Getting involved in public outreach

“Ok, maybe we won’t get the elephant poo out of the box…”

This was one of the more memorable quotes from a recent visit I made to a secondary school for a University public outreach project. As a PhD student working in the Animal and Plant Sciences Department, I love inspiring people – especially children- with scientific research. The brilliant thing about the University of Sheffield is that this passion is actively encouraged. Each year, they host a brilliant series of events to bring their cutting-edge research to the public, whatever their age and knowledge. Some of these are annual institutions – such as the Christmas Lecture, where over a thousand hyperactive primary school kids are crammed into the Octagon for a live extravaganza, followed by interactive demonstrations. Other events go on for days, or even weeks, such as the Festival of Science and Engineering and the Festival of Arts and Humanities, which get bigger every year. And some events are, quite frankly, ridiculous, including the 24-Hour Inspire – who goes to a lecture at 2 ‘o clock in the morning to learn about Neuroscience?!

All of these offer the chance for students to volunteer and get creative in sharing their academic interests. There are so many things going on that I have to be quite disciplined in the amount I sign up to – or I would never get any of my own research done! But I couldn’t resist getting involved with the Krebs Fest. This event, taking place in November 2015, celebrates the work of Sheffield researcher Hans Krebs, who was awarded a Noble Prize for working out one of the fundamental energy-generating reactions during respiration. One of the highlights will be a mini film-festival, where short science-related videos produced by local schools will be projected on a gargantuan scale on to the very walls of Firth Court.

Which is where I come in. To inspire the pupils with ideas, the University decided to send out PhD students to each school to talk about their own research. As I work on parasitic plants, I teamed up with another PhD student who works on parasitic nematode worms that infect elephants. Hence the poo!

It was a fabulous to work with the kids and discuss their ideas about what parasites are and how we could tell an imaginative story using animation. It’s given me good experience in adapting my language to suit a different audience –a key skill for any researcher. Besides parasites, the kids were curious to know what a PhD involves and how we had come to end up at Sheffield. It was rewarding to think that we could have opened their eyes up to a whole new world of career options – you never know the seeds we sowed that day….

I’d encourage any student at the University of Sheffield to get involved with public outreach, especially if you are considering a career involving teaching, marketing or events management. But besides looking good on your CV, it’s incredibly good fun too!

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