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Communicating science to the physicists of the future

In my mind, part of my role as a scientist is to help people see just how magical a subject physics really is. There aren’t many subjects than describe the birth of a star, insides of an atom and chemical composition of the atmosphere.

Physics makes maths worth the effort, turns computer codes into languages that can explain the world, and makes chemistry look like kitchen science.

Science communication in academic circles concentrates on convincing people that you’re right; you’ve answered a key question and deserve all the publications and funding for doing so. However, science communication to the next generation is much more fun than that.

Communicating science to the next generation opens the door to your lab (literally or metaphorically), and shares just a little bit of your enthusiasm. I do this on an almost daily basis, crossing the campus and capital to communicate what I love most. It’s a tough gig but the sense of happiness and pride you get when a student asks a question, at the end of a talk, or in an email several weeks later, is the best feeling in the world.

The biggest project I’ve arranged was with Greenlight4Girls, where I invited 200 girls into the Blackett Laboratory for a day of 18 industry- and academic-led workshops and seminars. #g4gImperial was the first ever Greenlight4Girls event in the UK and saw girls playing with an enigma machine, extracting DNA from strawberries and learning about particle accelerators with beach balls.

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A mural from the Greenlight For Girls event, looking to encourage more young girls into studying science (Photo: Jess Wade)

It was a huge project, from finding funding for lab coats and food for the masses, designing science exercise books and photo-booths to getting this all approved with campus security. I didn’t expect it to be easy, but nor did I anticipate how tricky controlling the sign-ups (we had 350 applications), liaising with the parents, arranging WiFi logins or convincing volunteers would be.

I ploughed on regardless: I made sure it didn’t interrupt work-time by spending an hour or two an evening (and a morning) processing emails, sorting kit and storing my many packages. Somehow it worked – not only did the students, parents, workshop leaders, Imperial professors and group leaders leave SW7 with a scientific spring in their step, but 100 % of the girls now want to apply to Imperial.

Since then, I’ve hosted another 200 on campus for a panel discussion about pathways to scientific careers, ‘Routes to STEM’ with the STEMettes – slightly lower key organisation-wise but just as high impact.

For me, 2016 welcomes a whole range of exciting new challenges: collaborations with the IOPuniversity extension projections, judging at the final of UK Space Design Competition, arranging Women in Physics conferences with schools across the country and working with the WISE Campaign.

'Meet the Stemettes' panel event @ Imperial College - Visit
‘Meet the Stemettes’ panel event @ Imperial College – Visit

There are about a thousand positive reasons why you should consider communicating the science you enjoy and the passion you have to the next generation, and often these reasons will manifest themselves in thousands of different ways; there’s the girl you spoke to at a school a year ago who emails to say she’s working with a space scientist, there’s the parent who gets in touch to say what an inspirational time their children had at your event, there’s the individual letters from everybody in a class thanking you for a visit.

The next generation don’t need science: science needs them. We need people to design the complicated systems and infrastructures of the future… they’re waiting in classrooms across the country, and we just need to share the passion we already have for science with them. The rewards are endless, and definitely make all the hard work worthwhile.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you want any advice or to be put in touch with anyone. Currently, Imperial are running a range of projects to excite students still at school about science, you can find out all about their upcoming outreach events here.

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Jessica Wade

Jessica Wade

PhD Student at Imperial College London
Jessica Wade is the winner of the 2015 Early Career Physics Communicator Award, and is an active member of the IOP.
Jessica Wade

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