Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity 2017

Last week for the third year running the people of Nottingham were able to experience science through The Festival of Science and Curiosity 2017.

What is the The Festival of Science and Curiosity?

The festival is unique to Nottingham and was put in place by the STEM city partnership. The STEM city partnership is made up of a group of some really great Nottingham organisations with some noble aims:

  • To engage citizens in STEM learning activities both in the classroom and in the community
  • To enable citizens to make informed choices about STEM careers and understand the benefits of STEM
  • To empower citizens to participate in the knowledge economy and share in the future success of the city

Because of these aims the festival does a lot of work with schools but also with the public and families. This year the main day for families and the public to enjoy science together was Saturday 11/02/17 with events held at the Broadway Cinema, Central Library and Broadmarsh shopping centre.

Broadway held ‘The Explorers Fair’, this had talks, shows and the chance to try at being a science presenter. Central Library held ‘Hands on Science’ with activities that let children play with science and Broadmarsh had an inflatable planetarium and plenty of scientists too.

How did I get involved?

I had just finished my PhD when the call went out for festival volunteers. I signed up straight way keen to get out of the immense detail of a PhD and go right back to the basics of Microbiology…

The event I proposed was ‘Make your own Microbes- get creative with PlayDoh’


What was my event about?

This event tried use playdoh and playing to explain to younger children what microbes are. It can be a difficult concept to understand, but it is best to try and introduce the idea of microbes early, this is happening more commonly now in the curriculum- normally through explaining the importance of hand washing!

(See some very good comics on this area by the Microbiology Society)

The main barrier to understanding what a microbe is the fact that they are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. One of the best ways to describe them is as tiny creatures or microscopic animals (just as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek did -one of the founding fathers of microbiology) he also tried to explain how tiny they were to his friends by saying how it would take 1 million of them to be the same size as a grain of sand.

The trouble with the description of ‘tiny creature’ is they don’t have the same obvious physiology as the animals and insects that we can see and all the parts of a microbe have complicated names.


Naming components of a Bacterium

However for children this can be simplified, for example:

  • A propeller that bacteria use to move called the flagellum becomes called ‘a tail’ (represented by cut hair ties).
  • The pilus/ spikes that cover a bacteria and are important for gene transfer/moving/sticking together in a group, can be called ‘hands’ or ‘legs’ depending on what you are using them for (represented by cut straws).
  • Plasmids which are circular DNA that can be passed between bacteria and sometimes pass antibiotic resistance properties can be referred to as superpowers (represented by gems).
  • And lastly googly eyes can be used to represent the complex sensing systems bacteria have in place to navigate their environment- in complicated terms called chemosensing or quorum sensing.

Child friendly parts of a microbe

So with the help of PlayDoh and poundland I was ready to help children start to visualize the typically invisible microbes.

What happened on the day?

I held this event in Nottingham Central Library where the staff involved had been very organised and had set up a separate science room for the occasion.

I was in good company with other volunteers doing the science of visual illusions, chemistry experiments and the science of eggs!

I was lucky to be by the door and had lots of interested children all day. I think that by having playdoh, a plaything that children are familiar with allowed them to easily approach the stall and not be intimidated.

The age range was varied and so were the conversations, in some cases the playdoh kept very young children entertained while I talked to their parents about science. In other cases it was interesting to find out what they already knew, many described them as ‘germs and bugs that make your tummy sick’. This was a good opportunity to talk to the slightly older children about good and bad bacteria.

I had made some example playdoh microbes for the children in case they wanted something to copy but it turned out they were all very creative and I wish that I had photographed the children’s own creations. There was a slight trend of the younger ones describing their models as spiders or monsters, but I think that is understandable when you are trying to understand something that is invisible!


My own attempts at playdoh microbes

Hints and tips for running a stall at a Science festival

  •  Always have one visual thing that a child will be familiar with on your stall so they are not too intimidated to come and investigate.
  • Remember its not just about your target audience, engage everyone at your stall.
  • Ask permission and take pictures of the child’s work. Upload this picture onto an online gallery  and give the parent the link to access the picture- I wish I had thought of this before hand. It acts to captures the engagement but also it may have saved many parents from having to carry a playdoh model in their bag for the rest of the day!

I fully recommend getting involved in the Festival of Science and Curiosity, its great to see how much curiosity and creativity the people of Nottingham have! Already looking forward to next year



5 weeks till thesis hand in- exhaustion 

So 5 weeks to go and I’m exhausted!

Word count:  Unknown (hopefully under 100,000)

This exhaustion is not just about lack of sleep,  it is a state of mind and overall sense of fatigue with the project. Its a weird feeling as the thesis so near to being finished but still needs that final push to get final version together.

Difficulties with finishing a thesis

There are many difficult aspects to finishing a thesis, currently I am struggling with the monotony.

The process of writing and editing every day is getting too monotonous as I am discussing the same theories that I have been writing about for 5 months in slightly different ways- this makes it hard to stay engaged.

Also I have lots of ‘tidying up’ left to do. Mostly this consists of doing the things I didn’t fancy doing properly at the time properly now. So rough diagrams or semi completed tables now have to be re-visited.

All the little things 

When I started the write up process my to do list was simple- write a thesis,that grew as I started to break it down in to chapters and subheading, then that list started being ticked off over the last 5 months.

But now there is a new list, where  originally  there was:

  • print thesis
  • hand in thesis
  • party

This has expanded to:

  • merge the word files,
  • edit the references,
  • find great printing settings for microscope images
  • compile extra supporting data files
  • find printer in the library that you trust
  • print thesis
  • check the printing quality of the thesis
  • re-print thesis?
  • find embargo form
  • bind thesis
  • hand in thesis
  • Party!!

All these little things have the potential to be tricky and are always more difficult to get to grips with when you are tired and a little bit desperate for it to be finally completed!



Aim for this week

This week I need to write my overall discussion and finish my results chapter 5.

My advice

  • Write out a timetable for the next 35 days, allow at least 3 days clear in the run up to the deadline to allow for illness or other issues.
  • In this timetable write out all the little things you have to do and add to this as you inevitably remember things that you had originally forgotten about.
  • Check that your supervisor knows your planned hand in date, as they probably expect to see the final version and check it briefly before they let you hand it in.
  • Try and visualise how it will feel once you have handed in to get that final bit of motivation.
  • Perhaps even book something to look forward to such as a holiday after your hand in date.


9 weeks till thesis submission-thesis boot camp 

Current thesis word total: 85,594 so longer than The Secret Garden!

(Surely it must be almost finished??? Microbes are so small how can a thesis about them be so huge!!)

Anyway, this week has been a bit different….

Thesis Boot Camp came to town! 

Normally I write at home, I have everything set up on my desk/floor the way I like, I have no distractions from my colleagues chatting in our communal office or interruption due to questions about experimental problems. Also I can use my voice to text technology (dragon – which I really recommend) without irritating anyone. This set up has worked well for me the last few months.

However this week I attended a 3 day writing retreat at the University of Nottingham (see more @UoNTBC). It was a specific course called Thesis Boot Camp, the aim of the course was to get one draft results chapter written in the 3 days. An ambitious aim.

I am already past this point so decided I would draft my tricky introduction instead.

The structure of the course is actually very  simple:

Tell 3 people what you are aiming to do that day,

write in the silent communal space with 25 PhD students for 3 hours,

have lunch and talk to the other stressed PhD students,

return for write for  2-3 hours,

have an active break- a walk,

return to writing 1-2 hours,

have dinner with other PhD students,

write for 1 more hour,

then talk to original 3 people about what you achieved,

and tell your word count to the organisers.


Did it work for me?

I have mixed feeling about the course, as it didn’t work for me personally, but I could see it was working for others. Their twitter account shows that other students that attended are positive about the course. So maybe its worth a go if you are struggling with procrastination issues as there is a pre-organised structure to your day. Also if you are a PhD student who is feeling really isolated and lonely because of the writing process, you may benefit from seeing other student in the same situation as yourself.

I think I went into the course with the wrong expectations. Secretly I was expecting more formal’teaching’ about effective writing practices. I wanted some sort of clever writing or editing tips which would revolutionise the way I write. This didn’t happen. The only real tip offered was the pomodoro technique which uses 25 minutes of writing with 5 minute breaks, which doesn’t work for me as I take about 15 minutes to settle into writing. But worth a go to see if it works for you.

There was no loss in attending, I generated about as much writing as I would have if I had been at home-almost 5,000 words!!! But this was nowhere close to the 20,000 word goal set by the course…

Anyway nothing ventured nothing gained!

I would love to know about any useful courses anyone has attended in regards to writing tips and strategies- please leave a comment.

Also people writing up, out of interest what is your typical word generation a day?

Off to do some more typing!








Pint of Science Nottingham 2016

On the 23rd May 2016 Pint of Science went live in Nottingham for the first time! Pint of Science is an international science festival that takes place in pubs across multiple countries every May since its launch in 2013. With the number of participating cities increasing every year.

Scientists are taken from their natural environments of University’s and research labs into the relaxed atmosphere of the local pub. Here they can present their hard earned scientific findings in a simplified, fun fashion and be quizzed by inquisitive members of the public.

I was lucky enough to be part of the team that brought this interactive science concept to Nottingham for the first time. The Theme I focused on was ‘Atoms to Galaxies’.

The Nottingham festival was coordinated by the talented Matt Young and many members of STEM Outreach Nottingham Society. It was pulled together in 8 months covering 4 great science themes across 4 fantastic pubs in Nottingham:

  • Beautiful mind @ Canal House
  • Atoms to Galaxies @ Spanky Van Dyke’s
  • Planet Earth @ Rough Trade
  • Tech me Out @ Missoula

Most of the events were sold out and the feedback from the public was very positive. Which is an amazing achievement for a first time festival put on by volunteers. Most of the volunteers were PhD students but there were also contributions from undergraduates, post docs and other academics that made this festival possible.

My personal experience of Pint of Science 2016 is told below:

I have been involved in science events and communication before so felt totally prepared to offer my help and get involved with Pint of Science Nottingham. However along the way I found out how different organising your own stand or talk is compared to forging a cohesive program of events over 3 nights.
sold out

Day 1 

The day stared with me at the venue from 3pm setting up the audio visual equipment. I had great help from Tom, the events coordinator at Spanky van Dyke’s, especially with working out extension cords, projector positioning and mic sound checks.

At 4pm the additional chairs and tables I ordered arrived, this was a done so quickly with a group of men piling up furniture in the door way and being gone before I could say a word to them. Efficient you could say, however I was now left with 50 white patio chairs and 10 white patio tables, so much for the black folding chairs I had requested! So the next challenge was to hawl these upstairs and arrange them in the venue space. Now the space looked a little like a garden party gone wrong, so another rearrange: hiding the white plastic tables in the back room, and replacing them with the trendy metal stools, and adding the finishing touch by placing some candles!

2016-05-23 16.59.20


Finally it was looking like a bar again!

Next steps involved a kind friend enduring some tricky one way road systems and loading my boyfriend up like a pack horse to get all the various banners and merchandise to the venue.

Once the merchandise arrived so did the rest of the group, it was 5.30 so 1.5hr till the public arrived.

It was like a whirl wind, tshirts flying everywhere, pens being launched, banners being hoisted. But it all came together and I was breathing a sigh of relief when a side of chips arrived.

Seconds later our first audience members appeared, which was reassuring even though we knew we had sold out so we’re expecting about 90 people.

However I did start to wonder where the speakers were, the crucial aspect of the event! I needn’t have worried though as the speakers arrived in time and then it was a time trial to find any technical issues with the presentations. Of course their were some issues and I was lucky a member of the team had a spare usb stick handy.

Before we knew it the event had started and everyone was listening avidly to the weird and wonderful world of physics.

While they listened me and the team were filming, tweeting and marking quiz sheets.

After the applauds me and the team helped the bar staff clean up and saw first hand how many people had binged on a pint of science!

 Day 2 

After the hectic nature of the first night the second ran perfectly.

The speakers talks were paired with transfer tattoos and a play doh molecule making stand, which helped encourage people to get even more involved.

2016-05-24 21.13.28

And even though we had had a last minute change in the program our replacement speaker was great and even brought some liquid nitrogen along.

 Day 3 

The final day, another sell out evening and fantastic talks about outer space. The audience was great and kept asking questions. In the background the team was trying to adjust the mics as the audio quality had changed, then as the rain in Nottingham got heavier a leak developed!!

Panic amongst the team at the puddle forming around the electrics, however a word with the management, a bucket and a lot of bin bags later and we were back on track.

The night ended on a high with lots of photos, a giant piece of chocolate fudge cake and stacking garden furniture!

Top tips for science events

  • Always have spare usb stick
  • Know how to use the audio system
  • Don’t panic if things go off track
  • Risk assessing is worth it just in case
  • Never underestimate the British weather
  • Take lots of photos and get your audience tweeting
  • Ask the venue where they hire from so you don’t end up with garden furniture!

I fully recommend getting involved in the Pint of Science festivals around the world to give you a taste of quality scientific public engagement. Already looking forward to next year!

even better

Photo courtesy of Tom Bailey.

Elevating voices: Women in Science, Engineering and Maths

Attending ‘Elevating voices’  last week was a really uplifting experience. The conference was held on the beautiful grounds of the University of Nottingham (on one of the hottest days of the year) by the Women in Science Engineering and Technology Group (WinSET). This was the 5th event held by WinSET and aimed to make womens presence felt by highlighting the contributions made by women in STEM and across the University. The focus was on getting female scientists voices heard, be that in the media, the university, or by developing your career voice.

The conference was a great success. It was well attended by female scientists from across the Departments at Nottingham University. The attendees ranged from lab techs and PhD students to professors. It was refreshing to be in a conference room and not be frantically scribbling all there is to know about microbial signalling! However there was still a lot to be learnt from the speakers, it really left me thinking.

For example speaker Dr Heather Williams Senior Medical Physicist and ScienceGrrl Director, gave a fascinating talk ‘Out of the frying pan and into the future: channelling the energy of outrage!’ which touched on the recent comments made by Tim Hunt about female scientists. She described how these comments acted as ‘a flash point’ resulting in public outrage from many in the science community (men and women). The overall effect was likened to drops of water dropping into a bucket, and that eventually one drop will make the bucket overflow. However now the flash point has been reached there is a tendency to quieten down again, until the bucket overflows again in another year for example.

She pointed out that though on the surface it looks like we have reached equality, there are still issues of unconscious bias in recruiting and salaries (shown by a 2012 paper in PNAS). Also even before this point we still have issues to address with the number of girls engaging with science, in particular with Physics. Heather quoted some interesting statistics from The Institute of Physics

For example currently only 20% of students progressing on to A-level physics are girls and even after that, at degree level female Physics undergraduates were less likely to finish their degrees. The reasons for this lack of women in Physics is complex and comprises many aspects such as the: cultural perception of Physics and the education system. Heather also highlighted a report by Sciencegrrl called ‘Through Both Eyes’

Which points out some important aspects for anyone making decisions on subjects for a future career: These were: Is it for people like me?  Do I feel confident? and can I see the pathways and possibilities?

Its an interesting point the ‘Is it for people like me’ question as only with increased visibility of women in physics will girls have the role models to encourage them along this career path. These 3 points chimed with my experience of Physics at A level. There were only two other girls doing the course and we were split between different classes, so we learnt in a very male environment. On top of this I didn’t feel very confident in my ability and no-one really encouraged me to work at it. Which led to my decision to follow the route of biological sciences instead.

Heather ended on a positive note encouraging female scientists to take opportunities to get out there and promote real role models.

I am hopeful that the presence of women in Physics will improve in the future and feel encouraged by the photography project on women in physics the my sister carried out a few years ago that there are a growing number of role models out there.

There were many other fascinating talks during the conference, to do with media engagement, the importance of technical staff in research, and workshops in how to develop a confident career voice.

I look forward to attending again next year!

(for more information on WinSET :