I'm a scientist: get me in there!
For two weeks this June I took part in the 'I'm a scientist...get me out of here 2011' competition at the Wellcome Trust. Okay, I know what you are thinking: a bunch of scientists armed with pipettes and a copy of the periodic table have been flung into the jungle with the nation's favourite Geordies, Ant and Dec...! Well not quite, but nearly as scary.
The jungle was a virtual one and the trials were science questions set by school students from across the UK. We had to answer the questions as best we could in chatrooms and live webchats and then, in true 'X-factor style' the students got to play the part of Simon Cowell and decide who stayed and who went. There were 115 of us at the start divided into twenty three 'zones', but only one left standing in each zone at the end.
As a PhD student at the University of Manchester researching the effect the immune system has on brain injury, I use lab rats and I know that can be a controversial subject. It made me a little nervous at first. What if the students had strong views? What if there were questions I couldn't answer? What if they didn't like me? So that's when I contacted UAR for help. After being equipped with facts and figures about animal research and receiving some comforting advice I was convinced that there was nothing to fear. So I entered the competition ready to accept any challenge thrown at me, which is just as well because the questions came thick and fast.
Some were easy to answer: 'Why did you become a scientist?' Some needed a bit more thought: 'Why is it that we tend to lose our memory as we age?' Others were a little cheeky: ‘Do you find relationships hard with you being so nerdy?' The most exhilarating parts were the webchats. I had to think quickly and accurately - I've never typed so fast (I'm sure my keyboard started to smoke).
It wasn't long before the topic of animal research came up. The questions started off a little tentatively: 'Do you get upset when you have to kill animals?' But soon the students seemed to get quite comfortable with throwing around ideas about animals in research. One even suggested that instead of using rats I should use llamas, as they were a lot cooler! But I think I'm going to stick with the rats for now. I also got some reassuring feedback that even though I was raising some difficult topics I wasn't scaring off the students: ‘I'm going to vote for you even though I don't like blood!'
With daily evictions in the second week things got very exciting and I found myself addicted to answering questions. Even the bus was a perfect opportunity to sneak in a few answers on my Smartphone. But I was left speechless when I found out that I had won my zone! That meant a prize of £500 to spend on public engagement. It is early days yet but I'm hoping to develop a community project highlighting the risk factors for stroke and the lifestyle choices we make.
I would encourage all scientists to get involved in 'I'm a scientist' 2012, as it is one of the most interactive and relevant public engagement schemes I have been involved in. And you may even find you learn more about science, and a little more about yourself along the way!