Sunday, 24 March 2013

Get me out of here!

What a great couple of weeks it's been and finally I now have a chance to rest. My fingers are aching from typing so much and my brain hurts from puzzling over hundreds of queries. After participating in "I'm a scientist, get me out of here", was it all worthwhile?

The gloves are off

The first week started as a bit of fun, chatting to some kids and quite simply being amazed by the variation of questions that kept popping up on the screen. As the second week began however, things started to get a little more serious.

The fairly sedate pace of the first week saw 3 live chat sessions spread out over the 5 days. By comparison, at the end of the second Tuesday another 4 chat sessions were done. And the end of Tuesday meant it was time for the first eviction. It was Jon that fell at the first hurdle. He admitted that his demise was probably attributed to missing that day's chats due to work. The loss of a fellow scientist made the event suddenly all so real. Could I afford to miss a question so I had time to purify some protein? Could I afford to delay purifying some protein so I had time to answer more questions?

Get me out of hereWednesday saw the loss of Yalda. We had all been in the chats, we had all been quick to get a share of the all important (or not so) first response to questions posted online. So what had made the difference this time? No eye contact in her profile picture was the best suggestion I heard. Did the students want short, straight answers, did they want some humour? Was a question as a reply the best way to engage them, or would a detailed essay be preferred? My guess was a good mix of it all and that's what I went for, although not the easiest thing to pull off.

4 chats were scheduled for Thursday; it was going to be a busy day. The culmination was an exchange with an all girls school, that included arguments over animal testing and inquiries into how many children we all wanted. This may have been the deciding factor of why Claire was next to leave.

So, I was in the final! It was now just me and a fellow PhD student Jack. I was so relieved to have made it through to the end. But after coming so far, my only thoughts were now on the win. Jack obviously felt the same, with some (fairly light) fighting talk on Twitter.

The winner of the Drug Development zone is...

After 2 weeks of grilling the scientists, asking questions that they either never dared or never had the chance to in normal classes and actually getting to know the scientists with some (sometimes too) personal questions, the winners were undoubtedly the students. What a fantastic event it has been, with great credit of course going to the organisers and moderators who kept everything running smoothly. Hopefully I have played some small part in sparking the students' interest in science and maybe even hooking a few in for life.

The results of the all the zones were announced one by one in the "staffroom" on the website, with many of the nervous scientists then expressing their joy and congratulations to their peers. After finishing off the nails on all my fingers, the Drug Development zone was the last to be declared. Jack and I had made that final push for the student votes, there were no more questions to answer and no more opinions to sway. The votes were counted. It was a tie! Equal votes, both winners. A wonderful end to a brilliant event. We congratulated each other and now both have the chance to use the £500 prize for further outreach events. So again, the real winners are the students.

The scheme is running again in June and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to get experience explaining theories and concepts to a different audience or just wanting a break from talking to their boring old professor.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

I'm a scientist...

After a week of struggling to answer mind-bending questions and not pass out in manic live chats, I've come to the conclusion that 13 year-olds are actually a fairly intelligent and extremely inquisitive bunch.

Like X factor for scientists

I'm a scientistI was picked to be part of the national on-line event "I'm a scientist, get me out of here"! It's an excellent initiative run 3 times a year, where school kids can literally ask a scientist anything they want.

The event has been running for a few years and this March they have 11 zones each with 25 school classes, which means a lot of kids to contend with. The places for scientists were 6 times oversubscribed and this time they have added more zones in an attempt to accommodate more schools. It's popular, but why?

I've been involved in outreach programs before. I've helped out at Uni open days and demonstrated experiments for school kids coming in. A year ago I took part in (the now defunct) Researchers in Residence, where I went into a year 11 class for a number of weeks. During this time I talked to them about my work, arranged for a trip for them into university and naturally tried to encourage them all to become scientists. These schemes were great at showing children a human side to science and allowing them to see what a university and an actual "scientist" are really like. This is where I'm a scientist excels.

The kids get to post questions on the website and then bombard us with yet more in the live chats. Most so far are real science queries with most of them based on drugs (me being in the Drug Development zone). The real novelty of this project however, is that in the following week I may be kicked out. Every day the children will vote for their favourite scientist out of our group of 5; who answered their questions best, who sounded most intelligent or simply who told the best joke. At the end of each day one will leave and by Friday only one will remain victorious held aloft by their teenybopper fans.

Hello why do you like science

So the kids can connect with scientists and ask all the questions they never get to in their normal science lessons. But as I said, not all of the questions are sciencey. The others include gems such as, "waffles or pancakes?" and "how tall are you?". But these questions are equally important as they allow the scientists to become real, human people. We are not a bunch of deranged lab rats nor are we an elitist, higher intelligence (even if I'd like to think so sometimes). Connecting with the school children through these silly questions lets them see us for what we really are; just like them. With this in mind, hopefully they will realise that science is for them and in a few years they'll be the ones changing the world and inspiring the next generation.

As for me, I'm thoroughly enjoying the experience. I've answered all the questions I could and even answered some that I had no idea about before. My enthusiasm for science and engagement has rocketed and my lab work has suffered immensely. But with my supervisor away this next week I may get a little obsessed answering questions and reading ones from the different zones, that is unless I get evicted...

Friday, 1 March 2013

Posting a winning formula

Last week the Masters students in Leeds presented posters on their work as part of their degree course. For the few weeks beforehand (yes it took them a few weeks) they were mostly hidden away behind a computer changing fonts, images, headings and references until they had something resembling a five-year-old's first attempts at potato printing.

Winning is not so blue and white

After a little bit of tweaking, arguments over font size and drastically changing the colour scheme, the butterfly finally emerged from its chrysalis. But no, they were not actually all that bad, especially for a first attempt. Few people realise how difficult it is to make something scientifically accurate and also visually stimulating.

As an example, below are 2 posters that came out of my lab from PhD students. So which do you think won a prize when presented at a conference?

Better poster?
Best poster?

To put you out of your misery, the answer is both. Both designs won best poster awards at different meetings. But they are obviously quite different. Nature Journal believes a good poster could "change your career", so what is the secret formula for success?

Well in my opinion the poster on the left looks a lot better. It has more colour, lots of different images, not much writing and easy to follow sections for different parts of the presentation. But I would say all this, as I created it. By contrast, the poster on the right has a lot of small writing, it's very white and appears overly crowded. But they both were winners.

They both do have many images and diagrams, they both have a fair amount of data presented and they are both blue, not so different as it might first seem. A poster has to be eye-catching in some way or at least grab your attention for long enough so that you read a few lines and get hooked. From then on in it has to be ordered, easily understood, not overloaded with information and with a few pretty pictures thrown in for good measure.

The designer of the right poster is also one of the best talkers that I know. She can talk about anything and make it sound interesting (even her research). And this is a great skill that you can't show on a piece of paper. Being able to verbally communicate with your audience, to not confuse them or bore them, is vital. Knowing your audience and being able to change the language you use and the way you describe things can really make the difference. This might be between someone just saying hi to be polite as they quickly walk past, or being drawn in by a few well chosen words.

Teacher knows best

So back to the masters students. It took me a lot of effort to convince one student that brown and pink perhaps didn't make the most pleasing of background colours. The text was cut down by half; no one wants to stand there for an hour reading. We removed the empty white space by increasing image sizes and rearranging text boxes. And I even got my name squeezed into the acknowledgements. But I did fail to make him increase the font size, even after much pleading and threatening to sabotage his work. It was perfectly readable on the computer screen, but when printed and up on a large stand he admitted that you probably get a better view if you don't have to stand with your face 10 cm from the board.

Being bold and confident in your abilities is great. And in the end you have to be comfortable with what you've produced otherwise you won't be able to talk about it effectively. But one thing I've learned over the last few years, is that I don't always know best (many will be amazed to hear me say this). Take advantage of any help you can get. Use other people's knowledge. Seek a different opinion. Do this and you will better yourself. I never thought poster design could be so philosophical.