As a PhD who is enthusiastic about public engagement, I decided to get involved with a project called Soapbox Science. The initiative: a group of environmental scientists braving the elements in Manchester to present our research.
Soapbox science is a public outreach enterprise which encourages female scientists to engage with the general community through explaining their research while wearing a lab coat and standing on a box! The initiative focusses on female scientists, providing a platform (quite literally) to promote scientific research and explain why they love it. The events run by soapbox science turn public areas, including the Southbank in London and areas in Newcastle, Exeter and Manchester, into a stage for interactivity and learning through science. All the events involve scientists volunteering their time to educate the general public on their research area. Each of the events have specific themes geared towards different sciences. As my research focuses on soil contamination and how biochar (charcoal) can remediate contaminated land, I spoke at the environmental sciences event.
A fellow University of Nottingham PhD student and I arrived in Manchester and the nerves really set in. Upon meeting everyone we calmed down somewhat, after all, we would only be stood on a soapbox, in the centre of Manchester, wearing a lab coat and potentially struggling for words… how stupid could we possibly look? There was a great range of scientists from poo specialists (who had poo smelling activities which were fantastic!) to soil scientists researching the devastating Chernobyl disaster. The first few soapboxers had a strong amount of interest from a range of passersby, allowing them to explain the concepts and their research in an extremely interactive way. I nervously stood by watching the others successfully and fluidly present their work. Everyone was having a great time: the presenters, the public and the other scientists waiting to go on, everyone learning more about different aspects of environmental science.
The first two hours went by without hitch, but as the third and final hour approached (the time in which I would take to the stage) the heavens opened… and it was almighty… just my luck. The rain did not stop us in our mission to present our research, as every scientists secretly think our research is the most important, despite our interest in other research areas. Some scientists may contend this but, to concentrate on such a niche subject, you’ve got to think it’s a pretty hot topic. Ignoring the rain, the whole team pulled together to ensure the final research topics were presented. A friend of mine came to my aid providing me shelter of an umbrella, while I tried to enthuse drenched people with biochar. The fascinating ancient agricultural nature of biochar and the many impacts on climate change, soil fertility, plant yield and remedial properties meant I managed to sell it fairly well and gathered a bit of interest. I have to admit, it did take me time to get into the swing of it, and the rain meant less passersby, so I was caught a bit off guard when someone was interested. Despite this, I had a great time and spoke to some people who seemed extremely interested in my work making me feel like I had an impact!
As the final hour drew to a close, the soggy scientists headed for a coffee to discuss the events of the day. The atmosphere around the coffee table was extremely positive. Despite the squelching feet we all had a great day, met some interesting people and felt we made an impact on how the public view scientists- success! We wanted to make it clear anyone can do science, no matter what background, and we felt like we achieved this. The day highlighted how public engagement is an extremely important aspect of science. The enjoyment I get from communicating science, coupled with how important I feel it is has, has spurred me on to get involved in other projects such as ScienceGrrl. Science engagement is extremely important in preventing the alienation of scientists from the general public. If the public understand what we do, why it’s important and why we love it, the public opinion on stuffy, mad scientists may be a thing of the past. Demolishing the current scientist stereotype can only benefit science by encouraging more inquisitive minds to wander towards the STEM subjects and potentially produce some ground-breaking research!
The University of Nottingham