By Daniela Lobo, PhD Student, University of Warwick
Shortly after I started my PhD, someone told me that I would be able to explain my project to any audience if I could explain it to a 13-year-old. Children can act very similarly to scientists – they are often curious, stubborn and inquisitive. Children ask you the awkward questions. Children won’t easily drop the “why?” until things make sense to them.
I am based in the Biophysical Chemistry group at the University of Warwick – among other things, we are interested on the chemical and optical properties of a virus and how to design and modify it to explore certain cardiovascular phenomena or how to use it as a new platform for pathogen detection. Sometimes I find it difficult to explain my project to other scientists and I often find it necessary to draw or move my hands around to do so – explaining it to a child via a computer could prove to be an extremely difficult task for me.
Being aware of my personal struggle to communicate science, I tried a few outreach events. One of these was the online event ‘I’m a scientist, get me outta here’. This event happens several times a year and is aimed at secondary-school students. It happens over 10 days, during which young students and scientists virtually come together to talk about science. This interaction happens as live text-chat sessions and in a forum where students can ask scientists their most burning questions. The surprise factor here is a major excitement rather than an obstacle – the questions can take any form and be pretty much about anything. The real struggle often comes from finding simple terms to describe a complex biological or chemical phenomenon.
I took part in an event this summer, and I was assigned to the ‘antibiotic zone’. There are 5 scientists per zone, and these can be about specific topics (for example, when I took part, there was a zone for ecology, parasites and cells) or more general science zones. It’s the teachers and students of the schools taking part on the event that do the selection of the scientists – they pick the scientists they think have the most interesting “one sentence description of your work”. From the moment you receive the email confirming you got selected, everything happens quite fast– there is no time to panic about what you have just signed up for! One of the first things you need to do is set up a profile with some CV-like academic information, and you are encouraged to talk a bit more about yourself by answering questions like “Who inspired you to become a scientist?”, “How is your typical day at work?”, “What’s your favourite food and singer?”, “If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?”, etc. I suppose one of the main goals here is to sound less intimidating, and to be transparent – scientists are not necessarily geniuses during secondary school and don’t necessarily have it all figured out yet.
From day 1 of the event, I divided my time between the lab and at the desk answering a range of questions from some very curious students – some really interested in science and pursuing a career as a scientist, others still figuring it out and looking for some sort of guidance. The questions could be anything from “How do you modify the DNA of your viruses?” to “I’m failing science; do you have any advice?”. The whole event bubbled with creativity and enthusiasm! At night, when I was going through the newest questions posted at the forum, I was filled with the exciting anticipation of learning something new from the students once again.
So, are you afraid of the odd question at a poster session, or of not being able to explain chemistry principles to physicist during a presentation? My advice is to practice with a 13-year-old!
If you are a scientist and would like to find out about taking part in a future ‘I’m a scientist, get me outta here’ event you can find out more details of how to apply on the organisers website. The event is open to scientists at all stages in their careers and from all employers including academia, industry and Government/the public sector.