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22/07/2014

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Day of discovery

Day of discovery

by Ling Ge, Manager at EPSRC UK National Service for Computational Chemistry Software (NSCCS).

Ling GeAfter carrying out research in quantum computing and energy materials at Imperial College London, Ling is now a senior manager at Imperial, overseeing all aspects of the NSCCS to ensure that the UK stays at the forefront of computational research internationally. She is a regular contributor to the Financial Times promoting science, innovation and public health and an invited columnist for Wired Magazine.

Ling attended the Day of Discovery, run by Ipsos MORI and the British Science Association for the Public Attitudes to Science 2014 study.

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Last Saturday, I attended a Day of Discovery – run by Ipsos MORI – a chance for members of the public to come face-to-face with scientists, such as myself, and learn about what we do.

We all gathered at the splendid crypt in the St Martin-in-the-Fields church at Trafalgar Square. For one Saturday, I was the face of science – talking to the public about how scientists work.

The aim of the day was to find the best ways for the public to become more engaged with science, and to generate new ideas for scientists and policy makers to connect with the public.

I was joined in my session by Isabel, a neuroscientist, and our afternoon quickly turned into a science “Question Time” with people asking us everything from, what a quantum computer is, to (my favourite question) “with the development of wound healing, when can we become Wolverine?”

It was brilliant to see the enthusiasm in the room when we discussed the wonderful variety of scientific developments at the moment, ranging from curing diseases and animal testing to nanotechnology and outer space.

A section of one participant's science journey

My knowledge is not even close to a fraction of Wikipedia, but the audience somehow made me feel like a mini-Einstein reborn. I had to declare that I wasn’t.

The participants seemed to have the general impression that scientists are an incredibly intelligent minority. But as Isabel and I explained, more often than not, scientists are just people with an insatiable curiosity and willingness to study specialised areas for a substantial period of time – it really doesn’t matter what your IQ is!

We even discussed what an ideal scientist should be like and, surprisingly, the participants thought that people-skills were the most important attribute.

Other topics we discussed included, what our day-to-day work is like; where we normally communicate our findings, and how; where science funding comes from, such as the research councils (EPSRC, BBSRC and MRC), business and industry; the regulations and ethics of animal testing;  government spending on science; and our school visits to encourage young people to pursue science.

Apart from the buzz around breakthroughs in space science, I could see that the public were captivated by aspects of science with a human interest, for example, the science behind a good night’s sleep, or what our cells would do during a five-day fast.

As far as science communication goes, most participants had no idea that many scientists wanted to engage with the public. They were delighted to learn that there were BBC science shows, comedy talk shows and newspaper science columns. They were surprised that it was actually fantastically competitive to be the next Prof Brian Cox.

When I mentioned that I worked at the Financial Times as a Media Fellow and now write a column for Wired Magazine about the science behind certain products, such as a Rolex Watch, they were very interested and even expressed an interest in reading the articles.

Many of the participants though wanted to have more opportunities to meet real scientists in person, and to see more science programmes – especially those with female scientists.

There were a huge range of different "science stories" - this one shows the participant's highs and lows!

As the day drew to a close, a number of people hung around, enjoying the different conversations about science and scientists! I had a brief moment to myself to take a look at artwork on the walls, which participants had created during the day. Each piece, called “my science journey”, represented how the participants engaged with science.

Having experienced the Day of Discovery, I am optimistic that the future will see more and more people becoming aware of their own science journey, and it becoming a bigger part of many people’s lives.

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