Scientific facts, not fiction

19th June 2015 at 01:00

After Dynamic Earth's first formal science careers day, my favourite piece of feedback was this gem of wisdom from an S1 pupil: "Scientists are not always crazy.and not always male." This comment was heartening indeed, given that one of the aims of the event was to challenge perceptions of what a scientist looks like.

The format was simple: 180 secondary pupils from seven schools across south-east Scotland met scientists, mainly female ones, to find out about careers that are out of the ordinary. Speakers and exhibitors were invited to help pupils see that science in the workplace is more diverse, exciting and suitable for women than they might think.

We had stands representing everything from geographical information systems and marine biology to medical physics, science writing and even space weather forecasting.

Something I was keen for pupils to take away was helpfully summed up in another piece of pupil feedback: "[Scientists] don't always stay in labs - they also travel and work in interesting places".

I should confess that I knew very little about science careers when I was 13, but with hindsight I realise I was lucky. I had an inspirational physics teacher who wore saris in the lab and memorably told me she didn't care if I did my homework. She motivated me to study but was also a powerful role model, as far removed from the conventional image of a scientist as possible.

I got a grounding in physics and maths that enabled me to study for a PhD in geomorphology, travel to Africa and Antarctica to research landscape evolution, present BBC television programmes and end up with a career in science communication. This has culminated in my recent appointment as scientific director at Dynamic Earth. By enabling pupils to meet young, enthusiastic scientists, my hope is that they will be inspired to think favourably about science choices and get the same sort of grounding that I have relied on so heavily.

We hear a lot about the importance of role models in increasing the take-up of sciences at school, and particularly in combating the dramatic under-representation of women in certain disciplines. Organising the careers day highlighted the huge appetite teachers have for this type of event, as well as a willingness among organisations to provide role models - namely the young employees whose background in science has led them to interesting and rewarding jobs. It appears we all want to chip away at the myths surrounding science careers.

One day out of school may not be enough to solve complex issues about the perception of scientists, but as another piece of feedback reveals, it can be good place to start: "Before: crazy white hair, glasses, lab coat, dirty face (from explosion). After: normal, like any other person in the street."

Dr Hermione Cockburn is scientific director of the Dynamic Earth science centre in Edinburgh

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