For now, anyway!
Early this year a colleague mentioned an upcoming competition that involved engaging with secondary school students as a scientist.
It sounded quite intriguing to me, with my recently-developed interest in science communication, so I decided to sign up to I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! – IAS2010 for short (with corresponding #IAS2010 tag on Twitter, although here you’ll also find stuff about the International AIDS Symposium!).
All I read on the website was that it would involve talking to students about our work and answering the questions they posed to us online. Having applied, I forgot all about it until I got an email saying I’d been selected to participate!
So, this year the competition was divided into twenty zones, each with 5 scientists. Some were general zones, including mine; the Silicon zone. Others were focussed on specific topics, for example the Imaging, Evolution and Cancer (Gioia also works in my Institute!) zones.
I really had no idea what it would be like; I wasn’t even expecting to be chosen, for starters. We got fancy information packs in the post with IVF debating kits (cards with some common arguments and difficult questions to muse on) and a bit of advice on what to expect from the participants and how to go about answering their questions.
Edit: read more about the project here at the IAS website – 100 scientists, 4667 students, 171 teachers, 6580 questions with 3085 comments and 4744 votes!!
So the questions came from two fronts; the bulk were submitted to the website either directed at one or more scientists specifically or to everyone in the zone. When the event kicked off we all found our email inboxes overflowing with questions submitted to us!
Before it all kicked off, I did peruse some of the other zones too; we were allowed to comment on all the questions on the site, whether they were directed at us/our zone or not. However, I ran out of time for this quite rapidly.
For me it became a case of taking the 5 minutes here and there in the lab, waiting for a gel to polymerise, a machine to finish its run, something to thaw or warm up – to go to the computer and answer a few questions!
As you can see the questions were extremely diverse; some related to science, some really not! From personal to academic, general to specific, incredibly perceptive to a bit silly – they were all there…
There were quite a few common themes with the questions, often reflecting popular culture at the time (e.g. World cup, BP oil spill, Glee, Twilight…) and lots of Do you believe in Aliens?? Will the world end in 2012??!1! / When will global warming flood the planet? and what’s the most dangerous chemical/experiment/equipment in your work? fascination with how close we come to killing ourselves on a daily basis. Also the inevitable few about our religious views, hobbies/personal life and that sort of thing.
Here’s a selection of my favourite questions as I browse through the site. I might add some more later if I come across hilarious ones!
Some of the questions just left us with cartoon-style ??? over our heads. Admittedly most of the maddest ones I saw weren’t actually in the Silicon zone.
Can cats smile? (Nitrogen Zone)
Have you got over 300 friends on facebook? (Oxygen Zone) why yes, yes I have! 😛
Have you ever been bitten by a crocodile? (Magnesium Zone)
ARE SQUIDS GOING TO RULE THE WORLD IN THE FUTURE ? (Are we too Clean Zone)
A few of ours were of dubious content or just rather amusing!
I have to congratulate all those who took part posting questions because we really did have quite a lot of good ones; thought-provoking, intelligent and difficult questions came up frequently.
A (me). For the most part, the answer to your question is no.
However, there are a couple of caveats to that.
There are some viruses that, when in the body, can contribute to the beginnings of cancer – for example human papilloma virus (HPV) that can cause cervical cancer (but that does *not* mean all cervical cancer is caused by HPV *or* that all HPV infections will cause cancer!).
Then there are the hepatitis viruses, which often lead to liver cancer over a long period of time.
We now have vaccines against both of these kinds of virus and that should mean that the number of cancer cases caused by people getting infected with them should go down.
In addition, a more gruesome idea, there is one kind of cancer (that I’ve heard of) that is actually transmissable via the cancer itself (rather than being caused by a third agent like a virus). It’s a dog cancer (so don’t worry about it!) located in and transmitted by the penis.
Here you go! http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9713-riddle-of-infectious-dog-cancer-solved.html
But no, generally, you can’t “catch” cancer – it develops due to mutations in the genome that accumulate over the lifetime and/or are inherited and therefore present from birth.
I particularly liked this question as it gave me a chance to go off on one about the limitations of evolutionary theory (i.e. that it does not apply to pre-life situations and matter).
I was glad to see “Do you think disease can be a good thing?( because it can control the population)”as I well remember my own public humiliation when a doctor laid into me for asking something similar, albeit at about 5 years younger than the students taking part in this event (as I stated in my answer). I’d like to meet that guy again and question his motivation for going to schools, actually, with the knowledge I have now!!
Also this question about licking cold things ended up with a good discussion about the importance of citing sources and the consequences of plagiarism.
Live Web Chats
There were also the live chats. Here we’d have invitations sent to us from the schools booking a 45-minute chat slot with the class; they’d all log on in their IT class and we on our work computers. There were two windows (now I wish I’d taken a screenshot!) with the class on the left (with the wonderful volunteer moderators) and us scientists on the right. It was all friendly with lots of hellos and thankyous, then the questions would come to us usually in @Marianne… ? format.
I think I managed to attend 3 live sessions. Well, 3 and a bit! Two went very well indeed, we had a lot of really intelligent questions, the classes were great (amusing, well-behaved and expressing a lot of gratitude!) and I really enjoyed them.
One was quite odd, where a few troublemakers/people not taking it so seriously did their best to hijack it with highly irrelevant, personal, rude and/or silly questions and comments. Still, I was surprised that didn’t happen more often and the mods did their best to keep things civil!
As for the “a bit”, by the time the final week rolled around I’d actually flown out to see my friends in Moscow (+3 hours time difference). Luckily I was actually in when one of the web chats was scheduled! That’s commitment, I thought (though not as much as Andrew logging on with a big mug of coffee at 4am US time previously).
Sadly the class didn’t turn up and it was rescheduled for the afternoon, by which time I was out and about sightseeing. I tried!!
So Andrew was by himself for the final chat and indeed he was the winner in our zone in the end; but I’m quite pleased with second! I had no idea what to do with the money anyway, whereas Andrew bought a copy of his favourite science book for everyone in the Silicon zone class (as detailed in the link) and signed it for them. He’s also written more extensively on the competition on his blog (according to him, I’m “hip”!!).
I think I’m a Scientist is a great engagement activity. It’s fun and interesting for young people at school, and was just as enjoyable for those of us taking part on the other end, I reckon. We all learned new things.
It’s a fantastic use of the internet and has probably helped some of the students to see how they could use it effectively themselves in future; we imparted (relative) wisdom on source validation, reading around subjects, crediting work and lots of other stuff.
I hope my recollections have been useful/interesting/enlightening to someone in some way 🙂
I would certainly do it again given the opportunity and encourage anyone who is interested to sign up themselves!