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



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 :

Last Soapbox Science of 2015- Hello Newcastle

Last weekend I attended my second Soapbox Science event of the summer in Newcastle.

The aim of Soapbox Science is to engage people with scientific research and promote the visibility of female scientists. It was interesting to attend this event in the aftermath of Nobel prize winner Tim Hunts misjudged comments about women in science, which sparked the ‘distractingly sexy’ trend on twitter. Many members of the public asked if this event was in response to his comments, though we explained the event had been planned well before the media storm.

We had some fantastic female scientists standing on soapboxes explaining aspects of their research. The range of science portrayed was vast, we had the topic such as the importance of gut bacteria to the composition of meteorites explained and much more.

The speaker I helped was Dr Cathleen Thomas from the Northumberland Wildlife Trust

She was speaking about species invasion (think grey squirrels out-competing our traditional red squirrel) and why it’s important to preserve native ecosystems. This topic allowed for some fantastic props, there was: a paddling pool with a selection of plastic pond life, a bubble machine, a giant ladybird and some stuffed squirrels. If that doesn’t draw a crowd I’m not sure what would! It was lovely to see how fascinated children were about the natural world and Cathleen successfully managed the challenge of engaging and educating both the children and their parents.

It was interesting to contrast the Newcastle event with my London experience of Soapbox Science. Both events were very busy and successful (19,000 people engaged in Newcastle) and both happened on lovely sunny days. The differences came in the form of each individual speaker, they were all talented scientific communicators but with varying styles. I really enjoyed observing this aspect, for example, some people had engaging scripts and particular points for audience participation and others opted for a more audience led dialogue, which can work well with an engaged group. It gave me an education in how to enhance my science communication skills and got me feeling creative about participating in future outreach events.

I would really encourage scientists of both sexes to get involved and volunteer next year. It’s a great opportunity to learn how to communicate your science effectively and allows you to network with other scientists who are all passionate about raising women’s presence in STEM. It’s a long day of standing but it’s fun and in Newcastle’s case there was free wine and hot dogs at the end of the day!

Soapbox Science 2015 Bringing Science to the People

Last week I volunteered at Soapbox Science London 2015. I really enjoyed the experience and would totally recommend it to other scientists.

This outreach event was held along the Southbank London, we were so lucky with the weather (sunshine really does help enthusiasm). The aim of the event is to attract members of the public to stand and listen to talented female scientists talk about their research.

Though the event is advertised there are a lot of people passing along the Southbank on a sunny Saturday so the idea is to attract in people who were not going out of their way to go to a science event. I like this idea as at the outreach events I have previously done (Mayfest Nottingham University) members of the public make a conscious effort to come onto campus and engage with us, which though good selects for the already engaged members of the public.

From volunteering on the day I can say that not everyone along the Southbank is going to be persuaded to stop and listen. However there is really no way of identifying who will and who wont. Having an interest or curiosity in science definitely isn’t splashed across peoples faces and some people are easier to convince than others. I have to say families were an easy target to get involved, and was encouraged when asking children ‘do you like science?’ I got lots of ‘Yes!’ and one very sweet girl who shouted ‘No I love Maths’ so lots of hope for the future of scientific research I hope.

Later in the day I helped out Dr Jessica Blair who was stood on her soapbox presenting about Superbugs and Antibiotic Resistance. It was great to see such a charismatic speaker. The simple props were very effective, a few cuddly giant microbes, some pictures of the creators of antibiotics and don’t forget some soil! She pulled in a real crowd, with a mixture of ages. Participation was good, bribery with prizes got the audience guessing at the number of bacteria cells in our bodies, numbers that are too big to properly comprehend. I was also interested to see that the public already had some knowledge about the challenge of antibiotic resistance. With complex questions about how to fund new antibiotic drugs and asking about Bacteriophage therapy.

As I said before Soapbox Science is a great outreach experience for scientists and personally I always feel more focused in the lab after these events so would encourage people to sign up and volunteer.

And if that was’t enough to convince you, in two weeks time I will be off to Soapbox Science Newcastle 2015! Looking forward to see what Newcastle’s Scientists have to offer!

The UK’s First-Ever Life Sciences Minister

With the cabinet reshuffle that happened a few weeks ago a new post was created, Minister for Life Sciences. This role has been given to George Freeman who was previously the life sciences adviser to the ex-science and universities minister David Willetts and is also MP for mid Norfolk.

How this new position will interact with the new science and universities minister Greg Clark is still uncertain, however this move emphasizes that David Cameron sees Life Sciences to be important for developing  the countries economy. Whether this additional role will help or hinder the development of science policy is currently unknown. However I’m taking a positive outlook for now, as George Freeman has a background in life sciences so should be well equipped to make decisions in this area. My only worries are that this additional role for Life Sciences creates a distance between it and the other sciences and that duplication of similar roles can lead to  an overlap that results in contradictory science policy development.


Voice of Young Science: Standing up for Science Media workshop

On the 13th June 2014 I attended a Standing up for Science media workshop, run by Sense about Science/Voice of Young Science I had been to a Science Media Centre event previously and expected something similar, a collection of lectures from leading scientists and journalists heavy with helpful tips. However this was not what I encountered, Sense about Science generated a unique event through the use of a panel and a lot of audience led questions and group work. This setup worked well and allowed a more organic debate to develop.

The group of senior scientists (Dr Tom Crick, Prof Stephen Keevil and Dr Maria van Kerkhove) were engaging and got across their points about how to interact with the media through personal anecdotes.  The overall message being have 3 key points that you want to get across and don’t get distracted from them. During the audience participation session the scientists were reassuring and encouraging about peoples worries about interacting with the media.

As despite all being young scientists it is still our responsibility to communicate our publicly funded research to the public and in some cases we are the better choice than our supervisors as we are pretty expert in our own areas and are less likely to use phrases heavy in jargon.

During the breaks in sessions group work was set which allowed the chance to network in a relaxed manner and talk about current issues in science reporting and the perceived barriers that prevent us from engaging with the media currently.

The next session was run by Science Journalists (Deborah Cohen, Claire Coleman and Richard Van Noorden). This showed the other side of the story and how journalists want to report correct but condensed science, however deadlines and headlines can be problematic.

The final session consisted of people involved in Sense about Science, Voice of Young Science and also had input from a press officer (Victoria Murphy, Rhys Phillips and Gail Wilson). This session hammered home the messages that had been given previously and demonstrated that it was possible to get involved! For example the Ask for Evidence Campaign is the perfect way to get started and stand up for science. Also the importance of letting your Press Office know when you are releasing a paper so that this research can find its way along to the media was emphasized. Additionally more modern ways of communicating research such as twitter and blogging were discussed.

It was a great day and nice to be around people that are passionate about communicating science, I would recommend PhD students attend any future workshops as even if you don’t plan to use the tips about communicating with the media now it may help in your future career.