Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

I’m A Scientist…!


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!!

Submitted Questions

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…

A Selection

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)


A few of ours were of dubious content or just rather amusing!

Why do we feel so depressed on Monday mornings?

Why are there no lobsters in the Pacific?


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.

Q. Can you “catch” cancer?

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.

A few more: what is the purpose of colours? Why is ice clear and snow white?

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!!

The Result

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”!!).

Overall Impressions

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!


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

9 thoughts on “I’m A Scientist…!

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention I’m A Scientist…! « Purely a figment of your imagination -- Topsy.com

  2. What a lovely write up, Marianne and congratulations for second place. Had you been on that last live chat, I’m sure you would have nailed it!!

    I just imagine what it would be like to be told “You’re on the panel!!” I’d have been so excited but at the same time frantically hoping that I could answer the questions, particularly in the live chat (lacking the time to quick-reference something you want to say *eep*). How did you feel before your first live chat?

    What an excellent way to get thinking though; answering questions on topics that you know so much about but have probably never had to explain to anyone else before, not to mention the personal challenge of answering questions on topics you’re not so au fait with.

    It must have, also, been great to have been asked questions that diverted from the norm and I get the impression from your blog that you answered quite a few. Were there any questions that were so diverse, that it was a challenge to answer based on facts due to lack of resources, so rather than not answering you gave a personal perspective from your own ideas? more like, something they could think about rather than a definitive answer?

    A lot of people depend on Google for answers, so it’s great to see IAS encouraging students to veer away from that approach and actually ask a number of scientists for their answers/ideas. This has the potential to provide a student with different perspectives, so they can go away and think about it for themselves and make their own decisions (ooh, Skeptics in the making!?)

    I couldn’t help but cringe over Paula’s comment regarding plaigarism and I am so pleased to see the subsequent comments remained on there because it is a very important issue. I know it’s not a publication she’s contributing to, but still!! Also, hats off to AndrewL for highlighting the case, so publicly. I wonder how many times his finger quivvered over the send button, in questioning-wonder of whether that was the right place to raise the point or not?

    Thanks again for a great insight to this competition (I’ve also learnt something new: the ice/snow Q&A – I never knew that!!)

    • Hey Della,

      Yes I was excited and terrified to be chosen! I know that I and some of the other younger participants felt a bit fraudulent being in it 😉

      And some of the seasoned scientists actually!

      The chats were actually my favourite bit. I’ve been used to online conversation for about 13 years now; my touch-typing is pretty good (if I do say so myself) and I enjoy the chat room situation generally. It was fun to be able to have a real-time conversation with the students and they seemed to appreciate it too – especially when I said I was off to Russia and started typing some cyrillic, that went down really well!! Отлично 🙂

      It was really difficult to answer some of the submitted questions. Sometimes one or all of us genuinely knew the answer and gave it in our own words. We also heavily relied on wikipedia and google of course but we did (mostly!) point out when that happened.

      I think the point of the exercise was also to show the kids that scientists do NOT know everything, to try to break down that know-it-all stereotype, to show that you can absorb knowledge from lots of places and there’s no shame in saying ‘I don’t know’ – you can go and find out!

      I think that was a really important part of it actually.

      AndrewL gave a lot of questions-in-response-to-questions so he did really well in giving them things to think about, I expect!

      I doubt he hesitated much (if at all) in calling Paula out 😉

      • You made a really good point there, about scientists do not know everything. I work in a histology lab, yet some members of my family and friends actually ask me about all sorts of science or health related topics, thinking I know everything and they seem disappointed if I don’t have an answer. Of course I go and look it up for them but its quite frustrating sometimes as I feel like they’re questioning my abilites as a scientist….I really shouldn’t feel this way!! Maybe I’m just being too sensitive, or maybe they need to realise not all scientist do know everything, as you said.

    • Just feel compelled to thank Marianne for taking that vacation in Moscow – if she was there for that last chat, I would have been a no-hoper 🙂

      Also agree wholeheartedly with you on the scientists not knowing everything issue Della. Two things that really wind me up – people that assume because you are a scientist you know about the current state of science in every nook and cranny, and people who write popular science blockbusters without understanding the details, and end up appearing much smarter than working scientists as a result! Of course, there are many fab science writers, but I always had a tough time as a physicist with those writers who authoritatively enthuse on how modern physics explains everything from spirituality to consciousness, while I was struggling to get my head round Einstein’s general theory of relativity!

      • Love the enthusiasm you bring AndrewM and wholeheartedly agree with you….about Noodlemaz’s vacation in Moscow at least….!

  3. dude! devil transmissible facial tumours! it’s the perfect illustration of why cancers usually can’t be caught — the exception that proves the rule, if you like. the tasmanian devils are being driven extinct by a transmissible cancer because of the founder effect — a genetic bottleneck when tasmania became separated from the mainland means that the devils’ immune systems fail to recognise the tumours as foreign.


  4. Pingback: Interacting on the Interweb « Purely a figment of your imagination

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