Help, I’m a Scientist!

This post is coming some weeks after the end of the latest I’m a Scientist event in March, and with the recent change in weather it seems like it was an entire season away. I was the first evictee from the Drug Discovery Zone; for a nice blog from one of the winners read this by Tom Branson. This is my story on how not to do IAS (tl;dr – fully commit and clear your schedule, or don’t do it).

I’ve been on the mailing list for IAS for about two years, but for various reasons I never got round to participating. I finally entered the Drug Discovery Zone this January, as my diary was looking pretty clear after having submitted a fellowship application and two big grants just before Christmas (all unsuccessful if you’re interested in keeping score).

I got the email telling me I was in at the beginning of February, when my diary had begun to fill up and I had just appointed my RA to start in March. I filled in my profile, picking an approachable photo, some nice pictures of heavy synchrotron equipment, and checking the accessibility of my language with @lis_lowe. The bookings for Chats with the school groups started to come in, with only two in the first week, and then a packed second week. I missed those first two chats as I was at the College Sandpit event and then the H-W Crucible. Not making an appearance early on was a fatal mistake, as it allowed the competition to take an early lead.

Week two started with a solid diary of science and meetings, but I had carefully planned my schedule around the chats. Monday’s chat was my first and took place in the Central Library Café with a sausage sandwich and latte to hand. I hadn’t expected the questions to come so fast, or for the students to be so impatient for answers. My competitors, Yalda, Tom, Jack, and Claire seemed to have a really handle on writing quick and accessible answers. I struggled for few minutes until I found my pace, then fell into a rhythm of acknowledging questions directed at me and giving what I thought were decent answers.

The questioning varied wildly: from the inevitable probing questions about which was better cocaine or heroin (this was the Drug Discovery Zone!); to interesting ones about the process of drug discovery and our careers as scientists. I am not sure whether the moderators were screening questions, but a few rude ones did get through, which was quite amusing. Twenty minutes seems like a good amount of time for a live-chat, but it’s a long time to hold your breath and type at full speed. The barrage of text on screen was disorienting and I totally forgot about my sandwich and coffee.

I came away from the chat with a good feeling, but it was clear from the beginning that the students had their favourites and this was fully justified from the engaging answers they were giving (you will also note that the winners were both handsome and young).

Week 2, day 2 came and I was planning to sneak out of an orientation/safety session I had booked for myself, my RA, and my Honours student, to log in for the day’s chat. I did the right thing for my team and the wrong thing for my time in IAS. Being present for only one of the four chats didn’t get me enough votes to survive the first eviction, so by the end of the day I was out of the Zone and IAS.

It’s pretty clear where I went wrong. If you want to do well, you have to fully commit to the chats, and it helps to be one of the first people to answer the offline questions. These questions were mainly about points of scientific fact, so there wasn’t much point in being the third or fourth person to answer a question that could easily be looked up on Wikipedia, other than to add some amusing personal story related to the question. I also wasn’t clear on whether I could participate in the chats/answer questions after eviction, so I bowed out after my eviction, but that possibly short-changed the students in the live chats later in the week.

Would I recommend participating? Absolutely, it was a great experience. Even if I didn’t fully engage, I learnt that my language can be a bit technical/inaccessible and will do something about that in future engagement activities. One of the good things about this style of event are the different levels that the students engage on and it’s a great way to reflect on your own work and career, while hopefully challenging perceptions of scientists and inspiring some students. Really though, clear your schedule completely, and get a great headshot of you as a younger person!

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