Soapbox Science to give women scientists in Ireland a new platform

31 Jan 20141 Share

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Dr Natalie Cooper, organiser of the Soapbox Science Dublin event, assistant professor at the Trinity College Dublin School of Natural Sciences, and head of the Macroecology and Macroevolution Research Group

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Soapbox Science is coming to Dublin. Event organiser Dr Natalie Cooper talked to Claire O’Connell.

In April, Front Square at Trinity College Dublin is due to play host to a curious and enlightening event. Soapbox Science is coming to Dublin, and it will give 12 women researchers the opportunity to stand up and tell the public about their area of work, their discoveries and their ideas.

The Soapbox Science initiative has run in London for three years, explains Cooper, who is organising the Dublin gig. The annual science communication event started on London's South Bank, and the idea was to raise the profile of women scientists by literally giving them a platform.

“The basic idea was to emulate what used to happen on Hyde Park Corner," says Cooper. "People used to get up on actual soap boxes and talk about the issue of the day, whatever it was that they were excited about."

In this case, the exciting ideas are about science. Speakers can use props to help attract and engage the crowds, and, as shown in this video 'soapboxers' at previous events have used lab equipment, shells and even a trampoline to get the message across.

Cooper became involved when she bumped into the London organisers Dr Seirian Sumner and Dr Nathalie Pettorell, whom she knew, at a conference. "They were interested in spreading Soapbox Science to other locations and they knew I was based in Dublin," she says.

Applications for the Dublin event, which receives funding through the Trinity Equality Fund, are now open for women researchers on the island of Ireland, and Cooper and volunteers will go through the applications and select a dozen speakers, hopefully across a broad range of topics.

While Cooper expects that some of the speakers will be well versed in public engagement, she is also hoping for a mix: "We are open to people who have not done much of this before, but it may be helpful to have a couple of people who are quite experienced."

Soapbox Science

Ecology and evolution

Cooper's own pathway in science started when she studied at the University of Exeter and went on to complete a master's degree at the Natural History Museum and a PhD at Imperial College London. "I became completely obsessed with museums and evolution," she recalls, and her PhD involved examining a wide array of museum specimens to look for clues about competition between species using similar resources in the environment.

Cooper worked as a post-doctoral researcher in the United States before moving to Trinity two years ago, where she is an assistant professor at the School of Natural Sciences and heads the Macroecology and Macroevolution Research Group.

Part of the group's research looks at interesting mammals called tenrecs that are native to Madagascar. "They are a strange group of 30 species and they can look completely different to one another – some look like hedgehogs with black and yellow stripes," she explains. "They rub the spines together on their back and make noises to communicate. They are the only mammal to do that, so we are working on those using mostly museum collections at the moment, but we hope to go to Madagascar soon to see them in the wild and collect some sound data, as well."

Get the word out

Cooper believes that science communication is an important aspect of research. "We get funded by the public to do at least some parts of our job, so it's a good idea to let people know what we are doing and my experience is that people are generally interested," she says. "It is also really good fun and if you have to explain it to someone who really has no idea what you are talking about then it makes you better at communicating your science in general."

She especially encourages women to spread the word about what they do in science and get the message out that science is not just about men in white coats. "If we don't challenge that impression, particularly for girls at school who are maybe thinking about getting into a science career, then I think we are failing a whole generation of people."

Get involved

If you would like to apply to be a speaker at the Soapbox Science event in Dublin in April, you can get an application form online and email it to soapboxsciencedublin@gmail.com. The deadline for applications is 28 February. Volunteers who would like to help with the initiative are also welcome to email soapboxsciencedublin@gmail.com.

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