Meet our 2020 Speakers

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we do not currently have a date set for the 2020 Milton Keynes Soapbox Science even but we would like to introduce our speakers for this year’s event who are all preparing to present their research when the event can take place.

Selected from a competitive pool of researchers, our 12 speakers will be sharing their work in technology, science, medicine, and engineering. The speakers and their discussion topics are:

Dr Sevi Filippidou (@extremespores ), The Open University,

“Our quest for life on other planets starts on Earth”

 Lois Damptey (@o_aphua, @afua.okyerewaa ), The Open University,

“One sun, many applications – can it solve water issues?”

 Luca Steel (@Luca_Steel ), Rothamsted Research,

“Cereal Killer: The tiny invaders destroying our crops”

 Dr Edith Rogers (@edith_rogers ), Cranfield University,

“Looking Faster: better detectors for medical imaging”

Rachel Hasler (@_green_network_ ), Cranfield University,

“Understanding the soil microbiome… Just what are those microbes up to?”

 Esther Garcia Cela (@esthergcela ), University of Hertfordshire,

“Mycotoxins: Snow White’s poisoned apple”

 Tolulope Elemo (@ElemoTolulope ), Cranfield University,

“As simple as sand”

 Kate Hand (@hanka_KL ), The Open University,

“Measuring up: Monitoring the benefits of urban trees”

 Dr Kate Hewins, Cranfield University,

“Forensic Science – is it really like Silent Witness?”

 Dr Natalia Falagan (@natalia_falagan ), Cranfield University,

“Join the Rurban Revolution!”

 Dr Xiaoxiao Sun, Cranfield University,

“The role of hydrogen in decarbonising future aviation”

 Julia Vila Guilera (@juliavigu ), University College London,

“What happens when you flush the toilet?”

 Discover our 2020 speakers:

The 12 selected speakers for soapbox science Milton Keynes 2020

Overcoming science communication imposter feelings

2019 Soapbox Science Milton Keynes speaker, Dr Barbara Kunz, from The Open University, writes about her experience at this event.

The challenge 

I consider science communication and outreach an important part of science. Yet I feel I’m not good at it, think people probably aren’t very interested in what I do and therefore have struggled to get involved with much science communication. Maybe this is a form of science communication imposter syndrome?  I am sure I am not alone in this. 

The term imposter syndrome is explained in this short video.

Back to my Soapbox Science story. I like to teach and talk to people about why I am so passionate about my job and research. However, I can get really nerdy at times about my science and that seems to make it difficult for me to find a way to talk to people outside my research field. 

So there were two options, either shy away from science communication or I face my struggles. For me this means there is actually only one option – when there is something I want to do but can’t do it well, it’s already my next goal/challenge. Therefore, I decided to apply for this years Soapbox Science event and was selected to be a speaker. I was equal parts exited and terrified to speak in the middle of Milton Keynes shopping centre because it’s a big open space as you can see in the picture (Image 1). 

Image 1: Middleton Hall in the Centre:MK

I had the feeling that my research, and passion for it, couldn’t be told as exciting stories (the imposter syndrome speaking again). No dinosaurs, cool space science, earthquakes or volcanoes, … although in my current project I work on volcanic rocks, amongst other things. While volcanoes fascinate me, it’s not so much where the rocks come from that makes me super exited – I am more interested in the analytical challenge they come with. How and what can we analyse to tease out information about processes happening deep within the earth, now preserved in such rocks. This is my true passion, solving problems and getting good data!

The journey from ideas to props and scripts  

When I applied to become a speaker I had a vague idea about what I wanted to talk about. Instead of talking about a specific research project, I wanted to talk about my job as a research project officer/technical support in a lab. However, that made it feel very big and not very tangible. And, I wanted to talk about it to a non-scientific audience when even my colleagues at work are not always sure what I do all the time in the lab besides ‘getting data’. 

So, while in my head I had these great ideas, I felt like I couldn’t make them relatable or understandable. When we had our Soapbox Science meeting and training day everybody seems so much more prepared or able to talk about what they were doing. Also, their projects sounded cooler, more important or impactful. I was very intimidated and waaaay out of my comfort zone. 

Yet, over the years I have learned that putting myself out there so to speak and talk about my plans/ideas, not always in the most elegant way, helps me to work on my ideas. Although I dread it a bit every time, I talked to people about my ideas. I went away from each conversation being a little bit clearer about what I want to do and how I could talk to people about my research and my job within research. I talked to friends, my housemate, colleagues, the MK Soapbox Science co-ordinator Julia Cooke all of whom were very helpful (thanks for listening to me ramble about my half-cooked ideas). After each conversation I started to formulate my ideas in written form, which helped me to structure and order my thoughts even more. Despite my ever-present imposter syndrome, I persisted and suddenly it clicked and I was starting to find my way of talking about what I wanted to talk about. It felt a bit like trying on many pairs of shoes and not finding the ones that fit and then suddenly I found the right ones. 

The analogy I found to explain to other people what I do was that of being a detective. Instead of solving crimes I want to understand what elements rocks and minerals are made of, there I am an element detective. 

Image 2: (left) Appropriate name tag for an element detective and (right) Preparing props for the event – my box of evidence with a selection of different material I get to analyse or use to help me interpret the data afterwards. 

Once this idea took shape I was able to develop props and build a story I could talk about to the public during the event. It was such a relief; I wasn’t the imposter I thought I was. It seemed to take a long time to find it, with many iterations, but I guess science communication isn’t so different from science/research where it often takes many attempts to find the solution to a problem. 

Soapbox Science day 

The week before the event I was really busy at work and didn’t have much time to think or practice too much. During my one practice run on Monday before the event I still stumbled through my story and didn’t really know what to say. Then it seemed like it was suddenly Saturday and I was on my way to the Milton Keynes shopping centre, but surprisingly by then I was not very nervous. I guess the preparation time of several months with various events (training day, social dinner & site visit, ect) as well as my experience with seminar and conference talks did help. 

Image 3: A bit of moral support before the event from Barbara’s colleague Fran (left) with whom she works at the Open University. 

When it was time to step on my Soapbox I was curious about what the next hour would bring and if people would actually stop and listen at all. The start was a bit slow (I was in the first speaker slot), but there were always a few people eager to listen and I barely had any time to take a sip of water on this rather hot day. When my hour on the soapbox was over and a volunteer told me that it’s time for the next person I was surprised that time passed without me really noticing. I guess that is a good sign and many of my fellow speakers felt similarly. The organisation team and volunteers did an amazing job of making the event happen, from setting up, to assisting with props, directing and engaging people to come to listen, filing questions – a huge thanks to all of them!

Image 4: Barbara during her Soapbox science talk, explaining to a girl and her father what her job as an element detective at the Open University entails. 

During my speaking time I had all sorts of people stopping by, old and young, with a science background themselves or none at all. They all listened intently and asked questions, some of which I was able to easily answer, others not so much. What touched me the most were all the young girls who where curious about my work and told me that they can’t wait to have ‘proper’ science classes in secondary school. This leaves me hopeful for the female future of STEM. Now we only have to make sure their curiosity isn’t dampened and they don’t get discouraged by the biases against women in science. Girls and women do like science and STEM subjects – it is the environment and society which discourages them from entering or staying in science. 

Conclusions

Now, two months after the event, looking back I have to say it really was an amazing opportunity for me to take part in Soapbox Science. Not only did I develop an idea of how to communicate my science to a non-expert audience, which I can and hopefully will be able, to use in the future, I also gained some clarity and appreciation of some of my work and what it actually is I am doing in all those long hours spent at work. It really is my passion and a great privilege to have a job I enjoy and work on the forefront of science. 

I would definitely do it again, if I could. For next year I think I will apply to be a volunteer and help next years speakers to have a great time on their soapbox. 


Dr Barbara Kunz is a geologist working in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Open University. She works with a machine called Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS). This instrument allows to analyses solid material for their (trace) element composition. 

The project she is currently working on tries to understand why some volcanoes form metal deposits and other do not. This is important to find and secure future supplies of critical metals needed in modern technology such as batteries, mobile phones and computers.

Soapbox Science MK: life changing

Local lead organiser, Dr Julia Cooke, reflects on the most recent event.

Soapbox Science Milton Keynes 2019 attracted nearly 800 people to learn about diverse science topics, though the hot weather meant the shopping centre venue was quieter than usual.  Eleven speakers told the stories of their research supported by creative props that made complex concepts accessible to all, while volunteers monitored visitors and recorded their feedback. Visitors learned about fat-berg science, methane and landfill trees, reducing food loss, paper foam, improving aircraft design, scents and insects, making decision about water allocations, ocean fossils and more.

Soapbox Science events are many things to many people, and all of them good.  The 2019 Milton Keynes event was no exception and here are some examples showing why:

One speaker commented she wanted to stay on her soapbox another hour, as it gave her such a buzz.  Another speaker noted how many people had questions, both adults and kids, and what a great opportunity it was to connect people with her research.  Speakers talked about how Soapbox Science had given them the training and time to find effective ways to explain their science, with a clear narrative, memorable phrases, analogies and props which had set them up for more outreach events in future.  A volunteer commented they had enjoyed their first experience as a volunteer for anything so much, they would look for other opportunities as an enjoyable way of learning.  Some volunteers were past speakers, keen to give back to the event that had been valuable to them, while others were past audience members.  One volunteer reported that the event brought tears to the eyes of a visitor because they were so excited about seeing women scientists in a public place being so accessible.  Two visitors commented that a past Soapbox Science event had changed their behaviour – one in what they read, and the other in what they recycled. Other comments from visitors included: “[it] explained things I didn’t know”, “it was very interactive and fun”, “very informative & accessible” and “good to see children interacting with scientists”.

Some consider Soapbox Science as kids entertainment, while others an opportunity for all to learn something new.  Some people perceive it as a way of encouraging girls to study science while others see it as showing women in science just as they are to everyone, making them more visible. It is all of those things, and seeks to benefit all those involved.

So a huge thank you to our sponsors, the volunteers who were an essential part of the day supporting the speakers and measuring impact, the organising committee for their consistent, concerted and constant efforts, and the 2019 MK speakers who gave engaging, dynamic and well pitched presentations – the stars of the show.

Why science outreach matters: Meet Cassie Sims

cassie sims

Cassie is a PhD student at Rothamsted Research and the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses on insect olfaction – how insects can smell – and specific proteins found in their olfactory systems.

You can catch Cassie on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be talking about “Scents and smells: communicating with chemistry”.

Follow Cassie on Twitter: @SimsCassie

I remember the moment I realised the importance of science outreach. It was a Friday night, I was out on the town and having a chat to some ladies in the toilets of a bar.

“What do you do?” one of them asked me.

“I am studying for my PhD in chemistry – a scientist basically”, I told them the line I was so used to saying.

“I don’t believe you!”, they responded: “You don’t look like a scientist!”

I was taken aback. This was the first time someone had ever said something like this to me, and I started to unravel the options in my head. Was it because I was a young woman? Was it because I was dressed up, ready to hit the clubs with a face full of make-up and sparkly shoes? Was it because I had tattoos? Then it struck me – none of these things mattered. It didn’t matter what I looked like, this person had an image in their head of what a scientist looked like, and that was not me.Photo of Cassie wearing protective gloves and lab coat working with a piece of machinery in the lab

In reality, a scientist can look like anyone, any gender and race, any fashion choice or hair colour. Working in science means I know a whole bunch of scientists, and every single one of them looks different. But how is the general public supposed to know this, if the only scientists they ever see fit some kind of image or perception?

Science outreach is so important to smash these misconceptions, and as a young female scientist I aim to do as much as possible. I had the opportunity this year to be part of a roller derby game – a full contact sport played on quad roller skates – played, organised and officiated entirely by women working in STEM. The game was played in front of young girls that were interested in pursuing a STEM career, and afterwards we networked with them, giving tips and advice and answering their questions. The girls got the chance to see that not only can anyone be a scientist, they can kick some ass while they do it!

Photo of Cassie's from the back wearing a t-shirt which reads 'Chemistry PhD student' at the roller derby
Cassie at a roller derby

Soapbox Science is an extremely important international event, which reaches out to a general public audience. We will be standing on boxes, and talking about our scientific work, which ranges from computer modelling to field work. It is just as important to show that not only are scientists as people diverse, but the range of science that we do is equally as widespread. Even as a classic lab coat scientist, I am a chemist who works with insects – not something I could have predicted when doing my A-Level in chemistry.

I am very excited to participate in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes, and be part of a diverse group of female scientists, who will be sharing our passion for our work, showing that every scientist is different, and anyone can be one!

Just be yourself, that’s all it takes! Meet Raheeg Alamin

Photograph of RaheegRaheeg is a lecturer at Sudan University of Science and Technology and is currently doing a PhD degree in aerospace engineering at Cranfield University. After she finished her undergraduate studies in aeronautical engineering, she worked for a year in industry before joining academia in 2010. She was granted a PECK scholarship to complete her MSc in electrical engineering at the University of Nottingham.

You can catch Raheeg on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where her talk will be:“Let’s look closely at aircraft wings!”

SS: Raheeg, how did you get to your current position?

RA: To be honest, doing national service is a burden for fresh graduates. I joined the Engineering and Maintenance Sector of Sudan Airways for a year. As it was rotation-based training I was expecting to be able to decide which sector I really wanted to build a career in, and I was able to do that. By the end of the year, I had made my decision and joined academia. I believed that I have the ability to help students to prepare themselves for life after college. Those five years in college are not only about science, but are also about building a better self. It is a “full package” experience.

University is where academics can lecture, interact with students, share knowledge, and still stay connected with industry through research. I have been working in academia for ten years now, and I can truly say that academia has given me more than I have given. It has brought out the best in me!

SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

RA: We are all people in our own right, but with all the bedtime stories, songs, hugs and caring, our parents’ dreams will find their way to us! I still remember how my father’s eyes sparkled when he found out that girls can study and work in aeronautical engineering. It was his dream to have a career in aviation, but he ended up going to medical school!

SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

RA: The multidisciplinary nature of dynamics and control is what fascinates me. In my research I am using feedback control to minimise the adverse effects of the flexible wings that are increasingly used in modern transport aircraft. This should have a big positive impact if successful, as it will lead to both emissions reductions and fuel savings for aircraft operators.

Photograph of Raheeg sitting on a gas turbine engine with Simone and Sezsy
Raheeg (centre) with Simone and Sezsy

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

RA: Albert Einstein once said: ”If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. This is what attracted me to Soapbox Science in the first place, more than representing women in science. I have been fortunate that Sezsy Yusuf (@sezsy) and Simone Weber are in the same research group as me. They both spoke at Soapbox Science last year, and I saw for myself the positive impact this had on their ability to communicate their science.

I always wondered if people were still questioning the role of women in science, and life in general. Why do we still need to talk about women’s rights? I used to believe that it is already obvious that we are an authentic and equal part of everything. Volunteering for Soapbox Science last year made me see things differently, and YES we do need to represent women in science!

SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

RA: Excitement!

 SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

RA: My supervisor Dr James Whidborne said of my very first PhD proposal: ”Always remember, research is a dynamic process”. If I could change one thing, it would be to make everyone accept that research is a dynamic process. It is the key to creativity as long as you can set your goals.

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

RA: Academia needs passion, ambition and patience; my advice to you if you are a woman and considering pursuing a career in academia, is to just to be yourself – that’s all it takes!

With thanks to our 2019 sponsors

The support from sponsors for grass roots event, like Soapbox Science, enhance an event enormously and help up bring exciting science to more people and better increase the visibility of women in science. We are grateful to and acknowledge our 2019 sponsors.

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We thank The Open University‘s  School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences for funding for t-shirts and Sophie Alexander‘s props, and the STEM Faculty for providing additional speaker training  and administration support.

CranfieldUniversity_logoRothamsted Buckingham

We thank Cranfield University, Rothamsted Research and the University of Buckingham for providing rehearsal space, staff time and event promotion.

centre MK

We thank centre:mk for venue provision support.

British Society of Soil Science

We thank the British Society of Soil Science for supporting social events.

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We thank the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour for supporting presentation props for Kelly Jowett.

Screen Shot 2019-06-21 at 14.24.16

 

Last but not least, we thank PJL Carpentry for providing the soapboxes.

 

Why I’m getting up on my soapbox: Meet Kelly Jowett

Photo of Kelly wearing her mortar board and gown standing in front of her prize winning poster
Award-winning science!

Kelly Jowett is a PhD student at the University of Reading and based at Rothamsted Research. Her work investigates the distribution of beneficial beetles in farm landscapes and how they can help us move towards efficient natural pest control in crops.

You can catch Kelly on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be asking: “How do beetles help farmers to feed us?”

Follow Kelly on Twitter: @kelly_jowett

I’m quite an introverted person. I like people, and working in a team, but I’m hardly a chatty breezy open type of girl. At a party, I’m the one in the kitchen, fussing the cat and/or dog. So why am I going to stand on a soapbox in the middle of a shopping centre blathering on about beetles? Because I love it! And here’s why…

As a little girl growing up I loved the natural world, romping about the fields, diving through the hedges, and getting my hands dirty. I was pretty good academically, but I never even considered that the two might interconnect, and I never dreamed I’d be a scientist

Photo of Kelly in full protective gear using a saw to cut a tree
In a former life

When I got to the world of work, I fell into a career of gardening and later trained as a tree surgeon. Unfortunately/fortunately I developed muscular-neurological problems which meant I had to give up my practical career. Still I never considered higher academia – I just went to university to get the qualification I needed to become an ecological surveyor.

However, when I got into my Foundation Degree Sciences undergraduate course, a new world opened up to me. I learned about the problems humans have created for themselves by altering natural systems, and the myriad of ways that I, as a researcher, could contribute and help to mitigate this. I soon fast-tracked onto a BSc Environmental Conservation course and received the school award for best dissertation project for my work on beneficial beetles. I still never considered I might become a doctor though!

Kelly and colleague in winter clothing and waders standing in a pond
Pond conservation management at Nottingham Trent Uni

When I wanted to take my work further I undertook an MRes course in Global Agriculture and Food Security. This equipped me with the knowledge to make a difference to the area where human concerns meet with the environment most keenly – agricultural and food production systems. Though it pains me to know all the things that have gone wrong, globally, with our food systems, it’s so inspiring to know that I, as small and inconsequential as I often feel, might make a difference to the world.

After getting top marks for my statistics module, and winning the prize for top MRes student, I was told I should really take research as a career, and pursue a doctorate. So I did! I’m studying at Reading Uni, and based at Rothamsted Research, in my project on beetles as pest control agents. I love my work. Tramping through the fields and getting my hands dirty (though I do a lot of computer work too).

Selfie of Kelly in a crop field on a hot sunny day
Loving the fieldwork life

I never dreamed I could have this career, doing what I love, and helping others too. I never thought being a scientist involved this.

I never knew science was for me, for everyone. And I want to let everyone know that it is. So I’m going to get up there and tell them! Maybe I will be able to inspire the next future generation of budding scientists and demonstrate that anyone with a passion for something can make a difference.

Dare to be bold: Meet Barbara Kunz

Photograph of Barbara KunzDr Barbara Kunz is a research project officer working in the geochemistry lab of the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Open University (OU). Her work focuses on analysing samples with a machine called a Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer. This machine analyses solid materials for their trace element composition.

Currently she is working on a large Natural Environment Research Council project. The aim of the project is to understand why some volcanoes form metal deposits and others do not. This is important to ensure future supplies of the critical metals needed in modern technology for things like batteries, mobile phones and computers.

You can catch Barbara on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be talking about “How to read rocks; from tiny observations to big conclusions”.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @KunzBE

SS: Barbara, how did you get to your current position?

BK: After I finished my PhD I was looking for jobs in academia and saw the job ad on Twitter. A mentor and friend of mine who works at the OU encouraged me to apply, even though my skills didn’t exactly match the advertisement. The application deadline was shortly after a scientific conference I was attending. So, after a full day of conference talks and posters, I sat down that night to work on my CV and covering letter. The hard work paid off as I got the job!

Photograph of Barbara sitting at two computer screens
Barbara operating the Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer

SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

BK: My parents, who both studied physics, and other relatives played a large role in inspiring me to get into science. I have numerous childhood memories where I developed my scientific skills – observing and describing things, connecting my observations, and drawing conclusions. Many everyday activities were flavoured with activities like these.

However, when I needed to decide what I wanted to do at uni, I was torn between my love for science, and a passion for art and creativity. When the time came to make a decision I went with geology, which allowed me to combine science and being outdoors. I’ve never regretted my decision, and during my undergrad degree I realised that I wanted to pursue a career in science.

SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

BK: Looking back millions and millions of years into the past, as well as investigating places deep within the earth via samples brought to the surface by volcanoes or mountain-building processes. This allows us to access areas usually inaccessible to human beings. I also think that the hidden worlds revealed under a microscope are fascinating.

Something that really grew on me with time are the technical aspects of the instruments geologists use to measure their samples. In addition to using the instruments, these days it’s part of my job to maintain and troubleshoot them.

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

BK: I saw two PhD students from my department talking at a Soapbox Science event last year, and it looked like a fun challenge. I think public engagement is important, especially in this day and age of fake news and climate change deniers. However scientists are often not specifically trained in this. As if by magic we are expected to do great research, deliver brilliant lectures, write publications and grant applications, be a whizz at administrative work, and do public engagement. Our formal education covers only some of these skills. So for me, Soapbox Science is a great training opportunity. I will learn how to present my research to a general audience, and thereby help them understand why my job is important, and why it is important to be financed by taxpayers’ money.

SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

Close up photograph of someone's hands working on a piece of equipment and wearing blue protective gloves
Barbara replacing parts of the laser ablation cell during maintenance

BK: Challenge. I think it takes courage to talk in front of an audience. It might seem contradictory, but explaining the often complex or abstract work I am doing to a non-expert audience is even more difficult and challenging than talking at a scientific conference.

SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

BK: I think equality and diversity in science are definitely issues that need confronting. No matter what their race, gender, sexuality or economic background, the more diverse the people working in science, the more diverse the ideas and approaches to solve the challenges we face in the modern world will be.

Another big topic in academia is the need to address stress levels and mental health issues. This is a huge issue which often gets glossed over, or seen as a badge of honour. Currently, the discussion focuses mostly on what the individual can do (work-life balance, personal stress reduction/resilience, meditation, yoga, etc.). However I think that can only be one side of the equation. The other side is the need for structural changes within university systems to reduce stress and create a more healthy work culture.

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

BK: Networking and supporting each other. Academia is often lonely enough without the added isolation created by rivalry and/or mistrust. Additionally, I would encourage women to apply for jobs, awards, grants etc. even if they feel they are not totally qualified. There are scientific studies that show that women only apply when they are 100% qualified, but that men apply when they are 60% qualified (https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified). If we women want to be equally as successful as men I think we need to be more confident in our skills and abilities, or simply dare to be bolder.

Dream a little dream! Meet Cordelia Mattuvarkuzhali Ezhilarasu

Photograph of CordeliaCordelia is a PhD candidate at Cranfield University, working with the Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) Centre. Her research focuses on improving the diagnosis process for aircraft maintenance through digital twins and intelligent reasoning.

You can catch Cordelia on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will talk about how aircraft health be monitored so that they are safe, sound and reliable.

Follow Cordelia on Twitter: @liaezhil

Everyone has a story! Some stories are as dramatic as a Netflix binge-worthy series, some may inspire you to change your life, and others make you think, ‘Oh, yeah! I could totally relate to this’. Everyone has a story to tell, and thanks to Soapbox Science, I get to tell mine.

Where did it all begin?

My small town in India had three schools, about six streets, and a train station that connected us to the outside world. Although I grew up in a place with limited facilities, I dreamed big. With my dad’s bedtime stories about the universe and evolution, my mum’s encouragement to get involved in any local science events, and the timely publication of Stephen Hawking’s essays meticulously translated to Tamil (my mother tongue), I was hooked on space science and engineering as much as any kid smitten by the beauty of space. Maybe that’s why, when I was interviewed by a local newspaper, I said I would become an aeronautical engineer. I was only 15! Working in this field and advancing it has always been, and always will be, my dream.

Cordelia wearing a high viz vest crouching underneath an aircraft

Was the journey easy?

My dream took its first step when I was admitted to a prestigious engineering college in the big city (Madras, now called Chennai). As a small-town girl, with a really good score but not so good English, I did not know how to handle people who treated nerdy ‘village’ girls as if they were pests. And since I was always treated equally among family as well as at school, I did not anticipate my first step to be into a world where women weren’t treated the same as men.

This is the hardest truth of life that I have dealt with ever since. A decade ago, I was made to feel as if the fields of mechanical and aeronautical engineering were exclusive to men (I hope it isn’t that bad now), and many in the department treated the few girls on the course as an unwanted burden. We were ostracized and left out of group projects and industrial visits. We were ignored for the fun flying lessons. One of the guys even accused me of ‘wasting’ a place on this coveted course, which could have been occupied by a ‘guy’ who ‘deserved’ it. To him (and to the department in general), a girl will get married and be at home anyway, so she shouldn’t have chosen such a sought-after course, and in doing so, she had ‘robbed’ a guy of his ‘opportunity’.

The irony is that among the hundreds in the competition, I was the second to choose the course due to my higher grades (I scored a distinction), but the logic did not matter to them. I’m not one to shy away from challenges, so I learnt to ignore this toxic group, used the facilities that the college had to offer, and got honour scores. I have a feeling that every other girl in my class felt the same, for when the course ended, out of the 11 university rank holders from our department, half of us were girls, in spite of our numbers being significantly small.

What was the turning point?

After graduating from my bachelor’s, I felt as if I was missing something, thanks to my undergrad experience! So I undertook a master’s course in industrial engineering and met the awesome professors who inspired me and made me face life’s challenges head-on. Through my jobs in the energy and semiconductor industries, where I worked for four years, I became a fully-fledged industrial engineer identifying problems in complex processes and introducing optimised solutions. Having had this experience, I decided that it was time to move back to aeronautics through research.

What are you doing now?

Cordelia standing next to a jet aircraftI am currently working on my industry-sponsored PhD at Cranfield University with the IVHM Centre. The Centre focuses exclusively on aircraft health diagnosis and prognosis to help develop better maintenance plans. It feels like we are a bunch of aircraft doctors who are trying to make these complex machines talk to us. I am focusing on developing an application for an aircraft that works a bit like a Fitbit. By collecting and analysing data from the different parts of the aircraft, we will find ways to make it healthier, and therefore safer! I am living my dream, and building the foundations to live my future dreams.

Is this a story of an individual?

Not really! Sometimes, it feels as if my entire family is pursuing this PhD with me. When I got miserable at work in industry, and it felt like I was even further away from my dream, it was my boyfriend (now my husband) who pushed me to do research. He even got a loan to get me started. I also have a big support group in my parents, who gave me everything they could, my three siblings who always check on me (and of course make fun of me!), and then there are my in-laws, who have no idea what I am doing but encourage me nonetheless. I did find one other family, away from home, in the form of my fellow researchers in the IVHM Centre, who share this incredible journey with me.

What keeps the story going?

Somewhere along the line, my passion for aeronautics turned into my ambition for ‘women in STEM’.  It is the urge to break the idea that women cannot survive in demanding fields such as this, that keeps me going. I cannot resist challenges, especially those to do with breaking stereotypes.

Why Soapbox Science?

There can be a hesitation to allow women to study or work in any male-dominated field. Among those who dreamt, not all women were allowed to choose what they wanted to study, and among those who studied, not all women were able to work in their fields. Among those who started, not all women could survive, and among those who survived, not all could reach the top. Through Soapbox Science, I would like to tell the world, especially those who dream of being in STEM, that they are not alone, and they should dare to chase their dreams.

Besides, who doesn’t love to talk about aircraft?

 

2019 Call for volunteers is open

The event needs more than just the Soapbox speakers. We need lots of help putting the event together and running it on the day. We need people to support the speakers, count visitors, hand out information, help with the crowd, conduct surveys and more!   Each year we put out a call for volunteers and the 2019 is OPEN!  If you are interested, please complete this form before May 30.