I’m a Scientist…Get me out of here!
Last month, 25 MRC-funded researchers and support staff connected with over 1,400 UK school students online, in the first ever ‘I’m a Scientist MRC Festival Zone’. Over four weeks, our plucky scientists responded to thousands of questions from students, who then voted for their favourite answers. Here our winner Liza Selley, from the MRC Toxicology Unit, tells her tale.
“If a car travels at infinite speed, what evidence can you use to prove it was there?”
There stands my favourite question from the MRC Festival’s I’m a Scientist competition. A prime example of the imagination and inquisitiveness with which children explore the world around them. Of how commonplace thoughts mix with the abstract, and how no question appears unanswerable.
This attitude makes young people fantastic companions for scientific discussions. They ask questions that adults don’t think of and are endlessly eager to find out more. The students who participated in the I’m a Scientist chats were no exception. They took to their keyboards with huge enthusiasm; quizzing 25 scientists about their research, careers, views and goals in the quest to select a winner for a £500 outreach grant.
Feeling at home online
Coming from a generation who spent more time on MSN messenger than they did sleeping, it was the online chat-based format that attracted me to the competition. As a previously shy child, I
recognised the confidence brought by the anonymity of a keyboard. The children debated keenly and many asked about things that they’d found confusing in class.
Importantly, the students weren’t the only ones learning from the process. This was the first time I’d discussed my work with young people and I was nervous that they’d see me as a boring old person.
As it turned out, they were very welcoming and I felt we connected well. I genuinely think this was because I had spent the best part of my teens chatting online. I felt transported back to the age where school got harder and adults started to ask difficult questions about the future.
By sharing information that would have helped and interested me at the time, I hope to have encouraged a few more students to pursue careers that will make them happy. As scientists or otherwise.
We received some fantastic questions on our profile pages from “why do I have freckles?” to “how would a dragon create fire?”. These questions were great fun because they appealed to our inner inquisitiveness.
But the best part about the competition was seeing that the students had gone away from the lesson-time chats, thought about our discussions and then returned to find out more after the bell. For me, this was the purpose of the challenge; to get people thinking about my research on air pollution and where it comes from, in the hope that they will try to reduce their exposure.
This is the premise of my plans for the prize money. I’m working with the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London to create an ‘air pollution treasure hunt’. The idea is to show children how to use hand-held air quality sensors which they can use during science lessons to compare pollution levels between busy roadsides and traffic-free areas.
Hopefully, this will demonstrate the impact that traffic has on our air and will encourage the children to make cleaner transport choices – like walking to the shops rather than asking for a lift or avoiding pollution hotspots. Air pollution places a horrendous burden on our health so I’m extremely grateful for this chance to help tackle it. Perhaps some of the students will join me in a few years’ time!