“What makes white blood cells white?”
“Why does vaccination sometimes cause symptoms?”
“Do scientists have religious views?”
“Why do we cry?”
Twice a year, schoolchildren across the UK take a break from their science lessons to live-chat online with real scientists. I’m a Scientist, get me out of here is an outreach event funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the MRC and the Wellcome Trust, designed to give primary and secondary school students the chance to learn more about scientific research and careers.
I was selected to be one of six scientists in the Wellcome Trust’s “Immune Zone” in March 2018. For two weeks, we logged on each day to field questions from eager students. Besides these live chats, students could post additional questions on a message board. They left comments on each other’s questions and soon simple topics led to profound discussions. Students voted throughout for their favourite scientists and, after the first week, scientists with the least votes were evicted. By the final day of the event, over nine hundred students had voted and only three scientists remained.
As you’d expect, questions ranged from the simple to the prodigious – and sometimes ridiculous. Students were eager to learn more about our work: cancer, immune therapies, gene editing. They were imaginative and probing and curious. Beyond the technical questions, many students wanted to know what it was like to be a scientist: most of them had never considered research as a career. My fellow-scientists – all of whom worked at biotech and pharma companies – made the life of a scientist seem exciting and engaging. Meanwhile, I explained higher education and the trials and delights of doing a PhD (“Will you win a Nobel Prize when you’re done?” one student asked).
Throughout all the frantic chats, clever questions, insightful comments and corny jokes, one thing was clear: so many students were fascinated by science. Understanding why that passion dwindles will be key to addressing the shortage of STEM students at UK universities. If just one of my answers in I’m a scientist encouraged someone to keep working hard at science, then participating was worthwhile.
Some of my favourite moments were when the other scientists and I had the chance to discuss a topic and share our knowledge, each contributing our own expertise to answer a complex question. I never expected to be reading about black holes and blood cells at midnight or chatting to thirty teenagers all at once, but it was a thrilling diversion from my lab work! Logging on to see the latest students’ questions became a highlight of my day. My colleagues in the lab learnt to put up with me even when I was urgently asking them what makes white blood cells white or why humans evolved to cry.
To students and researchers interested in outreach, I would strongly recommend applying for I’m a scientist. It’s a hugely rewarding experience which reminded me why I love science: successful scientists don’t need to be geniuses or know all the answers or even wear a white coat – they need to be passionate.
I was delighted, at the end of the competition, to be voted the winner of the Immune Zone. I was awarded £500 to spend on science outreach. I’m going to start a biology podcast devoted to the practice and ethics of gene editing, bringing ideas from synthetic biology to the classroom. We’re currently preparing to record in several schools near Oxford. Keep your eyes peeled for the finished episodes later this year!
You can find out more about I’m a Scientist and apply to join at https://imascientist.org.uk/.