Last week was British Science Week, a celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, which is aimed at everyone. As part of this, myself and four other kung fu students (two PhD students, three professionals) who work in science visited the Harefield Academy to talk to a few 11-16 year olds, to answer the question of why science is worth doing and where it can take you.
Dr. Yevheniia Mikheenko was the first speaker up, and wove an inspiring tale of choosing your own path, about asking the questions you want to ask about the world. Plus the great feeling of (politely) sticking it to senior scientists when you prove them wrong. She managed to warp time during her talk, keeping the teenage audience gripped for half an hour in what felt like half a minute. Her neuroscience focus with excursions into mental illness, cardiology, and emotional resilience in athletes is a real testament to the scientific journey, which still has so far yet to go!
Greg Walters and myself as PhD students each gave accounts from the coal-face of scientific research, whether it be figuring out what Mars was like 5 billion years ago, or how to accurately measure brain activity and answer the question of whether your genes determine how your brain operates. It’s not always a pleasant experience, and thick skin coupled with good mental health is necessary to deal with your ideas not working on a daily basis. But if the scientific questions were easy, they would have been answered already – that’s why we’re here doing our best to answer them now. Then again, perhaps it’s worth it when you get a free trip to Spain to look at ancient mineral caves that are ‘a bit’ like Mars. You don’t have to do your research on Mars, when Spain is ‘a bit’ warmer.
As the youngest of the speakers, our career histories were somewhat shorter than the doctors – education being pretty much the whole thing.
What we could do is talk about the daily choice of laziness or getting stuff done, and how to lean away from laziness. I finished off my talk with a quote I heard Olympic rower Greg Searle use in a talk he gave at Cheltenham Science Festival:
“If not you then who, and if not now then when?”
Oh, and do loads of maths. Having good maths qualifications gives you so much freedom in the sciences and everywhere else. And it’s really, really fun. I might have laboured the point a bit…
Dr Annette Brühl then gave us an insight into studying medicine in a different country (Germany) when everyone around you tells you not to – and developing the belief that if you have a goal, you do what you need to in order to achieve it. Sounds obvious, but the practical steps aren’t always so clear. Being a medical doctor has a slightly different lifestyle to a research scientist, and everyone got a good picture of how much hard work goes into saving and improving patients’ lives. Annette finished up with the employers perspective, which had every parent in the audience nodding in agreement, and has shown me where I want to work when I finish my PhD.
We finished with Dr. Michael Cohen. Michael took us through one of the most varied and interesting career histories I’d ever seen, all the while making time for a million different hobbies and training kung fu in the mix. To go from academia researching embryo development to the Ministry of Justice to model prisoner re-offending rates can’t be easy, but Michael managed to make it look like it is. If you want an example of freedom in a career, then this is it (albeit followed around by your kung fu instructor checking your public speaking is up to scratch).
As is traditional for us as kung fu students, we got our feedback pretty quickly. We must have done a reasonably good job, as both parents and teenagers alike asked for us to come back next year, with more speakers and opportunities for a panel discussion. And refreshments.
After a quick lunch in the school canteen, we then started hitting each other and pointing out all our bodily flaws (in a constructive way, honest), as kung fu students are liable to do. Call it training if you must… having earned ourselves a proper meal, we then went to an excellent country pub for one of the most rewarding aspects of being a scientist – socialising!
Article by Arun Niranjan.