Understanding chemistry and contaminated land: Meet Sabrina Cipullo

Sabrina Cipullo is a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher in Environmental Science at Cranfield University. She has a Masters of Environmental Science and Biotechnology from the University of Milan, and a BSc in Biotechnology. Her PhD focuses on environmental chemistry and toxicological approaches to site assessments. Her research focuses on better understanding the sources of pollution and the environmental fate of complex chemical mixtures.  Meet Sabrina at Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Sat 29th July, 12-3pm talking about soil science, contaminated land, and the Chuck Norris Effect.

 

Soil Science, Contaminated land – Detoxified!

What do you do with your plastic bottle or soda can when you’re finished with it? Do you throw it in the trash bin, recycle it, or simply drop it on the ground? Trash is one of many ways to pollute earth. Soil is contaminated when harmful, unwanted materials (pollutants) are added to it. Even if we cannot always see the pollution, it can have negative effects on living things and the environment. Did you know that soil contamination is one of the leading causes of water pollution around the world? Remediation can reduce contaminants to lower levels, and in particular, bioremediation uses microorganisms, fungi and plants to clean the environment. But, how do regulators (and scientists) assess the risk and establish “how clean” is clean” after remediation?

At Soapbox Science, I will be talking about the main contaminants affecting soil and how they behave in the environment. I will talk about methods for how to find, manage and clean soil contamination (but do not try this at home!) Secrets will be revealed, about how scientists study the effects of this contamination (toxicity) to protect both people and the environment. And of course, you’ll also find out how to prevent soil contamination and what you can do to make a difference.

 

My superheroes

 

I never imagined myself doing a PhD. I grew up in a family with two sisters and all of us were meant to take over our father’s building company once grown up. The Italian side of my family has its origins in the south of Italy, where traditionally the man (my grandfather) was the ruler of the family, while the female (my grandmother) took care of the day–to–day operations and mostly acted as child carer and housewife. My grandmother, for example, took her driving licence at the late age of 50, after my grandfather passed away. Before that, she was not expected to drive or have any need to leave the house. Fortunately that changed rapidly, in only one generation!

My mother had a regular job and always participated actively in every aspect of economic and social life. However it is true that there can still be a tendency to expect women to perform the majority of the domestic tasks they did in the past, in addition to new responsibilities. For this reason, I have always been inspired by these superheroes, who are intelligent and loving mothers, but also strong and motivated women. Somehow I knew one day I would be like my mother.

From when I was very young I was interested in art and science. I still remember at the age of 7 preparing chlorophyll extracts (a very secret recipe, which only my sister is aware of) and selling it to the neighbours for a few liras (former Italian currency) to make their plants grow healthier and stronger. For a long time I actually believed I was making the miracle happen. It was only later on that my father admitted he would secretly substitute my test-plant, overnight, with a much bigger one, so that the following day I believed the chlorophyll extract was working. To be honest I believed it, and it was probably the best self-confidence booster, and helped me build my motivation.

As a child, every day was a new discovery, and I became passionate about entomology (the study of insects) as well. For my 10th birthday I received a book about insect classification. Luckily, I lived in the countryside, and the fields were my lab. Me and my sister, Valentina, would spend endless days (and sometimes evenings), crawling around the fields in search of small insects, or jumping with our butterfly nets. I must say it was not always satisfying, and we often finished empty-handed, but it was worth the wait. When we finally caught something, we both screamed with joy, and of course fear!  The following day we would prepare and carefully pin the little insect’s legs, and add a tag with the information and name of the catcher. That was great fun!

I always felt the most boyish of the three sisters. Don’t get me wrong, I had my Barbie dolls and a pink bike, but I always enjoyed challenging myself, and of course, the boys, in both sports and science. I always had quite a strong personality and somehow it helped me to be respected. I never struggled or suffered in my childhood over gender differences. At school I was a good student (very talkative at times, some would say…) always fascinated and curious about everything new, especially in biology. I was unsure about what to choose for my undergraduate studies; it is difficult to make such important choices at a young age.

However, I now realise that in reality things can be flexible and scientific disciplines cross and interlace. Plants and the environment always fascinated me (and still do), so my undergraduate studies were focused on green biotechnology. Unfortunately at that time I was a little stubborn, and I wanted to work and study at the same time, so I couldn’t follow the regular lectures. I was pretty much on my own, since all the rest of my classmates had already made friends and study groups. Luckily I found a group of mechanical engineering students, always studying at the library until late, and we became a study group, but most importantly friends. Needless to say, the group was male dominated, with only two females. The competition amongst us was fierce, and even though we were all friends you could read between the lines that we (the girls) were  considered to be less capable. I really struggled to finish my course in the three prescribed years (due to the time I dedicated to work), and that really hurt my pride. I started asking myself if I was good enough, or whether there was someone still swapping the “small plant” with the “grown up plant” to make me believe that I could make it.

Luckily I always had very supportive parents, a stubborn mind, and thick skin. After a career break in Australia (where I worked as a waitress in two different places with a 20 hours/day shift), I thought about becoming an architect, but then went back to my roots and enrolled for a Masters in Environmental Biotech at the University of Milan. Once again the gender ratio was shockingly unbalanced (and not in my favour), but I found my way and graduated with the best grades and honours. This journey was short and intense, and my colleagues were always helpful and encouraging.  I shared the most interesting scientific (and non-scientific) conversations with them, and I made good friends for life.  I have to say I always felt treated well and respected by all my male colleagues. I would not have a career in science if it were not for them. My colleagues, and most importantly friends, have supported and encouraged me to complete my undergraduate study, do postgraduate study, and still support me every day during my PhD.

Finally, I would not be who I am if my mother had not been brave enough (and crazy enough!) to send me travelling around the world at a very young age. She also taught me a great deal about how to work towards my own goals. I am incredibly grateful for her support and encouragement. All this has helped me a lot during my PhD journey in which, like insect hunting, some days you end up empty handed, but on other days it is extremely rewarding. I like the challenges that come with the PhD and the excitement of doing new things, and constantly learning. There are many ups and downs, it feels a lot like an emotional roller coaster, but I am sure that one day I will look back and miss these moments.

I am very passionate about communicating my science and showcasing my work and I recently became a STEM ambassador to inspire and engage young people about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I have been involved in outreach activities and have taken part in different events to help people better understand chemistry and contaminated land. I am really looking forward to participating in Soapbox Science!

 

 

 

 

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Ten things I wish people knew about autism : Meet Rachel Moseley

Dr Rachel Moseley is a lecturer at Bournemouth University, a researcher in cognitive neuroscience, and a keen advocate of public engagement in science. She feels passionately about working to improve understanding and compassion for people on the autism spectrum and those who live with mental health issues, and about embracing neurodiversity in all its forms. She will be taking part in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday 29th July 2017.

 

Ten things I wish people knew about autism

By Dr Rachel Moseley

I’m counting down the days until the 29th of July… my day at Soapbox Science. I’m both terrified and exhilarated. I’m not completely new to Soapbox Science, having spoken last year in Bristol. I’m going to be talking a bit about the brain in general, but this year I also really want to take the opportunity to give a voice and dispel some myths that plague one group of vulnerable people in our society: people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC).  (Note: some people prefer identity-first language, i.e. ‘autistic person’. I use both interchangeably but respect the right of individuals to use the format they prefer).

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition with strong genetic contributions, which means that an individual sets off down a different developmental trajectory from the start regarding brain development (Hazlett et al, 2017). It will always be a part of that person; even if their symptoms change with their ability to adapt, their autism is written into their biology. You might have heard of Asperger syndrome, which is just one form of autism. When people talk about Asperger syndrome they tend to mean autistic people whose IQ is in the average to high range, and this is the group that I particularly work with.

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist by trade, which means that I study the brain basis of thoughts, emotions and behaviour. My particular interest in this field is in how autistic and non-autistic people differ. I’ve been looking at various things, like how the brain works during language processing, thinking about others, daydreaming and performing visual-spatial tasks. I’ve also been branching into other areas of autism research, such as sex differences and mental health in autism.

Autistic people and their families suffer a lot of stigma from some of the misconceptions floating around about autism. I feel passionately about trying to help increase understanding and compassion for those on the spectrum, so here are ten things I wish people knew about autism. I hope you’ll enjoy learning more and that you’ll come chat to me on the 29th in Milton Keynes

 

1. Rain Man and Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) are just cardboard cut-outs.

 

Stereotypes are very useful things in a complex social world. They simplify basic facts about a group of people in a way that allows us to identify and group them easily. We all know, however, how damaging stereotypes can be in that they reduce a mass of individuals into a homogenous group who are defined by few simple, broadly generalized features that are used as ‘rules of thumb’ for identifying them and making judgements. That’s just so with Sheldon and Rain Man.  These guys are stereotypes which greatly simplify some basic facts about autism, for example the fact that autism is characterized by social difficulties and problems making relationships with others. Stereotypes are useful in some respects: they tap into a shared cultural idea of what autism is, and it’s helpful to bring everyone together to a common ground before trying to flesh out the reality of autism. The problems come when we start expecting to see Sheldon or Rain Man as soon as we know someone is autistic. Once we start looking at the real autism, throw away your stereotypes because autistic people are every bit as diverse as non-autistic people. Having autism is having a brain that works differently to those of non-autistic people – it’s a simple analogy, but a bit like different kind of operating system, like Windows to Macs. However, people with autism are exactly that – people, foremost, with autism just one element of who they are. Who they are as people you have to find out with respect and compassion.

 

2. ‘Unempathetic’ doesn’t mean cold and uncaring

 

A lot of people believe that autistic people don’t have any empathy. It’s well documented that where non-autistic children are disturbed or upset by an adult’s pain and seek to comfort them, children with autism are less likely to respond and may continue playing with no concern. Likewise, autistic people may sometimes say things that come across as rude or harsh or insensitive and may not take the hint when someone gets upset. This apparent lack of concern for others has been interpreted as a lack of the ability to emphasise with them; to feel what they are feeling, to care. But this idea doesn’t sit well with new scientific evidence. One study found autistic children actually showed a heightened stress response to images of people in distress and some had to cover their eyes (Blair, 1999). Reports from people on the spectrum and practioners who work closely with them reveal that indeed, autistic people are often painfully upset by the problems of others (Smith, 2009). And as scientists now believe that emotions and empathy are necessary to develop a sense of morality (Prinz, 2006; Aaltola, 2013), how can we explain the fact that people with autism often have more keenly and strongly-held senses of morality if they lack these prerequisites? (De Vignemont et al, 2008). Perhaps it is our idea of ‘empathy’ that needs to be reconsidered: we need a model which recognizes that people may struggle to recognize the feelings of others but are capable of caring about them when they do (Baron-Cohem, 2009; Uzefovsky et al, 2015). When emotional information is explicitly presented to autistic people so that they don’t have to guess what the other person is feeling and why, they’re just as concerned and emotionally-affected as non-autistic people (Jones et al, 2010).

 

3. People with autism have emotions.

 

This one seems so basic that I hate to write it, but sadly it’s quite a common myth. It might stem from the fact that it’s sometimes quite hard to identify what people with autism are feeling. Some autistic people show very little change in emotional expression. Others have a normal amount of emotional expression in their face but the quality of it is odd, not the kind of expression you might expect for an emotion like ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ (McDonald et al, 1989; Moody et al, 2007). So not only is it hard for autistic people to recognize what others are feeling, but it’s also hard for non-autistic people to recognize what autistic people are feeling! It’s also extremely common for people with autism to experience alexithymia, a difficulty identifying and understanding how they feel (Bird and Cook, 2013). With alexithymia, one might feel the physiological ‘symptoms’ of fear – for example, sweating, heart pounding, nausea – but can’t put the emotional label on it. Therefore sometimes people with autism can’t express their emotions on their faces or in words. As you can imagine, this can be extremely difficult. Autistic people often struggle to express extreme emotions (Samson et al, 2012). This can result in what is known as a ‘shut down’ (sort of blocking everything out, literally shutting down: for example, clamping one’s hands over one’s ears, curling up, squeezing eyes shut and not responding) or, alternatively, in a ‘melt down’ (emotions exploding outwards in tears, shouting or screaming). Autistic people are sometimes aware what’s happening during a shut down or melt down, but not always. It can be an awful experience which is difficult to recover from.

 

4. People with autism aren’t loners who don’t want friends.

 

You definitely get a Sheldon vibe here, don’t you? But this stereotype belies the truth of what I mentioned above… that people with autism are every bit as diverse as non-autistic people, that autism is a part of who they are but only one part of their personality. Two psychologists in the 1970s found that there were huge differences in the sociability of autistic children. Wing and Gould (1979) found some children with severe intellectual disability who were pretty sociable and some who were not. In children without intellectual disability (who would therefore be classified as ‘high-functioning autistic’ or ‘Asperger syndrome’), they noticed that some children were ‘aloof’: they were pretty indifferent to the presence of others, especially other kids, and just approached others to get physical needs gratified. Others were ‘passive’: children who didn’t initiate social contact but were fine with other people approaching them and who were often brought into other childrens’ games. The last group, perhaps the saddest in a way, were ‘active but odd’: this was the group who really wanted social interaction and so constantly approached others with no idea how to interact with them. Their interactions were inappropriate because they were unaware of the feelings and interests of their interaction partner; they didn’t adapt their approach to the context or the identify of the other person and would often go on and on about their own interests. Autistic adults show similar diversity, and some are actually incredible social chameleons who figure out rules for how to interact with people in a positive way – they can be the life and soul of the party and may have an excellent sense of humour. Others are less able to modify their behavior so might still remain off-putting to others. This is extremely sad, because studies show that many autistic people are desperately lonely and would love to have friends (Bauminger and Kasari, 2000; Mazurek, 2014).

 

5. Autistic people are not all geniuses and they don’t all have special abilities.

 

It’s kind of a shame this one isn’t true, because who wouldn’t like to have an awesome party trick? It’s commonly assumed that autistic people will be geniuses in a particular field or have exceptional, extraordinary powers in art, music, memory, or so forth. Some do, certainly. There is a phenomenon called ‘savant syndrome’ which describes having an exceptional talent in the presence of a low IQ (Treffert, 2012). Rain Man is actually based on the real life case of a man with an encyclopedic memory of geography, music, literature, history, sports and other areas he’d read about (Peek and Hanson, 2008). This individual had memorized over 6000 books and had the incredibly useful ability to scan one page with one eye, the other page with the other – incredible! There’s some idea that perhaps 1 in 10 autistic people show some degree of savant skill (Treffert, 2012) – so still, even if it’s more common than in non-autistic people, it’s a very small minority. Likewise, autistic people exist who do have exceptional intelligence and prowess in a particular field (Fitzgerald, 2002; Boso et al, 2010). In many ways, the features of autism lend themselves to art, science, music or maths: specifically, the archetypal intense focus that people with autism show to their particular interests. This is known as ‘repetitive and restricted interests’ among scientists and clinicians, and describes the fact that people with autism will tend to get extremely interested, to an atypical degree, in particular subjects or objects. They then find it very easy to focus and involve themselves in that thing to the exclusion of all else. In many ways, research is the perfect environment for an autistic person! Ultimately, though, intelligence varies in autistic people just as it does in people without autism.

 

6. Girls and women can have autism too… but it looks very different.

 

For many years, autism was believed to be restricted to males only; it’s only recently that research attention has focused on autistic girls and women, and uncovered a whole population who’ve been suffering in silence. Problematically, it’s much harder for young girls to be diagnosed with autism (Lai et al, 2015): they need to have substantially more severe symptoms, and they tend to be diagnosed much later. In part this may be because gender stereotypes cast socially-impaired girls as ‘shy’ and socially-impaired boys as ‘unresponsive’ (Goldman, 2013). It can also be because autistic little girls are less likely to show disruptive behaviour. Whilst they have the typical autistic ‘restricted interests’, they tend to have special interests that are less eccentric and actually appropriate for their age and gender (for example, animals, boybands, soaps on TV). They are often exceptionally good mimics and do a great job of learning how to manage social interaction with studied strategies – underneath, though, they’re often highly anxious and have the same core problems with social understanding (Gould and Ashton-Smith, 2011). Quite often, autistic girls and women come to the attention of professionals when they come along with comorbid mental health problems, which are very common – depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, substance abuse, personality disorders… it’s very common for autistic women (and indeed, higher-functioning autistic men) to accrue an impressive list of diagnoses before they’re finally identified as autistic. Unfortunately, professionals are just unaware of how differently autism presents in females, and it’s desperately important that we learn more about autistic girls and women, what they’re like and how to recognise them so that they get the support they need. This is one area in which my research focuses.

 

7. Autistic children become autistic adults.

 

This sounds really silly, but somehow, policy-makers and professionals seem to forget that autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which does not go away. Support services for autistic individuals dramatically drop off when they turn 18 (Gernhardt and Lainer, 2011), leaving them and their families in limbo without appropriate social or medical support. This group have a higher than normal rate of mental illnesses, yet we know very little about appropriate psychological treatments to help them (Bishop-Fitzpatrick et al, 2014). The National Autistic Society reported that in 2016, only 16% of autistic adults were in full-time paid employment, though 32% were in some kind of paid work. In 2012, only 10% of autistic adults were receiving any kind of support to find employment! Many autistic adults end up extremely isolated, with few or no friends, and many remain with their parents or families, unable to live independently. About 1.1% of the English population have an autism spectrum condition (Brugha et al, 2012: study funded by the Department of Health). This means that over 695,000 people will grow up with uncertain likelihood of receiving the support that would allow them to lead happy and fulfilled lives.

 

8. Parents: autism isn’t something you did wrong.

 

There have been some awful ideas about the cause of autism. The worst, in my view, was from Bruno Bettleheim, who published a book called ‘The Empty Fortress’ in 1967. In it, he suggested that autism was caused by cold and rejecting parenting, particularly from mothers. Tragically, so many parents suffered under this mantle of blame for a long time. We now know that autism has an extremely strong genetic basis. Literally hundreds of genetic mutations have been linked to increased risk of autism (De Rubeis et al, 2014), and these genes all do slightly different things; some of them affect the most basic way that brain cells function. Nonetheless, these studies show how difficult it is to pinpoint a genetic cause for autism: they show that there are many routes to the person’s end state as ‘autistic’, which may explain the huge diversity of autism. Autism is a condition rooted in biology and the brain – not in bad parenting. I want to mention, here, the recent emergence of anxiety about vaccinations and autism. This rumour causes untold damage not only to children who contract easily preventable diseases, but also to families with autistic children. Meta-analyses (e.g. Taylor et al, 2014) and autism experts have thoroughly debunked the original article linking autism and vaccinations – it was actually withdrawn due to the poor, inaccurate science that led to these claims. Let’s hope that this incredibly destructive myth is put to ground as fast as possible.

 

 

9. People with autism aren’t “making a fuss” or “making things up” 

 

This one is really important. The brain seems to develop differently from the very beginning of life in autistic individuals (Hazlett et al, 2017). This isn’t a bad thing – remember the analogy above about different operating systems? – but since all of our behaviour, thoughts and emotions originate in the brain, we can expect autistic people to differ from non-autistic people. For example, it’s quite common for people with autism to be under-responsive to some sensations whereas others can be painfully heightened; a whisper can come across as a shout, unimportant sounds like the ticking of the clock can be impossible to block out whilst trying to attend to a lesson. Green et al (2013) exposed autistic and non-autistic teenagers to mildly aversive stimuli (a spinning colour wheel, increasingly loud white noise) whilst scanning their brains. Interestingly, the sensory parts of autistic teenagers’ brains showed increased activity to sensory stimulation, and this was related to their levels of anxiety and distressing sensory symptoms. What’s more, parts of the brain related to emotion and memory – the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex – were also more active in the autistic teenagers. Some scientists suggest that the amygdala is like the brain’s early warning system; it detects threat in the environment, and makes sure that we remember it for future occasions. This implies that autistic individuals experienced these sensations as much more aversive and upsetting than non-autistic people. Social difficulties, difficulties with planning and decision-making, and other autistic symptomatology are linked with differences in brain connectivity and structure (Ameis and Catani, 2015;  Keown et al, 2013; Hazlett et al, 2017) – mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, which are common in autism, are also rooted in differences in the chemicals and activity of the brain. For this reason, it’s so important to recognise that no one wants a mental illness and people who have one aren’t ‘giving in’ or being weak… mental illnesses are illnesses of the brain in the same way as tuberculosis is an illness of the lungs.

 

10. Autism isn’t necessarily something we should strive to eradicate.

 

Many people see autism as a disease to be cured. There are people who are so debilitated by their autistic symptoms that they would welcome the existence of a cure. There are families who find it exceptionally difficult to live with the challenges of autism. I believe that so long as a perspective does not harm others it must be given full credence, weight and respect, and the experiences of people with this perspective are valid and must be heard and held compassionately. I suppose what I have become very aware of, in my time researching in this field, is that this narrative is not the *only* one out there.  Another perspective focuses on autistic people having brains that work differently from most people; brains that are different from the statistical average (literally, being in the minority). Asperger himself, who identified this syndrome, wrote: “Not everything that steps out of line, and thus ‘abnormal’, must necessarily be ‘inferior’”. This approach, in my view, recognizes the many strengths of autistic people and the contributions they can make to society, if supported to do so. Let’s think, for example, of the autistic eye for detail and single-minded focus. There’s been some speculation that Einstein had autism; although we can’t verify this, studies have shown that having a greater number of autistic traits is indeed linked with careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Ruzich et al, 2015), and that students with autism are disproportionately likely to end up in these fields (Wei et al, 2013). For many autistic people, it would be impossible to extract their ‘autisticness’ without losing part of who they are: their kindness, their quirkiness, their honesty, and so forth; many lovely people would cease to exist. “Neurodiversity” is a frequently-touted word on the internet which, in my understanding, encapsulates this spirit of embracing, respecting, even celebrating the variety of human brain architecture which cause differences in thought, emotion and behaviour. This is not to undermine the real difficulties that autistic people experience living in a non-autistic world. I think this approach is *not* incompatible with research attempting to respectfully understand these differences and offer ways to alleviate the difficulties that can arise through problematic symptoms, helping the person to exist happily as they are, with their autism, rather than take it away (if such a thing was possible).

 

I feel that it’s really important that this second narrative is heard and respected just as much as the first. It’s important for the self-respect, self-esteem and dignity of autistic people. It’s important for non-autistic people, too, who may otherwise be blind to the many exceptional qualities and skills of people on the spectrum. Professor Tony Attwood, a renowned expert in Asperger Syndrome, called autistic people “bright threads in the tapestry of life”. If we ‘cured’ autism, how much we might be missing out on? Moreover, in a more inclusive society with greater support for autistic people as they grow into adulthood, who knows what we could stand to gain?

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you so much for reading this piece. Please come down and chat to me at Milton Keynes on the 29th of July, where I’d love to talk to you about autism and about the brain. 

 

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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

www.marloespeeters.nl / @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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