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Science Grrls at MOSI!

On Saturday evening, I was in bed by 10.30 pm, full of warm feelings, only some of it from the pie, mash and gravy we had for dinner. My feel-good glow was also thanks to my first experience as part of the Science Grrl project, set up in 2012 to create a network of diverse female role models to encourage girls to consider a career in science (you can read more about the original trigger for action here).

Gemma Wilson, nuclear physicist, on the Science Grrl soapbox talking particles
At the last minute I found I was free to join in with an event on 9th March at Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (which by the way is really excellent, full of impressive aeroplanes, working engines and loads of stuff to try for yourself). The Science Grrl event, part of the Museum's Saturday Science series, was also tied into International Women's Day.
Arriving full of excitement, I met my fellow women scientists, including a mathematician and her materials physicist colleague who both work on non-Newtonian fluids (even the name sounds cool),  along with a cell biologist, radio chemist, palaeomagnetics geophysicist, particle physicist, a chemist working in industry, a palaeontologist and a fellow archaeologist who is an osteologist! An impressive spread of different areas of science were represented.

The Science Grrls! You can see our big "I'm a Scientist, talk to me" badges. Photo: MOSI

Dragha Pihler-Pozovic, mathematician and Tania Sauma-Perez, physicist, with their fantastic funky materials demonstration
After introducing ourselves, we were off, sent into different parts of the museum to do some 'streetwalk'-style outreach, wearing massive "I'm a Scientist, talk to me" badges, and every so often hopping onto a purple soapbox to do short talks about what we do, complete with props.
My first area was with Draga Pihler-Pozovic, a mathematician and Tania Sauma-Perez, a physicist, both of whom were demonstrating various funky materials including the non-Newtonian fluids which change their structure and behaviour depending on the forces applied. They set up a table with a sound system, and by playing some bass-heavy tunes (which also worked great to attract visitors!), made what was initially a white liquid jump into to air as a blobby solid.

Non-Newtonian liquid becoming temporaily solid as it reacts to the bass coming up through the speaker, plus kitchen roll, secret science ingredient!

My next location was in the Air and Space Hall, where I was with Katharine Sullivan (@KatherineSully), a radio chemist who had a UV spectrometer to demonstrate the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum which we can't see. I had a great time with lots of families here, getting them to guess what I do based on the range of tools I'd brought: a  trowel, photographic scale, toothbrush (the wildcard!), and a pair of digital calipers. Quite a few got it right, and I explained that although I'm an archaeologist, because I study stone tools, I use the calipers a lot to take different kinds of measurements and then compare them across 100s and 1000s of other tools to see how people were choosing to make different kinds of tools, how they were using the rock differently. Then I showed them the lovely replica flint Neanderthal handaxe I have, made by Karl Lee of Primitive Technology, and how I can measure it, and how sharp it is, great for butchering a woolly rhinoceros. After this I got out my real archaeological artefacts, and talked about how you can identify a humanly-flaked stone tool.

Holding my props for visitors to guess what I do. Photo: MOSI
Palaeolithic technology showcased on the Museum's state of the art interactive screen chandelier.

The kids were most excited probably by having their finger length measured with great accuracy by the digital calipers, and also holding stone tools that were really old. Everyone knew what woolly mammoths were, thanks to the Ice Age movies... for good or bad, they've popularised Pleistocene megafauna!

Cake... for Science!

Intense talking about the awesomeness of science was getting the adrenaline rushing, and before we knew it we'd been going for two hours. A very welcome chillax room provided for us gave some respite, with tea and delicious cake for refuelling. Energised once more, I freestyled around the museum, meeting up with the other participants, taking photos of them and doing a great double 'rock' act with Laura Rob (@LauRob85), the geophysicist who was talking about the work she does measuring magnetism on 3.5 billion year old granites from South Africa. I learned a lot listening to her, including seeing the adorably 18th century-looking instrument palaeomagnetics scientists use to measure the alignment of rock samples they remove.
Laura Roberts, geophysicist, demonstrating instrument to record rock sample orientation to Katharine Sullivan, radio chemist.

Katharine Sullivan, radio chemist, on the Science Grrl soapbox showing her UV detector, while visitors and other Science Grrls look on.

Probably my most rewarding encounter was with two 14 year old girls who guessed my profession immediately from my tools, and as they also said they watched Time Team, I decided to talk to them in more detail than normal. This worked out great as they were fascinated by the intricacies of stone tool technology and other aspects of archaeology. It was really cool to be able to tell them that you can volunteer in a museum, or even go on an archaeological dig for your work experience as I did when I was 14- their faces lit up as they looked at each other and started discussing how to talk to their school. I hope they do it!

Liz Granger, cell biologist, soap-boxing while Alison Atkin, osteoarchaeologist, talks to visitors behind.

Laura Roberts discussing Archaen global magnetic fields

Towards the end of the day Heather Williams, the Director of the Science Grrl project arrived, having spent the morning taking part on a panel for another event in London (impressive multi-tasking!). We had that weird but lovely experience of meeting someone you've known for a while on Twitter- a hug seems the only appropriate greeting! Thanks to the Science Grrl event, I've grown my network of inspiring and energised fellow women scientists, and we're already having conversations online. I'm grateful to have had this fab experience of full-on science outreach in such a brilliant location as MOSI, and hopefully I gave an unexpected and fun experience to all the people I talked with.

Heather Williams, Science Grrl co-director, explaining part of a PET scanner, with Alison Atkin (skull prop just visible!) and Jess Breen , chemist.

Heather Williams and Alison Atkin and behin, Jess talking with science fans of all ages!


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