Monday, 7 October 2019

Celebrating World Space Week


World Space Week occurs between 4th and 10th of October annually, and the theme for 2019 was lunar. This year I thought it would be fun to celebrate World Space Week with the 25th Bristol Sea Scouts and run a workshop to learn about the moon.


We had roughly 30 kids between the ages of 7 and 10 years old, and an even mixture of boys and girls. The session was on Monday 7th October from 7pm to 8:30pm but unfortunately the sky was overcast, so we instead made 3D models of the moon and learned about the phases of the moon using torches.



We then moved on to learning about how moon craters appear and making our own using a thick layer of flour covered with cocoa powder. We used some fantastic resources freely available from the Science and Technology Facilities Council here: https://stfc.ukri.org/news-events-and-publications/publications/stfc-publications-order-form/#educational/

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Friday, 20 September 2019

Becoming a pre-scientist pen-pal


Letters to a Pre-scientist is a program which connects scientists to students to help encourage engagement in science and explore science careers, it involved writing one letter every 3 months over a period of a year.

I signed up to the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program in July 2019 and before I knew it I was matched with a pen-pal and received my first letter in September. I was matched with a 10 year old boy from California who has special reading and writing needs but who is interested in science. He described how much he loves panthers and jaguars, and he wanted to know about my career and how he too can be a scientist (or work for the SWAT team, because they are cool too and it’s important to have options). I wanted to make my letter fun, so included lots of illustrations to help illustrate what I was talking about, and I tried to link to his interests like video games, explaining how many of the Pok√©mon are based on actual animals.



So far I’m enjoying being part of this scheme and looking forward to receiving my next letter. This scheme enables students to build one to one connections with a scientist, understanding they are just normal people and science is more fun and accessible than what is taught in school or shown on TV, which I think can be really meaningful.




If you too want to become a pen-pal to a student, you can find out more here: https://www.prescientist.org/
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Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Interview for the STEM career panel at The Big Bang Fair



Meet the future you
STEM careers panel


  1. What’s the most exciting or rewarding project you’ve been part of in the last year?
I would have to say the ‘Women in Innovation’ funding competition. I was involved with running this competition for Innovate UK and I read hundreds of applications from incredibly innovative women. Attending the final stage interviews and meeting the most innovative women in their respective sectors was humbling. These women came from a diverse background and in many cases overcame huge challenges to reach success, and I found myself inspired by their stories and amazing innovations.


  1. How does what you do change people’s lives?
I currently work at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and my role means I help fund innovative solutions to global challenges, such as feeding a growing population, or addressing the health challenges of an aging population. One exciting project was Worms in Space, which involved worms traveling to the international space station so we can study the molecular cause of neuromuscular decline which occurs during spaceflight, but is also relevant to human aging. This research could lead to revolutionary new treatments and healthier lives for our aging population, as well as allow us to travel to other planets.


  1. What’s the coolest bit of equipment you’ve used?
I used a next-generation genome sequencer robot, which is a machine which can sequence your DNA. I sequenced the DNA of a large group of people who had either pancreatic or ovarian cancer, then developed an algorithm to identify unique mutations and link these to the patients’ outcomes and responses to different drugs or treatments. This could eventually be used by doctors, who could sequence a new patient and look at the specific mutations they have and know which treatments are likely to be effective. Being able to sequence a genome within a few hours is an incredible scientific achievement which would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.


  1. What did you enjoy most at school/college?
At university I loved the freedom to choose the classes which interested me, so I took extra classes in virology and parasitology, as well as a class in Chinese. I loved being in an environment where I could study anything I wanted, and my tutors were very supportive and helped feed my curiosity. I also took advantage of the global university network to study abroad for a year in California. This allowed me to take classes which were not offered by my home university. Studying abroad was amazing and I would highly recommend it, as it helped me build a global network and become more adaptable to new ways of thinking and working.


  1. Why/how did you decide to become a scientist or engineer?
It was during my A-levels that I fell in love with genetics, as it was a way to understand the biological world around us, that there was a reason why some people can roll their tongue as others can’t, and the secrets were in our DNA. This discovery changed everything for me and that was the moment I realised I wanted to become a scientist.


  1. How do you think your job or industry will change the world in the future?
At the BBSRC we fund research to address the global challenges facing our planet. I think in the next decade we are going to see some rapid changes in the agriculture and food industries as the world adapts to a growing population and seeks to make food production more sustainable. Genome engineering is currently taking off, so I would expect this to play a large role in plant and animal breeding in the future. I also think there will be increasing research into alternatives to fossil fuels and ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere and plastics from the ocean.


  1. What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at work?
I used to work for Addgene, which is based in Boston, USA. Every year I would travel to Boston for some annual meetings and teambuilding, and normally this would coincide with Halloween. Over the years there were some amazing team costumes, but the one which really stands out was when my colleague’s team chose the theme of ‘A Christmas Story’, and he dressed as the leg lamp, wearing a giant lampshade as a dress. I seriously thought I would die laughing. There was an amazing group of people at Addgene and working there was so much fun.  


  1. Is there anything you wish you’d known when you were still at school?
I think I didn’t appreciate how the scientists we see in the media got to their positions, because from an outsider’s perspective it appears that they took a direct career path to their current job. We overlook and oversimplify the failures and career changes everyone experiences because no-one talks about them, and it’s easier to assume it’s because they were a genius. I would tell my past self that it is OK to try something and fail, to be ambitious and apply for courses and jobs which I don’t think I will get, because as the famous quote says “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars”. I have applied for dozens of jobs where I was not totally qualified and I still got offered the position or took a subject I thought I would fail and found I excelled at it, so I have learnt that the only thing holding me back was myself.


  1. What is the most important tip or piece of advice you can offer our visitors today?
I would encourage you to talk to the scientists and get involved with the workshops, we are all very friendly and would love to talk to you and answer your questions. This event is an opportunity for you to interact with scientists, find out what their job is like and ask any questions you might have, so don’t be shy!

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Sunday, 3 March 2019

Interview about mentoring for Science Sophie


I have been mentoring students about science careers for a number of years, and Science Sophie requested an interview about my experiences and some advice for students starting out in science


What made you become a science mentor?

Several years ago I was asked to give advice to a friend’s daughter who was doing her A-levels and wanted to discuss potential careers in science. Since then I have been approached several times to advise about science careers and how I became a scientist, and so I began actively seeking out opportunities to mentor students, as it was clear that there was a demand for mentoring. Since then there has been a huge increase in the support available, through organisations like www.skypeascientist.com, stemettes.org and the government initiative STEM Ambassadors www.stem.org.uk


Did you have any mentors when you were a student?

No, unfortunately I never had any mentors growing up, and so knew very little about science careers other than what you see on TV. None of my family went to university and I didn’t know anyone who worked in science, so I honestly had no-one I could ask about science careers or even how to apply to university. I asked my science teacher about careers but they couldn’t really help, as they went straight from university into teaching. At times I felt pretty lost, and I think a mentor could have really helped me, as there was lots of thing I had not considered and opportunities I didn’t know about that I missed out on.


What do you think are the benefits of having a mentor?

I think having a mentor can be really valuable, as you can ask them for expert advice about the sector or industry you are interested in, this means you can avoid some of the common mistakes and pitfalls when applying. Mentors are also beneficial because they are someone outside of your circle of family and friends, and so they can provide impartial advice and you can have an honest discussions about careers which you might not be able to with your parents for example. Mentors can also give advice on where you can apply for work experience and summer placements, as well as suggest prospective shadowing opportunities. I think mentoring is particularly useful to women, because we can sometimes be more risk-adverse, and so it can really help to have someone supporting and advising you, giving you the confidence and ambition to apply for your desired course or role.


Do you think mentoring will help equalise the current gender imbalance in some STEM subjects?

I think mentoring can contribute towards increasing both diversity and gender equality within STEM. The issue of the gender imbalance is a complex problem with multiple factors, but I do think mentoring and support mechanisms will meaningfully contribute towards change, but it needs to be part of multiple initiatives and interventions if we are to achieve complete equality.


How can students find their own mentor?

I would recommend that you think about what you are looking for, is it just support for one thing, like writing your personal statement or deciding which course to study or are you looking for ongoing weekly mentoring? Are you looking for a scientist you can meet and shadow just for one day or just email and find out what their job is like? Do you want to speak with someone with a specific role, such as a medical doctor, or would someone working in any field of science be able to help you? Also, how do you want to meet with the person? By phone, email, Skype or in person? These types of questions will help identify suitable mentors, because if you want in-person weekly meetings you need to consider the mentor’s location and availability.

Once you have thought about what you are looking for, you can then find relevant mentors in a variety of ways, including asking your teachers, contacting STEM ambassadors, Skype a Scientist, Stemettes, or your local university. Also, don’t be afraid to look for another mentor if you are not finding the support you need, because every mentor will have different strengths and can help you in different ways.


What advice do you have for someone trying to deciding what A-levels to take?

Firstly, think about the subjects you enjoy at school and what career you might like, you can then look at the university courses which would lead to your desired career and the common A-level subjects they require and the minimum grades you will need. This will help you chose the right A-levels to ensure you can be accepted to the university course you want.


What advice do you have for someone studying A-levels and thinking about university?

If you are considering going to university but don’t know where to begin, there are a few things which can help. I would recommend visiting a few university campuses and meet the staff, this will give you an idea of what university life is like, as it is very different from school. If you have a talent or sport you play then consider universities which excel in this, as this will add to your university experience and many universities will offer scholarships in sports (my university offered a golf scholarship!). It is also important to consider if you want to be close to home so you can visit family or if you want to live in a big city or study abroad.

If you are applying to a very competitive course or university then think about relevant volunteering or shadowing experience which might make you stand out in your personal statement. This is especially relevant if you are considering studying medicine, as universities want to see a long-term dedication and passion for science, so volunteering with St John’s Ambulance for example would make you stand out. Summer independent research projects are also a great way to stand out and would be a great topic to discuss in university entrance interviews.


What other ways can students get career advice?

Luckily there is lots of ways you can get career advice, including from you teachers, career advisors, and your school librarian. The best career advice recourses can probably be found online, because they collate a huge range of expert advice and career options in one place, and so I would recommend checking out good websites like https://www.prospects.ac.uk/


What have you learnt since becoming a mentor?

I feel I’m always learning, but particularly when I’m mentoring I find I keep learning a lot about myself. I try and focus on giving my mentee options to think about and questions to prompt them, rather than telling them what they should do. My role is to help guide and support the person, and let them make their own informed decisions. Sometimes this is hard, particularly when they are having a challenging time or struggling with exams or life, but I always remind myself that my job is to help them learn and grow and not to solve their problems for them. As with a lot of volunteering, I find that when I give my time I receive so much in return. With mentoring it is especially true, because you feel part of the person’s success and can celebrate their achievements.


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Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Interview for Geeky Girl Reality



1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do? 

I’m Emma, I currently work at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) where I help fund new innovations in biology, support scientists to find partners in industry and commercialise their research. Some exciting projects we have funded include Super Broccoli, which could help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease and the Gribble, which is a small crustacean which can turn waste wood into renewable biofuel and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.


 2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? 

Was it always something you knew you wanted to do? I didn’t always know I wanted to be a scientist. I trained as a tailor after leaving school at 16, but unfortunately couldn’t find a job, so I returned to school to take my A-levels in the hopes of eventually becoming a manager in a shop. I initially studied biology, where something just clicked and I fell in love with genetics. I went on to study genetics at university and then worked in a range of STEM roles; everything from clinical trials to develop new treatments for the flu, to helping develop algorithms which look at a patient’s cancer genome to identify the most effective treatments. One of my favourite roles was at a start-up non-profit DNA repository, which acts as a central place for scientists to share genetic materials with other researchers around the world. My role involved managing the logistics of shipping biological materials in Europe, assisting in problem-solving researcher’s experiments, and traveling to visit scientists and collect samples around the world. It was wonderful to be part of a small organisation where I could learn lots of new skills and felt I was making an impact. In contrast to this, I have also worked in large organisations, where I was one of a group of scientists responsible for processing samples and carrying out biological tests. The work is very structured and scheduled, working from a standard protocol in cutting edge labs to process a large volume of samples, so there is a wide range of roles in STEM to suit different people. I have been lucky enough to work in Australia, America and around the UK, as STEM gives you skills which are in high-demand globally.


3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings? 

 Personally, my motivation and fulfilment comes from helping others. I feel great satisfaction from being able to help someone with a problem; I enjoy speaking to other scientists, recommending available funding and support, learning about their research and promoting their scientific discoveries. I also feel job satisfaction when I’m able to make improvements in a process and have a lasting impact, as it is important to me to feel I’m making a difference and that my work matters.


 4. What do you do outside of work? Hobbies or interests? 

 I have a variety of hobbies and activities I do outside of work, as maintaining a good work-life balance is important. I enjoy pottery and still do some tailoring. I’m a collector of random skills and hobbies at the moment, most recently having learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube. I love volunteering for science festivals and running science workshops for kids. I also enjoy speaking on panels representing women in STEM, and promoting scientific careers to young women through visits to local schools and mentoring students.


 5. Who is your role model? 

If no one, any thoughts on this? I didn’t have any STEM role models or mentors growing up, as none of my family went to university and I didn’t know any scientists, so determining a career path was more difficult. I tried out a lot of different STEM roles to find a good fit. I really wish I had a mentor who could have helped me explore career options and the opportunities available, as this could have made this process easier. I think that’s why I’m always happy to mentor young people who want guidance about careers in STEM, because it’s so valuable to have access to guidance and support from someone who has relevant experience and works in the career you are interested in.


 6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

 I wasn’t very academic at school, so I never imagined becoming a scientist. I honestly believed that you needed to be a genius to study at university, because I never knew anyone with a degree. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that you just need to find a topic you are interested in and work hard at it and you will find success. Grades are important but they are not everything, especially when you start working, as skills and work experience are just as valuable. I also wish I had learned more outside of school or from other sources like online or books, because at school my enjoyment of a subject was heavily influenced by the teacher and their teaching style, and at the time I didn’t realise there was other ways to learn. I now read lots of non-fiction books about a wide range of topics in science, I just wish I had discovered them sooner!


7. Top tips for girls starting out in STEM? 

I would recommend anyone starting out in STEM to just ignore the haters and negative people and just do what you love. Don’t be scared to change courses or jobs if it’s not a good fit, it’s not a failure as you always learn something from every role you try. People don’t tell you that you will get dozens of rejections before you receive an acceptance, and it can really knock your confidence, so stay positive. Don’t be put off applying for jobs if you’re not 100% qualified, and don’t be scared to ask for a promotion and recognition for your achievements.


 8. How do you measure your success? 

I think success means different things to different people. Success for me is when I’m able to use my problem-solving skills to overcome a challenge, stretch my abilities, learn something new and push myself to achieve something. Hopefully, my work will help other people or make a lasting difference.


9. Where can we find out more about what you do? 

You can find out more about BBSRC and UK Research and Innovation here: https://www.ukri.org/ I’m very active on Twitter and discuss a wide range of topics in different fields of science, I also post about forgotten women in STEM. I’m very happy to answer questions or provide support to anyone considering a career in STEM, so feel free to contact or follow me on Twitter @GeneticCuckoo.


The original post can be found here: https://www.geekyreality.com/blog/stemstories-emma-researcher-england/
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Monday, 28 January 2019

Book Review: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh



I picked up this book as it seemed similar to ‘When breathe becomes air’ and it would be fascinating to read about the life of a brain surgeon. I did think some of the stories were interesting but it seemed a little dry and disconnected. The chapters each focus on a different brain disorder, which makes sense from the author’s point of view, but is less interesting for a casual reader. It would have benefited from being written more like an autobiography, so looking at key procedures over his career chronologically. I think the parts focusing on specific patients and you find out a little more about them make them more interesting compared with some of the other cases where it can be as short as ‘this patient came in last night, we looked at the scan, I operated and it went well’ it’s just not interesting for the reader. At times I felt his tone was also a bit self-important and obnoxious. He does discuss the ego of surgeons and how he tried to have more empathy with patients, but it can make him unlikable. 

Overall it was an interesting book, I would recommend this for anyone studying medicine or a related course, or anyone with an interest in neurosurgery, as they are likely to get the most out of this book.
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Saturday, 19 January 2019

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren



I wanted to love this book, after all it is about the life of a female scientist, but I just didn't. I think it was because there was such an emphasis on working every moment of the day in order to make your passion happen, which is commendable but I felt conflicted, as it's an unhealthy attitude for young scientists and has a detrimental affect on your mental health and well-being, but it was nice the author was so honest and didn't shy away from discussing her mental health issues. It's difficult, as I know it's an autobiography, and those are the experienced of the author, but I worry it might put of young women looking for role models and to go into science if this is what is expected of them. 

I did feel it helped highlight the precarious position many researchers find themselves in, there they are reliant on the next grant to pay their wages and there is no job security. I also appreciated how it called out some of the ingrained sexism she experienced. I loved the journey as the authors lab grew and she was able to work all around the world and become an expert in her field. 

Overall, it was a great book and a fascinating topic, and I would recommend to anyone working or studying science or has an interest in labs, and I would love to see more books exploring life in the lab.
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