In this Engagement Matters post, Natasha Myhill, a PhD scientist researching cancer immunotherapy (or ‘how to use a patient’s own cells to kill their cancer’) shares her experiences of taking part in the online schools engagement competition ‘I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!’

When I got the email saying that I had been chosen to take part in the November 2017 I’m a Scientist, Get me Out of Here! competition I had several thoughts. How do I communicate my research in really lay terms? How will I come across as a scientist? Will the students be interested in what I say? Having not done a lot of public engagement before, I was a bit anxious but mainly, I was really excited for the opportunity.

For those who haven’t heard of the competition, in each ‘zone’, six scientists from around the country engage with thousands of school students, through online questions and live text-based chats. The students can ask questions about work, life and anything science-related, and then get to vote for their favourite scientist. The competition runs for two weeks, and during the second week there are daily ‘eliminations’, culminating in a Friday finale, where the scientist with the most votes wins £500 to spend towards further public engagement.

To prepare for the competition, the first step was creating an online profile, with a mini CV section and a number of interview-style questions. I found this part surprisingly hard! The number of times I searched online for funny science jokes is silly, and trying to narrow down my favourite food was impossible. The main point of the profiles was to show students that scientists are ‘normal’ people, with hobbies and interests, which makes us more relatable.

In the week before the competition, the students began to submit their questions to us, and the excitement really started. It began to get my brain in gear for the next two weeks. The questions were varied to say the least – from ‘What do you like to eat?’ to ‘Why are some people allergic to bee stings?’. But my favourite question was: ‘Do you think scientists focus too much on facilitating/preventing symptoms of a disease instead of trying to stop people from getting it in the first place?’ This was a great question because it is a debate a lot of cancer research scientists and research councils have to consider and it was a fantastic example of how talking to the scientists promoted out-of-the-box thinking from the students

I made a new best friend over the two weeks as well… Google! There were a lot of questions I had no idea about the answer to, but I did some reading and tried to answer the questions as simply and straightforward as possible. Sometimes this involved anecdotes, or analogies, to put the science in a way the students would understand.

When the competition began, it was full on, but really exciting. The classes participating could book 30-minute live text-based webchats, which were the real highlight of the competition. Each chat was moderated by one of the great ‘I’m a Scientist’ moderators, who helped direct the chat and remove duplicate questions to make the chat flow better. Despite this, the chats were absolutely manic! A whole class of students, asking you questions all at the same time, made the 30-minute chats fly by. It was fantastic to see the students getting enthused about the science we were doing, as well as giving them the opportunity to ask questions about how we got to where we are, what we like about our jobs and if we had watched Stranger Things yet!

During the second week, I was surprised by how much I cared about the eliminations. When 3pm arrived each day, I nervously waited to see whether I was still in the running. Much to my surprise and delight, I made it through to the final and won, and I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to engage with so many students and inspire them to continue with science!

The competition offered a chance for lots of engagement, 480 students logged in over the two weeks, with an average of 360 lines text during a 30 minute live chat.

The biggest lesson I learnt during the competition was that I didn’t need to worry too much about the detail of my answers, the students just really responded to talking to the scientists and it was great to show them that science can be for everyone! It was an amazing way to kick off my public engagement journey and I am excited about using my prize money to continue outreach with local communities. I would highly recommend I’m a Scientist to anyone looking to take part in public engagement with a difference.

My top three tips:

  • Do something outside of your comfort zone – you will get a lot out of it!
  • Try to explain your science to a family member or friend in the simplest of terms – its great practice for talking to students
  • Think about what your audience want out of it – if your audience are students, they probably want something fun/interactive.

Feeling inspired to take part?

Posted on behalf of Natasha Myhill, CDT in Regenerative Medicine PhD Student

Twitter: @UoMEngage | @NatashaMyhill | #EngageMatters