Emma, Ogden Science Officer

 

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I’m an Ogden Science Officer in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Manchester. My job is about working with local schools and linking researchers with the public and young people. So, sometimes I’m delivering it myself and go out into schools that we get requests from for workshops, or they bring a class in and do something here because then they get to see the University as well. I also do the administration for facilitating sessions, so getting our staff and students to go and deliver workshops at like, science festivals, British Science Week, Science Spectacular, Manchester Science Festival and Bluedot Festival, so I do a bit of the delivery but mostly I do all the organising so that staff and students can just turn up and deliver the session. So for example, I was running some training yesterday where we brought in the Royal Society Media trainers for some of the undergrads to do a workshop on communication skills and developing some little talks that we’re going to give to schools. That’s what I really love about my job - getting people who are really keen to talk about their area of research, which I’m getting to find out about, and work out engaging ways to communicate that to people. I’m proud when I can see something that I’ve worked on having a tangible effect on someone’s life, I’ve had some really nice emails from teachers or parents or kids that have been on workshops - I mean, it seems like such a minor thing to run a workshop, but to actually influence someone’s life, in a way, is really great and really positive. I’m only here because I had really good physics teacher in secondary school who really encouraged me a lot: I probably wouldn’t have considered applying for Physics at University, even though it was my best subject, just because I had no concept of what that was like as a job or what that could lead to, so just to be able to affect someone’s life like that is important.

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I showed my friend’s 3-year-old a demo where you rub a balloon on your jumper and stick it on the wall - he couldn’t believe his eyes! It was amazing getting someone to see something for the first time, something we really take for granted. Then they were covering the whole wall with balloons! [As it turned out the reception class knew loads about the solar system, probably more than I did!] Doing stuff with primary schools is great because they are really keen, you can just go in, you can have activities and things, but you pretty much just have to say, ‘anybody got any questions about space?’ and all hands go up. I went in with a PhD student one time, and the first question we got was, ‘how big is the Universe in millimetres?’ I think it was good for the kids to see that our response was, ‘okay we can work this out… we can estimate it anyway’, so the idea is that if we don’t know the answers we can use a framework within science to get there, so I guess to show them the process. I think there’s a perception, I’ve seen this mostly in maths, but the idea, that at the University there’s big books where the world of Physics and maths is written down and you learn all of those, and then you’re done - without necessarily understanding it. I think that’s the way you’re taught in school - there’s a fixed set of right answers. But actually science is a process and there’s new science being learned all the time. I guess that’s also why it’s important to just follow what interests you, stuff that hasn’t been discovered in science yet may be what you end up working on in your career. You know, the job I’m doing now didn’t exist when I was a teenager, and I had no idea I wanted to do it until I was nearly 30. You don’t have to get fixed into a path, you can always go do something different.

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The need for diversity in science is a big one, like the push not just for women in science but how fair we are for minorities and disabled people and LGBT people - I just think that diversity in science projects is really important. It’s important to provide examples of ordinary women, that aren’t just the really exceptional superstars that no one can really aspire to be because they are the top 1% of 1%: instead showing all the other women that love their jobs and they are doing well in them, and that’s the kind of thing that is aspirational. I mean, not everyone is going to win a Nobel Prize or be a professor or an entrepreneur of an incredibly successful company, but everyone can find a job that they really find fulfilling in the kind of the environment that they want to work in. I think role models help that, to have examples of ordinary women working in science is a bit more attainable and I think just having them more visible – making people aware that there are women there doing it. I remember, I had read Richard Feynman’s books as a teenager and just really loved those, and the first time I saw a video of him talking I was blown away by the fact that he had a very working class Brooklyn accent. I never expected that, I had an image in my head that scientists were all very upper class, Oxbridge types.

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So in my own time I run a board games group, kind of a geeky sci-fi meet up group, which has a couple of thousand members in the city centre, so we meet with people in the Northern Quarter every few weeks. I really like co-op games like Pandemic and Elder Sign - there’s been a huge explosion of adult games in the last couple of years, so I’m really into that. I also go to the gym 6 times a week, I’ve been doing weight training, like power lifting for the last 6 months or so. It’s great, I feel super smug when I can lift more than I have before, I really like that and could have done with some of that when I was active in research and doing fieldwork! What else? So the usual, movies, I’m a massive TV nerd - the only thing I love more than science – so lots of Netflix, all sorts of comedies, the new Attenborough, Planet Earth II, is amazing too. I think I get a good work-life balance because I can set my own schedule, just the nature of the job means I do some evening events, and lots of Science Festival things are on weekends, and sometimes I go off travelling. I appreciate being able to travel as part of my work. I went to Berlin a few weeks ago because we’re doing a joint project with a university there. I was in Washington DC in February for a conference and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum giftshop had necklaces made from some of the meteorites from Campo del Cielo in Argentina: this was a huge meteor fall about 4000 years ago, and we’ve got a lump of meteorite that we like take round to schools to show kids, you know, some actual rock that came from space – so now I can show them I’ve got a bit of the same one on my necklace!
 

To find out more about Emma, follow her on Twitter, and check out the University of Manchester Physics Outreach Twitter feed.