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How do you know you want to be a scientist? – #uberresearchprize

22nd August 2014
By Katy Alexander

In July, alongside the ÜberResearch team, we launched a Twitter competition open to PhD students. The task was to tweet how you would spend £10 million of science funding using the hashtag #uberresearchprize. 

We had hundreds of tweets and the top three, as voted by our judging panel, were then invited to write a blog post, delving into their original tweet. Over the next few days we will publish the top three blog posts here on our blog, announcing the winner on Tuesday 26th August. 

Today we are publishing Isabel Webb’s entry and this was her original tweet:

Uber PhotoIsabel Webb grew up in Hertfordshire before studying for her undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge. She then moved on to do a PhD in Molecular Microbiology at the John Ines Centre in Norwich, looking at the bacterial side of the rhizobia-legume symbiosis. Outside of her PhD she has done a lot of science communication and outreach around the Norwich area, and is a keen tweeter/blogger. Isabel is also interested in Science Policy, and will be doing an internship in this area this coming September. When she’s not doing science you’ll probably find her baking, at the gym or at the theatre.

How do you know you want to be a scientist? Interest is essential, but experience can be just as important. When I was at school, I was lucky enough to get a week long work experience placement in a laboratory. This experience left me certain that I wanted to study sciences at University. Then, as an undergraduate, I found myself a summer placement carrying out my own research, on my own project. My summer in research made me realise that a PhD was definitely the right choice after finishing my degree, and gave me the experience I needed to choose a project that was right for me. Both of these experiences were instrumental in directing me to where I am today. Both, however, were hard to find, and extremely competitive. Research experience is becoming increasingly important for proving skills and motivation when applying for PhDs and scientific careers, but securing one can be tricky. Experiencing a laboratory whilst still at school can be near-impossible. I consider myself extremely lucky that I had the experiences I did, and if I hadn’t had them, perhaps I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today. I wonder how many people out there may have made different decisions, had they the same opportunities.

School-age placements can be especially hard to find, and can be influenced by location and accessibility. The number of placements is limited by the funds available, and if the funding won’t cover the student’s travel, it can mean that many cannot attend. Supervising school students is a full-time activity for the scientists responsible, and this time invokes a cost, as does equipment and reagents. Undergraduates also require supervision and training, often for projects that will amount to little in terms of research output. This cost, however, can make a huge difference to a young person’s life. The next top scientists could be out there, but with no access to these opportunities, they may never discover a passion for science.

Many school students may go through their entire school career without ever meeting a ‘real scientist’ or understanding what a researcher does. We are still haunted by the image of scientists as white-haired, old men in glasses. To change this idea we need to be showing young people who scientists really are, by meeting them and explaining how we got where we did. This is particularly important when you consider the ‘leaky pipeline’ of women in science.

So, if I had £10 million of funding for science, what would I do with it? I’d put that money into ensuring that young people gain the experience they need to make informed decisions about a career in science. I’d use it to increase understanding of what it means to work in research and show students that anyone can become a scientist, regardless of gender or background. Creating more opportunities could be the step we need to inspire the next generation of scientists, and funding put towards this would be an investment, not a cost.

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