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

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?




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Everyone has a different path into academia: Meet Sara Correia Carreira

Dr Sara Correia Carreira, University of Bristol, is taking part in Soapbox Science Bristol on Saturday 15th July with a talk called: “Now the drugs don’t work- what you can do to save humanity from superbugs”




SS: How did you get to your current position?

SC: I started by studying for a degree in Biology back home in Berlin. After that, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to actually do research and stay in academia, so I spent some time in Spain working in the Knowledge Transfer Office of a research institute, learning all about intellectual property rights, research funding and the whole managerial aspect around science. That was really dull and I realised that I wanted to be in the lab, doing the research. I moved to Bristol in 2008 to work in a research lab at the hospital and really enjoyed it! I now knew academia was the thing for me, so in 2011 I embarked on a PhD, really enjoyed that, and since 2015 I’ve been working as a Postdoc- and still enjoying it!


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

SC: My dad and my brother. My parents come from rural villages in Portugal, education was not the number one priority when they grew up. Still, my dad had (and has) a never-ending curiosity, which drove him to explore things he was interested in. He’s constantly experimenting in his own little ways! He passed this spirit on to me and my brother. My brother is six years older than me, so I’ve always looked up to him and wanted to do everything he did. He was massively into MacGyver and Star Trek, and -as a consequence- so was I. I remember playing with an electronics kit that he had and discussing how things worked. He’s now a physicist interested in aspects of the social sciences, and as it turned out, I am also an interdisciplinary scientist, bridging the physical and life sciences.


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

SC: Being at the forefront of knowledge every single day. The stuff that I and other scientists are working on right now is unchartered territory, and by the time we publish our work for everyone to read about it we’ve already moved even further forward. I remember a colleague in the engineering department telling me about a recent visit to the Nokia research labs. The stuff they’re working on right now may come the shops in five years or so, but as an engineer and scientist you know about this future today.


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

SC: The idea of being in the middle of the people, embarking on a direct dialogue. I’ve been reading focus group reports compiled by several organisations to figure out what the public thinks about antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance, and some things are truly shocking. So I’m hoping that by talking to people directly I can clear up misconceptions and discuss any questions they may have.


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

SC: Fun


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

SC: Short-term contracts. Honestly, they kill everything. When you have a complete staff turn-over every three years, how can there be a decent degree of continuity in your research? Postdocs leave and take their expertise with them. People drop out of academia because there is no job security for junior researchers. The nature of research funding has probably to do with that, projects are just funded for around three years during which time you have to 1) do the work successfully (!), 2) publish it in a fancy journal and 3) put in the next grant application to keep the project going. You have to be lucky to achieve all this within your three-year time limit. I wish there were “staff scientist” positions at uni, similar to the positions in industry.


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

SC: Same as for a man: find a research topic that genuinely excites you, nothing is more soul-destroying than slaving in the lab for something you don’t really care about. And stop comparing yourself with others, everyone has a different path into academia and yours is as right as mine.

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Research should demonstrate how it is solving real world problems: Meet Parimala Shivaprasad

Parimala Shivaprasad is a second year PhD student at the Department of Chemical Engineering at University of Bath. Having completed both Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from India, she moved to the UK in 2015 to start her PhD with a research scholarship from the university. Her research aims to integrate sustainability into current chemical processing techniques through novel catalyst and reactor design. Though the current focus is on pharmaceutical industries, the project can be extended to a diverse range of chemical industries. Parimala is also an avid science communicator and has engaged the public with her research in various events like Pint of Science, Science Show-off, Three Minute Thesis to name a few. She is also a member of the Student Women Engineering Society at Bath and is involved in various STEM outreach activities for young girls. As a parallel interest, she is also in the process of validating her start-up with the support of the university’s Innovation Centre. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, cooking and travelling. You can catch Parimala on her soapbox at the Bristol event on Saturday July 15th with a talk called: The Miracle Fibre: A sheepish way of curing diseases” 



SS: How did you get to your current position?

PS: I got my first and second degree in Chemical Engineering from India. I have always wanted to be an academic and I enjoy doing research, so a PhD was the next step to take. I was quite keen on studying for a PhD in the UK for the excellent quality of research, though as an international student, getting a funded PhD position was difficult. I applied for several positions before my current supervisor was impressed with my application and recommended me for a scholarship at University of Bath, where I am currently pursuing my PhD in Chemical Engineering.

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

PS: My inspiration for taking up a career in science is my father. As a chemist, he has played a pivotal role in nurturing my interest in chemistry and the enormous impact it has on our day to day life. The idea of taking reactions in a test tube and scaling up in a reactor seemed more practical, which further led me to consider chemical engineering, thus combining the best of science and technology.


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

PS: My research focuses on sustainable chemical processing and I am currently testing a novel reactor to synthesise starting materials for the pharmaceutical industry. Life never gets monotonous when I am working on my project, with surprises lurking around every corner (Though I must admit, not all of them seem pleasant at first!). For example, it was by shear accident that I found wool had properties that could aid in chemical processing. Though it seemed like a human error in the beginning, after rigorous examination, it turned out to be true opening up a whole new avenue in my PhD and also my talk for the event! Sustainability being the main aim of the research has also led to making sure that the research methodology also addresses the aim by being more responsible about energy consumption and chemical inventory resulting in reduction of waste generation for the length of the project.


My research summed up in a picture




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

PS: In addition to being a women centric platform for public engagement, I felt that the format of the event was really unique. The concept of having to reach out to the general public and grab their attention is a bit of a challenge but also exciting. It opens up an opportunity to tailor the talks according to the audience gathered round and also helps in answering specific questions on the spot.

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

PS: Knowledge exchange!



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

PS: Today, the entire world is doing quality research in a broad range of subject areas. However, technology transfer to industries is happening at a very slow pace resulting in an eternal gap between research organisations and industries.  Research output should not be restricted to just the number of publications, but should also demonstrate how it is helping solve a problem in real time.

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

PS: The path leading to a career in academia may seem like an endless tunnel. One has to be committed, hardworking, optimistic and extremely passionate about the journey to see the light at the end of it. It takes a million failed attempts to get a break through in research and if you can pick yourself up after every failed attempt and see it through, welcome aboard!


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We need to inspire people to follow the career path they want to: Meet Nicola Bailey

Dr Nicola Bailey, University of Bath, is taking part in Soapbox Science Bristol on Saturday July 15th 2017 with a talk called: “How do you get a robotic arm to have precise and predicable small-scale motion?”






SS: How did you get to your current position?

NB: I started my mathematics undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham in 2007. During this time I developed an interest using maths to model complex engineering problems, working on ‘real world issues’ was what really interested me. An undergraduate scholarship led to a research project working on optimising jet engine components. I found this project really rewarding and I was lucky enough to continue with the group for my PhD where we teamed up with Roll Royce who actually make the jet engines for many of the commercial airlines.

Although the PhD was hard work, I knew by this point that I wanted to continue doing research so I applied for an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Doctoral Prize which allowed me to make my modelling more realistic. This prize gave me more independence from my supervisors, which is important for an academic career. By this time, I had been at Nottingham for 8 years and I decided it was time to move to a different university to experience a different perspective, so in 2015 I moved to the University of Bath as a research associate studying the precision control of robotic arms. This was a great experience and allowed me to expand into experimental work which was a new and enjoyable addition to my previous research using only simulations. Although relatively new to Bath I had great support from the staff in my department, particularly my manager and mentor and with their approval I applied for my first lecturer position at Bath and got it!



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

NB: From a young age, I have always been interested in understanding how and why things work as well as designing and constructing systems, from playing with mechano to building a bike to DIY projects at home. Following a career in science has allowed me to look at more complex systems that we encounter in everyday life and push the boundaries of these new technologies, through both theoretical and experimental work.



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

NB: For myself, the most fascinating aspect of my work is being able to bring to life an idea that I have or research an area of science that I find interesting and feel I can contribute to. My research focuses on improving the performance of new and existing technology. I love seeing my ideas taken from a theoretical concept through to implementation in a fully working mechanism. Last year I had a picture of an automated robotic arm in my head, and now it is fully constructed and moving automatically!



SS: What attracted you to soapbox science in the first place?

NB: There are a few reasons I wanted to take part in soapbox science but mainly I saw it as a chance to inspire people to follow the career path they want to. Many people’s idea of a mechanical engineer, an engineer or a scientist in a broader sense, is often far from the reality. I really enjoy what I do and if it wasn’t for people showing me from an early age the opportunities that are available in science I may have missed out! When I explain my research, I get asked a lot ‘how do you research Maths? Isn’t everything in Maths known? I hope this opportunity will help answer this question and give people an understanding of the research that can be undertaken! I also hope that I will be able encourage the younger generations to go for the courses, jobs and careers that they want to do and your age, gender or social background doesn’t matter!



SS: Sum up in one work your expectations for the day.




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

NB: As an academic, I think science is a great fantastic to work. Universities are great in that they have intelligent and driven individuals at all stages of life. One thing I would love to see would be an equal representation of gender in all fields, and that goes both ways. I believe there are stigmas for women attached to subjects like maths and engineering, just as there are for men in areas wrongly considered the domain of women. To bring balance we need to start at the most fundamental levels, at home and in school. However vital work is also needed to stop the high rates of attrition we see professionally. I would love for people to follow their interests and do what they want to regardless of their gender, background, or social situation. We are definitely moving in the right direction but there is much more to be done.

I also feel a big problem for scientists is the frequently large gaps they experience between finishing their PhD and obtaining a permanent contract. For example, highly qualified scientists, working at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world are having to repeatedly apply for contracts that can last less than a year. This coupled with the highly stressful politics of grant and paper authorship (lead authorships are essential for survival) can outweigh the benefits of an academic career. This instability, both in a personal and career sense causes us to lose some of the otherwise promising early career researchers.



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

NB: Go for it!

An academic career can be hard work, both while pursing your first lectureship and after having achieved it. You will have to dedicate a lot of time, effort and be willing to put in long hours when you need to, but I would rather have a job I love and that stimulates me than one that is easy! Academia can be very rewarding, for example when your students succeed, you obtain an important/interesting result or get a breakthrough. The advantage of academia is that you have more freedom in research compared to industry jobs, and can manage multiple research projects in different areas which are within your interest.

What worked for me was working consistently, minimising procrastination and too many coffee breaks/late starts. Finding good supervision and mentorship (which was more luck than judgement) was also key to my success.



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