So i’ve been pretty silent lately.. In all honesty I haven’t been sleeping much, I’ve been rising early and cycling like a mad woman to the serenity of my lab- where I put on radio four and answer the two-dozen e-mails I’ve received since the night before. What’s been going on?! Well outside of the science (and the science has been pretty awesome…) I’ve been arranging my biggest ever ‘outreach’ event- an all-girl science day in the hallowed laboratories of Imperial College.
On Saturday 26th September, the Department of Physics went ‘swipe-free’ 09:00 – 10:00 and welcomed 200 girls into the Blackett Laboratory. This was an epic organisational triumph: a cross-campus multi-department effort to encourage and inspire 12 – 16 year old girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths. I think I learnt what most people mean by ‘collaboration’ and how hard it is to get people to do things for free on a weekend- absolutely no budget and no staff privileges meant I had a one month self-taught crash course in event planning/conference organising/crowd control/schools liaison, all the time struggling to keep out of the watchful gaze of my supervisor. After interacting with greenlight4girls at their day @ the International School in Brussels last year, I helped them again at g4g day @ CISCO in April. We started dreaming about their first UK adventure- and pretty quickly that became a reality.
What have I learnt from the whole thing? It’s important to be nice to people- especially when you’re asking for things for free! The ‘more girls in science’ pitch sales pitch is pretty compelling and usually when you explain what your plans are people are more than willing to donate their time, resources and efforts to such a worthwhile cause: but not if you aren’t polite or clear. Arranging an event on campus is a BIG deal. You need to get departmental approval, security approval, faculty approval. You have to consult the college brand to see supposed to use the imperial college logo, then break every rule in the book and change the colour. You have to have a pretty big name on the booking form to avoid paying thousands of pounds to rent lecture theatres on the weekend. Lots of people just don’t e-mail back, and lots of places still prefer phone calls (especially learned institutions and academies). Ultimately, everyone at the end of the electronic postal system is a human, and each one of those humans wants to know what you want them to do, or send, or design.
The Outreach Central team at Imperial are a sensational force of good: they really do now how to plan an event for school students. They know exactly who to ask about Wi-Fi access, swipe cards, prospectuses and catering. They have badge templates, how-to-guides for writing final event information and an extensive loyal school mailing list. They know how to do the ‘housekeeping’ part of an intro lecture, that on the weekend you even have to rent a lobby (!) and where fire exits are. They have fridges for keeping alcohol in overnight ahead of extracting strawberry DNA, they don’t freak out when workshop leaders request a 2 litre measuring cylinder and they have exquisite cross-college contacts.
My PhD has made me pretty good at getting things (and equipment) for free. My early hours have made me pretty friendly with the estates team and goods-in, along with the cleaners, who’ll become your best friends (the keepers of MANY keys) when you start arranging events on campus. After arranging so many service visits I’ve got pretty good at negotiating campus parking. After so many postgraduate events I’m a pro at low-cost-catering and know how unreliable supermarket deliveries can be. Don’t underestimate how much 250 book and 200 lab coats weights- this is You’ll need a strong friend and a sturdy Goods In trolley to haul all the march around campus.
I emailed lots of people- I must have spent easily two hours a day for the passed two nights communicating with workshop leaders, desperately recruiting student and postgraduate volunteers to lead groups and companies to get discounts on the ideas I’ve had. After falling in love with the Photo Booth at the project mc<sup>2</sup> launch earlier this summer I was quick to contact the Dreambooth team and arrange the Blackett Lab’s first ever Photo Booth: each photograph had a background of graph paper and was branded with the Imperial College Logo.
The event went ‘online’ and the g4gLondon@gmail.com e-mail address mailbox started to fill with messages from keen parents and savvy students. I really felt I knew them in the run up to Saturday- when they came up to me to introduce themselves (and ask me to sign their lab coats!) I knew where they went to school and what their dietary requirements were. The ‘register of initial interest’ was huge- 350 girls from schools right across the UK. I contacted the top 250 and asked them to confirm their interest in a final form (and undercover pre-event survey). The shocking stat that only 33 % of them could name a female scientific discovery made me trawl the college website for science superstars: the under publicised female academics. It wasn’t hard to find them though- with women right across campus making ground-breaking discoveries everyday. I made a set of Women@Imperial, which the girls got on g4g day.
I’m REALLY into useful conference swag and, during a particularly long in situ Raman measurement knocked up a cheeky exercise book design on Photoshop. The result was 250 beautiful bright blue books for the girls to detail their findings in over the course of the day. It turns out September’s not the best month to order 250 school exercise books with a two-day turn-around, but hey ho, genius ideas take time. They did come on time though and were the envy of all collaborators involved (I think Clarke Print may be getting a lot more non-school orders over the coming years). I appreciated that every time we interacted they called Imperial College a school (I’m almost a 100 % sure they don’t know we’re a university). Even the workshop leaders wanted one!
PHYSICS FUN LAB w/ the CQD
ENIGMA! Codes & Ciphers w/ Bletchley Park
Online Safety w/ Intel McAfee
Global Chemistry Experiment w/ RSC
Engineering Careers w/ IET
Universal Wonders w/ RAS
Beach Ball Accelerator w/ University of Oxford
Getting “In the Biz”! w/ g4g
Sports & Science w/ g4g
Lights, Camera, Action! w/ Hayley Dunning
Hour of Code w/ The Cisco Team
Exploring the Internet of Things w/ The Cisco Team
Is what you see really what you get? w/ Sinead Savage
The Bog Roll Model of the Solar System and Nebul-ART w/ RAS and IC
Watching Planes Fly w/ Intel McAfee
Raspberry Solar Cells w/ the Solar Spark
Applying to STEM courses at universities!
Bake Off judging/final
It’s hard to say who was my favourite ‘cyber-colleague’, but I certainly enjoyed the pre-dawn chats with the Royal Astronomical Society and shared passions with the Oxford Women in Physics group. I was overwhelmed with the support from Student Recruitment, who didn’t only provide banners, prospectuses and college branded logos the week after an Open Day but also two senior representatives (on the weekend!) to run a session on university applications. I’ll never quite get over being just a few clicks aways from contact with Bletchley Park, nor that to allow Tom to be able to have lunch I had to lock the enigma machine in my office (!). He couldn’t leave it anywhere unattended 😎.
So the day itself came, after a week of sleepless nights and endless to-do lists. I printed so many lists of contact details and registers and conformation e-mails and room reservations I got myself logged out of my college print service because of unusual usage. I sent so many ‘BCC’ e-mails gmail thought I was spam. I changed my Tesco order so many times even they must have thought I was mad: madly adding croissants, gluten-free muffins, vegan breakfast bars and wipeable tablecloths until close to the 23:45 cut off on the Friday before. I was terrified of timetabling 3 workshops for 200 people. After many lengths of the pool spent deliberating how to most effectively do this, I grouped them into STEM themes- the sky, engineering, technology, the human body, energy and materials and science communication. The girls were then split into 3 different age groups (11-12, 13-14, 15-16), each of which had a code (1.1, 1.2, 1.3 etc) and I only had to arrange 6 groups of 3 timetables. It was still a nightmare to generate the timetables themselves though, and I was super scared of slipping up and sending some confused kids to a grotty basement when they were expecting to be wowed by one of the world’s leading university. I didn’t sit down setting foot on campus at 05:30 with my dad- laying out the croissants, icing the registration desk, setting up the workshop leaders rooms, stapling their stats, couriering their kit. There were only a few hiccups (technical glitches/ a bigger than expected ‘astro dome’ circumference + pesky fire safety rules).
The girls arrived at 09:00 on the dot. They’d come from over 30 different schools and most of them didn’t know each other. The Photo Booth stood silently in the corner- I wonder what Lord Blackett would have made of this!- unattended until the girls realised it was free and the queue snaked around the ground floor. Everyone started to warm up, the 140 on-offer-at-ocado-panic-buy bottles of water and 30 frankly under-ripe bananas went in seconds. The girls streamed into LT1 and, for a few hours at least, men were in the minority in the physics department. I gave a little talk and bigged up the place and people that made me: South Hampstead and my mom, who was sitting in the seat I sat in for my whole undergraduate education, up at the back, in an aisle (classic Charlotte Feinmann move), in a corner. Professor Lesley Cohen, my shining star of the ninth floor, was there too. I had meant to mention her in my talk, and if my laptop had been showing the notes screen as well as the slides in presentation mode then I would have done- but I got rather flustered and teary after the shout out to my mom. In the build up to g4g day London a lot of names were thrown around to do the opening talk: the go-to guide for impressive female speakers. Dr. Emily Mayhew popped up on almost every list, and she did not disappoint: wowing the girls with her knowledge of medical fractures, female discoveries and difficult spellings. It turns out getting 200 girls to leave a lecture theatre in groups of 10 is a lot harder than you expect… but it worked, 11:10 the girls were in their first workshop.
The rest of the day seems a bit of a blur, rushing around campus collecting swipe cards (I was cautious of the £20 penalty on failure to return), diligently collecting kit, melting cheese in microwaves, raiding the cleanroom stores for absorbent towel, popping balloons, chatting to girls I’ve spent weeks talking to in cyber space. The names of their schools sounded like old friends. After lunch, their final trips to the Photo Booth and final workshops the girls regrouped in LT1 to hear from Lucinda, the ICU president. Lucinda’s the queen of the northern side of Prince Consort Road, ruling over the union and Beit Quadrangle. Lucinda is GREAT- she’s a passionate public speaker with a brilliant plan to represent science in politics. She’s bright, determined and enthusiastic- she has a degree in biology, a plan to protect elephants in Kenya and 9,000 loyal followers. Professor Sara Rankin dreamed up the Blackett’s first public Bake Off, and after Jess classic poster design we had entries from girls, workshop leaders, Imperial staff and senior academics! It was truly a masterclass in molecular gastronomy- with cakes representing volcanoes, hydrocarbons and brain surgery. The cakes were cut, the star bakers were chosen and the day came to a close. We had done it. 200 girls had made friends, made discoveries and changed their plans for the future. Every single girl I handed a goodie bag too said she wanted to apply to Imperial. The youngest wanted to know what they’d have to get in their GCSEs to come here. The oldest students were already imagining their first days in halls, where they’d eat lunch and which union clubs they’d join. I cannot believe how much of a success it was- or how much all the volunteers and workshop leaders seemed to get out of it. The tweeting was immense, the spontaneous feedback has made me teary-eyed and the enthusiasm empowering.
These are girls who want to become civil engineers, design their own apps and run their own research groups. These are girls who will. Every single organisation represented at the event (and in the goodie bags) is working to recruit more women into science, technology and engineering careers. They want the skills these girls had- the passion, the charm, the capacity to collaborate, the drive. These young women need to be celebrated, supported and encouraged. These young women will change the world.