Soapbox Science


Last Friday I took part in an event called Soapbox Science:

 From explaining the merits of experiments in space, to how plants make decisions, the Soapbox Science event aims to showcase UK women in science and inspire the next generation of scientists by making science fun and accessible.  

 When I was asked to speak at the event I was delighted, but then as it got closer and closer I started worrying about what I was going to say. I am used to talking about my research to academics at conferences, to students in the classroom, but talking about my research to the general public whilst standing on a soapbox on London’s South Bank? I wasn’t used to that ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

The research I planned to speak about was carried out with the wonderful Joanne Jacobs last year. We looked at whether using social media as part of the software development process could improve the quality of the software produced in our paper:

Sue Black and Joanne Jacobs. 2010. Using Web 2.0 to improve software quality. In Proceedings of the 1st Workshop on Web 2.0 for Software Engineering (Web2SE ’10). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 6-11. DOI=10.1145/1809198.1809201 

Although I’m very keen on getting everyone interested in and excited about technology, how important it is and how it will continue to become more and more important in our lives, I’ve never stood on a soapbox and tried to do that.  

I thought hard beforehand about what I was going to say, but didn’t get very far. I thought that maybe people would ask what software was so asked friends on Twitter a couple of days before the event how they would describe software to someone who didn’t know what it was. I got some great answers: 

@marxculture Mark O’Neill it’s the petrol that makes a computer run 

@andyfield Andrew Field The tools that allow you to actually make use of the computer 

@barnstormed Matt Rawlinson The car is the hardware, the driver is the software ๐Ÿ™‚ 

@MarDixon Mar Slowly. I usually explain it like a tv show on a TV box.

and many more.

On the day I didn’t need to describe what software is or how it works, no one asked me that. After I arrived I went around to listen quickly to the scientists that were already speaking. They all had props of some sort. I went inside and quickly put together three boards to hold up during my hour on the soapbox. I focused on what I thought (hoped) would catch passers by imagination. On the main board I wrote down several numbers:

7 billion

2 billion

750 million

200 million

62 million

20 million

and asked my audience what they thought the figures stood for. When I made it obvious that I was talking about social media most people seemed to be able to guess correctly what the figures referred to.

Once I got people interested I then went on to talk about how much social media, the internet and technology affect our lives in general, and then talked about how social media can help improve communication, especially between geographically dispersed teams, how it can speed up problem solving and much more J

I quickly got over over my initial panic about being able to talk to people who were walking along the South Bank trying to enjoy a Friday afternoon’s sunshine in an interesting and engaging manner and really enjoyed my time on the soapbox. In fact they had to tell me to get off at the end as everyone else had already finished ;))

 Afterwards I met some of the other fabulous female scientists who had taken part, and used Dr Kate Jones’ echolocation device which mimics how a bat manages to find its way around. Photos above.

 So Soapbox Science, great idea, well executed. But it is a real shame that we need to do this. The organisers of the event wrote an article which appeared in New Scientist recently:

“The high cost of being a woman” which applies evolutionary biology to the problem of women leaving science. Women leave science careers in droves from mid-career onwards. Why is that? I’d love to know what you think…..

What the figures I mentioned represent:

7 billion people on the planet

2 billion people on the internet

750 million people on Facebook

200 million people on Twitter

62 million people in the UK

20 million people on Google+ after just 3 weeks!

The world is changing….

Many thanks to Professor Jonathan Bowen for the great photos, my lovely friend Katrien van Look for putting me forward, and to Nathalie Pettorelli, Seirian Sumner and the L’Oreal Women in Science Program for being such great organisers :))


Links to press/blog posts etc. related to our Soapbox Science day :

My blogpost in The Independent – Women in Science: Can Twitter help us improve software?

Nature –  Soapbox science: female scientists on the South Bank

The Guardian – Why does it take L’Oreal to tell us that women are interested in science? 

The Independent – Women in science, getting women to stay in the field

Guardian Careers – Why more women should consider a career in science

Guardian HigherEd – Conservation of an endangered species: the female scientist

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