Dr Stephanie Longet is a Senior Scientist at Public Health England and a BSI member. She participated in ‘I’m a Scientist’ in November 2020, which was supported by BSI funding as part of our ongoing public engagement work on advocating the importance of vaccination and vaccine research.
The I’m a Scientist ‘Health Zone’ connected school student across the UK with scientists whose work relates to human health. The online platform allowed students to live-chat with scientists and ask any questions about vaccines, immunology and working in science. Here, Stephanie shares her experience of taking part and how she found the I’m a Scientist Academy, an exclusive public engagement course.
I’ve been involved in a lot of public engagement activities before dedicated to reaching a wide audience, including children and teenagers, in Switzerland (my origin country), in Ireland where I did a postdoc and now in the UK. I knew of I’m a Scientist, but I had never had the chance to take part. The British Society for Immunology gave me the opportunity to get involved and, for one month, I discussed infectious diseases, immunology and vaccines with school students and answered their questions online.
Mastering the live chats
The main feature of I’m a Scientist is the online chat-based text communication. It was quite challenging for me when I started. It’s not easy to explain some concepts of immunology in a few words, without any pictures, without a webcam, without any non-verbal communication. The school students asked very interesting questions and were very curious and enthusiastic. They asked me a lot of questions about viruses and vaccines and I was happy to share my knowledge based on data and facts. Some of them asked me about the opportunities for careers in science. I realised that the chat-based communication style and anonymity could help the students to be less shy and more spontaneous. Gradually, I also became more spontaneous and comfortable in giving quick and accurate answers.
Developing public engagement skills
The BSI supported my participation in the Academy, a special course within I’m a Scientist, which helped me a lot in my experience. The Academy ran for two weeks where scientists had access to many resources (publications, videos, websites) to learn about public engagement. We discussed how to be prepared for the activity, how to define the objectives, how to tailor the messages, how to deal with different types of communication and the diverse audiences. Some concepts, such as Science Capital Teaching Approach, were also explained clearly and we explored good practice principles for public engagement.
Every lunchtime, a science communication lecturer was available online to provide advice, to give feedback and help us to make progress in the Academy. In addition, each of us scientists had to answer reflective questions based on our experience and what we had learnt. The Academy was very useful to improve my approach to answering the questions using a live text chat, learning how to be concise and accurate.
A valuable use of my time
The I’m a Scientist experience, including the Academy activities, required dedicated time for one month, but it was rewarding and enjoyable. For me, it was a nice break from my daily life in the lab. The scientists can accept the chat invitations from the schools based on their availability and so it can be flexible around other commitments. Every day, I took part in one to three 40-minute chats with the students and the lunchtime chat with the science communication lecturer.
I really enjoyed I’m a Scientist, it was a wonderful experience and the Academy helped me to improve my public engagement. I will be able to transfer the skills I have gained onto other engagement activities.
I encourage all BSI members to apply for I’m a Scientist in the future. It’s a fantastic experience!
Thanks to the BSI for giving me this opportunity.
Find out more about how the BSI has been connecting immunologists with school students here.