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



11 weeks until Thesis submission

This is my second blog in a series of posts leading up to my Thesis submission!

So 11 weeks to go. Still awhile yet. Still enough time *slight hyperventilation*

Current Thesis word count is 69,700 words of varying quality…

Targets and Timetables

I have been setting myself targets the whole way through my writing up period. This was working quite well, until 1 month back in the lab turned in to 2.

I modified my writing timetable to try and get back on track and gain back some of the writing time I lost.

I can see now that I was never going to regain that month!

For the second week in a row I am not where my (self inflicted) writing timetable suggests I should be.

This weeks aim was to have ‘finished’ off all my results chapters- which basically means ‘to have added in all my extra data and produced a good discussion.’

Missing the targets I am setting myself at this point of the PhD is pretty panic inducing. I am working flat out at the moment, I can’t put this inability to keep up with the timetable down to anything social! And I know I cannot work any harder than I am currently.

So I decided to go and look at the facts. As I save all my modified chapters with the date in the title and I only work on 1 chapter a day I could look back and see how long the writing process has really been taking me.

Status of Chapters

  • Results Chapter 1: This chapter is almost finished- supervisor has commented that this chapter has ‘turned a corner’ : Time spent on this chapter: 33 days
  • Results Chapter 2: I feel like all the data is in this chapter and all that is left is polishing up the prose and perhaps a touch more discussion. Time spent on this chapter: 31 days
  • Results Chapter 3: This chapter is the weakest at the moment and has a large portion of data still to be added. Time spent on this chapter: 15 days
  • Results Chapter 4: I started on this chapter first got as far as I could with it and now need to add in some final data. Time spent on this chapter: 24 days

So a total of 103 days writing

We can now see results chapters are taking me about 30 days to get to a ‘nearly finished’ standard. (though I’m not sure really how you quantify that- I guess its just a feeling you get).

So setting myself to finished Chapter 3 and 4 to the same standard as Chapters 1 and 2 in 7 days was unreasonable!

Its obvious from looking at this that I most likely required 21 days to do this! So to reflect this- the next 2 weeks of my plan will be finishing off results chapters. Which takes me to the 5th August.

Leaving 56 days until submission, in this time the Introduction, Methods, Abstract, and Overall Conclusions have to be written.

I would like the final week to be a proof reading and printing week, so 49 days of writing remaining.

Lets assume that the Introduction will take the same time as a results chapter, 33 days.

That leaves 16 days for the Methods chapter, Abstract, Conclusions, and any other tidying up- which is a push, because of this I am going to start writing the methods when I am too tired to do proper writing.

So my advice is:

Do not set yourself unachievable goals.

Work out the writing time you need and protect this time from other factors. 

Write up the Methods chapter while you are in the earlier stages of your PhD- as Methods don’t change much

So lets see how my new plan goes! I will be typing away until next week..





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.