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PhD student wins £500 for public engagement

After weeks answering a barrage of questions from curious school pupils, Sara Falcone has won her category of the national competition I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here. Image credit: I'm a Scientist (cc)

I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here is an online event, mainly funded by the Wellcome Trust, where school students can talk directly to scientists. Scientists compete for the students’ votes, answering their questions in online chats. The students ask questions, and then vote to evict scientists based on their answers. The winner is the last scientist left in their ‘zone’, and is awarded £500 to design a public engagement activity of their choice.

This time the competition ran from the 9th and 20th of November, with a total of 40 scientists and 160 schools taking part, split into eight zones. Sara entered the Ageing Zone, so answered questions based around her research in mice into the genetics of age-related diseases.

Sara is doing a PhD in Paul Potter’s group, Disease Model Discovery, which is responsible for managing the Harwell Ageing Screen, a large-scale project using mice to study the genetics of ageing and age-related diseases.

She had an eclectic mix of questions, ranging from light-hearted questions about herself, such as whether she liked to eat trifle, to huge, philosophical problems such as the meaning of life or whether we’ll ever be able to cure cancer. The students touched on big issues such as what it’s like to be a woman in science, how your lifestyle choices affect the way you age, and even whether elderly people with terminal illnesses should receive healthcare. 

Many students asked about her career path and her reasons for choosing to become a scientist. In Sara’s case this was far from a straightforward decision, showing it can sometimes take time to decide exactly what you want to do. So when a student asked ‘When did you realise you wanted to be a scientist?’ she answered:

“I always liked science, biology and medical science in particular, so I decided to study veterinary medicine because I liked medicine and animals. During the last year of uni I had to spend 6 months working in an animal hospital and I really didn’t really like it. Eventually, during my final test, one of the professors asked me ‘so, do you want to work with pets or with farm animals?’ I stopped and I thought really hard, and the only reply I could give was ‘Neither, I want to be a geneticist’. And that was my decision.”

They also asked all sorts of questions about what she does today and what she thinks of it - What do you enjoy most about your job? What’s your favourite experiment? How do you study the mice? Why do you experiment on mice rather than other animals? How will your work affect other people?

Sara answered all of the students’ questions with honesty, good humour and enthusiasm. In reward for this, she avoided being eliminated and was voted by the students as winner of the Ageing Zone. She has been awarded £500 to spend on a public engagement activity of her choice, which she’s planning to put into a new forensic, Cluedo-style activity for visitors to MRC Harwell.

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