I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here
Natalie Doig, a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit, tells us about her recent experience as a contestant on I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here, an online X Factor-style competition. During the competition, school students question scientists via live chats, scientists compete against each other and eventually the students get to vote for their favourite!
What appealed to you about I’m a scientist…?
The idea of I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here really appealed to me because it seemed like an original and fun way to engage with school children across the UK. A lot of the public engagement activities that I contribute to involve either visiting local schools or having local school pupils visit us, which are great in a different way. I liked the idea of being able to do something new while also reaching a wider audience. I also liked the idea that I could participate in the Q & A sessions from my desk, which helped me fit them around my experiments and teaching.
What was the most unusual question you were asked? And what was your favourite question?
There were a lot of unusual questions, and I was impressed by how insightful most of the questions were; I got questions on very diverse subjects, ranging from consciousness to what I do in a ‘normal day’ in the lab. Interestingly, quite a lot of questions were focussed on the use of animals in research. Another popular subject was religion and science. One of my favourites was “Do you think that, in the future, fully mind-controlled prosthetic limbs will be available? (wouldn't it be cool if you could get legs that had built in glitzy lights that turned on when you stamped? and what if you had prosthetic legs that were, like, heelies?)” I thought that was both interesting and creative! And actually everyone in the lab enjoyed the questions; they provided some lively lunchtime conversation.
Did it make you think about your research in a new or different way?
It definitely made me think about my research in a different way. It also helped me to explain my research in a more effective manner, tailored to this particular target audience. You receive instant feedback with the online chats. If the children don’t understand, they tell you straight away; this helps you to re-evaluate and refine your answers. Also, the children really want to know ‘why’ you are doing what you are doing. This was important because I think that, from day to day, it is easy to get caught up in how you are doing things and then lose sight of the bigger picture. As I was answering questions about certain aspects of my job, it made me realise how privileged and lucky I am to have a career that I enjoy so much.
Have you got any other engagement activities planned in the near future?
Yes, lots. We have a very active, enjoyable and inclusive Public Engagement and Communications programme within the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit. The next PE activity at the Unit is a site visit organised in collaboration with the charity Parkinson’s UK; people affected by Parkinson’s disease will come and see the Unit’s labs and will discuss ongoing research with scientists of all levels. Then, over the summer, we are working with a fantastic charity called In2ScienceUK that places local students from disadvantaged backgrounds with scientists in labs at Oxford University. We pioneered this work experience placement scheme in Oxford last year, and I am very excited to be a mentor to a student again this summer; it was really one of the most rewarding PE activities that I have been involved in. Also, when you look at the statistics (for example, in the UK only 2% of students who are eligible for free school meals go on to get a place at a highly selective university), you realise just how important initiatives like this are.