What do young people want to know?

Written by guest blogger Carmen Denman

Ever wondered what it would feel like to chat about science live online with three dozen young people? Put your hat in the ring and try out for ‘I’m a Scientist, get me out of here!’ funded by the Wellcome Trust.

A classroom of students (and their teachers) simultaneously login online to an ‘I’m a Scientist’ monitored chatroom, and begin firing questions at you. From screen names such as ‘Sparkel’ you might get asked ‘What did you give up to become a scientist?’, or ‘ilikepizza’ might ask ‘How many white blood cells are there in our bodies at any one time?’. 

Students can ask anything they want, not just about science, and await your sage answers eagerly. If you type a zillion words a minute you just might be able to keep up with their inquisitive and insatiable sponge-like rapid fire minds and typing speeds. After two-weeks, my thumbs nearly fell off from the effort of keeping up with these students.

This programme is quite possibly the coolest, most fun, and widest-reaching science outreach scheme I have come across. I decided to take part in the event because I heard about ‘I’m a Scientist, get me out of here!’ on Twitter from the Wellcome Trust account I follow. I’ve been a STEM Ambassador for four years now, visiting the odd primary school once or twice a year, or judging students’ work at the Big Bang Fair annually.

I often found the time taken out for in-person outreach difficult with a lab based schedule, so this online outreach really appealed to me. Anyone can handle thirty minute chunks of time for a live chat over lunch – and the chats in which you participate are advertised so you can choose which ones fit your schedule. Okay, ‘over lunch’ might have been a silly idea in retrospect; I had many a cup of coffee go stone cold during those chats. And you know it must be interesting conversation for a scientist to let a cup of coffee go cold!

To participate in ‘I’m a Scientist’, for starters, all you have to do is put your research summarised into one sentence on to their system. You can be a PhD student, research assistant in a lab, or even an astronomer, but you need some sort of ‘science job’.

Next, students and teachers will vote for you to be able to compete in a category or ‘zone’. After failing to get into the ‘Antibiotics Zone’, I was selected for the ‘Immune System’ zone which came up next, based on my research one-liner: “I engineer bacteria to make vaccines”. The live chats and question-answering began, and I was hooked on the contest like a caffeine addict to their Nespresso machine.

Then, after two weeks answering hundreds if not thousands of questions from dozens of different student groups from all over the UK and Spain, I ended up with the most votes and was declared ‘winner’ of the Immune System Zone! Fancy that, a microbiologist picked when there were  immunologists on the panel. There were some questions that were so out of my topic I had to do some serious research to answer them accurately – for example ‘Why don’t we sleep with half our brains on like dolphins do?’ or ‘Do our eyelashes and eyebrow hairs ever stop growing?’

I especially enjoyed the questions about infectious diseases and vaccines. There were plenty of thought-provoking questions from students, and it was refreshing and invigorating for me to interact with so many students inquisitive and curious about science – and all from the comfort of my desk or iPad on the train! I would encourage scientists to put their ‘hat in the ring’ and give it a go – you will get what you put into it back ten-fold (statistical significance tested using students’ t-test and Bonferonni post-test).

The fantastic Immune System Zone scientists, and all the students and teachers who participated, were a force to be reckoned with. I’m so proud to have been voted for by students, but more importantly, I came away awe-inspired by the eagerness for knowledge from the students. I learned far more from student questions and the effort that went into answering the questions, than I expected to.

I had so much fun spreading the good word about general science, science jobs, and vaccines. We shared our hobbies, personalities, and quirks during those two weeks and we hoped that students would see scientists as real people, rather than people always in lab coats, covered in safety goggles and with Einstein-esque hair.

Last Friday’s ‘final chat’ for ’I’m a Scientist’ felt like a science pageant, awaiting for the winner to be called out! Thank you to the fabulous moderators and the ‘I’m a Scientist’ team members for being so organised and such excellent communicators. It made participating in the event while juggling full time research work/travel easy. I even logged in for the last three days from Tokyo – juggling sightseeing with live chats and question responses was hectic but fun! My zone companions Steph, Laura, Noel and Daniel had just as busy a time of it working hard to answer hundreds of interesting questions. It was a great balance of expertise and interests, and it made not knowing an answer about B-cells less painful when I knew Laura was there to come up with a great answer in a live chat!

I will use the £500 prize money to put on an event at the School promoting science careers in a ‘speed-networking’ style (get in touch with me if you are interested in being a part of this!). I would also like to use some of the money for train journeys to visit some of the schools and classes that participated in the chats, to continue to spread the good word about vaccines and careers in science.



“The beauty of science is that it does not claim to know the answers before it asks the questions. There is nothing wrong with not knowing. It means there is more to learn, and as I have said before, ignorance bothers me far less than the illusion of knowledge”. – Lawrence Krauss.