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A conference for the modern age

Suzi Gage

Suzi Gage

Suzi Gage is an MRC-funded PhD student at the University of Bristol who uses data from the Children of the 90s study to look at the links between cannabis, psychosis and depression. Here she tells us about the benefits of getting together with other researchers at the SpotOn London conference last weekend.

Along with around 200 others, I spent Sunday and Monday in the basement of the Wellcome Collection discussing science policy, outreach and online tools. I was there because I’d organised a session on academic fraud along with my colleague Dr Pete Etchells. But, being more used to academic conferences, I was also really intrigued about what an event bringing together science communicators, policy types and researchers could offer.

The conference was split into three streams, but swapping between them was encouraged, and I think I managed to attend at least something from each. I was particularly impressed with the ambition of the meeting; session organisers were encouraged to create online material in advance, and to have outputs at the end. This wasn’t just for sitting and absorbing, this was for ACTION. Indeed, one workshop I dropped in on was called ‘what do you need to start a revolution?’. Inspiring? Very much so!

After the keynotes (from Ben Goldacre and Kamila Markram), the first session I went to focussed on juggling an academic research career with science communication; an issue l found particularly relevant as I do lots of outreach alongside my PhD.

All the sessions I attended were run as discussions, with a panel at the front talking about their experiences, and plenty of audience interaction. In this one, what struck me was the vast difference in the amount of support available to different people, whether from supervisors or institutions. The reason I do public engagement is simply because I want to, and with peer and supervisor support, not because my institution is persuading me to do it. But I’ll certainly be looking to my institution to support me in the future; it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

The most popular discussion I went to was about improving the visibility of women in science. Having a session on this topic shows how far we still need to go in terms of equality in science; I think it’s unlikely we would see a similar entry in the programme for ‘men in science’. However, the discussion was really positive, resulting in an online toolkit of resources for female scientists who need some support. Much of the conversation centred around imposter syndrome, where people feel like frauds however much people tell them they are successful in their field.

It can seem that women achieve less in science because they are often less keen, or feel less able, to promote their work (though it’s not only women who can suffer from imposter syndrome). I can relate to the comments from audience members saying they struggle to publicly promote blog posts or ideas; I always feel I’m pestering people and have to force myself to promote my blog posts. A post from Heather Williams of ScienceGrrl nicely demonstrates the benefits of blogging (if you are going to ‘be nice’, as she puts it), and it’s advice I am keen to take onboard.

I haven’t got past the first day and I’m running low on words, without even mentioning the session I was involved in! But I’d really recommend visiting the website, watching some of the talks that grab your interest, and browsing the microsites for each, as there’s some great content on there. I’m definitely signing up for next year, hope to see you there!

Suzi Gage

Videos, presentation slides and other associated materials from each session are available on the conference website.

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