Soapbox Science

 What is Soapbox Science?

 Soapbox Science represents the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), since women are less represented at the upper levels in these industries. At PhD level, women and men are more or less equal in terms of numbers. However, less women are hired after this pivotal academic stage in their careers. Why?

Soapbox Science was set up 7 years ago, in 2011, by Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, Research Fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and Dr Seirian Sumner, Reader in Behavioural Ecology at UCL. Its aim is to bring cutting edge science to the people on the streets.

On Saturday I volunteered at one of their events and got to see the magic for myself! The concept is simple; 4 researchers on ‘soapboxes’, doing a rotational circuit retelling their research to the public. This follows the format of Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, which is historically an arena for public debate. There are three sessions of different speakers over the whole afternoon.

The experience was really powerful; seeing how funny science can be and how people light up when they are enthused or learn something new.

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Dr. Tracy Kivell (University of Kent) speaking on the evolution of hands

Photo: courtesy of Dr. Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-founder

This is the power of science, and of women in science in particular. I heard a broad range of topics such as how nanotechnology can be used to make break-resistant phone screens, glucose metabolism and the conservation of the Hainan gibbon; the world's rarest ape.

Dr. Jess Bryant (ZSL, IoZ) speaking about the conservation of the Hainan gibbon

Photo: courtesy of Sicily Fiennes

Sure, you get the occasional misogynistic comment from passers by, but that only serves to highlight how much there still is to be done to stress the importance of the work women scientists do. This underlying chauvinism in relation to women in science was observed in the behaviour of Dr. Hunt of UCL, who resigned over his comments that ‘women were too emotional’ and ‘distracting’ in the lab, and that he favoured single sex labs as he did not want to hold women .

Soapbox Science highlights the work of the best female scientists working today and hopes to widen understanding of the roles women play in science. Soapbox Science serves as a platform to not only further promote women in science in the competitive world of research, but to encourage girls to enter the world of STEM in the first place. Several studies have found that there are more males than females in all A level science subjects, except Biology.

Biology along with social science subjects such as anthropology (72%), psychology (79%) are disproportionately made up of female undergraduates. More than half of dentistry and medicine undergraduates are female. Yet, the New Scientist reported ever decreasing numbers of women publishing papers since 2009. Moreover, women are less likely to progress from post doctoral fellowships to faculty positions, as exemplified by Martinez et al , who found that women hold only 19% of tenure positions, despite constituting 45% of postdoctoral positions in biomedical sciences in American universities (Martinez et al., 2007). Hence, Soapbox Science aims to dispel these innate issues within the STEM industry.

I was amazed by the concept- there is no powerpoint, little complicated jargon and no intimidating crowd-speaker interaction. Soapbox Science is surprisingly intimate, and it seems to be gaining popularity and becoming more successful, so keep an eye out! The number of students entering STEM is on the rise, likely due to initiatives such as these.

It is necessary to perpetuate positive discrimination in a world where women are underrepresented, yet equally qualified. As a young, female, aspiring conservation scientist, I was recently told (by a man), that men were more likely to get a job in science after their PhD. I hope to prove him wrong!

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