Wednesday, 10 September 2014


As part of the British Science Festival, there were two events held at the University of Birmingham (UoB) encouraging the involvement of women in science. The first was a networking event and the second was a panel discussion on the topic of women in science on TV. I attended both and had a really great evening. 

On the way into the networking event, I spotted Jon Wood (@jonwoodscience) with his "I'm a Science Grrl - talk to me!" badge from Saturday's event, and immediately pinned one to my dress! I managed to meet a lot of new people at the event both from UoB and from other universities and companies. The event was also linked to it's own Padlet site, which enabled attendees to scroll through an online pinboard to see who else was there. 

After the networking, there was a mass re-location to the panel discussion. The panel of Elizabeth McIntyre, Alice Roberts, Lucy Pilkington and Gia Milinovich were initially asked questions by the chair Caroline van de Bruf before the discussion was opened to the audience. 

It was really interesting to hear from both the production/direction side and also the presenter side. 
The presenter needs to be a knowledgeable specialist who can bring the passion for their subject across to a mainstream audience. New technological advances such as green screening and remote filming have enabled a wider range of experts to get involved, as there is no longer the need to to abandon your home and family for long filming hours for months at a time.

The number of women vs men on scientific TV programmes was also discussed in detail. Alice Roberts argued that there are a number of prominent female scientific presenters, but for some reason they don't get remembered! Figures have shown that the percentage of presenter led programmes with a "lead woman" are comparable to the percentage of female professors, so TV is not mis-representing society. However, all the panel agreed that TV has an important role, almost a responsibility, to provide role models that can encourage more women into science. 

It was interesting to hear how scientific presenters don't arrive ready made! Some programme budgets now include a pre-production period for training in presentation skills for those who need it. However, we learnt that it takes a lot of time to develop the skills to become a good presenter, and those with experience found that teaching was a great help. The consensus was that, if you can teach a subject to a first year undergraduate whilst keeping them awake at 9am, you can present it to anyone!

The discussion then moved on to whether universities and employers could do more to help. The fact that the UK is the worst country in Europe for mat(/pat)ernity leave was shocking, as this means that there is less choice of who stays at home to look after children.

Once the discussion was opened to the audience, we heard more experiences of interaction with TV - both good and bad. As a student on a Doctoral Training Centre (with 4 years of funding and time for public engagement), I have had the opportunity for more training and experience compared to colleagues on more standard PhD programs. 

The evening finished on an optimistic note, with the encouraging words that more science on TV is the future, and that women can (and will!) be a large part of that future. 

I found both events really interesting, and the latter made me think about the wide range of opportunities available in scientific TV: not just being in front of the camera. It also gave me the chance to share tips and encouragement with other early career researchers who are in a similar position to me trying to balance a PhD with science communication. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

I'm a ScienceGrrl - talk to me!

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be involved with an activity for the British Science Festival (BSF). It was organised by the Birmingham chapter of Science Grrl: an organisation which celebrates and supports women in science. The description in the BSF booklet was:
"ScienceGrrls will be invading the city, each wearing a badge inviting you to talk to them. Try to guess what they do by studying their props and find out why they love to work in science as they take to the purple soapbox. Pick up a postcard and collect as many stamps as you can."
A simple idea, but it worked brilliantly! Initially, the area outside the library was a bit quiet, but the science busking events in the square were quick to kick off and soon the area became quite busy. We all had postcards with us to give out, and had some pretty impressive badges made by Jon Wood to identify us. I went down to the area by the science busking gazebos and quickly discovered how much fun you can have talking to families! 

The aim of the day was to get the kids (especially girls) to learn more about the range of different things a "scientist" can involve. An opening line that went down well with the girls was "Do you want to hear about all the different kinds of science girls can do?". I then went on to use my beaker necklace and conical flask earrings to help them guess that I was a chemist, and the fuel cell membrane in my pocket to talk about hydrogen. I had some really great conversations, including one extremely enthusiastic girl who exclaimed "That's so cool!!" when I told her about using hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity. This made my day! 

The best comment that I had all day was from a parent of a girl who was about to go into secondary school. She said (and I'm not making this up!)
"I always thought of science as being a 'boy' thing, but now we've come here and spoken to all of you today, we know that's not the case"
 And it's comments like that that make you realise how worthwhile these activities really are - I'm proud of being a Science Grrl, and just slightly disappointed that I can't wear the badge all the time...

View from the top of the new library