The first I heard about ‘I'm a Scientist’ was from a link on NERC’s website, advertising upcoming science engagement activities. This sounded like fun: ‘an online forum interacting with school children over a two week period’. I duly filled in the forms and forgot about it.
In early February, I learnt that I had been chosen as one of the scientists for the two week event in March. The first challenge was to complete an online profile: ‘describe yourself in three words’ ‘who is your favourite band’ ‘tell us a joke’.. hmm. How am I not going to sound out of touch?
But looking at last year’s entrants, and my new colleagues in the Potassium Zone, I began to realise that ‘being in touch’ was not the point. Instead, part of the object was to show that scientists are actually people, and that we have all found different routes to a career in science.
The other scientists in my zone included a drug specialist at GlaxoSmithKline, a postdoc in Neuroscience at Caltech, a nuclear processing engineer at Sellafield, and a developmental psychologist from the University of Central Lancashire. Now, we were being thrown together in an ‘X-factor’ style competition where the audience were about 300 14-15 year old schoolchildren from 20 schools.
The event itself started slowly. A few questions arrived on the Friday afternoon, but things didn’t really kick-off until the live chats started on the following Monday. And what a day to start: the 7 O’clock news had the first indication of a huge earthquake in Japan and by the time I arrived in work, the scale of the calamity was beginning to unfold. Within a couple of hours, the first live chat session was on.
This was my first time with MSN style messaging; and it wasn’t long before I realised how hopelessly inefficient my typing is. I also didn’t know any shortcuts, and the students had such hugely complicated nicknames: try typing @cocoacrazycicaxoxo at speed! My colleagues in the zone seemed to be able to write an eloquent essay on the workings of the brain in the time it was taking me to say ‘my favourite volcano is Villarrica in Chile..’.
I decided that I would have make up for lost time when answering the questions posted by the students. This settled into a pattern for week 1 - a growing list of questions to answer, that expanded to fill my evenings; and frantic chat sessions during the day. At the beginning of week two, the tempo began to rise: now the students were starting to vote for their favourite scientists – with a vote every day, and evictions at 3pm.
Questions flooded in: not only on science, but on philosophy. Ranging from ‘what's the best question you have ever been asked in your life?’ to ‘Have you ever roasted marshmallows over flowing lava?’ and a whole spectrum of questions following on from BBCs Wonders of the Universe on the Big Bang, entropy and space-time. As the final day dawned, there were just two of us left – and another fifty questions and three live-chat sessions later, I was the last one standing.
Reflecting on the event, it was certainly the most absorbing form of science engagement that I have ever done. The live chats were great for getting conversations going on a whole range of threads - mainly relating to things like 'how do you become a scientist?' and 'what is it like when you are one?'
Some students realised quite quickly that they could join in any of the live chat sessions once they were logged in, and became regular visitors over the next fortnight. The Q+A section was an excellent follow up - with some students taking full advantage to develop conversations over several days with further questions and comments.
By the end, I had answered over 600 questions, thoroughly refreshing my science general knowledge, as well as honing my explanations of what I actually do for a living; and speed-typed my way through over 12 hours of live chat.
As a zone winner, I now get £500 to spend on a science communication project - so I’ll be off to make some podcasts from active volcanoes!
Professor David Pyle is based at Oxford's Department of Earth Sciences.