By Nikita Hari
Soapbox Science is a truly innovative roadshow where research takes to the roads, where public spaces are transformed into arenas of scientific learning, engagement and inspiration. Starting with the vision to transform and challenge the perceptions of people about scientists – showing them how fascinating women scientists are and how learning science could be fun, this initiative has come a long way. This year, it was hosted in 13 locations across UK and Cambridge was witness to its first Soapbox Science event this year on July 2nd at the Market Square!
Let me take you through my Soapbox Science Journey…
I’m a Doctoral Scholar in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, Social entrepreneur, Science Communicator and Stem Ambassador. When I heard of this event, I thought it was just like the other outreach events I have done – little did I know when I was applying to this that I would need to ‘stand in the market and sell my research’. And little did I know then, that I had the courage to enthusiastically shout in front of strangers, successfully grab their attention and get them interested in ‘electric power!’
I applied to speak at this event in Feb 2016 and one fine morning in March I received the email congratulating me on being selected as one of 11 scientists from the University from a big pool of applicants. The run up to the event was exciting and productive. From a training event in London to discussions, media talks and meet up sessions in Cambridge, these informal meetings helped me understand more about other women researchers, their fields of work, aspirations and vision. From PhDs, to Post-Docs to Professors, they were the most passionate and vibrant women in science I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with! I thank Soapbox Science for making this happen – for giving me this amazing platform to connect with these fantastic women!
Let me walk you through my world of GaN Power Electronics …
In simple words, I work on improving the way ‘electric power’ is used by the world! As you all know, the world deals day in and day out with electrical power conversion— trillions of adjustments are made daily to deliver electricity from wall outlets to virtually any electronic device. And I research the systems that do this converting –called ‘Power Electronic Converters’, mostly built using silicon. On average, these converters are only 90 percent energy-efficient and the rest is lost as heat between a plug and whatever a converter is powering. These losses cost us billions every year and this problem, though astronomical, remains invisible to the common man.
So basically, I’m on a quest to explore a better way of converting this ‘power’ through -Gallium Nitride which is poised to jumpstart the next generation of smaller, faster, denser and efficient power converters. I’m passionate about my work as it directly influences the world – our way of life with electric power is everywhere and thus I can make a tangible contribution to the advancement of science and sustainability of the world. Since it was all about electricity which is ubiquitous, I decided to use picture posters to get my idea across.
On the morning of July 2nd, I felt a little nervous, it suddenly hit me that this kind of science talk was totally alien to me. I had to actually stand in the market and get the people who have come to buy fruits and fish to buy my ‘GaN’… – seemed like rocket science …a science I wasn’t familiar with …!
The event was scheduled from 12-3pm and each speaker was allotted one hour to engage with the public from the soapbox. As my slot was from 1-2 pm, I arrived early to breathe in the air of the market and to listen to the first four speakers. I felt at ease as I saw the market sprawling with people, many people and kids gathering around the soapboxes … the soapbox volunteers …. journalists…. it was all very exciting….
I made myself at ease near my stand by 1 pm with a delicious coffee offered by my sweet and very supportive volunteer Sarwat Howe. As I put on the white coat and climbed on to the soapbox with my talk ‘Electric Power Knows No Gender, Science Knows No Gender’, my heart was thumping, but I was proud and happy as well … it was a cocktail of emotions running through my head! Coming from a very small town of Kadathanad in Kerala to addressing the public at the market square of the historical University of Cambrigde, I realised I have come a long way. It struck me then, that this was one lucky and beautiful moment of my life that I would always be proud of – my nervousness was gone and I was ready to bang on….!
The first few minutes were tough as I had a fantastic company of speakers drawing audience and my initial awkwardness to shout from the market did not help me. But 15 minutes in and I was in the game. I was delighted and engrossed and found different ways and means to engage with the passers-by. It was only when the next speaker lined up that I realised my time was up! I bid goodbye to the market square emphasising ‘I’m not a Super-Woman, If I can Do It, You Can Do It Too …!! I thank my sponsors – my ever supportive Churchill College, IOP Physics East Anglia and STFC, my friends Karen, Alina and Sarwat Howe for making this happen for me!
From electricity, marshmallows, butterflies, bees, dancing plants, balloons to polarising glasses and more… the market square was beaming with scientific curiosity, discussions and excitement. From Biologists, Meteorologists, Chemists, Physicists to Engineers, the air was filled with various scientific revelations, thoughts and demonstrations. Though the weather turned wild for few minutes, the rains did not let down the spirit of the final slot of speakers, the show continued till 3 pm as planned.
After the event, we gathered at the David Attenborough building to celebrate the success of the day! It was a great team effort – the fabulous organising committee led by Dr.Alison to all the wonderful volunteers played their part sincerely to make this happen. I thank them on behalf of all the speakers and wish Soapbox Science all success in the years to come. May you continue to inspire and encourage young minds into science and expose many fantastic women scientists to the world!