Several months after taking part in I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here, I still wish it hadn’t ended! When I signed up to take part I had no idea what to expect, however in retrospect I can honestly say it was one of the best things I have ever done. Here I would like to record my impressions of the event to encourage other undecided scientists to have a go, or even to provide encouragement and a friendly smile for signed-up scientists nervously waiting for their first questions!
I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here is what happens when science class meets the X-factor. It is a science outreach education and engagement online event where school students get to meet and interact with scientists. Students submit questions to the scientists, which the scientists try to answer by the next day. The students also challenge the scientists by asking more questions in real time over incredibly intense online live chats. The students then vote for their favourite scientist and the scientist with the fewest votes is evicted, X-factor style, every day of the second week, to just leave the winner on the final day.
Every scientist creates a profile, which forms the basis for the students’ questions. My profile included information ranging from information about my work (an introduction to nanoscience) to my favourite food (pizza, of course!). The other four scientists in my zone worked on topics ranging from nutrition, to biomedical research on blood vessels and cancer, to nuclear safety.
Over the two week event I fielded hundreds of questions on every science topic imaginable, such as what are the smallest particles?, what happens if you fall into a black hole?, what is at the bottom of the ocean?, why is the Earth round?, and what happens when we die?.
I genuinely loved answering all the questions, and ended up spending far more time than I thought I would on them, trying hard to make my answers as interesting and engaging as possible. But it’s the live chats that, I think, really make the event so successful. The chats are intense, frantic and absolutely wonderful, and I finished each one as high as a kite.
In a typical chat session, a class of about twenty students fire off their own individual questions in quick succession (or all at once!), and two or three scientists type maniacally as if their lives depend on it, as they try to answer as many as possible within the allotted time. There is no time to google, no time to read the other scientists’ answers, no time even for a gulp of coffee – the only way to survive eviction is to keep typing to try to churn out answers as fast as possible. Each of the 30 minute chats just flew by and every time I was hugely disappointed when the allotted time came to an end, the chat room closed on another inspiring chat, and I emerged dazed and disorientated from whichever school’s classroom I had been virtually inhabiting.
Almost all of the classes were brilliant and were a genuine pleasure to talk to. A few chats will remain in my mind as some of the most inspiring thirty minutes of my life: in one, the students were extremely energetic and excited about my research and asked some incredibly insightful questions about nanoscience and potential experiments and applications; in another chat, lots of students asked for advice about how to follow a career in nanoscience, including some newly-enthused students who said they had previously hated science and “never saw the point”; in another, the scientists fielded a range of questions about things that were clearly very important to them (can teenagers get pregnant, would a baby born to a teenage mum be healthy, and can get teenagers get HIV). It was clear that these students perceive a real lack of reliable, factual, information on these topics.
Throughout the event it was fascinating to find out what science issues really matter to the students. I feel that this is one of the reasons this event is so successful: the question and answer format allows the students to lead the discussions in whichever direction they are most interested. This then allows the scientists to learn about the issues that really matter to young people, too.
I especially appreciated being able to join in and chat with the kids from the other side of the world, although this did present additional challenges. Online chats until 1:30 am while having to be in the lab at 9 am the following day did make the event even more exhausting than it otherwise might have been! And I was usually the last of the scientists to approach the questions as they were posted online in the middle of the Japanese night.
So what did I learn from the event?
Well, I feel like I had a refresher crash course in science as a whole, and I finished the event feeling thoroughly reinvigorated about science. Having the opportunity to take a step back from my everyday lab duties to view science from afar has made me look at my research in a more connected and synergistic way. I was invigorated by the students’ vivid imaginations, still uncurbed by class after class spent learning symbols and equations.
If I take anything away from this event it is that I want to be more like my 12 year old self: imaginative and incredulous. I want to bottle that naivety, energy, and imagination, and pour the resultant heady cocktail into my research endeavours, to not be afraid to tackle the really big questions, and to always ask why.
I’ve remembered why I truly love science, and why I have the best job in the world. And I’ve learned that it’s even more fun to share it with others!
Since returning to my usual lab duties, I feel as if something huge and important is missing from my day. I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here has everything a public engagement event should have, and it has it in spades. I just hope they’ll let me come back next year!