Soapbox Science, bringing science onto the streets

Taking their inspiration from Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, two women scientists, Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorell, had the idea to transform London into a scientific soapbox to get people talking about science.

DiscovHER - Tell us a bit about Soapbox Science.

Soapbox Science - Soapbox Science is a fresh, no-frills grass-roots approach to bringing science to all people on the streets, especially those who wouldn’t otherwise have come across science in their daily lives. Our Soapbox Scientists are real-life scientists, who are at the cutting-edge of scientific research. They stand on soapboxes on busy urban streets and talk to the passers by about their science. They share their knowledge, answer the public’s questions, and above all they share their passion and thirst for the advancement of science. 

Soapbox is not a new idea – in fact it’s at least 200 years old. Our format is inspired by ‘Speaker’s Corner’ in London’s Hyde Park, an historical arena for free speech and political reform for the people. Speaker’s Corner revolutionized democracy and freedom of speech in oppressive Victorian Britain, and helped create the open democracy that our country enjoys today. As publicly funded scientists, we believe that the public has the right to hear about the exciting work they help fund through their taxes, and engage first-hand with the scientists who do it.

In the true spirit of London’s Speakers’ Corner, we have to confess, our motive behind Soapbox Science is not apolitical…. It is not difficult to notice the paucity of women in science, especially at the top of the career ladder, and the lack of recognition for the work that women scientists do. You’d think in the 21st century – the age of equality – things would be improving. Soapbox Science aims to make a real difference to the visibility and perception of women in science. Since 2011, Soapbox Science has been used as a platform to showcase some of the most eminent female scientists in the UK at the height of discovery and innovation. For example, eminent scientists such as ecologist Prof. Georgina Mace (FRS), physicist Dame Prof. Athene Donald (FRS) and chemist Prof. Lesley Yellowlees (FRS; first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry) stepped onto our boxes. The event therefore takes a very real and up-front approach to increasing the visibility of women in science, and raising awareness of the current gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) research.

D/H - What inspired you to start the project, and what’s in store for 2014?

SS - As mid-career female scientists, we have both watched in horror as our female peer group gets smaller and smaller – even in Biology, which harbours the healthiest sex ratios among researchers, we find ourselves in a heavily male-dominated world at the senior level. We are using Soapbox Science as a vehicle to challenge the current culture in the science environment; we want to make it commonplace and acceptable for young female scientists to seek advice on avoiding the pit falls of the leaky career pipe that lies ahead of them. Soapbox Science tackles this in several ways: firstly it provides active UK scientists as accessible and public role models for women in science, challenging the stereotypes of what a scientist is/looks like. Secondly, Soapbox helps boost the careers and profiles of its Speakers. This is especially important for the early career women, whose positions are often still not permanent even by their mid 30s. Our Speakers write blogs about their work in national broadsheet newspapers and they are featured widely in media coverage of the event. The event enjoys substantial media coverage, including the BBC, The Guardian, Time Out, The Times (Eureka), Times Higher Education, Le Nouvel Obs. We also receive great interest from the scientific community, with coverage in Nature, Science and New Scientist. Finally, the quirky, no-frill format is a powerful and cost-effective and transferable way of empowering women scientists, anywhere and everywhere, to make their voice heard about the great science they are doing and, controversially, how a scientific career can be compatible with a good work-life balance.

2014 is an exciting year for us. We will be running our 4th annual London event on The SouthBank, with support from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme. In addition, we are establishing new events in different cities around the UK and Ireland, including Bristol, Dublin and Swansea. This marks the beginning of Soapbox Science expansion, providing opportunities for women all over the UK to get on their soapbox and tell the world about their work. It also widens the audience, which until now has been restricted to London.

D/H - You met through the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme, what is this scheme about and how has it benefitted you?

SS - We had actually been colleagues at the Institute of Zoology for a number of years, but what the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme did was bring us together as ambassadors for women in science.

The programme has been going on at an international level for 16 years and was established to address the under representation of women in science. The programme started in the UK and Ireland in 2007 (the year Seirian won), and provides practical help for women at the post-doctoral level. Four fellowships of £15k are awarded each year and you can spend it anything that will help further your research… buying new equipment, going to an international conference, field trips or paying for childcare costs.

We have both benefited tremendously from the fellowship programme, not just in terms of the funding it provides and giving us the support to start Soapbox, but also in the longer term. There is little doubt that these awards have helped to promote our careers.

D/H - And what support does the programme give to Soapbox Science?

SS - When we came up with the idea of Soapbox science we weren’t exactly sure how we were going to get it off the ground. The For Women in Science team at L’Oréal were quick to get involved becoming our partners from the get go. We worked together to develop the event and L’Oréal has been key driving awareness. Some of the women who have spoken on our boxes have been L’Oréal fellows and they continue to support the event on the Southbank.

D/H - What’s your day job?

SS- Seirian: I am a behavioural ecologist at Bristol University. As well as lecturing, I conduct fundamental research on the evolution and behavior of sociality: a key question in modern biology is understanding why and how biological innovations and complexity can evolve. Sociality – in the eusocial insects – is an excellent example of this. I use a combination of field ecology and genomic analyses to answer the how and the why of social behavior, from genes to individuals to societies.

SS - Nathalie: I am a conservation biologist at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London. I head the Environmental Monitoring and Conservation Modelling team, which is interested in developing tools and methodologies supporting the sustainable management of natural resources. My own research is about assessing and predicting the impacts of global environmental change on biodiversity and ecosystem services, with a particular focus on climate change. Extensive experience with remote sensing data and its usefulness in ecology and conservation drives my interest in promoting a better integration of satellite-based data in global monitoring programs.

D/H - Who is your inspiration?

SS - Nathalie: my daily inspiration is my job, not a particular person. There are so many facets to working in science and doing research, each incarnated by many heroes and heroines around the world. I can find inspiration in each researcher I meet. 

This interview originally appeared in Laboratory News.

For Women in Science

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