At the start of 2018, I set myself some goals for the year. One of those goals was to do some more scicomm events in person. Now so far this year I have helped moderate two science outreach events and organise one, but I had not done one in person. Until now.
I had seen a whole host of inspirational scicommers that I follow on Instagram get involved with this amazing event previously and had always wanted to do it. But my lack of confidence always made me chicken out when applying. But after setting this year’s goals I knew I had to push myself out of my comfort zone to get better as not only a scientist and a science communicator but also personally. So I sent in my application for the Brighton event and I got offered a place and that’s where this adventure began, which I want to share with you all now but first let’s start at the beginning.
What is Soapbox Science?
Soapbox Science is an exciting and unique event for scientists to share their research with the public. Specifically, it is an event advocating for women in STEM and promote the research that they are doing. It involves each scientist standing on their soapbox for an hour in a public place to reach out to the public and maybe individuals that never would have had the opportunity to interact with a scientist – let alone a female scientist! – and tell them all about the research they are doing behind closed doors. Each event usually has 12 speakers and lasts three hours but transforms a traditionally ‘normal’ place like a shopping centre or a seafront perhaps into an opportunity to learn and educate. A perfect opportunity to interact, debate and celebrate these scientists and their work with the simplest of props.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Once I had accepted by place on my soapbox, the realisation of what I had agreed to started to sink in and I became terrified. I am the sort of person that when I have to give a presentation I will near enough write out exactly what I want to say for fear of being stood up in front of an audience and completely forgetting what I want to say. Something that I wouldn’t be able to do here. I would have to think on my feet. So it was time to prepare.
All 12 of the Brighton 2018 speakers met for the first time at a training day a few weeks before the actual event. We had an opportunity to connect with each other and share ideas of props and helped each other refine what we wanted to achieve. We also got to speak to a few of the speakers from the 2017 event to see what worked well for them and what perhaps didn’t. Despite this, I left with still far too many unknowns for the prep freak I am. How was I going to prepare something for an audience I didn’t know anything about? Or how long they were going to stick around for? Or whether they were going to get offended by the fact that I work with embryonic stem cells? But the key points I took away from my training day were:
- To prepare a 10-15 minute speech that communicated some key messages and to repeat that over and over for my hour on the soapbox as people came and went
- To create an eye catching prop that will capture an audience’s attention but also help to convey my key messages
- To keep my topic more broad and introduce the audience to the field of stem cells rather than focusing too much on my specific research
- And be prepared for anything!
So I pondered for a week or so about what prop I could create. A stem cell mountain would have been perfect – but as someone else in my department as that exact prop – which is great btw – it would be too similar. So, I came up with my RE-Generation Game that hopefully portrayed the same key points about stem cells. I spent hours designing my game mat but even longer finding the perfect way to get it printed in a durable and weather proof way. But to cut a long story short, I found the perfect way and got my game ordered and paid extra to get it delivered quickly. But annoyingly, it didn’t arrive in time. So, the night before the event, I was running frantically around work printing off pictures of stem cells, differentiated cells and about 100 arrows and then to my local craft store for a laminator, chalk and a big sketch pad, and spent my evening laminating out my game and also drawing out essentially slides so I had some prompts for my talk.
The Day of Soapbox Science Brighton
So, the day had arrived and I hopped on the train from sunny Southampton laden with my makeshift props and any other scicomm props I already had at home that I had used previously to arrive in a miserable and foggy Brighton. I made my way from the station to the iconic i360 ready to take my science to the streets.
I was performing in the last of the three hours but I wanted to go along and support all the other ladies that were at the event and learn more about their research too. My highlight though was seeing a hen party walk past and getting the bride to be involved in the game the wonderful Gigi had devised to explain her research. I learnt all about bees and particle physics, to stars and big data. But as the event went on, the sun came out and then it was my turn to take to the soapbox.
With only a few minutes to switch over, I crawled around sticking my game onto the floor and using the chalk to connect them all, donned my lab coat, took a deep breath and stepped up onto my soapbox.
The last thing I was expecting as I looked up was to see a good 25 people stood there waiting for me to start. So I embraced it and started to share my passion for stem cells. I had not practised anything I was going to say and so the advised 10-15 minute speech on repeat turned into a 30 minute talk that I repeated twice. But the most confidence boosting part was that I managed to keep the vast majority of people’s attention for the entire time. Most people were there for 30 minutes listening to me and I got asked some amazing questions which just made me realise that the public want to learn about science. We as scientists just need to keep bringing it to them in engaging and accessible ways like this. I like to think that someone went home that night thinking they had learnt something exciting that they never had expected to that morning when they set out to Brighton seafront.
I was so incredibly nervous to begin with, so much so that I nearly bailed. But I am soooo glad I didn’t because I stepped off that soapbox at the end of my hour and the end of the 2018 event with the biggest buzz ever. I was so proud that I had done it and thrilled to see so many people wanting to learn about stem cells and ask me questions and engage with me.
I loved participating in Soapbox Science and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking to do more ‘hands on’ science outreach and to boost their own confidence. It is a perfect way to get creative with your research and in my eyes become a better scientist for it. I never thought I would say this but I just want to get back up on that soapbox at another event!
How can YOU get involved
Soapbox is growing every year so head to their website, or follow @soapboxscience on Twitter and Instagram, to find your nearest event and apply to be a speaker or even just know when there will be more amazing women in science in your area sharing their research. Additionally, if there isn’t an event near you, maybe you can organise one and bring the joy of Soapbox to a town square, shopping mall or seafront near you for 2019 and beyond.
Have you done a Soapbox Science event before? What was your experience? Or maybe you’ve attended an event? I would love to know what you thought too. If you have any questions about Soapbox Science please don’t be afraid to ask!
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