bacteria but since I had a ‘giant microbe’ (stuffed animal) of MRSA with me the conversation soon went into another direction. It was not until I got a funny look from the organizer that I realize the hour had passed.


I think I learned a lot from my experience with Soapbox Science, it works as a good boost for your confidence. I also got some media coverage through an online magazine (Womanthology) and suddenly people in the labs in Newcastle recognized me just because they saw it online!

A few weeks ago, I also took part in an event in Wrexham for the Women in Engineering Day and bumped into some other scientists from Soapbox Science.  I would love to have Soapbox Science taking place in Manchester next year, I am hoping to motivate some of my students and colleagues to put their application in.

Last but not least: big thanks to Soapbox Science, the organizers in Newcastle and all volunteers (particularly Vi). I sure had a great afternoon, and have the tan lines to prove I took part. See you next year!


Marloes Peeters

Lecturer in Chemical Biology

Manchester Metropolitan University / @peeters_marloes / @bioinspired17

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Bringing Soapbox Science to Brighton: Meet Katy Petherick

Katy Petherick is part of the team from the University of Sussex who have set up Brighton’s first Soapbox Science event. Katy spent 6 years as a scientist in cancer research, investigating the cell’s recycling mechanism, autophagy. Autophagy increases in cancer cells, aiding their survival by providing new building blocks as the cells rapidly divide. In her postdoctoral position, Katy investigated options for developing treatments that stop autophagy as a way to prevent cancer cells growing.  During this time, she became increasingly involved in public engagement, and realised that she preferred explaining science more than doing it, and so made the transition in 2015 to her current role as Public Engagement Coordinator for the School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex.


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

KP: I really enjoy working with researchers and seeing the impact public engagement can have on the scientists, as well as the audience. It is great fun to work with scientists and break down their complex research into something that is accessible to anyone without a science background.


SS: What attracted you to set up Soapbox Science Brighton?

KP: Brighton and the local area have quite a few ‘nerdy’ events that take place, so we’ve already got an ‘interested’ audience for a lot of evening events. I like how Soapbox is different, bringing that knowledge out on to the streets, so everyone and anyone has the chance to hear a bit of science directly from the researchers. A lot of people within the University of Sussex had heard of/taken part in Soapbox Science and felt passionate about setting up a Brighton event, and so our team was formed.


SS: Tell us about the Soapbox Science Brighton team

KP: We are a range of researchers, staff and students based at the University of Sussex, who have all come together to work on this event. Two of us are Soapbox Science alumni (Kathy and Kayleigh), and their experience has been really useful in shaping our event. Everyone is bringing their own expertise to the team and I can honestly say that this is the most positive and cohesive team that I have ever worked with, at the moment anyway!

Brighton team:







L to R in photo

Dr Natalie James, Research Staff Officer, Doctoral School

Miss Kate Basley, PhD student, School of Life Sciences

Dr Beth Nicholls, Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Life Sciences

Dr Darren Baskill, Outreach Office, School of Maths and Physical Sciences

Miss Kirsty Bridger, Researcher Development Coordinator

Dr Kayleigh Wardell, Postdoctoral Researcher, Genome Damage and Stability Centre

Dr Leanne Harris, Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Life Sciences

Dr Katy Petherick, Public Engagement Coordinator, School of Life Sciences

Miss Fiona Hurd, Head of School’s Coordinator, School of Life Sciences

Not in photo

Dr Maria Clara Castellanos, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow, School of Life Sciences

Miss Katie Ptasinska, PhD student, Genome Damage and Stability Centre

Professor Kathy Romer, Professor of Astrophysics, School of Maths and Physical Sciences



SS: Were you pleased with the applications you received for your first event?

KP: We were so happy with how many applications we got; Universities in the South-East and local companies really got on board, although it made decision making all the more difficult. We received a total of 37 applications, and I believe that was the third highest for a venue in 2017, not that we’re competitive of course!


SS: How is planning going?

KP: Now that our speakers have been selected, it’s all go on the planning side. We have been very fortunate to receive such generous support from the University of Sussex, local companies and learned societies. Our sponsors are listed on our event page and we are very grateful for their backing.

We’ve been keen to keep the event as local as possible, and are pleased that a team of female makers (Cult Milk) will be building our soapboxes, and catering on the day for speakers and volunteers will be from the Real Junk Food Project Brighton. We’ll also be working with companies around the venue to make sure they feel a part of the event.


SS: Where is your event being held?

KP: We are very excited about the venue; we will be on the seafront, right next to the beach, sailing boats and the i360. It’s an area called The Deck, and gets a lot of footfall, especially in the summer, so we expect the speakers to have a decent audience come rain or shine. Brighton-folk won’t hold back on asking those controversial questions, so we’re looking forward to the discussions that take place.


SS: Why should people come down to your event on July 29th?

KP: We have a fantastic range of local speakers, from PhD student to Professor, who will be talking about a variety of topics including the latest tech innovations, climate change, black holes and drug development. You can read all about our speakers on our event page. We want the afternoon to be really informal and to get the audience involved in discussions as much as possible, so it will be a relaxed, friendly and inclusive atmosphere – anyone is welcome to come along and ask some questions or just take a seat and listen.



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Never let that enthusiasm go: Meet Taniya Parikh

Now in the second year of her PhD at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (University of Portsmouth), Taniya Parikh initially studied an MSci Physics at Imperial College London (4 year degree with integrated Masters), specialising in Astrophysics. Her research focusses on early-type galaxies, searching for trends between galaxy mass and radius. Make sure you come along to Soapbox Science Brighton on July 29th to hear more from Taniya and her “galactic tale: from a cloud of gas and dust to billions of stars”.


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

TP: Every day I am working on data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey MaNGA experiment, which observes thousands of galaxies. Each galaxy is a collection of billions of stars, the light from which left a hundred million years ago to travel for ~100,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles (that’s 20 zeros!) just to reach us. Research in Astrophysics is driven by our curiosity to learn more about – not just our planet or solar system or even our galaxy, but our entire Universe – and it is exhilarating to play a small part in uncovering these mysteries.


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

TP: In Year 9 I became interested in cosmology, and physics in general, after reading a book by Simon Singh called Big Bang, which is  about the accepted theory of how our universe came into existence. I read more books (The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – John Gribbin), went to see Brian Cox at an Uncaged Monkeys show (where Simon Singh signed my copy of his book and wrote an inspiring message!) and my fascination for astrophysics grew. My secondary school and A-level physics teachers (shout-out to Mr. Stone and Mr. Makepeace!) nurtured this interest and encouraged me to pursue this subject in my further studies.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

TP: After studying physics at undergraduate level, a PhD felt like the natural next step for me. After some unsuccessful applications for a PhD project in cosmology, I had applied for a summer internship at the University of Portsmouth with Dr. Westfall, where he showed a vested interest in my long-term career, encouraged me to apply for a PhD at Portsmouth and then went on to become one of my supervisors! I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than research and I am fortunate enough to be able to do so at the University of Portsmouth, working with experts on exciting research in a friendly and stimulating environment.


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

TP: An an observational astrophysicist, my daily tools include applied mathematics and computer science. Calculus, trigonometry and statistics are just some branches of maths which I use regularly in my work. There is particular focus on calculating and propagating uncertainties as these determine whether a result is statistically significant. Programming is one of the most crucial parts of my work and it allows me to carry out the analysis I need, in a short amount of time. With the use of big data, code and supercomputers, scientists can compute and store vast amounts of results – something which would have been impossible just a few decades ago.


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

TP: It sounded like a very fun and unique way to engage with the public, while at the same time build my own confidence and get excited about my research all over again. It will also provide me with a unique platform to promote science among families and kids. My university is part of SEPnet (South East Physics Network) and the idea of a science pop-up at Brighton seafront where I could present my own research seemed too good to miss!


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

TP: Buzzing!


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

TP: I would try to make it easier for everyone coming into this field to consider building a career here, if they wish to. There is some fear and negativity about progression in academia – due to positions being highly competitive and the likelihood of a string of temporary roles in different countries before reaching faculty level. This is perhaps one area where more support and encouragement could be offered.


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

TP: I am a second year PhD student so I’m trying to figure this out myself! Along with passion for the work you’re doing and the determination to succeed, it’s very important to network during conferences, present results to the wider scientific community and collaborate with people whenever the opportunity arises – it might just be your future employer that you’re talking to.


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

TP: Never let that enthusiasm go and take your interest further in every way you can. Watch documentaries, read popular science books and look for inspiration from your family, teachers and role models.

With science, there can be no limit to your imagination. An idea can turn into an experiment which can give new results and lead to us understanding the world around us a little better. A scientist will always retain that childlike wonder and curiosity which got them interested in science in the first place.

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Welcome curiosity: Meet Pollie Barden

Pollie Barden is a researcher in Design and Creative Technology with a focus on social issues: working with digitally disenfranchised communities through participatory methods – solving real problems that benefit real people in their everyday lives. Pollie will be at Soapbox Science Brighton on 29th July, 1-4pm, presenting “Firefly – A game of dark intentions”.




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

PB: I am working now to design for our future selves and lay the foundation to democratize our digital tools for all communities. I work with older people, people with disabilities and economically disadvantaged communities to identify failings and solve issues with our digital tools as well as the social and cultural behaviours that contribute to isolation. My work is grounded in participatory design methods. I am currently challenging our love affair with screens by developing e-textile/materials interfaces with people who are visually impaired. My stance is “interfaces should bend with us and we should not bend to our digital tools”.  Through my game design research, I am taking back “gamification” from its current perversion to market goods and apply it developing engaging “serious” games that promote activism, change and collaboration in the real world. I am putting the human connection back into the development of the “internet of things”.  The way forward is a focus on human to human connection with technology as a mediator.


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

PB: Red Burns, the founder and former head of the Interactive Telecommunications Programme at New York University. She started the programme to be a place that anyone whatever their background could come and learn current cutting edge technologies. Through her work, she has provided a space that has empowered 100s of people like me to create our own path and design our destinies.



SS: How did you get to your current position?

PB: I was in the 2nd cohort of the Media and Technology Doctoral Training Centre at Queen Mary University of London. It was an incredible experience to do a PhD in a diverse and community-based environment. During that time, I also took opportunities to teach at Queen Mary, University of Creative Arts and Ravensbourne. Prior to my PhD work, I had a varied career in industry from web development, game design, and social art. The combination of my career experience, research and teaching gave me the background and skills for my current position at a lecturer in Product Design and researcher in the Creative Technology Group.


SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work?

PB: Digital technology, engineering, science and maths are incorporated in my work. I found my love and skills for maths through my physical computing work during my master’s programme at NYU. I found that I learn through application rather than abstract theory. I think the way in which maths are taught needs to be reconsidered as there are a vary or avenues to understanding of formulas and applications.


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

PB: I am always looking for opportunities to share my work and learn from others. Soapbox provides opportunity to not just demonstrate the work but have critiques and feedback from the attendees.


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

PB: I am very excited. I have run Firefly in a variety of setting and groups and it is always fascinating to see what people do with it.


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

PB: The breakdown of silo mentality both within fields and from funding bodies. Right now, mutlidisplinary is popular catchphrase but not really embraced in culture. I look forward being part of that change.


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

PB: Pursue what you are passionate about and have the courage to invest and own your convictions. Always speak up and ask questions, anyone who does not respect and welcome curiosity and the desire to learn is not worth your time, attention or respect.


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

PB: If your desire is to be able to make play your career, then that is what research provides the opportunity to do. We are creatures driven by curiosity who always ask what if and experiment to see what happens.

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Science is a creative endeavour: Meet Charlotte Clarke

“Why astrophysics and neuroscience look the same to a rubber duck” is the title of Charlotte Clarke’s session at Soapbox Science Brighton on 29th July, 1-4pm. During her career, Lottie as studied theoretical physics, astronomy and is currently at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, switching fields from astrophysics to neuroscience to investigate the link between depression and inflammation in the body and brain. We are grateful to Sussex University Research Staff Office for sponsoring Lottie, and to the Brighton and Sussex Medical School for supporting the event.


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

CC: I feel like I’m supposed to say something grand here, like how our research (I hope) will be making a real difference in people’s lives, and that is true. But really it’s that I get to look at pictures of people’s brains all day and get paid. It’s fascinating because it’s amazing we can take pictures of the inside of someone’s head, but yet you get used to it. Whilst the general structure of a brain is similar enough person-to-person, people have really varied head shapes so different parts of the brain are squashed or stretched. When you’re working with a small dataset to test code you become familiar with the heads and you have favourites. Is that weird? Wait – don’t answer that.

I had a similar quirk in astrophysics where I knew what patch of sky I was looking at by the pattern of dust and gas across the image. I had to remove the dust and some of those dust patches I treated as mortal enemies, they plagued my dreams. After staring at the screen for a while you do have to take a step back to appreciate what you’re actually looking at before it becomes too routine though! Space and brains are really amazing!


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

CC: I’m not sure what sparked my initial interest, but when I was about five my Nan and Granddad bought me a science book for Christmas called “The Usborne Book of Knowledge”. You can tell I was obsessed with space as to this day the book falls open on the page about black holes. I decided around then that I was going to be an astronomer, a brain surgeon, create the special effects on films or be a Blue Peter presenter. My family have always supported me in my endeavours, and I think having a family that say “you can do it!” is so important, they’re the buffer against self-doubt. We were never a well-off family either, both my parents worked and still do, and my grandparents looked after me and my sister during the holidays as it was hard for my parents to get time off. But we made good use of free museums in London when we could (me usually doing the dragging) and my parents took me to weekend astronomy classes in Greenwich one year so I could get a GCSE in astronomy (Mum fed so many squirrels). Now I’m a qualified astronomer, get to look at brains and love doing public engagement so that’s kind of Blue Peter-like? All that’s left is STEMM-ing my way into special effects and I can retire. Dad says he wants a swimming pool as payment though so I should start saving!


How did you get to your current position?

CC: By thinking laterally! My degree was in theoretical physics, but my project partner for the final year had the fantastic idea to apply our knowledge to the social sciences. We studied the network of links between pages on a website about the history of mathematics. How’s that for transferable skills, eh? During PhD applications season the project seemed to go down well despite not being an astronomy project, and I eventually moved to Sussex to work with a very pro-interdisciplinary supervisor. During my PhD he collaborated with the Clinical Imaging Science Centre on campus, and another PhD student in our group instigated a number of projects with medical researchers. I gave a talk about some of his work, highlighting how important working across disciplines was.

Towards the end of my PhD a postdoctoral position arose at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School to work with brain imaging data in a huge collaboration called NIMA (Wellcome Trust Consortium for the Neuroimmunology of Mood Disorders and Alzheimer’s Disease). Whilst I didn’t understand all the acronyms on the job listing, the particular statistical and computational skillset I’d cultivated during my PhD was exactly what was required. I believe in practising what you preach so here was my chance to demonstrate how important interdisciplinary work was. Switching disciplines is terrifying as in some ways you’re back at square one, but it’s a million times easier when your collaborators appreciate that and what skills you do bring. Being able to focus on data analysis and implementing new techniques is great fun. I’m not the only ex-astro person in the collaboration, either. We do get about!



SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work?

CC: All but engineering! Although, engineering has gone into the work I use, both for equipment like telescopes and MRI scanners, to software engineering from the computer code I use every day. Many of the statistical techniques I learnt in astrophysics are used in neuroscience, just with a different name, so they come under mathematics. This made for a terrifying first week as I thought I had to relearn stats, but thankfully I just needed a translation sheet, haha! The underpinning of my day-to-day work is definitely mathematical, but I very rarely write down equations at the moment; I get a little excited when I have to.



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

CC: I’ve given talks in Brighton before and have found people of all ages are excited to find out more about Science and what they can do to help. Brighton’s like that, there’s a real creative and teamwork culture in the city that permeates the Universities too, everyone has an idea for collaborative work (often between the arts and sciences) and it’s fantastic! The more Brighton people we can get interested and offering their particular knowledge and support the better for science all-round.



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

CC: Sunshine? We can hope! No, I’m definitely eager to talk to people about space, brains, and what that’s got to do with rubber ducks. If anyone’s going to see the sense in rubber ducks it’ll be Brighton. Maybe I’ll have a few converts!



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

CC: A similar answer to many I would guess, but it would be the “publish or perish” mantra. Whilst it’s important to publish your research and be accountable, the emphasis on (quick) individual achievement over (slower) collaborative works currently disadvantages those on big projects and is in my humble opinion disincentivising the move towards larger, more robust studies. The Times University ranking doesn’t take into account research papers with over 1000 authors. []. This sounds sensible, until you realise that some institutions specialise on being a team player in these collaborations, doing the groundwork and being part of long author lists to allow others to do the final analysis. Often the people who have worked on the technology or data pipelines that are included in these long author lists are looked-over for permanent positions (too few first-author papers). And thus, critical expertise is lost from the field. We do need a better way to credit people’s efforts, but it would require a huge cultural shift and will take time.



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

CC: This goes for everyone, and it would be to remember to be a little selfish. People talk about getting their PhD and it’s true. It’s your few years to not only work on a cutting-edge research project but to develop yourself as person or your skillset to benefit you in the competitive postdoc market. Experiences like teaching and public engagement are great as they hone your understanding. Working with another PhD student on a side project is fantastic because you’re learning to collaborate and you’re both expanding your knowledge base. Running around doing bit-jobs for your supervisor a summer student could do probably isn’t helping you. Ask yourself “is this developing my transferable skillset, or can this go in my thesis?” If you answer “no” to both of those, then say no to the request. You can say no. It’s hard to disappoint someone, but you need to pre-emptively prevent burnout.



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

CC: In my first science class in secondary school we had to use a Bunsen burner to boil water and monitor how the temperature changed with time. Simple, right? Wrong. I managed to knock over the beaker, smashing it to the floor. I was so distraught my teacher had to send a letter home to explain why I’d been upset.

In my A-level physics practical exam I connected the ammeter straight to the power (never do that, always connect ammeters with resistance in the circuit). There was a puff of smoke, and my teacher had to fetch me a new one.

At University I tried to make a digital counter count to ten and it counted ‘1,2,3,8,4,F,E,7,A,0’. It was hilarious, but to this day I don’t understand what I did wrong.

My point is you don’t have to be good at everything to be a scientist. Electronics is still a wonderful magic to me and I tip my hat to people who do understand it completely.

And never write your skillset off as not being suitable. Science is a creative endeavour at heart and equally needs people who like to write and communicate, or can break down complex problems into small pieces (like when drawing) as well as people who can do maths. In fact, a lot of scientists do art or writing or music in their spare time! So never write yourself off as someone who can’t be a scientist because you’re not good at all the sciences or only good at “the arts!” You’re just as in need by Science.

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Talk to a wide variety of people: Meet Rebecca Pike

By Rebecca Pike

I am a 4th year PhD student studying Theoretical Biology. In my research I apply mathematical modelling tools to behavioural biology. My research aims to investigate the decisions and behaviour of parents focussing on different aspects of being a parent. For instance, who should you choose for a breeding partner, how many offspring should you have and how should you care for your offspring?



You can catch Rebecca on her Soapbox at the Bristol event on Saturday 15th July 2017 where she will give a talk called: “Why copying Beyonce might be a bad idea: The effect copying role models has on our fertility”


SS: How did you get to your current position?

RP: I am currently a 4th year PhD student, although my viva is next week so I should have my PhD very soon!
I wanted to study for a postgraduate degree because of the project I completed in my undergraduate degree. My project used Evolutionary Game Theory to understand social norms and cooperation in human society. I really loved the idea of using maths to understand complicated human interactions and how something as abstract as emotions and behaviour could be explained mathematically. After teaching secondary school maths for two years I got back in contact with my supervisor from that project in the hope that I could study this further and he became my supervisor for my PhD.



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

RP: I think the most interesting aspect of my research is being able to describe animal decisions and animal behaviour using equations and mathematical models. This method is useful as it allows you to understand what influences animals to behave the way they do.



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

RP: I think it’s important to talk to a wide variety of people (and not just other scientists) about new research and luckily it is also really enjoyable! I like that Soapbox not only showcases cutting edge research but gives a realistic impression of scientists. I hope that our talks inspire people to engage with science and maybe become scientists themselves!



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

RP: Conversation



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

RP: I think the availability and competition for grants is limiting both in terms of who continues in science and the topics that are researched. Increasing job security for early career scientists would make a beneficial difference, especially for those who have families.



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

RP: To be a bit selfish – pursue the research questions and activities that you are interested in or passionate about and try not to compromise. It’s your career and it’s ok to sometimes say no!



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