Monday, 28 March 2011

Reflections on "I'm a Scientist"

“I’m a Scientist” finally ended last Friday with victory for Adam in the Space zone. (Commiserations to Sheila, a valiant effort). I managed to last until the second last eviction in the Space Zone (making me third in our zone), and I think it’s about time I reflected on my experience in the competition and some lessons I learned from it.

Sorry all, this is going to be a long one...

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d just like to say that overall I have learned many things from this competition and while I had my ups and downs, overall I think it was a positive experience. There were times when I really did get a buzz from it, when students thought my research was great or when they realised that I’m just a normal person – especially so with some of the female students who realised that I was just as ‘girly’ as them!

From the feedback I’ve had from teachers it is a hugely positive thing for students, so what I say below is trying to be fair and balanced. I’m writing this the week after the event after some reflection. These are the lessons I learned which will help to inform me in my future science communication activities. I hope they might be useful to others!

Before you read below… I get that it’s a point of the competition that students learn that scientists don’t know everything and that we specialise in our own area. I also get that the un-confrontational nature of online communication helps the quieter students to ask questions that they might not otherwise, which I think is fantastic.

I came into this event without many expectations, but I’ve come away from it having learned a lot about online communication and my priorities as both a scientist and a communicator. I enjoyed it and for that reason I’d like to thank to the organisers for what is a hugely popular and successful event.

Lesson 1: Be realistic about time commitment

On the surface, two hours a day didn’t seem like a huge time commitment, and I thought that I’d do one half-hour chat a day (in my ‘break’ time) and fit in the questions from students in the evening. But let me tell you right now, it doesn’t work like that. To have any chance of really engaging with the students I found I needed to dedicate as much time as possible. This was no surprise as others have pointed out, but this meant attending every chat I could (though I didn’t attend all of them) and answering every offline question.

Forget about having a life in the evenings, I was on the couch with my laptop dredging up long-forgotten facts from my undergraduate days. Any less and I have no doubt that I’d have been evicted first round!

Lesson 2: The pros and cons of competitions

I’m going to be intentionally controversial here to see what people think: I don’t see why this needs to be a competition. I understand the argument that it makes it more real for the students, putting them in control. However, I think the ‘money’ and the ‘voting’ detracts from the event and I’d even go so far as to say that this aspect is counter-productive. All the students seemed to want to do was chat and ask questions and giving them this ‘power’ to vote seemed to distract more than anything.

As a scientist I voluntarily gave up my time and energy to chat with these students and answer their questions. The £500 prize wouldn’t even cover my time for that period, let alone enable me to do a ‘serious’ outreach activity. My last outreach program cost £8000. 
I’m not saying I couldn’t do anything at all with £500 but honestly; is £500 enough for outreach which has any large, meaningful impact?

On the one hand it was interesting to try to get across to the students the fact that £500 isn’t a life-changing amount of money, but on the other hand, shouldn’t we have been chatting about science and life as a scientist?

Lesson 3: The importance of knowing your audience

Even with a huge time commitment I didn’t feel like I did many of the good questions justice… but there didn’t seem any way around this. I still have a job to do, but there are lots of students and lots of questions (some more relevant than others…)

There are inherent problems with online communication. Particularly with the offline questions I had no idea if I was answering to a 13 year old or a 19 year old. If there is one thing I know about communication it’s that knowing your audience is key. Yet in this case, 
I didn’t know my audience. This seemed like a barrier to good communication.

The online chats were better as we at least knew the age group of the students. These were sometimes fun and sometimes slightly irritating, but always fast-paced and hectic. I think this is where much of the real engagement happened as it really was two-way communication.

Lesson 4: Think about the wider implications (good and bad)

The good thing is that questions and answers by scientists are searchable and online after the event. I hope that this will lead to a wider engagement than just the students we chatted to, although I’m not sure that my hurried answers without reference or fact checking are really the best source of information! (Even if there are almost 300 of them.)

In one or two cases I actually went back and edited answers after some further reflection. I’m only human and can’t remember everything. But at the same time, I didn’t think the point of the competition was sitting on Google every evening finding answers to things I couldn’t remember, so I made an active decision not to do this as, surely, it doesn’t help anyone.

I fully expect some fallout from this event once other scientists discover and disagree with some of my answers. It’s only natural, since 99 percent of the factual questions asked were not things I would say I’m an expert in. This is OK, but it’s not something I thought about before I went into the event.

Lesson 5: How much experience is required?

If you are a scientist but the thought of getting up in front of a class of school kids makes your palms sweat with an extraordinary kind of fear, then I strongly urge you to register for “I’m A Scientist”. I have no doubt you’ll love it, and get a lot out of it!

I did get the impression that there were some very talented communicators amongst the scientists and it seemed a pity that some of their (obvious) talents were slightly wasted by being in an online event.

The event is a great opportunity to get more scientists communicating with students, which I think really ought to be the aim. It is important to make clear the level of experience required for an event, especially where less experience could mean a greater impact.

Friday, 25 March 2011

I'm A Scientist: back to reality

Well yesterday was my final day of "I'm A Scientist" as I was officially evicted from the Space Zone - no hard feelings though, making it to the last three seems to have been quite an achievement.

I'll follow this up with a longer post about how I found the competition, but for now I'd just like to thank the organisers who have obviously put in loads of hard work to get this competition to where it is now.

I better crack on with some work now, but from this point I'll be happy for either of Sheila or Adam to win. They have both been fantastic competitors and may the best woman win! (Oh, am I showing a preference there...?)

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

I'm a Scientist - still in!

I've managed to survive the second eviction! Quite surprising really, I thought my views on the ethics of shopping at Primark had ruined my chances.

Sad to see Geoff and Rob go, but hope to meet them both (along with the others) to perhaps work together on some outreach activities in the future.

I hope all the students are still interested and still voting. I'm not sure that quite as many of them vote in the latter stages of the competition, as they have to do it in their spare time.

It's been quite strange not having any live chats today in the Space Zone... I'm looking forward to a few more tomorrow.

Bring it on Adam & Sheila!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

I'm a scientist - evictions looming

We're just half an hour away from the first evictions in "I'm A Scientist"...

How am I feeling? Pretty good actually. There have definitely been highs and lows throughout the last week and a bit. Last night (as my blog post yesterday probably gets across) I was a bit sick of it and struggling to see the point. I concluded that the impact I was making was not big enough for the time I was spending on it and was almost even feeling a bit exploited by the whole enterprise.

I think the reason for this was because of the difficulty in communicating online. Communication is a two-way affair and while the students get some background information on us, I have literally no idea who I'm dealing with or their level of knowledge, let alone any clues to their personality. That makes the whole thing a lot more difficult... which I'm not used to because I'm used to dealing with this age group in person. It's a totally different experience and one that I was, I admit, struggling with a bit!

But then... I had some really lovely emails from teachers and some good feedback from scientists on twitter which were really encouraging. This morning I had two lovely chats which had some good questions and a good level of general banter... and now I find myself enjoying it again.

I'm starting to see the benefits of online communication - although it's harder for me it's probably easier for the students to be bold and ask questions that they wouldn't otherwise ask. I mean, where else are you going to ask that nagging question about how light travels through glass?

So I just wanted to say: I don't want to go out now... not as I've just started to enjoy myself!

But even if I do I think I've learned something. I will probably have more time to reflect on this in coming days, because I don't think I can win after outraging a group of teenage girls in a chat by saying that I think Primark has unethical trading practises... but I will try my hardest anyway!

There is  consolation if I'm evicted this afternoon though... as I'm currently getting prepped for a black-tie dinner in London tonight in the presence of HRH Prince Phillip.

But as I've been trying to tell the students, my life doesn't fit stereotypes. I'm not a middle aged male in a lab coat. I'm not a white haired professor. I'm just a normal person whose job is science. But then, just occasionally, even being a scientist can be a little bit glamorous...

EDIT: I haven't been evicted. Not today at least. So tonight shall now be a celebration. Woo!

Monday, 21 March 2011

I'm a scientist - the experience so far

A week has passed in "I'm A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here" and a LOT has happened.

So far, I've answered about 175 offline questions, everything from "are you married" to "What causes the nuclear strong force?" and just about every conceivable question in between. Some of these questions are really technical which took me by surprise. I was in two minds about whether to answer such technical questions, but made the effort in the end. After being dubious that the answers would even be read, it turns out that the students asking the technical questions are often the most switched on students - who have already told me they want to study particle physics at university! Well, at least they are voting for me.

The chats are not what I expected. I've worked a lot with students in this age group (11-17) and know what they can be like... but I somehow expected them to have a little more respect for the scientists who have given up their time to chat to them. Perhaps a bit more briefing is needed here? 

The students seem to think we're all in this for the money, which to them seems a life-changing amount but to me seems like small change compared to my previous outreach projects. There seems to be a lack of understanding as to why we're doing this, despite us answering questions along those lines, and I would be surprised if even half of the students have actually read our profiles! 

I asked one student if he had read my profile, and he said "nah, I've got more important things to do". I'm sorry mate, but I've got more important things to do than answer your completely irrelevant question about biology, I'm a physicist! (I know the idea is that the students learn that scientists don't know everything, but I do seem to be one of the only people who have adopted the "I don't google" approach - I answer with what comes to mind. I thought that was the point!)

The chats can be completely random, sometimes I really enjoy them and sometimes I wonder why I bother. I was almost upset the other day when one student just kept asking me the same question which I'd told them I didn't know anything about! But on the other hand, I've had some great questions in the chats about work/life balance and how my research will help people. I'm not sure how much the students get out of the chats, but I hope at least they are inspiring some new questions.

Heading in to week 2 I'm a lot calmer after having a weekend to reflect on the competition. There are a lot of great kids out there asking some truly interesting questions. But I've learned something: I now know for sure that my outreach talents are better used live on stage or on camera than behind a computer. After all, you can't substitute for almost a decade of experience.

And just quietly... I'm really looking forward to having time to do my proper work again!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

I'm a scientist - I've decided what to do if I win!!

After doing an online poll the two things you guys seemed to want was either to visit my lab or for me to buy a piece of equipment for your school. It’s easy to organise visits to my lab through the lab itself (STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) so instead I’ve decided to put the money towards YOUR science ideas!
The best 2 proposals I receive for science projects that need some money for a piece of equipment will WIN! 
All you need to do is to email:
And include the following information:
  • Project Title
  • A 300 word description of your project & why it’s important
  • What you’re going to spend the money on
  • Your name, school and some way to contact you (email is fine) to tell you if you’ve won!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

What to do with the IAS prize money?

If I win the I'm A Scientist Get Me Out of Here "Space zone" then I'll have £500 to spend on something outreach-y. Vote for what you think I should do with the money:


Thursday, 10 March 2011

I’m a Scientist... no thanks to you!

I never considered being a scientist at school. It wasn’t that I didn’t like science – I enjoyed doing chemistry, physics, psychology and mathematics because I found them easy. Unlike the humanities, the sciences were somehow intuitive to me. A friend once told me I should be a scientist, but only because she thought I looked good in a lab coat and safety glasses!

The problem was that whenever I saw a careers adviser the term “scientist” or “research scientist” never came up. It was always “engineer” of one form or another. I went to an all girls school near Melbourne, Australia, where the general consensus was that to have a respectable ‘profession’ anyone interested in science ought to be an engineer. Is this still the case? I’ve no idea. It might have been a failing of the specific careers adviser, but I never had any teachers suggest that research science was a viable career either.  Not once.  (Of course, I could have done engineering and gone into research that way, but no-one ever explained that to me either!)

To add insult to injury, I was actively deterred from studying science at university by my father. At the time, he was a high school maths teacher who had a brief spell doing a research Masters in Science (in artificial intelligence) as a mature age student. He never finished the Masters and became rather disillusioned with research in general*.

I blatantly lied to him at the end of school and told him that I didn’t get into the Engineering/Commerce double degree he wanted me to do because I didn’t have the marks. I did have the marks – but I never put it on my course preferences list. I chose an Engineering/Science double degree instead because somehow, I didn’t want to give up on that word “science” just yet. (If he reads this blog, I’ve just been found out!)

All was going well when I decided, after two years of university, to drop the engineering degree and only complete the science one. Sadly, my dad and I didn’t speak for years afterward because he thought I was making a mistake. To his credit, he was just trying to ensure that at the end of my studies there would be a job for me, and I can see how his own experience would lead him to discourage me from the action I took. At the time, though, I was taking a risk and following my heart. It wasn’t a light decision, but I was lucky to have an inspiring lecturer (Dr. Roger Rassool) to thank for giving me the courage to stick to my guns and do what I knew was right for me. After this, Roger and I did outreach together for years and he remains a good friend today.

Fast forward 6 years and shift from Australia to the UK, and I’m now the first in my family to have PhD and I’m lucky enough to have a highly sought-after research fellowship to pursue my research. I’m also glad to say that my Dad has finally realized that science was the right move for me after all.

So, to all of the students who I’ll be chatting to during “I’m a Scientist” I hope that whatever you want to do, you’ll follow your heart. Research science can be competitive and it can be tough but it is an interesting, challenging and ultimately rewarding career.

At the end of my days I’d like to be able to say I made a difference, that I made a contribution to human knowledge. After all, exploring and learning about the world is a part of being human. Be a part of that.

*On a positive note, after years running his own business my Dad recently went back to university as a mature age student and became a lawyer, top of his class, good on him!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

I'm a Scientist - Get Me Out of Here!

Take a few scientists, a massive group of school kids and an internet forum X-factor style competition. What do you get? The "I'm a Scientist" competition. I'm one of five scientists in this year's "Space Zone" and you can check out my competitors here.

There will be a bit of a takeover of my blog of my thoughts and impressions of the competition. So far, all I can say is I think its going to be tough. Now, as an Aussie I'm pretty competitive, but actually I don't need to win this one, because I think some of the others might appreciate the prize money (£500 towards outreach) more that I will. That said, I can unashamedly say: vote for me! 

What I'd like to get out of the competition is a consensus from the school students as to what they want from scientists like me. Do they want me to visit them at school? Do they want me to write a blog? Do they want me to leave them alone to get on with their exams!? I hope some of their questions will point me in the right direction, but I'm really looking forward to the live chats to do some 2-way science communication.

In the meantime I better get as much research done as I can, because from 14-25th March this thing might just take over my life!

You can follow the progress on Twitter with the #IAS2011 hashtag, or follow me at @suziesheehy.