Friends, Romans, Countrymen – Let’s talk Science!

By Poppy Watson

We know through surveys that many people believe that scientists should spend more time discussing their work with the public. We also know that representation of females in science is not great. But is there a way we can tackle both these issues?

Introducing Soapbox Science – a unique science-themed event where high-profile, female scientists discuss their work with anyone who will listen. The idea is simple – four ‘soapboxes’ are set up in a small central space and twelve female scientists have one hour each on one of the podiums. Members of the public can come and listen to each scientist talk about their work and ask questions or start discussions. People do not have to sign up and plan to go, they can spontaneously listen to and engage as they wander through town.

Founded in London in 2011, Soapbox Science has now spread to over 20 cities across the world. This year, it finally made its way to Sydney, taking part outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay and featuring twelve scientists from local universities discussing subject matter ranging from volcanoes to quantum mechanics to the brain.

One of the soapboxes featuring Dr Domique Tanner with the iconic Sydney Opera House in the background.


I worked as a volunteer at the event, performing a range of tasks including directing people to the event, observing how long people stayed at the event, and organizing exit questionnaires. As the first four speakers took to their podiums, I was nervous. Would anyone would come and listen? Would they stay? Would they understand?

Me trying to lure crowds

I needn’t have worried – as soon as people saw what was happening or heard the word ‘science’ they headed over to check it out. Once there, most scientists only spoke for ten minutes about their research before having the rest of the hour flow organically as new people arrived and new discussions started up.

Whilst observing with the crowd – I also learnt a lot. Not only facts about science but also about how to communicate science effectively. For the first hour I observed people near the podium of Dr. Gal Winter who talked about: “The gut microbiome: Ask not what you can do for your microbes but what they can do for YOU”. Gal used some clever tricks to make her talk fun and engage people. As people approached, she said “catch” and chucked them a bag of sand weighing 1.5 kg to illustrate how much of our body weight (approx. ~2%) is made up of microbes. This trick meant that people moved closer to catch the bag and were then hooked into the topic. Lots of people wanted to talk about probiotics (whether they are worth it), links between gut microbes and depression, and fecal transplants. At one stage Dr Winter donned a Tina Turner wig and got the crowd to sing What’s the gut got to do, got to do with it, what’s the gut but a host for a million microbes”…amazing.

Dr Gal Winter throwing bags of sand to her crowd.
Dr Lisa Williams on her soapbox.

I also learned a lot from my colleague Dr Lisa Williams from UNSW who talked about “Is the pursuit of happiness shortsighted?”. It turns out that pursuit of what makes us feel ‘happy’ is not a good strategy to wellbeing because happiness is a single, short-lived positive emotion. Instead, we should focus on a wider range of positive emotions by doing things that make us feel, for example, grateful or proud. This fascinating topic generated lots of discussions from the public on cultural differences in happiness expectations, vocabulary around emotions and whether tips given in women’s magazines are based in scientific evidence.

The people I interviewed at the end (ranging from 6 – 80 years old) said they thoroughly enjoyed the event – with all of them saying that they never or rarely attended science events and were just walking past but ended up staying to listen to all of the scientists.

So can Soapbox Science help scientists spend more time discussing their work with the public? Yes

Can Soapbox Science help improve representation of females in science? Definitely!

Will you see me on a soapbox next year? Watch this space!


Note: Soapbox Science Sydney was generously supported by UTS Faculty of Science, UTS Women in Engineering & IT, ACEMSEQUS, FLEET, POCD Scientific, Franklin WomenAustralian Science CommunicatorsNational Science Week Sydney Science Festival


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Cooking Up a (Chemical) Storm – Dr Ruth Thomas

By Dr Poppy Watson

After finishing her PhD and doing research in medicinal chemistry, Dr Ruth Thomas decided to use her passion and experience in a more education-oriented way. As a technical officer in the teaching laboratories in the School of Chemistry, she gets the opportunity to work with students and educational staff – ensuring that they have everything they need, and that safety is being maintained. Ruth is a keen cook (originally from India), and would love to stay within the field of Chemistry – developing her own leadership skills and guiding future students.

1. So, what is your role at UNSW?

I am a technical officer in the teaching laboratories in the School of Chemistry. I work closely on the preparation notes for the various undergraduate labs by ordering the appropriate chemicals and equipment required, preparing the required solutions, and coordinating with staff with regard to the various lab experiments. I interact daily with students and educators, giving them technical advice and help as needed. I also maintain a chemical inventory database and am responsible for regularly updating the safety folder for the lab. This involves writing and reviewing risk assessments, preparation notes and safe working procedures for various instruments in the teaching labs.

2. What does your day-to-day life at work look like?

In my current job, workload is tight and hectic during terms because students come in to use the teaching laboratories for their practical. So, a typical working day during the term really depends on the scheduled labs in the School. In the organic chemistry lab, for example, I ensure that all solutions are ready for the students to use, the necessary equipment are in place, the required instruments are functioning well, and the lab is tidy and ready to go for the students. Since the same labs do not run through the day, there is usual a fast turnover where the lab needs to be re-organized differently for the next course to run. I also ensure that the lab is safe for the students to work in by making sure that risk assessments are in place for the experiments. My work also involves checking inventory of chemicals and glassware, so that they can be replenished as stock runs low. I also need to look ahead to upcoming terms so that appropriate material and equipment can be ordered and kept ready for use.

3. How did you become a technical officer? Did you always want to work in science?

I always had a passion for science in high school and took mathematics with science for my higher secondary schooling in India. I completed a bachelors in Pharmacy and a masters in biological sciences as a dual degree integrated program. During this time, I developed a strong interest in the field of medicinal chemistry and research in general. I had a burning desire to do a doctoral program, which brought me to UNSW as a PhD student. My research focused on designing new strategies for the synthesis of novel chemical structures which may have anti-cancer properties. After the completion of my doctoral program, I continued to work in the same research group on novel indoles as antibacterial agents for about two years. I loved doing research but one drawback is the lack of funding opportunities and I wanted to find a more stable career path. As a technical officer in the School of Chemistry, I am able to use the knowledge and skills I have gained over the years in the teaching laboratories. I wish to continue to stay in the field and gain more experience in the areas of management and leadership.

4. What are some of the drawbacks about the field that you work in?

I work in the laboratory environment most of the time and hence, come into contact with chemicals of different categories such as toxic, flammable, corrosive and carcinogenic chemicals. This does pose a risk to one’s health in some ways despite taking all precautionary measures while handling chemicals. Also, as a woman in STEM, I feel underrepresented and think that we need to be encouraging the current generation to pursue studies in STEM.

5. When you are not working, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I usually enjoy going out for walks in the park or near the waterfront, enjoying nature. I love cooking and like to try new recipes in the kitchen. When I am fed up of my own cooking, I like to go out and try a different cuisine other than Indian for a change. I used to do cross-stitch in my leisure in the past. Nowadays, I am usually running behind my active 21-month-old baby girl playing peekaboo, singing rhymes with her, solving animal puzzles and playing with building blocks.

6. Why did you join the UNSW Science and Maths Women Champions?

The Women in Maths and Science Champions Program is a good platform for me to be engaging with other women in the field of science. The program helps me focus on my career path and work towards being a more confident leader – having a positive impact on the science community. Having been part of the UNSW community since starting my PhD, I feel very privileged to have had many enormous opportunities. By working on my personal and professional development, I will be able to guide future students in their career paths and help them to contribute to social engagement, global impact, and leadership activities that add value to UNSW Science.

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