I’m a Scientist, Get Me Back in There?

Twitter friends who had done it before told me to keep my diary free and to look out for repetitive strain injuries. I thought they were over-exaggerating. I was wrong. Running for 2 weeks between 9th and 20th November, I’m a scientist get me out of here was a helter-skelter ride through the world of worm-dissection, viral genomes, nano-chemistry, radiation, evidence-based medicine and poo (that’s not a typo)!

My previous post highlights what I’m a Scientist is all about but briefly, 5 scientists are pitted together to answer questions from school students (11-18yrs) about anything sciency (or that’s what we were told!). Questions were either posted online and could be answered by the scientists in their own time or the came via live messenger-style ‘Chats’ with students during lessons or break times.

I was put into the Rhenium zone with these folk:

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Overall we tackled 338 questions from some 433 students and 20 live chats!

The live chats were crazy – not only did you have to get used to using @ before each student’s name plus no capital letters – you then had to deal with 10-15 students firing question after question at you. Although the 30 minutes flew by – it was enough to give you partial paralyses of both your fingers and your brain!

In terms of questions being asked – the remit for our zone was quite broad and this was reflected in the questions asked. You can get a flavour of them here. Some of my favourites include:

But if I ever hear or see another thing about black holes or the period table I’ll….although there was one cool video about black holes that I really liked.

My wife, a biology teacher, particularly enjoyed watching me sweat over many of the great questions about science – especially as I haven’t studied this stuff for some 20 years (that makes me feel really old!). All I can say is thank God (or the Big Bang) for Google.

Actually in anticipation of the sorts of questions coming my way I bought a few books to help me swot up in my Science 101. I highly recommend one of these which is full of interesting and spurious sciencey facts beyond the usual suspects. It’s called The Science Magpie.

There was of course the expected traps: “how big is Uranus compared to Earth?” And for reasons unbeknownst to me a number of students had variations of a similar, surprising, theme: “Is their any proof unicorns exist?

Some questions could be misinterpreted the wrong way: “Do you currently have any videos up online that we could view?” and some called on the art of philosophy: “What is Life?

Some of the hardest questions were the ones that made you reflect on:

  1. Why you decided to do what you do: “If P.E was your favourite subject why are you a scientist?
  2. Why do you do what you do: “Do you find your job interesting looking through newspapers, as some people find them boring
  3. What difference do you make: “what is your favourite breakthrough that you have made?

And some need no explanation:”why do humans poo different colours?

After an intense first week voting began in the 2nd, whereby students voted for their favourite scientist to stay in – I’ve seen something like this on telly somewhere! To my surprise, I wouldn’t say joy (carpal tunnel remember), I eventually made it through to the final where I was pipped at the post by a chemistry PhD student from Nottingham University called Nicholas. It was those darn black holes you see – this was what he did for fun away from the lab (some things you just can’t compete with). But in fairness he, and the other scientists, were great and a big congratulations to all of them!

Turns out I wasn’t the only one participating from the University – Christina Villa Del Campo was doing her thing over in the Heart Zone and actually went on to win. Congrats Christina (no gritted teeth here at all…)!

Nor was I the only one from primary care research – in fact a couple of folk I know are currently hanging out in the antibiotic resistance zone which runs until today! These being Alistair Hay and Paul Little. Good luck guys – though I’m secretly hoping you don’t get as far as I did so I can at least claim I did the best out of the primary care bunch…but wait…hang on! It turns out I’m not even the only one from my department in I’m a Scientist – Chris Butler is also hanging out in the antibiotics zone! My chances of claiming this crown are getting slimmer!

So what did I get out of I’m a Scientist apart from carpal tunnel syndrome and a dislike for Einstein’s Theorem of Relativity? It was a genuinely exhausting but very rewarding experience, not least because it made me think about what it is I actually do, why I do it and what difference does it make and then explain all that in a way that a 14 year old can engage with. Not an easy task but one I now feel better equipped to handle.

Big thanks to the chat moderators and all those behind the scenes on I’m a Scientist – keep up the great work!

Would I do it again? I’m a scientist so surely there’s only one answer – “get me back in there!”

About David Nunan

Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Oxford and BASES accredited Exercise Physiologist.

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