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. [https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/world-university-rankings-blog-dealing-freak-research-papers]. 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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Ask questions, ask for help to fulfil your dreams: Meet Sonali Mohapatra

One of the 12 speakers for Soapbox Science Brighton on July 29th, Sonali Mohapatra has a double masters in theoretical physics from IISER-Kolkata, India (India’s premier research Institution) and from Perimeter Institute, Canada (one of the top theoretical physics research hubs in the world). She graduated as a valedictorian of her batch of Perimeter Scholars International in 2015 and then joined her PhD in 2016. Sonali shows there are no boundaries between the arts and science, also being a published poet and a singer. Sonali will be speaking about “Gravity and Blackholes: Linking Fantasy and Reality” at Soapbox Science Brighton on 29th July, 1-4pm, sponsored by The University of Sussex Doctoral School.

 

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

SM: I work on quantum gravity and black holes and every day I am fascinated by the variety of science fiction-type, wilder than our wildest fantasy ideas that are being confirmed as reality somewhere in the universe.

 

 

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

SM: My earliest mentor was my mother, who took me to participate in science exhibitions in school. I remember that my first project was titled “Magnets and Magic” when I was barely 7 years old. I remembered it being really fun and as a bonus, I won a science fiction book as the first prize. Also my grandfather, himself having two masters in both maths and physics. Mathematics was stressed upon in our family and power cuts were used to learn mathematical shortcuts and watch stars on the roof. Apart from that having good science teachers played a major role. From 2002-2007, India had Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam, a physicist and aerospace engineer, as its 11th president and he made it his main focus to inspire students to do science. I remember meeting him at a national level science congress I was selected for and the inspiration stayed with me for a long time. His influence over the students in those few years in India was magnetic.

 

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

SM: After my high school, I sat an exam called KVPY (Young Scientists’ Encouragement Program) and got selected among 300 other students across India for a full scholarship to IISERs (Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research) which were set up to become interdisciplinary research hubs. It was a bit hard to convince my family that I wanted an unconventional career but it worked out and I joined IISER-Kolkata. I chose physics as my major in the 3rd year of my BS-MS and it helped that the physics faculty there were amazing and very, very encouraging. There were regular seminars and colloquias held where we got an opportunity to listen to world famous physicist’s such as Roger Penrose and interact with them. Their influence will stay with me for the rest of my life. Being only one of the two women in a class of around 60 was a bit of a setback, but we managed to pull through even through many hurdles. At that time, I got interested in quantum gravity and read some popular science books such as “Three roads to quantum gravity” by Lee Smolin and that inspired me to apply to Perimeter Institute for the PSI program, which is the world’s best and toughest masters program in theoretical physics. I was selected on full scholarship and once I started the program at PI, I saw that what I had been missing during my undergraduate years was a strong variety of female physicist role models. Perimeter filled that gap and made me more confident and I graduated as the valedictorian of my batch of 2015. I won the Chancellor’s Scholarship for the University of Sussex after being nominated by my supervisor and here I am.

 

 

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?

SM: I am a theoretical physicist working in gravity, high energy and particle physics. Thus, I use physics and mathematics on a daily basis, mathematics being the only language in which we can write and make sense of the world around us.

 

 

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

SM: I love explaining the work I do to non-specialists and love to see the wonder in their eyes when they realize something fantastical about the structure of our universe. I also love motivating students and providing them with a role model in order to dispel the views that physics and maths are uninteresting and hard. Role models and exposure to specialists who enjoy and thrive in their professions plays a great role in motivation. Moreover, I consider it a duty to motivate and be a role model for future women in physics so that they do not face the same problems in gender inequality that I faced.

 

 

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

SM: Excitement!

 

 

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

SM: Gender Ratio. I would like it to be equal.

 

 

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

SM: My recommendation would be to not get deterred by hurdles and to not question their brain power due to myths permeated by the society. It is important to realize that the imposter syndrome is equally present across all genders and it is not something to get deterred by. I would recommend them to reach out to scientists they like and talk to them, ask questions, ask for help wherever necessary and just fulfil their dreams.

 

 

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

SM: Wouldn’t it be so much fun to build or work on stuff that we read in sci-fi or watch in movies. Physics is so much fun! Keep asking questions!!

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Stay curious: Meet Samantha Furfari 

Samantha Furfari graduated with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Chemistry and Human Physiology, from the University of Adelaide in 2007 before completing an Honours degree in Chemical Sciences from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 2008. At the same institute, Sam completed her PhD in Chemistry in 2014. She then went onto a postdoctoral research associate position at UNSW working in the area of nitrogen fixation. In 2016 Sam moved to the University of Sussex to work as a Research Fellow working on the development of transition metal complexes and will be talking about her work at Soapbox Science Brighton on July 29th with a talk called:“Coordination Chemistry: What is it and what can it be used for?” Our thanks go to the Royal Society of Chemistry Downland Section for sponsoring Sam and the Brighton event.

 

 

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

SF: Developing new metal complexes and investigating their potential for either catalysis or for new materials.

 

 

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

SF: I had a fantastic chemistry teacher in my final year of school and I initially was pursuing a combined double degree in Education and Science for my undergraduate studies but enjoyed the research side of my degree so much that I ended up doing that.

 

 

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?

SF: Science (particularly chemistry) and maths are the subjects that I use the most in my research. Maths is important for me as I use it to calculate out the amount of various reagents that I need.

 

 

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

SF: I was attracted to apply for Soapbox Science as a way to help improve my scientific communication skills and talk to a general audience about what I do and how organometallic chemistry is a useful area of research.

 

 

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

SF: Nervous

 

 

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

SF: Publish or perish. I dislike that we are losing some talented individuals because they aren’t publishing frequently enough to get up on the next rung of the ladder. There needs to be a change on how much we value a ‘track’ record as a measure of the success of an individual.

 

 

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

SF: It is a hard slog but take advantage of mentoring programs and network opportunities early. Don’t be afraid to get out and talk to others in your field. You never know what a conversation can lead to.

 

 

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

SF: Stay curious and science is much more diverse than that ‘mad’ scientist stereotype. You would be surprised how many different avenues you can take as a scientist.

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Scientific evidence needs to inform important decisions: Meet Dawn Scott

Dawn Scott joined the University of Brighton in 2001, where she researches the interactions between humans and wildlife, in particular urban animals. A regular on TV shows including Countryfile, Springwatch, the One show and other productions with BBC and Channel 4, Dawn will be on the soapbox at Brighton’s inaugural event on 29th July, 1-4pm, discussing “City nights with the wild furry urbanites: do you know what happens in your garden after dark?” Thanks to The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour for sponsoring Dawn’s appearance.

 

 

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

DS: The most fascinating aspect of my research is finding out how humans and wildlife live together in cities, the complex interrelations between them and how each affect the other behaviour.

 

 

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

DS: When I was growing up my step dad had an inquisitive mind, he is always asking what and why and trying to find out more about things. He also has a passion for adventure and travelling so we went on adventures together such as camping trips and road trips around Scotland. He gave me a passion for the outdoors, trained me in sleeping in wet sleeping bags and eating cold baked beans from a can, showed me the beauty of wilderness areas and made me realise that after one answer there is another question!

 

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

DS: I did my BSc in Biology at Durham University and started to focus my interests on mammals and behavioural ecology. I then went on to do a 4 year PhD in Jordan on desert mammal ecology. Straight after submitting my PhD I went to Zambia and did a year of working as a post-doc in a game reserve in Zambia surveying biodiversity. I applied to be a lecturer at Brighton University whilst in Zambia and luckily got the position. I have been at Brighton University ever since and been promoted to Principal Lecturer as well as undertaking several managerial and leadership roles.

 

 

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

DS: I use many aspects of STEMM in my work. Behavioural and Conversation Ecology are science based discipline and to undertake ecology requires lots of maths. There are usually large varied data sets that you have to try to make sense of – and only maths can help with that. I also use technology and engineering by developing ways in which we can remotely study and follow animals to understand their behaviour, such as GPS collars and camera traps. We also use digital technology to help engage with the public to collect and share information. Wildlife and the environment are also important in health studies; for example, animal behaviour can affect disease risk and transmission, so I also need to be aware of animal and human health issues.

 

 

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

DS: I am based in Brighton and much of my research goes on around the street of Brighton at night! I enjoy chatting to people about urban animals, their relationships and their views. Everyone has a story and experience to share and it is nice opportunity to engage with people in the streets that don’t usually have a scientist to hand to ask a burning question when they need to. I liked the idea of doing soapbox science as it enables me to work with other female scientists to share this experience with them so we can support each other and for me to learn new cool things about subjects they are passionate about as well.

 

 

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

DS: Challenging

 

 

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

DS: Scientific evidence is being used to inform rather than to be the basis of decisions. Opinion (sometimes founded on no factual information) seems to be becoming more important in the decision making processes. I would like to see more recognition of the value of scientific evidence to inform important decisions.

 

 

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

DS: Have confidence in yourself and your abilities!

 

 

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

DS: Science is exciting. You get to ask and try to answer questions all the time. A career in science means you get an opportunity to get paid to do something you are passionate about and love doing.

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Bringing science to the streets of Galway: Meet Dara Stanley

Dr Dara Stanley (@darastanley) is an ecologist at National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway, who specialises in plants and their interactions with bees and other pollinating insects. In addition to research and teaching she has always been fascinated with science communication; for example she is a founder of “biodiversity in our lives” who produced a series of “biodiversity beermats” linking biodiversity to drinks in pubs! Dara completed her PhD at Trinity College Dublin, and subsequently worked in the United Kingdom and South Africa before taking up her current role as a lecturer in NUI Galway. She is co-organising the Galway Soapbox Science event with Dr Jessamyn Fairfield (a physicist at NUI Galway) on Saturday 15th July 2017 at Spanish Arch in Galway city (@soapboxscigal).

 

Please can you tell us about your career to date and what made you want to become a ecologist?

I have always been fascinated by nature and the environment. I grew up in the Dublin Mountains, and my mum always says I was interested in birds and trees when my brother was interested in tractors! When I finished school I initially studied music for a year (I’m a flute and violin player) before deciding that I really wanted to study science. I find ecology fascinating; the complexities of living organisms and how they interact with each other raises so many questions, and has such huge implications for all the things we need as humans – clean air, water and food. I found a special love for bees (bumblebees are one of the cutest things around, right?) and the intricate relationships they have with flowers, and pursued my PhD in human impacts on plants and pollinators at Trinity College in Dublin. I then moved to Royal Holloway University of London in the UK for a postdoc position, where I worked under the UK Insect Pollinator Initiative investigating the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bumblebees. Subsequently, I moved to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where I worked on the role of honeybees as pollinators in a biodiversity hotspot. Going to work and having to chase zebra and wildebeest away from eating parts of your experiment is certainly a bit of fun!

 

 

For those readers without a scientific background, what does your role at NUI Galway involve on a day to day basis?

At NUI Galway, I’m a lecturer in Plant Ecology. My job entails two main components, research and teaching. I lead a research group that investigates how plants interact with their pollinators, the implications this has for crop production, and how we as humans are affecting these interactions. We use both lab and field techniques to answer our experimental questions. At the same time I also lecture students pursuing a degree in science, or more specifically in Botany, and supervise PhD students. As well as research and teaching, academics are also involved in numerous other things, from public engagement and consultation, to management, finance, HR…I never thought a job could encompass so many different aspects, and it makes your day really varied!

 

 

Please can you tell us about Soapbox Science in Galway?

I love the ideas behind Soapbox Science, and when I moved to Galway last year thought it would be the perfect place for an event! Galway is also home to NUI Galway, but also to the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, the Marine Institute, and a host of scientific industries. Therefore there are  lots of scientists about, but people around the city may not come in contact with them very often. Galway has a really lively cultural and street performance scene, and the city centre is always full of people going about their daily business, so it seemed like a great spot for Soapbox Science. Luckily Dr Jessamyn Fairfield (a physicist also at NUI Galway) was also interested in Soapbox Science and so we decided to organise the event together. Jessamyn is also a comedian and has loads of experience in science communication and outreach, so it’s great to be able to put our heads together in organising the event!

 

 

How will you be preparing?

So far we’ve recruited 12 enthusiastic volunteer female scientists from Galway to speak at the event. We’ve also organised our location, and are currently organising our speaker training event.

 

 

Why are outreach events like Soapbox Science so important?

Outreach events like Soapbox Science are so important as it is crucial that everyone understands and appreciates science. Science is so important in so many aspects of our lives, and in particular when it comes to governance and decision making. We increasingly need evidence based policies and decisions, and science can provide this. And of course so much science is also publically funded, so there is also a duty to make it accessible to everyone.

 

Many science outreach events are things that people have to actively choose to attend; for example a science exhibition, or Bright Club Galway – a science comedy night organised by Jessamyn. These are great events, but what I really like about Soapbox Science is that it brings science to a public place specifically to target people that are going about their daily business and have not actively chosen to engage with a scientist. The second think I like thing about Soapbox is that the scientists who are on show are women. We all have unconscious biases, from our upbringing, entertainment or the media, and as a result many people associate scientists with being old men in white coats. Soapbox science highlights and showcases female scientists, in the hope that by showcasing women we can break down some of our inherent unconscious biases around gender in STEMM.

 

 

How male dominated is your area of specialism and how are initiatives like Athena SWAN helping to breakdown gender stereotypes?

My immediate discipline of Botany at NUI Galway is actually 100% female! In the early career stages of Natural Sciences there is often quite level playing field in terms of gender, and at NUI Galway 37% of academic staff in this area are female. However, when you go towards the more senior levels this balance begins to shift. For example, in STEMM at NUI Galway only 11% of professors are female. I think initiatives like Athena SWAN are very important to firstly make us aware of gender issues, and secondly to try and put in place policies and initiatives that can be inclusive and beneficial for everyone.

 

 

What is coming up next for you and NUI Galway?

NUI Galway is currently preparing a submission for an Athena SWAN bronze award. Indeed, some major Irish funding agencies have stated that universities must have this award by 2019 in order to be eligible for funding, so now there’s a real incentive to get there! For me, right now I’m focussing on writing some grants to fund my research, and on correcting student exams. Most of my field research happens during the summer months, so I’m also looking forward to getting out and doing some science in the beautiful field sites in the west of Ireland where we are doing some of experiments!

 

 

 

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Hot spots in the Ocean: Meet Sheena Fennell

Hot spots in the Ocean

By Sheena Fennell, School of Natural Sciences, NUI Galway. Come and meet more amazing women scientists at Soapbox Science Galway on Saturday 15th July 2017.

I had the opportunity between 2011 and 2016 to take part in multidisciplinary transatlantic research cruises from Ireland to Newfoundland.  Although the R.V. Celtic Explorer had previously crossed the Atlantic at the equator the crossing in 2011 was the first time it crossed the North Atlantic.  I went on board to carry out temperature profiles down to a depth of 1800m every 50km. Also during this cruise fisheries acousticians from Canada were on board logging data on the distribution of the Deep Scattering Layer.  After this initial trip we started to look at both data sets and found some interesting results. We decided to look more closely at the data and organise the surveys around a number of hypothesis. I have always enjoyed the science between the interaction of oceanography and biology and this was a fantastic opportunity to do research in this area.

My area of research was to look at how the oceanography influences the distribution of the Deep Scattering Layer (DSL).  The Deep Scattering Layer is a layer of small fish that is generally found between 200-800m deep and has been found in many of our oceans. A large component of the DSL contains myctophids (lanternfish).

 

 

 

 

 

Myctophids from the Deep Scattering Layer. They range from 2-30cm in length. Photo: Brynn Devine,Fisheries and Marine Insitute, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

We had the opportunity to study the distribution across the Atlantic and also to focus in on their distribution in warm core eddies.

What are ocean eddies? 

Ocean eddies form in the Western Atlantic because of the meandering nature of the Gulf Stream.  They are formed in a process similar to the way an oxbow lake forms in a river and a great animation on how ocean eddies form can be found at   http://tornado.sfsu.edu/geosciences/classes/m415_715/Monteverdi/Satellite/Oceanography/eddy.htm

These eddies can be over 100km in diameter and rotate either clockwise or anticlockwise depending on whether the center of the eddy comprises of either warm or cold water. These systems have been previously described as oasis in a desert (Godo et al., 2012) and the eddies we found between 2013-2016 very much fit this description.

How did we sample these systems? 

We tracked them using Sea Level anomalies (changes in sea surface height) as we transited across the North Atlantic aboard the RV Celtic Explorer.  The eddy that we sampled in 2015 can be seen between 35-45W below.

 

2 Sea Level Anomaly (m) downloaded from AVISO (Archiving, Validation and Interpretation of Satellites Oceanographic Data) and overlain with sampling stations (black dots) for the 2015 cruise.

 

Once within the eddy we ran fisheries acoustics, took vertical profiles of salinity (how salty the water was), water temperature, nutrients and water current speeds.  We also took samples for picoplankton, zooplankton as well as deploying nets to fish in the Deep Scattering Layer.  We also had seabird and cetacean (dolphin and whale) observers on board.

What did we find?

The three eddies we studied over the three years had water temperatures between 12 and 15° C and were bounded on the west by 2°C water. This is a huge difference in temperature over such a small area! These features have a large increase in the concentration of Deep Scattering Layer and seem to provide a perfect feeding ground all the way up the food chain to cetaceans and birds. We also found that annual changes in water temperatures across the Atlantic had an influence on the concentration of the DSL.  This is important to understand as our climate changes and how much this will have an influence on the most abundant fishes in the world (Irigoien et al., 2014).

Godo, O.R., Samuelson, A., Macaulay, G.J., Patel, R., Hjollo, S.S., Horne, J., Kaartvedy, S., Johannessen, S.A., 2012. Mesoscale Eddies Are Oases for Higher Trophic Marine Life. PLoS ONE 7(1): e30161. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030161.

Irigoien, X., Klevjer, T.A., Rostad, A., Martinez, U., Boyra, G., Acuna, J.L., Bode, A., Echevarria, F., Gonzalez-Gordillo, J.I., Hernandez-Leon, S., Agusti, S., Aksnes, D.L., Duarte, C.M., Kaartvedy, S., 2014. Large mesopelagic fishes biomass and trophic efficiency in the open ocean. Nature communications, 5, 3271

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Working with the ancient and mysterious: Meet Andrea Strakova

Andrea Strakova is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Andrea will be standing on one of our soapboxes in Bristol on 15th July. Come and hear her talk entitled: “Crazy canine cancer: A look at how thousands years old dog cancer travelled the world”

 

 

 

Photo credit: Elizabeth Murchison

 

Studying the world’s oldest cancer

by Andrea Strakova

 

I have, for a long time, been excited to understand the biology of the world’s oldest cancer – a cancer which is around 10,000 years old! How is it even possible for a cancer to exist for such a long time…?! This was my very first thought when I found out about canine transmissible venereal tumour (or CTVT for short) – an infectious cancer which affects man’s best friend, the dog.

 

My interest was sparked during my undergraduate studies in Veterinary Science at the University of Cambridge, when I learnt about this unusual and biologically extraordinary canine cancer. I was immediately fascinated by this disease – I decided to focus on studying CTVT during my final year undergraduate project, which naturally led on to a PhD, allowing me to dig deeper and follow my excitement and interests!

 

Photo credit: Anna Czupryna

 

So WHAT is so special about CTVT, the canine cancer which I am still so passionately studying (and hope to continue in the future as well)? Let me now take you on a journey back in time…and I hope that by the end of this story, you will be interested to learn even more about this unique canine cancer, too!

 

Let’s now move back in time to the age when mammoths were still roaming the world, to a time around 10,000 years ago. You can now imagine a dog, which lived all this time ago…and this particular dog got a cancer. We know that cancer is a disease of our own DNA – the genetic information which is stored in our cells. When the cell acquires changes in its DNA – called mutations, it may start dividing more and more; it divides uncontrollably and this may lead to the formation of a tumour. This is what happened in our particular dog living 10,000 years ago…but there was more to come.

 

Normally, the cancer would die when the individual that gave rise to it dies. But in that one particular dog living 10,000 years ago, something very, very unusual happened. The cancer, instead of dying with this dog, managed to survive beyond the death of that particular dog…through transmission of living cancer cells on to another individual. And from then, the cancer has spread through the dog population all over the world as an infectious disease, and it is still surviving until this date. So now, here we are in the 21st century, and we can still see the cells of that original dog living 10,000 years ago – hugely transformed…”hopping” between dogs and living on them, almost like parasites!

 

Photo credit: Alan Allum

 

And how do these cells “jump” between dogs? Remember, that in our story, the cells from the original dog are still alive today. So instead of the cancer being caused by an infectious agent (such as a virus, as is the case in cervical cancer and Human Papilloma Viruses (HPVs)), here we can “see” the actual living cancer cells moving between individual dogs (usually by direct contact during mating). This is something quite unexpected – normally, our immune system should detect the cancer cells as “foreign” or “different” and they should be destroyed. But not in this infectious dog cancer.

 

So what is my goal? I would like to continue working on this ancient and mysterious canine disease – I hope to learn more about the biology of CTVT, and understand how is it that this cancer has survived for such a long time by hopping from a dog to dog, and hiding from the effects of the immune system.

 

In my PhD work, I have been very fortunate to have the support of incredible mentors (especially my fantastic supervisor Dr Elizabeth Murchison) and veterinary collaborators from many parts of the world and I am very grateful for all the opportunities and knowledge I have gained along the way. Now I hope that I can share my excitement with the public, too – through being a small part of the fantastic work being done through the Soapbox Science events!

 

Are you interested to learn more about CTVT and my research work?

http://www.tcg.vet.cam.ac.uk/directory/andrea-strakova

 

 

 

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