Yesterday, I gave a tour of the department to a thirteen year old and her mother. When I was thirteen, I wanted to be a costume designer for films (blame Lord of the Rings).
No, the girl wasn’t some kind of prodigy (although she did seem pretty smart). Her mum just emailed the head of the department, saying her daughter was interested in science and the university, and they were going to be in the area, so could they come and have a look? And he passed it on, and I volunteered. I was impressed, to be honest, that the girl had that much of an idea of what she wanted to do and was keen enough to want to find out more, which is why I offered to show her around. That, and it was a good break from revising, and it was a chance to practice talking about science to non-experts.
So they came along, and we sat in the tea room and I talked about the research in the department, and lectures, and the project I did last term. That involved a “DNA as a ball of string” analogy which I was quite pleased with. I think – I hope – they both understood what I was talking about, both about my project and the department’s research in general, although it was hard to talk about the latter. There’s quite a range of research that goes on – from purely ‘dry’ science like genome annotation to studies of the cell cycle and DNA methylation in plants – most of which I don’t know about in any detail, so I can only hope I gave a decent overview. I also gave a brief tour of the department: library with loads of books no-one uses, a peek into a lab, the lecture room.
More importantly, I tried to give an accurate impression of what it’s like to actually do science. Science doesn’t know everything, we can never really be certain we’re right. Experiments go wrong. Experiments give completely unexpected results. It has to be that way, and it’s fun that way. But school science lessons very much make it seem like scientists can, and do, find ‘the truth’, and the mainstream media largely perpetuates this idea. Even undergraduate degrees don’t necessarily do much to prepare students for the realities of research, given that the first couple of years’ worth of practicals consist of replicating experiments you’ve already been told the results of. It’s a sense of exploration that gets many people into science (me, for sure), and I’m not sure if there’s a way to get that idea back into school science, but it would be brilliant. I think science fairs in the US are good for this, as least as far as my limited knowledge stretches, but they don’t seem to exist here, unfortunately. (The most recent posting at PhDComics has a look at this idea, actually. I like the comparison to geographical explorers.)
As it turned out, I think it was more the mother’s plan than it had sounded, but her daughter was interested, and caught on to ideas pretty quickly. She said she’d got interested in biology after hearing about stem cells from a friend and being amazed at what was possible. I hope that coming and looking at a university science department and hearing about some of what is done there, and what you can do even as an undergrad, will keep her interested in science. And to help with keeping her interested, of course I suggested that she look up some science blogs :) (although not this one. That would be kinda creepy...)