For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!‘ is an online event that aims to connect school children with real working scientists. In the two weeks over which the event runs, the students get to interact with scientists online and ask them anything they like – from questions about their job and how they got to where they are today, to burning science questions they’ve always wanted to know the answer to. For example: ‘What is snot made of?’!
Scientists volunteer to take part and are allocated to a themed zone related to the area of science that they work in. For example, I worked on the cell biology of oocytes and embryos, so was placed in the Cells Zone. Throughout the event the students then get to vote for their favourite scientist. During the second week of the competition the scientist with the least votes gets evicted each day, eventually leaving one winner – hence ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!’!
The main focus of the event is the fast and furious live online chats which take place a couple of times every weekday during the event. Up to 30 students and two or three scientists mean that you are literally bombarded with questions and lightning-quick typing is the order of the day. The many hours of my youth spent honing my keyboard skills by chatting on MSN messenger came in very handy here!
Outside of the live chats students can also log on to the website in their own time and pose yet more questions to the scientists. The questions really did come flooding in and ranged from ‘Why do we sneeze?’ to ‘How do cells come together to form an object?‘. For these questions, the scientists have a bit more time to consider the questions and give a more in depth answer. An important balance had to be struck between answering these questions in an engaging and informative manner without being too patronising and, most importantly, without slipping into the impenetrable jargon that we use so freely in our daily work.
A few times I had to resort to Googling to help answer some of the students’ questions and in doing so learnt some new things myself! For example I was asked ‘What is the unification of gravitation with quantum chromodynamics?‘. As a cell biologist, I’m not ashamed to say I had to look this one up!
Over the course of the event I also fielded a lot of questions about what I like to do for fun – such as ‘What football team do you support?‘. I expect the students were surprised (and relieved!) to learn that all the scientists had other interests outside of the lab. The ability to interact with scientists directly also helped to dispel some of the myths that scientists are all introverted geeks who can’t interact with other humans.
I took part in ‘I’m a Scientist’ in November 2012 and had such a great experience it prompted me to explore other outreach and public engagement activities and now, one year on, I work in science engagement at the British Library. I would wholeheartedly recommend ‘I’m a Scientist’ to all readers of the Node – whether you are interested in outreach as an alternative career or if you just want to take step back and look at your research from a totally different perspective. It was refreshing to have to justify to enquiring students exactly how my research related to real-life – something that can be too easily lost sight of after long days at the bench. It also needn’t take up too much time – you can fit in the chats between experiments and then answer the offline questions in your own time. Although it really is very rewarding so I found myself checking for new questions throughout the day and eagerly awaiting the next live chat! All you have to do to sign up is write a one sentence summary of your research, which then gets judged by teachers and students…