My “I’m a Scientist” experience

From Monday 17 to Friday 28 June, PhD student Rhod Jenkins took part in “I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!”, a competition which pits researchers against each other to answer science questions from British schoolchildren. He went on to be voted winner of the Energy Zone. This post describes his experience.

“What is energy?”, “Is your work eco-friendly?” and “Who’s your favourite between One Direction and Justin Beiber?” were just some of the questions I got asked over the two-week X-factor style public engagement event I’m a Scientist, Get Me out of Here!

The event is a chance for students across the country to get direct contact with research scientists to ask us anything and everything about science, as well as giving us a chance to communicate with them about our research. Its split into a bunch of different zones, depending on what your speciality is in … and as I work in biofuels, I was put into the Energy Zone. Along with me were four pretty impressive scientists working in CO2 to useful product conversion, photovoltaics and aviation research.

PhD students Rhod Jenkins and Jess Bean after winning their respective zones in “I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here”

There were a couple of different ways for the students to ask questions, such as submitting their questions to us to answer when we had time (and sometimes after a quick Google search to brush up on a few things I may have forgotten), but the most intense format was the live chats which lasted 30 mins each. The majority of the chats had more than one “scientist” (as we were referred to throughout the event) but my first, on the morning of Monday the 17th of June … it was only me. And a classroom of year 8’s. Needless to say I don’t think I have typed so fast for one half hour straight while I tried to keep up with the torrent of questions coming my way.

Over the two weeks I took part in roughly 12 live chats, answering questions about my work, scientific concepts I haven’t studied in years (and some I have never studied) and which football team I supported. One thing I was pleasantly surprised by was the insightful nature of some of the questioning, with some of the students having an almost journalistic air about them, asking questions which were then followed by equally relevant and more probing ones. It was incredibly rewarding, and a great experience.

The second week was the eviction week … where each day one of the five scientists would be “evicted” and taken out of the competition. Unfortunately I had to stop participating in the live chats due to other commitments earlier in the week, and was away for Glastonbury festival from the Thursday so I no way of knowing who had won. It wasn’t until Friday evening that, while I was sitting in front of the acoustic tent in Glastonbury wearing muddy wellies and neon sunglasses, Jess Bean (a fellow PhD student from the Dept. of Chemistry who had also taken part in the event) texted me to let me know that I had won my zone! As had she! I was obviously thrilled and later celebrated with a can of warm beer.

Along with the win, I have been awarded £500 to put towards further science communication. Unfortunately my original plan – donating it to a charity which is involved in education in developing countries – isn’t possible, as the charity can’t guarantee that the money will go to science communication. So I’ve gotta come up with a way to spend £500 and teach other people about science. I have load of ideas, but more are always welcome.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what my answer was to who I preferred between One Direction and Justin Beiber? I rather diplomatically answered “I don’t think I could choose between them. They are equal in my mind”.

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