Reaching the next generation of scientists
As a youngster, Shona Richardson noticed a distinct lack of opportunities to develop her burgeoning love of science. Now the PhD candidate is one of the School of Chemistry’s public engagement scholars, devising fun and interactive experiences that give school children the chance to explore and interact with various aspects of science and its application.
We asked Shona to tell us her thoughts on why public outreach is so effective, and why it’s crucial to the development of the sciences at the University, now more than ever.
“Sciences excites children”
I’m part of a team that creates experiments that we take to science festivals around the country, and we always plan to make these as creative and hands-on as possible. But they have to appeal to all ages too. Last year our main interactive activity was building oil-water glitter shakers. Although a simple experiment, it worked really well. We took mini lab coats and gloves so the kids got to dress as if they were real scientists, using pipettes and making their shakers really colourful with the glitter, while also learning why the two liquids separate. You could see the kids get really excited as they built them from scratch.
“Outreach talks to the next generation of scientists”
We adapted the glitter-shaker experiment to specifically suit a slightly older audience of 10-14 year olds when we took it to the last Midlothian Science Festival. We got them to make the oil-water glitter shakers and then to predict what would happen when things such as soap or an effervescent tablet were added. It was great to see the next generation take such an interest and get completely involved, and it was also incredible how some of them grasped such a good understanding of the subject, and knew exactly what would happen and why. It’s inspiring to see the next generation engage and flourish, and I love inspiring them to pursue science further.
“We’re filling a void”
From a young age, I have always been interested in science and the idea of being able to solve problems in a new and exciting way but I never had much of an opportunity to go along to science festivals or events growing up, as there weren’t any run in the area. Thankfully that is changing, and that’s one reason why I think it’s important to run these activities – I want as many children as possible to be able to experience science in this way.
“Being a student helps”
I’m a PhD student and I think that gives me (and my fellow outreach colleagues) a unique advantage as we try and link our activities to current and innovative research that central to the University’s priorities. For example this year our focus is ‘Chemistry of our Planet’ where we are linking some of the problems that the world is facing today – such as climate change and environmental issues - to current research in chemistry that aims to solve them. We want to show young people that our work is relevant, pertinent and practical. Also, being a young person in science myself I think I can relate to the kids I meet at festivals in a peer-like way, giving them a perspective that’s perhaps refreshing and different from that of their other role models such as teachers and parents.
“It’s good for girls”
There's no doubt that community outreach events are a brilliant way to engage young females in science and the possibility of pursuing a career in a scientific field. In my experience as a student in the UK, I have found that women are well represented at an undergraduate level, which is great and inspiring to see. But overall there is still a lot to be done for women in science. Worldwide we are still underrepresented, especially at an academic level. The University of Edinburgh does have a rich history in encouraging women who are pursuing science, and is the holder of an Athena Swan Silver Award. It also participates in international events like Ada Lovelace Day, which aims to encourage women in science by talking about the women who have already succeeded in this field. And that’s actually one of the reasons I was encouraged to do my PhD here. These initiatives are vital and necessary – and it’s still important for me to feel supported as a women in science at the University.
More about Shona
- Shona belongs to the Campopiano Group of researchers and focuses on the use of enzymes – nature’s catalysts - extracted from natural sources such as microorganisms and bacteria. “We use them to do Chemistry for us,” she says. “Our long term goal is to harness the power of nature and engineer these powerful catalysts to make therapeutically useful compounds in a greener, more efficient way than the traditional chemical industry.”
- She is also a STEM Ambassador for the University - STEM Ambassadors are volunteers from a wide range of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related jobs and disciplines. They offer their time and enthusiasm to help bring STEM subjects to life and demonstrate the value of them in life and careers.
- Shona is a member of the European Young Chemist’s Network (EYCN), an affiliation of EuchemS (also known as the European Chemistry Society), which represents the interests of chemists under the age of 35.
- As a member of EYCN, Shona’s work includes promoting the network’s activities by writing articles for journals across Europe; helping to facilitate collaborations with other networks; building a soft-skills library; and organising webinars and workshops. She also helps to identify opportunities for young chemists to engage with policy makers in Europe.
- Shona is a 50:50 student whose work is funded by the School of Chemistry and the Derek Stewart Trust.