For a fortnight this month I took part in a public engagement event called “I’m A Scientist… Get Me Out Of Here”. Although it involves a lot less insect-eating and outdoor living than the similarly named ITV show, it does involve a whole lot of stress over the course of two weeks.
The format of I’m a Scientist is simple: 13 zones with 5 scientists per zone. Schools can sign up and their students get the opportunity to ask us any (preferably science-themed) questions they like, and those asked then have to try and answer back in the best way we can. There are also ‘chats’, which are intensive 30 minute long chatroom-style sessions, where the scientists have to try and frantically answer as many questions as possible. During the first week the students get one vote. From then on, they get one vote per day, and one person gets eliminated per day in the second week. The winner gets a prize of £500 to put towards a science communication or outreach cause or project of their choice. To see what previous winners have used the cash for, see here
The questions sent into the ‘ASK’ section were variable, across many areas of plants (and biology in general), and really showed how intrigued young people are when they think about science. Admittedly, my zone, the Plant Zone, was rather quiet for the first week – receiving the lowest number of questions, with just a few per day. It did mean I had more time to think about each question though – which is probably a positive for those students who had taken the time to ask us.
Some questions were simple enough that the students could just type it into google and find an answer. However, often was the case that typing into google brought a minefield of faux-science websites and useless facts with no backing. Even though I had to resort to search engines a few times myself, I think I probably have enough experience that I was able to sift through the rubbish and bring the pupils genuine answers that I trusted, or at least explain what I’d found to them in a simpler way. Other questions drew on many parts of my now-forgotten undergraduate degree, and required a lot of digging through my memory to try and answer – but I loved the challenge of finding out what knowledge I have managed to retain in the years since.
Some of the students showed real thought in their questions – such as asking about the possibility of using plants or genetic modification to treat cancers, malaria, AIDS and mental illness. They also asked questions about our own work or the field that we work in. Our work is often on the cutting edge of science – something that the school curriculum is unlikely to be teaching them about. Other questions were a bit controversial – and required careful answering. One question asked about the possibility of a ‘gay gene’, whilst several students wanted to find out the truth about the effects of marijuana.
Lots of the students were also keen to know what inspired us to go into research, and why we loved our field so much. They wanted to know how long we had worked in science, what we studied before and what motivated us to follow this path. This sort of response from young people is always really positive to see – and hopefully our answers can motivate the next generation of scientists to continue in plant science, or even just science full stop.
The hardest part of the entire competition was definitely the live chats. Questions came in an unending onslaught, with little time to try and answer without leaving other pupils missing out on answers to their questions. Having touch-typing skills was invaluable in these chats, even if the sound of my keyboard did annoy the other people in my office (I did apologise profusely before every chat started). The only other part of the competition that came close to that level of stress was attempting to answer questions on a train using an iPhone. I definitely left the train with a bit of repetitive strain injury in the thumbs after that.
The evictions are seriously nerve wracking too. They got worse and worse as it went on – especially on the day that I had to spend out of the office, where I ended up answering questions everywhere I could – trains, tubes, walking through Central London, and attempting a chat in a cafe whilst utilising free wi-fi in constant fear of losing signal (or being chucked out by a barista). By some miracle, I still managed to get through that day – otherwise I would have had a very sad journey home!
I’m sure by this point you are desperate to know whether or not I won. I’m happy and proud to say that I did manage to win the Plant Zone of the competition. But this wasn’t without challenge. The four other scientists in my zone fought triumphantly, and in the end I’m sure it came pretty close. I wasn’t the only John Innes Centre scientists in the zone either – and Amelia, who came third, gave some amazing answers to the questions. When I decide what to use the winnings for, I will certainly be giving her a call to come join me. I haven’t yet decided what I will spend the £500 on, but I’m sure you will see a blog post here when I do. My next move will be to chat to our Public Engagement and Science Communication staff at the John Innes Centre to discuss what sort of opportunities that money could be put towards.
I would definitely encourage any scientists (of any level, not just PhDs) out there to apply to be a part of the the next I’m a Scientist competition. Although you have to be careful with time management and make sure your work won’t suffer being fit around the chats and answering questions, it is definitely worth that stress. I also feel like I have “met” several new scientists who, through the magic of twitter, I will stay in contact with and might even meet one day at another outreach event. Keep an eye out for zone announcements – there could be a zone that is perfect for your research.
For more information about the competition, or to get involved in the next competition (June 2014) visit http://imascientist.org.uk/, or tweet them at @imascientist
By Izzy Webb, a 2nd year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole