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Fastbleep Biology – Finding my feet in science communication

Fastbleep Biology – Finding my feet in science communication

By Rebecca Williams, a PhD student in the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. Rebecca's research focuses on how breast cancer develops. Her favourite things to do in her spare time are playing netball, skiing and drinking tea.

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There are lots of reasons why I got involved in science communication, and I’m not really sure which one was the deciding factor. The first time I got up in front of a classroom of kids to talk about my work, I found a confidence that I didn’t know I had and I knew I had found something I loved.

During my first year of my PhD, I was approached to join an organisation called Fastbleep, which had been set up by some University of Manchester medical students. At the time, Fastbleep specialised in online medical revision notes and medical school workshops. The idea was that I would run school workshops about biology, as an alternative to medicine for bright, science-hungry students. I accepted the challenge, and so it was that Fastbleep Biology Schools was born.

At first, I was the only member of Fastbleep Biology, and I hit a bit of a snag. Fastbleep Medical Schools workshops had it easy as far as I was concerned – everything they covered in their school workshops was new and exciting, and the hands-on equipment was relatively cheap (bandages, for instance). I realised that for Fastbleep Biology to work, I needed to be able to do biology in a more exciting way than the curriculum, which could prove expensive.

I began my adventure by going into schools and talking about my favourite subject, developmental biology. As much as I loved talking about one-eyed sheep and Sonic the Hedgehog genes, I knew that Fastbleep Biology needed to be more than just me, and more hands-on, in order to really engage the students.

I put a call out for volunteers amongst University of Manchester students, and gathered a small group to help out with the expansion. We were lucky enough to receive grants from both the Royal Society and the Physiological Society, which then enabled us to buy the equipment we needed to run proper workshops, to really get students excited by biology.

Our first workshop, “Cells Are Us”, was held at Sir John Deane’s Sixth Form College in Northwich, and was (thankfully!) a success.

Around this time, I began my second year of my PhD, and I was appointed as a Widening Participation Fellow for the University. I had a fantastic time in this role, coming up with school workshops such as “How to Build a Human” for a year 9 visit day, and “The Human Fruit Cake” for National Science & Engineering Week 2013.  Being a Widening Participation Fellow taught me three things about myself:

  1. I love being at the front of a classroom, regardless of the age of the class;
  2. You can make biology exciting without expensive equipment; and
  3. I feel passionately that every capable child should have the same opportunity to study at University, regardless of background.

These realisations deeply impacted on Fastbleep Biology, and we began advertising to schools with a high percentage of free school meals, in areas of socio-economic deprivation. I also began developing a Key Stage (KS) 2-4 workshop to expand the age range that we could work with. This workshop used our existing equipment along with everyday materials to allow students to discover how to use a microscope. My first experience of running a primary school workshop at Crowcroft Park Primary in Longsight was brilliantly chaotic and endlessly inspiring, and “Marvellous Microscopes” is now our most popular workshop.

Over the last two years, we have run school workshops all over the North-West with KS2-5, as well as running science stands at the Jodrell Bank Science Arena and university open days.  Fastbleep Biology Schools is now well into its third year, and we are collaborating with the STEM team at the Museum of Science and Industry to help get enthusiastic science communicators sharing their passion with young scientists in the North-West. Our workshops, “Cells Are Us” and “Marvellous Microscopes” continue to receive good feedback from schools, and our volunteer list is ever growing.

Winning the Society of Biology Award for Science Communication is my greatest achievement so far, and I have all the Fastbleep Volunteers to thank for making the vision a reality. My time at Fastbleep Biology is now drawing to a close, as in 2014 I will finish my PhD and begin my next chapter – training to be a science teacher for ages 11-18. My challenge for this year is to ensure the future of Fastbleep Biology once I have moved on, so we can continue to “bring biology to life” for many years yet to come.

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Rebecca Williams won the Society of Biology Science Communication Award for a new researcher in 2013.

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