Trigonometry and catapults: Not all scientists wear lab coats

“Do you guys have any survival training?” is a question that I had never been asked as an undergraduate, until, I supported a team of Biosciences researchers and academics with a sixth-form outreach session at the British Science Festival in September. I won the opportunity to support the session as part of a Careers Network competition and was very excited to take part due to my interest in science communication and research.

The workshop revolved around the students packing a kit bag for a day in the field, focusing on three scenarios: researching bonobo cognitive abilities in zoos using enrichment devices; orangutan locomotion in the Sumatran rainforest and recording African carnivore behaviour. This exposed me to techniques in field biology that I had not been aware of, such as using catapults to hang calibration frames, and the involvement of trigonometry in research into orangutan locomotion was definitely unexpected!

My role in the workshop was partly to give advice to the students about continuing their education and potential future careers; I shared my experience of volunteering, and recommended this as something that is open to young people without advanced qualifications. This followed the general careers theme of the festival.

A further role I undertook was to advise the students on which items to take to the field. Guiding them to the correct choices without directly telling them the answer was a style I had to adapt to. I also found that explaining in this way helped my understanding of why the equipment was useful.

Taking part in an outreach program, as opposed to communicating science to an adult audience, was a new experience. It quickly became clear that I would need to be adaptable as different students engaged with different aspects and rigid plans did not work with groups of different sizes. The preoccupation with the perceived dangers of field biology – “Do you have a no man left behind policy? Like if one of you lost a leg to a lion or something” – also reflected the interests of the teenage audience!

I really appreciated the insight into research that I gained from this experience. Learning about the varied projects of those I was working with was fascinating and I was able to fully appreciate how the activity in the department extended beyond the undergraduate teaching I normally experience. Talking to PhD students helped me to identify the next steps I need to take in my career, showing the variety of postgraduate qualifications available and the different routes to take.

I found it especially rewarding to hear positive feedback from students such as “I only thought of medicine or dentistry before, this makes you realise how many different fields there are”. I feel that this opportunity to learn more about research and to experience a different form of science communication will be invaluable for my future career.

This experience confirmed to me the importance of becoming involved with the Careers Network. I am now using my extracurricular activities to complete the Personal Skills Award, run by the Careers Network. I also attended a conference on ‘Communicating Science’ in November, involving speakers from academia, university outreach, medical communications, broadcasting and scientific sales. This helped me to reflect on how the communication skills I developed during the outreach programme could be adapted to use in a future career. Since the festival I have thought more about my social media presence, creating and continually updating a LinkedIn profile.

Ultimately, this experience has helped me to reflect on my future career through the insight into research and communicating science it provided. It has also helped me to develop new skills by presenting to a different audience, sixth form students. I would like to thank the Careers Network and the workshop team for organizing this opportunity.

Harriet supported the workshop session ‘Not all scientists wear lab coats’ designed and organised by Dr Julia Myatt; Miss Nardie Hanson and Miss Emily Saunders from the School of Biosciences.


About careersbham

Student Engagement Officer for Careers Network University of Birmingham

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