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I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!

UntitledWhen I first heard about I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! I thought it just sounded like a fun and easy way of engaging in some student outreach whilst never having to leave my desk.. But it turned out to be both challenging and rewarding in equal measure!

For those of you who haven’t come across IAS!, it is a 2 week competition partly modelled on TV talent shows and mainly supported by the Wellcome Trust. It is split up into zones of 5 scientists working on a broadly similar theme, who then fight it out answering questions submitted on the website and taking part in live chat sessions with whole classrooms of school children. In the second week a scientist is voted off by the students every day until a champion is decided, who is then rewarded with £500 to spend on further outreach work.

As a lowly first year PhD student I wasn’t sure I’d even be selected, but sure enough I soon found myself assigned to the ‘Sustaining Health’ zone, alongside opponents including an experienced professor and a post-doc at JIC (set up perfectly for a local rivalry!). The first task was setting up a social media style profile page for the students to read about my research. As anyone who has attempted science outreach with children can confirm, it is surprisingly hard to describe your work without using technical language or presumed knowledge.. In the end I just made sure to include lots of interesting pictures of microscopy and impressive equipment (and even some fancy dress from the Christmas party!).

As the event started the first few questions started to be posted online, which soon became a steady stream each day. Fortunately most were either easy to answer or interesting to research, although as many of them were asked to the whole zone there was an added incentive to reply first and earn extra brownie points with the students. The real fun started with the live chats however.

These had been booked by the teachers in advance, and although I could not do all of them due to lab commitments I still took part in one or two every day over the fortnight. The 30 minute chats were fast and frantic (especially on a few occasions when I was the only scientist available!), and varied massively depending on how much the teacher and moderators paced the session. Often I found myself typing away faster than I have since my days as a teenager on MSN messenger! I was surprised by how much I could actually answer easily, although I’ll admit that google was my friend when it came to looking up half-remembered facts and figures.

The questions were often thought-provoking, or simply hilarious, but a few topics cropped up again and again. Due to my research area I was often asked what the deadliest bacteria is (I usually went with TB); but the kids also seemed extremely interested in areas such as space and possible missions to Mars, when the world might end (a little macabre), the future of cloning, and the existence of alien life. They were also very curious about our scientific background, such as what subjects we enjoyed at school and when we decided to become scientists. Of course not all the questions were so cerebral, with some of my favourite random queries including:

  • What are the disadvantages of the world being flat?
  • Where would you put the carrot in terms of importance for sustaining the growing population?
  • Do you like cows?
  • Is your profile picture actually your real face?
  • What does Lizard DNA look like?
  • What’s your favourite cheese?

And that is only a selection of the best I can remember!

When I started the competition I was primarily hoping that I simply wouldn’t be the first scientist evicted. So it was a pleasant surprise to survive to the final day, up against a PhD student studying UV-light purification of drinking water. He had developed an ingenious strategy of pre-preparing interesting science facts to produce in any lulls in questions during the live chats (which I of course immediately bemoaned as cheating to the rest of my office but secretly wished I’d come up with first), which seemed to impress the students immensely. So it came as quite a shock to find out at the end of the final day that I had been voted the winner of the zone!

It is quite gratifying to find that my science communication skills seemingly appealed to the students, but to be honest the fun was really in the taking part (pardon the cliché). I plan to donate the prize money to some science education charities working in developing countries, as I am sure they will find better uses for it than any scheme I concoct myself.

As Duncan Gaskin was victorious in a Food Science zone a few years ago, IFR now has a strong track record in IAS!. I highly recommend anyone who is considering options for interesting communications work to consider giving the competition a shot. It was hectic and challenging but the most fun outreach I have done by far, and I immediately missed it when I returned to my normal work schedule!

The next I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here event will run from the 15th to 26th June 2015, and applications to take part are already open, with a deadline on the 3rd May. The zones have not been announced yet, but there will almost certainly be at least one relevant to IFR science plus a number of general science zones. Visit http://imascientist.org.uk/ to find out more!

By Samuel Ellis, a 1st year PhD student in Stephanie Schuller’s lab.