By Isla Watton, Soapbox Science Co-ordinator
Strolling along London’s Southbank on a May afternoon, you might not expect to see some of London’s top women scientists, armed with unusual props, heckling for attention from passing families. But that’s exactly what you will find next Saturday, as Soapbox Science once again populates the banks of the river Thames with experts on topics like Alzheimer’s, particle physics and birds.
For the past 9 years, scientists have been giving up a Saturday afternoon to smash stereotypes and spread the message that science is for everyone. Unlike the first brave speakers who stepped onto their boxes back in 2011, Soapbox Science speakers today are part of something much bigger. The outreach project has grown from one event in London, to a point where 42 cities worldwide are hosting events, all the while maintaining the dual aims of: making science accessible to everyone and highlighting the work of women in science. London traditionally kicks off the season and events will be happening in different cities almost every weekend until November.
As we busily prepare for this year’s events, I’ve been reflecting on some of my favourite memories from previous years. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to visit Soapbox Science events in various locations around the UK and I’m always surprised by the lovely interactions between the speakers and their audiences, especially children. In Cardiff, a young girl watched in awe as a scientist gave her presentation three times in a row, before stepping up to her and saying “Thanks, I’ll take it from here, I think I will give the talk this time”. In Thamesmead, a group of teenage boys stopped nearby, feigning disinterest and rolling their eyes, but slowly edged closer and closer until they could hold the bedsheet and marbles, being used to explain black holes, and in Lincoln a girl told her mother “it makes me feel like I can do it!” Of course, you do get some children who are much too discerning for us, like the 4-year old who sheepishly told a speaker “Your job is cool, but I want HER job?” (pointing at the volunteer holding the props) “It looks the same but easier.” The informal nature of the events, where the audience is free to question, probe and be really honest can be daunting for speakers, but by the end of their allotted slot, we have had to drag many speakers off their soapboxes as they are having such a good time.
But Soapbox Science isn’t just about what happens on the event days. One of the great things about the initiative is the community it creates. At the speaker training workshops, I’ve heard heads of departments chatting with 1st year PhD students about how to effectively manage their workload and professors from different institutions and disciplines comparing how they manage their long-distance relationships and their jobs. I’ve seen speakers greet the volunteer helpers with cheers of ‘I know you from twitter!’ and many of our volunteers come back in future years to be speakers themselves, or even set up events in new cities.
It’s this community that enables Soapbox Science to grow each year, as local teams work tirelessly to bring events to their cities, researchers from the entire spectrum of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine enthusiastically apply to take part and share their science with the public, funders continue to see the value in reaching new audiences, and volunteers eagerly sign up to help make the events a success. It’s a testament to their continued dedication that this year, during the London event, we are able to mark an important milestone for Soapbox Science – the 1000th speaker will step onto their soapbox during the three-hour event!
Looking ahead, it’s exciting to see events happening for the first time in new cities this year, including Accra, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and Ottawa. We hope that Soapbox Science can continue to grow and that the next 1000 speakers will have just as much fun as all the last!
Want to visit a Soapbox Science event in 2019? A full list of events and speaker line-ups can be found on our website: http://soapboxscience.org/this-year/
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