I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!


In March of this year (2014) I took part in an online x-factor style science communication competition called, I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! I’d heard of the event before, and knew other people who had been involved, but for some reason I’d never looked into taking part myself. However, since moving to Paris, I’d been looking for more ways to keep my involvement in UK outreach going, so a two-week online event with school students seemed perfect. And it was!

I signed up on the website and gave my one-line summary of my work. I was told it was vital to put some thought into my summary, as the schools use this to help them decide who they would like to talk to. The line I gave was the following:

I design and test pixel detectors (like those in your digital camera) for the ATLAS detector at CERN and I also study what happens when a Higgs boson turns into taus (heavier versions of electrons).

From the descriptions, the scientists are then assigned to a zone, where they will be competing against four other scientist for the all-important student votes. The students get to vote four times through out the competition. Once up until the Monday of the second week and then once-per-day after that. After each vote a scientist is evicted, until there is only one left. The winner in each zone is given £500 for an outreach project of their choice.

I was assigned to the Nuclear Zone and after a bit of a discussion with Project Wrangler Josh about the definition of nuclear they were using (to make sure I was definitely eligible) I agreed to take part. It’s quite a commitment if you want to do the event properly so I made sure I had set aside sufficient time to make the most of it. Here is the definition IAS uses for this zone:

“Nuclear” isn’t all about power and electricity. Nuclear physicists study the nucleus of an atom; the protons and neutrons. And look at how these control the characters of an element. Where the nucleus emits radiation, we find radioactive materials. There materials can be used for a great many purposes in research, including power generation, medical treatments, archaeology, and detecting other molecules.

I was eligible because protons are the particles we accelerate and collide in the LHC to do our research. Also, when I test new pixel modules, I use radioactive materials (mainly strontium) to study how they respond. Hence I became an honorary nuclear physicist!

The next task for me was to fill out my profile. I wrote about “me and my work”, “my typical day” and possibly most importantly, “what I’d do with the money” (in my zone this was sponsored by the STFC). It took me a long time to chose what to do with the money because I felt it there were many excellent uses for it. In the end, I decided I wanted to keep it close to particle physics and would use the money, if I won, to take the International Masterclass to schools not currently able to take part.

There were four excellent scientists with me in the Nuclear Zone: Thomas, Simon, Daniel and Becky! I had a fantastic time learning about what they do and it was a pleasure to talk to them over the two weeks. Even though it was supposed to feel like a competition, it didn’t as we chatted while waiting to talk to the students and hung out in the staffroom during the day. It was also great to get to know the scientists from other zones and the IAS moderators who had the unenviable task of keeping everything working properly.

The event itself is split into two sections: ASK and CHAT. The ASK section is where the students send in their questions to the site and select which scientists they want to answer them. I had many fantastic questions from a wide range of topics; from antimatter to aliens! I was often asked about my research at CERN working on pixel detectors and the Higgs boson, which showed that the students were really interested to know more about the work happening there.

The second section was where we went for the live text CHATS. Each class signed up to take part in our zone had a half an hour time-slot to talk to the scientists in real time. At first I thought that thirty minutes might be quite a long time, but boy was it not! I’m sure some sort of time dilation was going on as except for the fact that my fingers hurt from typing so much, I wouldn’t have known that we’d been there for that long! The speed and variety of the questions meant that I barely had time to pause after answering one before I had to move onto another, I’m so glad I can touch type! But it was also a lot of fun and the live aspect is brilliant because the students have the opportunity to ask for the scientists to explain in more detail. Below is a screenshot from one of the live chats. The window where our answers were was to the right of this one (in case you thought I hadn’t been keeping up!).

One student was particularly keen on finding out my views on The Big Bang Theory!
One student was particularly keen on finding out my views on The Big Bang Theory!

As the days of week two went on and I didn’t get evicted, I started to hope that I might make it all the way to the end. I made sure that I answered every question that came to me, even if one of the other scientists had already given an answer (in that case, I would write a related interesting fact about the topic of the question). On the final Thursday at 3pm, it was announced that the head-to-head would be between me and Thomas. I was a former Manchester physicist and he was currently doing a postdoc there. We were both working on experiments at CERN.

IAS March 2014 Nuclear Finalists.
IAS March 2014 Nuclear Finalists.

I had no idea what the difference in the votes between us was (since we’re not told) but from looking through the profiles of the students and seeing who they were voting for, it looked very close to me! At 3pm on the Friday of the second week I was very nervous – I’d put a lot of myself into the last two weeks and I realised I really wanted to win! The announcements were made live in the staffroom and I was thrilled to see my name next to the Nuclear Zone! A little while later the photos at the top of the page updated with the banner over mine which made it real.

The scientists from the Nuclear Zone, March 2014.
The scientists from the Nuclear Zone, March 2014.

I was honoured that the students had chosen to vote for me. But whichever way it had gone, it was an enjoyable two weeks of sharing my research and love of science with enthusiastic young people. I was very glad I took part! You can lookout for a future post about how I spent the money.

A few weeks after the event finished, the check and my certificate came through the post. And along with them was my exclusive I’m a Scientist mug!

My exclusive IAS mug!
My exclusive IAS mug!

If anyone is considering signing up for a future event, I would definitely recommend it! The June 2014 event has already started, but there will be another this year, and interested scientists should apply! You can also follow the I’m a Scientist twitter feed @imascientist for up-to-date info about the event.

Engineers can join in too with the I’m an Engineer, get me out of here! event, and follow them on twitter @IAEGMOOH.

Extra links about the Nuclear Zone event:

A physicist walks onto a stage…

Last August (in 2013) the first LHComedy stand up show was held at CERN. I was in the final months of writing my PhD thesis, so obviously that was a perfect time to place myself at the mercy of a stand-up comedy crowd.

LHComedy: CERN After Dark
LHComedy: CERN After Dark

You might be asking, “why do a science comedy show?”. The word scientist can have so many negative connotations, just look at the autofill for Google if you type in “Scientists are…”, and you can see it’s not great!

Google's predictive text for a sentence starting: "Scientists are..."
Google’s predictive text for a sentence starting: “Scientists are…”

LHComedy was set up to combat some of these stereotypes, and of course, to entertain at the same time! This first event took place in CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation and was hosted by Radio 4’s Helen Keen. There were fantastic performances by all the CERN amateur comedians: Alex Brown, Ben Frisch, Sam Gregson, Hugo Day & Claire Lee. Rob Knoops worked back stage to make sure everything ran smoothly. We also had professionals, Lieven Scheire and Piere Noveli, who were brilliant and not to mention the wonderfully geeky music from Jonny Berliner.

I performed a stand-up routine about particle physics and being a female physicist. I talked about being the only woman at an experiment at DESY during International Women’s Day and how my colleagues thought they could support me. I also recalled what happened when two male PhD physics students tried to show off when I worked as a barmaid (between semesters of my undergraduate physics degree).

We sold out all 300 tickets a week before the event so the globe was packed — an important factor when you do a stand-up gig is actually having an audience to perform to! That they were a lovely audience was an added bonus! The event was also broadcast live online via the CERN webcast and we had approximately ten thousand unique live connections – at the time it was the highest number since the Higgs announcement in July, 2012!

If you’d like to watch the whole thing, the link to the recording is here (if you’d like to jump ahead to me, I’m a little after 50 minutes, but I don’t encourage that! 😉 ): https://cds.cern.ch/record/1597883?ln=en

Me on stage for the LHComedy performance - 30th August 2014.
Me on stage for the LHComedy performance – 30th August 2014.

Since the first event, LHComedy has become Comedy Collider, due to another comedy group already having the original name. The evening was so successful, there had to be a second event, so as soon as after Christmas 2013, we begun the preparations. Recently, I’ve been diligently adding photos from our previous event onto the @ComedyCollider Twitter feed so that everything was up-to-date for the announcement of our second event! In case you missed it, here it is:

And that’s tonight!

It will again take place in the Globe at CERN and all of our tickets sold out a couple of days ago, so we are looking forward to another full audience. Do not worry though, there will be a live webcast of the event here so you can watch online.

Webcast link: http://webcast.web.cern.ch/webcast/play.php?event=318724

The show will be hosted by Chella Quint and we have a whole new ensemble of CERN amateur performers, Nazim Hussain, Aidan Randle-Conde and Cat Demetriades! We will also be joined by Helen Arney from Festival of the Spoken Nerd for some fantastic music, and headlining will be FameLab Spain alumni, Miguel and Eduardo from The Big Van Theory.

Since I am in Romania for meetings this week, I will be watching the webcast too, and also monitoring the social media – why don’t you come over to @ComedyCollider during the show to say hi! Or you can use our hashtag, #noConCERN.

The next LHComedy event, Comedy Collider: No Cause for ConCERN, takes place at CERN tomorrow, Friday the 13th of June, starting at 8pm.

Link to Guardian blog post: http://www.theguardian.com/science/life-and-physics/2014/jun/06/comedy-collider-no-cause-for-concern


MOSI Collider exhibit launch – a virtual view

A little over a week ago, on Thursday 22nd May, the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) launched the Collider exhibit, a recreation of the experience of visiting CERN. I would have loved to have been there to help out, but unfortunately I had meetings at CERN the same week and couldn’t go in person. So I did the next best thing and suggested that we organise an ATLAS Virtual Visit to connect the Collider exhibit to CERN. A virtual visit is a live online connection to the ATLAS control room and is often used by schools to allow students to talk to scientists about the research taking place on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. As an aside, if you are a school teacher, you can organise a virtual visit for your class for free! Go to the following link to find out more: http://atlas-live-virtual-visit.web.cern.ch/atlas-live-virtual-visit/

Being at CERN also allowed me to show an example of just how faithful the exhibit is at recreating the corridors at CERN. In the following photo, Marieke (Manchester Science Festival Director at MOSI) and Andy (University of Manchester) pose in front of the recreation of a CERN office door:

So I went to find the same corridor at CERN and take a similar photo:

I did get a few strange looks from the guy inside the office when I told him his door was part of an exhibit and I needed to shut it to take a photo!

In the ATLAS control room later that evening, we had physicists Steve Goldfarb, Hugo Day and myself. Hugo’s not technically an ATLAS physicist, but we let him off because he works on accelerators like the LHC, helping to provide us with lots of collision data! We chatted with visitors to the Collider launch as they walked past and answered their questions. I really enjoyed talking to everyone! Jon Butterworth, who was at the event to give a talk about his new popular physics book, Smashing Physics (available at all good book stores, I’m sure 😉 ) asked me where we were at the event. But honestly, I have no idea – all I could see of the room was red ceiling beams, which doesn’t narrow it down! Also, with the camera above us in the control room, and the computer screen below visitors in the exhibit, I did feel a little like they’d shrunk us and put us in the museum! You can see what I mean in the screenshot from the video feeds below.

At the launch of the Collider exhibit at MOSI, visitors talked to CERN scientists in the ATLAS Control Room.
At the launch of the Collider exhibit at MOSI, visitors talked to CERN scientists in the ATLAS Control Room. Screenshot courtesy of L. Aguirre.

I followed the rest of the launch on Twitter, and from what I could see it was a really successful evening! There were many Manchester physicists there to show what a strong contribution to the research at CERN Manchester (and indeed the UK) has. I was very proud when I saw the following tweet from a panel discussion with my PhD thesis examiner, masters supervisor and PhD supervisor respectively.

The launch was even covered by the BBC, with the title “‘Beautiful physics’ at Collider exhibition in Manchester”: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-27523417

If you’re near Manchester and haven’t yet been to the Collider exhibit I thoroughly recommend it! This Friday, 6th June, there’s a late night opening:

Join us for a night at the museum that will entertain, inform and inspire. Mingle with scientists who work on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, get creative with drop-in screen printing workshops or make like an accelerated proton at our Large Hadron Collider roller disco*.

We’ll have another ATLAS Virtual Visit too, but this time with different physicists in the Control Room as I’ll be at the exhibit in person! Hopefully see you there!

If you’ve been to the Collider exhibit, in Manchester or when it was in London, I’d love to know what you thought, you can leave me a comment below!