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Soapbox Science success

26 July 2016

Soapbox Science was held on the 18th July in Broadmead Shopping Centre, where twelve female scientists took to their soapbox podiums to share their knowledge with the public. Dr Denize Atan, from the School of Clinical Sciences, was one of the speakers at the event.

Held for the third time in Bristol, the pioneering event aimed to challenge traditional science stereotypes and to take science out of institutions directly to the public. Speakers stand on custom made Soapbox Science soapboxes, arranged in a semi-circle facing slightly inwards to create space for a crowd to gather. The day was a success, with many members of the local community of all ages listening and getting involved with the speaker's presentations.

Soapbox Science was founded in 2011 in London, by Dr Seirian Sumner, from the University of Bristol, and Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, from the Zoological Society of London.  The festival has two aims: to bring the opportunity to meet and interact with scientists to unexpected places, and to increase the visibility of women in science.  This year the concept has gone international, with 13 events up and down the UK and one in Brisbane, Australia.

Dr Denize Atan, Consultant Senior Lecturer in Ophthalmology at the University of Bristol and Bristol Eye Hospital, represented the School of Clinical Sciences at the event.  She is also the Lead for Women in Science in the School of Clinical Sciences.  The following piece describes her experience of the event, where she presented her discussion topic, 'An eye on the brain':

Getting on my soapbox for women in science…

When I first learnt about Soapbox Science, I was excited and enthused by everything that it represents: first, to promote science communication; second, to increase the visibility of women in science; and third, to challenge the preconceptions and stereotypes of scientists that many people still harbour- mainly propagated by the media with characters like Professor Frink in The Simpsons.

The idea of standing on a soapbox to talk about science to anyone who might care to listen is a daunting prospect, and might conjure images of aggressive politicising on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park - this is actually how the idea of Soapbox Science came about. In reality, my experience taught me that it works as a fun, effective, and direct way to communicate with the public, allowing a two-way dialogue that can cover a series of varied topics from all sorts of different perspectives.

My Soapbox was not in London, but in the middle of Broadmead shopping centre in Bristol on a temperate day in mid-July. There were twelve of us who had been chosen to take part in the event in Bristol after we had completed an online application and selection process.

We were each allotted an hour to speak on one of four soapboxes. We were also bonded together by our uniform for the day - a white coat - and the bold Soapbox Science signage, balloons and volunteers in Soapbox Science t-shirts that we had to help us draw in the public’s attention.

My chosen research topics were vision and memory and the networks of neural circuitry that are important to both. Although quite a complex area of research, I had simplified this down to asking members of public to take part in my “Spot the difference” challenges and think about which parts of their brains they actually needed to succeed in these tasks. There were three challenges with a difficulty level of “easy”, “intermediate” and “expert”, and ironically, my easiest challenge featured a picture of a scientist in a lab. This was my springboard into talking about the neural circuitry involved in visual perception and memory.

The dialogue evolved into discussions about the colour of “The Dress”, the online viral phenomenon of 2015 (and other optical illusions) - do you see blue and black or white and gold? Why do different people perceive the colour of the dress so differently? And then the concept of “seeing” objects in the context of what surrounds them, spotting similarities and differences.

We had been encouraged by the Soapbox Science organisers to think laterally about using props to trigger our discussions and so I had come prepared with coloured wigs – red, green, blue and black to represent each type of light-sensitive photoreceptor cell in the eye and their spectral sensitivities to light - so that I could ask some volunteers to “model” the neural circuitry in the eye. I noticed my fellow Soapbox Scientists with props as inventive as “Pollinator Kerplunk”, hand-sewn neurons, soft and cuddly white blood cells engulfing viral particles, and we were even graced with a visit by a science-loving Stormtrooper!

I enjoyed listening to all the varied talks and discussions on the day and acquired some new knowledge myself. I had also brought my son to the event for his support during my Soapbox session, so that he could learn more about different aspects of science and also to canvass his opinion about the event as a whole. Interestingly, he had noticed the fact that all the speakers on the day were women, but after noticing and registering that fact, he did not think any more about it – because what is so unusual about women talking about science? And there lies the power of Soapbox Science.

Denize Atan

Further information

Soapbox Science promotes gender equality in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) by challenging accepted views of what scientists should look and sound like. Its long-term priorities are to change the experiences of women in science through campaigning for equality in academic institutions, government, and wider society.

Soapbox Science is supported by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC), the Natural and Environmental Research Council (NERC), L’Oreal, the Zoological Society of London and the University of Bristol

More information can be found at the Bristol event page and on the Soapbox Science website. You can follow Soapbox Science via the Twitter handle @soapboxscience, on Facebook and Instagram.

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