#IAS2014: Two manic weeks that surpassed all expectations

Posted on Jul 7, 2014 in Hands-On Universe, Outreach

What’s more exciting than winning the World Cup, more nail-biting than the Wimbledon final, more rewarding than getting a Nobel Prize, and at least as fun as looking for dark matter in the sky? Taking part to the I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here, and getting through what I can only describe as a “Group of Death” of fellow scientists to win it!

I’m still well above cloud nine, with my head floating in interstellar space, oozing with delight: I feel honoured, and I’d like to thank all the students who took part for their enthusiasm, great questions and all the freshness and curiosity they brought in; all the teachers who enabled their participation; and everybody in the fantastic I’m a Scientist team for running such a smooth operation, with a virtual smile on their lips and always a cheerful word in the chat staff room (not to mention the great virtual cakes!).

The two manic weeks of I’m a Scientist have lived up to everything I had been told to expect, and more: From the first live chat — when we liked to delude ourselves into thinking that the server was brought down by our fast-and-furious replies (it probably wasn’t us, but please don’t tell us!) — to the last, nerve-wracking wait for the winner to be announced at 3 pm on the last Friday, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every moment.

More than anything, I’ve revelled in talking to the students: every question was new, and often totally unexpected, challenging me and my fellow scientists to think afresh about our science and how to explain it clearly and briefly (no time for long-winded lectures in the live chats).

The best moments? Too many to count them! I do remember with special delight one early morning chat when I happened to be the only scientist online. Questions rained in too fast for me to keep up, and it was a heady feeling to be (virtually) pulled this way and that, somebody tapping on my shoulder asking for attention, somebody else trying to get through the crowd to ask a burning question, somebody getting desperate and resorting to ALL CAPS QUESTIONS (tut-tut). It was a storm of pure enthusiasm!

Everything worked really well, and I can’t help smiling when thinking back to the couple of glitches in the automated software that catches and prevents abusive language in the live chats: in a couple of occasions, I was rebuked by an automated pop-up for using offensive language because of a spelling mistake (“aboslutely”) and use of a banned word (when I tried to describe what a “parsec” is [take away the first and last letter and you’ll see why!]. But this one I deserved, I tried to use jargon!).

A big THANK YOU to my fellow scientists, Sam Connolly, Natasha Stephen, Nate Bastian and Sarah Casewell: you all did a fantastic job, and it was a great pleasure taking part alongside you! I think we all made sure that everybody kept their act as sharp as they could, to the end — the competition was too stiff (but in a good, cheerful and friendly way) not to!

I am delighted to have won, and I’d like to thank personally each and everyone who voted for me — and I know the choice wasn’t easy, so I don’t blame those who voted for anybody else, as everyone had something very special going for them.

I have decided to donate my prize money to Sam Connolly, the runner-up, so he can use it to realise his Astrodome project. As I am very fortunate to be the recipient of an STFC Public Engagement fellowship, I have enough outreach funds already to carry out the project I proposed for I’m a Scientist — namely, to set-up a nation-wide competition for schools, with the winner invited to spend a day in residence at Imperial College London. Sam has kindly accepted the offer, so I am excited that there will be not one, but two exciting outreach projects coming out of the Astronomy Zone!

Please keep on asking questions, especially those that have not been answered yet!