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Who would actively volunteer to subject themselves to a barrage of quick-fire questions about their job from young, relentlessly inquisitive teenagers? Dr. Gemma Swiers, a postdoctoral research scientist at the WIMM, rises to the occasion and takes up the challenge as part of an online public engagement initiative supported by the Wellcome Trust. From stem cells to beached whales, little did she know what she’d be up against – or how rewarding the experience would be.

My first tentative footsteps into public engagement came with volunteering with the MRC for the centenary events at the Cheltenham Science Festival. Encouraged, bemused and inspired by my interactions with students, teachers and fellow scientists, when I heard about the ‘I’m a Scientist: Get me out of here’ initiative I jumped at the chance to take part. Associated with the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, this year presented by Dr. Alison Woollard, scientists were sought out to help answer any questions that occurred to people as they watched the lectures.

The format was simple. Each week, a new set of 5 scientists would be on hand to answer questions. This Q&A session would take two forms. The first: 30 minute live chats with school children across the country. The second: answering ‘static’ questions uploaded by anyone to the website.

My ‘live’ week started on the 20th January, and I had 7 chats booked with students across the UK ranging from Year 8 to Year 13. The first live chat was an explosion of excitement, intrigue and genuine interest from about 20 Year 8 students and set the tone for the remaining chats. I have never typed (or Googled) so fast in my life. I faced questions ranging from “What first got you interested in science?” and “Is there any chance of using something like stem cells to cure cancer?” to the slightly more challenging “Do you wish there were no ethical laws on stem cells?” My personal favourite was the novel query: “When whales are ‘washed up’ what if they are trying to evolve?” – a question that demonstrated a clear grasp of the concepts of evolution, but not quite the timescales involved.

I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into public engagement and wanted to share my experiences with others who are thinking about starting some public engagement activities. Initially it was a daunting prospect, but it gave me the opportunity to think about science, and ask questions the way I did when I was at school. It allowed me to take a step back from my own research goals and allowed me to think about stem cells, evolution and cancer in a different way. And I feel empowered knowing that I have helped enthuse teenagers about scientific research. Who knows – maybe even inspiring them to continue with their scientific education.

Post edited by Bryony Graham.