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Reality show meets scientists

This past spring, five researchers from the University of Edinburgh battled it out against scientists from across the UK in the inaugural round of “I’m a Scientist, Get Me out of Here!” With 25 scientists and around 2,000 high school students participating in its first round, this Wellcome Trust-funded event aims to make science and scientists more accessible to teenagers, and hopefully show that scientists are normal people, too!

The event lasts two weeks and takes place entirely through the “I’m a Scientist” website. The website is divided into ‘zones’, with five scientists each. Some of these are themed zones (focusing on topics such as the brain or evolution), and some are general science. Students post questions on the site to be answered either by a specific scientist or by all five scientists in a zone. Teachers can also book live slots in which students and scientists chat in real time via a chat room.

The students can quiz scientists on anything – from their research through to wider scientific issues. They can challenge them on the social implications of science and question their personal opinions and values.
The name of the game is to sell science to teenage students. In the true spirit of a reality show, the teenagers also get to ‘vote off’ their least favourite scientist. During the second week, one scientist is voted off each day. The most successful scientific ‘salesman’ survives to the end and wins £500 to spend on communicating science. The losers are cast back into the scientific jungle and take home nothing but their wounded pride!

Here we catch up with two of Edinburgh’s researchers. Pamela Docherty is a PhD student who works in mathematical physics within the School of Mathematics. Louise Buckley is a PhD student and chicken welfare scientist at the Roslin Institute and Scottish Agricultural College.
So what inspired these scientists to take part? Louise explains, “What attracted me to this event was the chance to promote science to school children.”

She recalls, “I hated science when I was at school and was actually ‘removed from science’ with a note sent home stating that the only thing biological Louise was interested in was boys!”

What changed? “I saw how science benefited society. The chance to change the negative perception many have of science is very rewarding and essential – and I might recruit more animal welfare scientists.”
Pamela continued, “I entered ‘I’m a Scientist’ in the hope of honing my ability to communicate mathematical concepts to a wider audience.”.

Did Pamela feel she had achieved this? She enthusiastically nods her head, “In the end I got much more out of it than that! From discussing the moral issues of animal testing to explaining rainbows, I was hooked for the whole two weeks!”

The competition organisers are keen that the students not feel as though “big brother is watching them”, so that they feel free to ask almost anything they wish. This relative lack of censorship means that some questions are ‘interesting’ and not always scientific. Pamela explained, “The idea was that we would answer questions that they may be unwilling to ask their teachers, or indeed, that their teachers may be unwilling to answer! Consequently, no question could go ignored – even sex and religion were up for debate!”
Scientists were briefed in advance that sometimes “students will test you to find out how you react”. Louise said, “The students could be boisterous but this was part of the fun. You need a good sense of humour and the ability to think on your feet.

One live chat involved a classroom full of teenage boys all keen to talk about, well, you can imagine! Louise laughs, recalling “I turned it round into a chat about the shapes of different insect willies and sperm wars. The students went home knowing a bit more about evolutionary biology then they did when they arrived that day!”

Both researchers agreed that this is one of the event’s benefits – students can absorb scientific information while having a laugh with the scientists. These discussions often led to a flurry of questions posted directly after the live chats and related to scientific discussions started during these chats.

Louise pointed out that some questions were very thought-provoking and mature: “Some questions attacked the central assumption of my whole PhD. I had to be very careful how I answered. I wouldn’t want these teenagers at my viva!

Pamela was keen to emphasise that justifying the impact of your research on society has never been more important. “The research councils and similar organisations recognise this and there are funds available to enable scientists to undertake public engagement work”. She added “participating in events like ‘I’m a Scientist….’ is an excellent way to get involved in science communication. Plus it’s fun for us too!”
Did either of them win? Alas, no. Louise was narrowly pipped to the post in the final by an engineer from Imperial College. Joining fellow evictee, Pamela, Louise commented, “I am gutted to lose, but Ugandan school children are the real winners” as the winner donated her money to buy much needed equipment for science lessons. And both of them agreed, “We’ll be back!”

All was not lost for Edinburgh researchers the second time around, as Joanna Brooks, a PhD student in Psychology, won the most recent event in the ‘Brain Zone’. The second round took place in June and this time the event was even more popular, with 100 scientists and 5000 students participating. How did she feel about winning? “I was so happy! I had worked really hard to answer all my questions as clearly and as accurately as possible.” She feels what set her apart from the other scientists was a regularly updated profile page: “Every few days I put up a new link to a BBC science quiz and also an interactive 3D brain on the last day. I think this showed the students that I was really making an effort and that I was trying to communicate science in a fun way.”

Joanna is already putting her prize money to good use, in setting up ‘brain workshops’ to show students how psychologists explore things like memory, attention, emotion and language. She says, “I’d like to introduce the students to brain scanning techniques and, in particular, discuss the outcome of neurological impairment from things like Alzheimer’s disease or traumatic brain injury. In fact, some of the schools that participated in the event are also taking part in my workshops, which is great because I feel like I already know the students.”

Louise Buckley is a PhD student in the Scottish Agricultural College and Pamela Docherty is a PhD student in the School of Mathematics

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