By Tabitha Jenkins
As scientists, we need to break down the preconceptions associated with a career in science. By tackling the idea that only ‘brainy’ and ‘highly organised’ people go into science, we can highlight the vast amount of opportunity in science careers, both in and outside of the lab.
Working with the Biochemical Society, we organised an opportunity for a group of year 7 and 8 students from Abingdon Prep School to interview a soon-to-be finished PhD student, James Grey.
Being hosted by the school, the interview was held during a science class and gave the chance for the students to ask questions to a PhD student who has been where they are now. The enthusiasm and array of questions asked was really fantastic.
With a short introduction to James’ research area of designing 3D tissue models to study breast cancer and only a slide showing some fascinating fluorescence microscopy imaging (shown below), we opened the floor to questions. A wave of hands shot into the air. Many students challenged themselves by trying to identify the different organelles that could be seen within the cancerous cells – you could see the confidence and thirst for knowledge grow in the classroom.
A lot of the initial questions focused on cancer research, asking questions from ‘how do you get cancer?’, and ‘how does cancer grow and spread?’ to ‘how is research used to differentiate cancerous cells to none cancerous cells?’ One student noted how the two cancer cells shown looked vastly different, even though they were derived from the same cell line. Being able to identify these differences and question this showed true potential in a future career in science. The enthusiasm of asking questions around James’ PhD work showed a passion for current research in science.
Photo credit: Anabel Gaskell, Abingdon Prep School.
As part of the interview we included a “Don’t Know” Mars Bar challenge where the first student to ask a question James couldn’t answer, would get a Mars Bar. This fun challenge showed how scientists don’t need to know everything, and in fact, part of the fun of science is finding the answers to your questions. The winning question was ‘Why is the green-labelled cytoplasm of cell 2 made up of circles?’ Answers on a postcard, please.
The flow of questions moved onto doing a PhD; students wanted to know about life as a PhD student, how long a PhD takes, a typical day and what happens when you finish. James didn’t shy away from acknowledging the occasional long hours and hard work of a PhD but went on to talk about how rewarding and flexible it can be. The students were all glad to hear that it doesn’t have to take up your whole life; there’s still time for video games!
As the questions became more personal, one student asked ‘what is your most favourite life form and why?’ James chose an amoeba because it behaves very much like human immune cells and was important in understanding and treating tuberculosis bacterial infections.
With the interview coming to an end and too many questions left to go, the final question asked the scientist ‘What is the most silly thing you have done in the lab?’ and with only slight hesitation in admitting this, James reflected on the time he had created misty exploding waterfalls from dry ice and boiling water.
After the interview, we held a more informal drop-in session for the students to come back and ask further questions and get involved in the Biochemical Society’s Scientific Scissors and the ethics of genome editing activities. One student asked whether you need to know everything to be a scientist? and was shocked to hear that most scientists know little in terms of ‘science’ and tend to be specialists on a very, very small aspect of a particular topic. The students all got stuck into the activities and worked together to rank the different uses of genome editing from desirable applications to those uses with which they would feel less comfortable.
This was a great event to start a conversation between young students and researchers in science. It opened up an opportunity for the students to consider research and science as a future career path and was also fun to talk about current research. We need to help those with low science capital to increase diversity in science careers, some people may never have met a ‘real scientist’ so we should move towards bridging this gap.
Photo credit: Anabel Gaskell, Abingdon Prep School.
When asked his opinion of the interview, James said “I was impressed with how the questions made me look at my own work; by asking more straightforward questions the students really made the potential implications of my work more real, a feeling I have never really got from talking to academics. I love talking about my work and it was great to see how I could pass on what I have learnt to the potential scientists of tomorrow”.
Above all, I believe it gave the message that scientists are normal people (and do have fun!) and if young students aspire to be scientists, they can be!
If you want to hold your own Interview with a Scientist, you can get access to any of the Biochemical Society’s public engagement activities on the website. Get in touch today with firstname.lastname@example.org and we can try and link you with local biochemists in your area. You can also use the I’m a Scientist Get me out of Here online resource which connects students to scientists online.