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!).
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.
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.
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!
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.
Extra links about the Nuclear Zone event: