I'm a Scientist …
'What is your favourite cheese?', 'How much do you get paid?', and 'What sort of music do you like?' These were some of the more unexpected questions aimed at Dr Mark Roberts, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biochemistry, when he took part in the recent web-based event, 'I'm a Scientist, Get me out of Here!' Undaunted by such diverse questions, Mark went on to take runner-up position.
The event, launched in 2008, aims to break down barriers and gets young people and scientists from across the country talking over the web. As well as being a great opportunity for young people to engage with scientists and find out more about how science works, it also gives the scientists a chance to hear what young people are interested in and what they think about science.
Mark and five other scientists took part in the event over a two week period in March. 'It was quite a rewarding experience,' he says, 'You describe your research and answer questions from the schoolchildren, both ones that they've left and also in live moderated chat sessions.' Mark works on bacteria and how they sense the environment around them at a molecular level.
Mark back in the lab
The two weeks also proved to be quite demanding. 'When you're dealing with live chats, you've got 15 plus students talking away and there are other scientists in the room as well with you answering the questions. Keeping up with that was actually a real challenge but was also quite fun,' he says. In total, several hundred questions were asked during the two week period.
Aside from questions about Mark's taste in music and food, many of the questions were about science and being a scientist. Some were surprisingly technical. 'There was one student who was really interested in how viruses cross species...I started to explain a little bit about how viruses get inside cells and how that leads to species specificity, so sometimes it did get quite detailed,' he says.
The young people, ranging in age from 12 to 17, vote every day to remove the least popular scientist until the remaining one is declared the winner. Mark, the only scientist from Oxford University, made it to the final two but narrowly missed first prize.
'When you're dealing with live chats, you've got 15 plus students talking away and there are other scientists in the room as well'
The 'I'm a Scientist' event is just one of many public engagement activities Mark has taken part in. He has a strong interest in this area and at this year's Wow! How? science festival at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he demonstrated how to extract DNA from bananas using a variety of household utensils and liquids.
He is also keen to inspire young people to study biochemistry at University. 'I am organising the Biochemistry Sutton Trust Summer School which will happen for the first time this Summer. It's for lower sixth students and we'll have 30 in the Department this Summer doing a whole variety of things. Essentially, the idea is to give them a taste of what University is like.' The Biochemistry Department received the most applications amongst the science departments. Mark will certainly consider his job well done if some of those taking part decide to study Biochemistry at University.