University of Dundee

Plant Sciences PhD student wins science communication competition

08 Jan 2018

Senga Robertson, a PhD student from the Bulgarelli lab in Plant Sciences, won the Wellcome Trust Plutonium Zone in the national science communication competition ‘I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!’

The competition is an online event where school pupils from across the UK meet and interact with five scientists in a themed zone. The pupils can ask scientists anything they like over fast-paced online text-based live chats or offline questions which the scientist can answer at their leisure. The pupils then vote for their favourite scientist in a daily round of evictions. The last scientist remaining wins a prize of £500 to communicate their work with the public.

Prof. Nicola Stanley-Wall, Academic Lead for Public Engagement in the School said that “Senga’s success is a testament to her enthusiasm for science and dedication in sharing her work with school children.” 

Senga was part of the Plutonium Zone which involved school pupils aged 8 – 12 years. “I was so surprised to win. There was a wide range of scientists in my zone who had expertise on subjects that I thought the children would find far cooler such as blood, dinosaurs, space and using lasers to zap bad bacteria,” said Senga. “I got asked so many questions that included getting to know me along with careers and science related ones. The most common questions I got were ‘what is DNA and what is its function’ and poo related ones due to my research focus on microbiology. I have already shared the outreach activity I helped to develop, Microbe Motel (or the perfect poo) with five of the schools that took part.”

Some of the questions Senga got asked helped to dispel some myths about scientists. “My most surprising question was asking me what the mathematical formula for the p orbital on an atom was! I had to look that answer up which I was honest about. It’s important for the pupils to know that we don’t have the answers for everything. My favourite question to answer was being asked if you have to be really smart to be a scientist. I said no, you need to practice. I gave the example of learning to read. When you start you cannot read anything but with practice you can read and understand more and more. I was so pleased when the pupil felt that they would be able to be a scientist if they wanted to be!”

Following her win, Senga visited one of the schools, Doonfoot in Ayr, that took part in the competition. All the children got a chance to have a go at the Microbe Motel activity which highlights the role microbes play in the digestive system.

The prize money will be used to pay for transport to allow local primary schools to come to an interdivisional day event in the Street of the Discovery Centre next year. Anyone who is interested to take part, please email SLS-PublicEngagement@dundee.ac.uk. More details soon.

Anyone interested in taking part in the competition in the future, please visit their website.

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