If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I was a speaker at last year’s Soapbox Science event in Edinburgh – if you haven’t, then read the blog post here to find out how the event went, and what my experiences of talking about clinical trials on The Mound in the pouring rain involved.
Anyway, after that event I was thinking about the representation of people there, and how brilliant it was that there were scientists from lots of different institutions. The only thing that irked me a little was that they were mostly from Edinburgh (obviously they were, that’s where the event was…). That year it was the only Scottish Soapbox Science event, so I knew that there were many more brilliant, inspiring female scientists working away on super interesting pieces of research all over the country, and they were not on their soapboxes as I was. Maybe they didn’t know the Soapbox Science event was being held, maybe they were busy that weekend, or maybe they couldn’t make it to Edinburgh; contrary to popular belief, there is a lot more to Scotland than Edinburgh and Glasgow.
A few weeks after the event I was still thinking about it, and I decided I wanted to bring Soapbox Science to Aberdeen.
Now, this was the end of last year, and I knew that my PhD thesis would be due at some point in June/July this year. Still – I figured that I could get things moving, and how hard could organising a Soapbox Science event be, right? 🤷🏼♀️
Soapbox Science Aberdeen is happening on Saturday 26th May 2018, as part of the University of Aberdeen’s May Festival. It’s happening, and my thesis is going to be handed in on June 29th. I also start a new job on June 1st. The point of me telling you this isn’t to brag or do that really annoying ‘oh my God look how hard I’m working, look how exhausted I am’ thing – that’s not cool. What I want to do with this blog post is encourage other people to set up Soapbox Science events in their cities, and have a bit of forewarning on what the planning process might entail – it’s totally doable, enjoyable, and incredibly rewarding. Also, I’m currently on a flight to Oregon for the Society of Clinical Trials annual meeting (and a few days of exploring) and I really want an excuse to use the iPad keyboard I got for Christmas, so this seemed like a decent use of time.
There were a few main things that took time; getting word out that Soapbox Science was coming to Aberdeen, and drumming up interest in the form of speakers, and finding money to pay for various parts of the event
That said, neither of those things caused me to doubt the fact that my thesis will be handed in on time. Most of the work could be done providing I had WiFi and a list of email addresses, so I could easily get draft emails put together whilst watching episodes of Friends or listening to podcasts after work or at the weekend. I just made sure I had a list and everything went on it, meaning eventually everything would be completed and ticked off it.
The time investment needed to get people onboard was crucial, and I spent a lot of time taking various people at the University for coffee and convincing them to plaster their office doors with posters, and to get involved in the event themselves/get their PhD students involved/get their MSc and undergraduate students to volunteer to help out on the day. That was fun though, I got to catch up with some of the lecturers I knew from my undergrad, and it was really lovely to see people getting excited about an event that I’m passionate about. In the end, we’ve ended up with a fantastic line up of inspiring women in a diverse range of scientific disciplines, and I’m so excited for people to hear them talk! The speakers have all been wonderful to work with, and I’ve enjoyed making connections with scientists outside of my own discipline – seriously, these people are doing stuff that makes my head explode; figuring out how the city of Aberdeen was made, how we might be able to use the deeper layers of skin to identify people, and how we can learn lessons from flat worms that might one day be able to help humans re-grow limbs. Science fries my head sometimes. The full list of speakers is listed below – for the titles of their talks, head to the Soapbox Science website.
The most stressful part of the entire organisation process was money. I knew right from the beginning that I would need to find grant funding to enable the event to go ahead, and at the time that the call for Aberdeen’s speakers went out, we had no money and therefore no guarantee of an event at all. I applied for 4 different public engagement grants and 2 local community funding initiatives, none of them worked out. We needed about £1500 for everything – the Edinburgh group had very kindly offered to lend us their soapboxes for the event (their event isn’t until June 2nd – if you’re nearby then do head to The Mound and give them a visit!), but we wanted our own because we knew we’d just end up in the same situation hunting for funds to support Soapbox Science Aberdeen 2019.
I applied to the University of Aberdeen’s Public Engagement with Research Enabling Fund, which limits awards to £500. I knew we’d need additional funds on top, but this was a good starting point. We got the funding, which contributed to one soapbox, paid for lab coats and printing, bought badges for the event, and paid for us to print the speaker’s signs that will go on the box on the day. So I knew that in the worst case we’d be able to borrow boxes from Edinburgh and our event would definitely be going ahead – a huge weight lifted off my shoulders – and thank you to PERU for their support. PERU is a huge asset to university, and if you’re reading this and based at the University of Aberdeen (note: they work with researchers from all fields, not just science!), do get in touch with them. They’re a brilliant group of people, super easy to work with and really enthusiastic about the weird and wonderful ideas that researchers come up with to share their work with the world.
We managed to raise the additional funds needed to pay for all 4 of the soapboxes needed for the event with the support of the Health Services Research Unit (where I’m based along with one of our speakers, Beatriz Goulao), the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology (where speakers Dr Donna MacCallum and Dr Delma Childers are based), the May Festival team, the Aberdeen branch of the British Science Association, and the Wellcome Trust’s Institutional Strategic Support Fund. Boxes are all ordered, paid for, and currently getting their final coats of varnish in the workshop of Donnie Fleury from Wood DR (pictured left).
I want to finish this blog post by saying a big thank you to everyone that has helped with the organisation of Soapbox Science Aberdeen – particularly Dr Heather Morgan and Dr Heather Doran who did not laugh in my face when I told them I wanted to bring the event to Aberdeen, and who have both been massive sources of support over the last few months (let it be known that Soapbox Science Aberdeen wouldn’t be happening without late night Twitter DMs, early morning Instagram DMs, and the following emojis: ☺️🤞🏼🎉). Donnie and Linda Fleury at Wood DR have been brilliant to work with from the first phone call when I asked them to make me 4 soapboxes that would be completely weather-proof, and sturdy enough to support the weight of an enthusiastic scientist, through to my brutal honesty about the sheer lack of funds I had to support this odd request. Unrelated – when my boyfriend and I first moved into our flat 3 years, Donnie fitted our bathroom and it was the only thing that went smoothly throughout the entire move, so if you’re Aberdeen based and need literally anything doing in your house (or public engagement event as it seems..), then he’s your man. A cheeky plug for Wood DR; find them on Facebook here, and their own website has photographs of past work too.
For now I will sign off (there’s a rumour that we’re getting pizza and ice cream as the next in-flight meal and I don’t want to risk missing out). If you’re in Aberdeen on Saturday 26th May come and pay us a visit! We’ll be on the Elphinstone lawn at Old Aberdeen between 12 and 3pm; if you’re not based in Aberdeen then head to the Soapbox Science website to find out where your closest event is, show up and support them. You’ll make the hard work of the organisers completely worth it, you’ll remind the speakers why they do what they do, and you likely find out about some cool science that you didn’t know was happening around you too!