Stay curious and discover, says scientist and Lego innovator

9 Jun 2017162 Shares

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Dr Ellen Kooijman at work in the Vegacenter at the Swedish Natural History Museum. Image: Dr Ellen Koojiman

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Curiosity is an important element of scientific research, says geochronologist Dr Ellen Kooijman, who will be in Dublin this weekend. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

The most important thing in science is always to be curious and ask questions. That’s according to geoscientist Dr Ellen Kooijman, who has developed a scientific Lego miniseries and who will take part in the UCD Festival at University College Dublin tomorrow (10 June).

Kooijman made a splash in 2014 when Lego released a series of minifigures she designed called Lego Research Institute. The trio featured a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist, and they all happened to be women.

“I’ve been a fan of Lego my whole life,” said Kooijman on a Skype call this week from Sweden, where she works as a researcher at the Swedish Natural History Museum. “I was aware of the sets that Lego were offering, and I had observed they weren’t really making enough female mini-figures compared to male mini-figures, and the few female ones they were producing were very stereotypical.”

‘Lego weren’t really making enough female mini-figures compared to male mini-figures, and the few female ones they were producing were very stereotypical’

Inspirefest 2017

New ideas for LEGO

Surfing online one day, she stumbled across a platform called Lego Ideas, where you can come up with your own concepts for Lego products and, if your idea gets enough support from others on the platform, then Lego considers it.

“I thought I could create this project based on female mini-figures in exciting professions,” said Kooijman. “And, being a scientist myself, it was logical to create female scientists.”

Kooijman was ‘flabbergasted’ when she found out through a video conference call that Lego was seriously considering the Research Institute. “I was so stunned. Apparently I didn’t react too much when they told me,” she said. “But when the video call ended I was bouncing off the walls!”

The Lego Research Institute set devised by Dr Ellen Kooijman

The Lego Research Institute set devised by Dr Ellen Kooijman. Image: Lego

She subsequently visited Lego in Denmark during the design process and got a first look at her brainchild. “It was really awesome,” she said.

Since Research Institute, which garnered an overwhelmingly positive response, Kooijman had a second Lego set produced in 2015 – Lego The Big Bang Theory – based on the American comedy series, which also included two female scientists. “I also currently have a new project online on Lego Ideas – I am Amelia Earhart – which is a collaboration with author Brad Meltzer, who writes inspirational books for children,” she added.

Look back in time with chemistry

When she is not designing Lego mini-figures, Kooijman has a busy career as a geoscientist. Her branch of the field is geochronology, and she uses chemical signatures and patterns in rocks as clues to find out what happened in the ancient past. “I do a lot of dating of minerals and rocks to study mountains and to see how mountains are built, how fast that happens,” explained Kooijman, who since 2015 has also headed up a national microanalytics facility called the Vegacenter at the Swedish Natural History Museum.

Originally from The Netherlands, Kooijman explained that the country’s famous lack of mountains made geology a somewhat unusual choice. “I was always interested in natural sciences – I liked maths, physics and chemistry,” she said.

‘You are constantly working towards discovering things and understanding things that no-one has ever understood before’

Lego woman scientist

Prof C Bodin, AKA ‘Scientist’ was one of 11 new minifigs that Lego released in 2013 – the first female scientist to join the Lego family. Image: Lego

When she went to Utrecht University, the Earth Institute was right between the maths and physics buildings and she soon became interested in geoscience. “It is a combination of all natural sciences and you are applying them to understand Earth. It is adventurous – you go on field trips and travel,” she said. “It sounded totally exciting, so I studied it and I have never regretted it.”

Child-like curiousity

One of the most challenging aspects of being a researcher is the struggle to get funding for your work, she noted, but the rewards lie in making discoveries.

“You are constantly working towards discovering things and understanding things that no-one has ever understood before,” she said. “You get to contribute to the knowledge we have, and it might be just a small thing but, as a whole, we make a lot of progress and it is very exciting.”

Kooijman stresses that one of the most important things in science is to ask questions. “I think for many of us we have this [child-like] curiosity,” she said.

Dr Ellen Kooijman and Dr Claire O’Connell will take part in a discussion called ‘Let’s Play – inspiring the next generation of scientists’ at the UCD Festival from 12.45pm to 1.30pm on Saturday, 10 June 2017. Also joining are UCD vice-president for research Prof Orla Feely and UCD associate professor Niamh Moore Cherry, to talk about collaboration and creating playful cities. Register here.

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