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How to be a scientist

In our latest collections blog, Prof Eleanor Schofield goes back to her roots and plants some future scientist seeds…

Written for British Science Week 2022

Is this where I admit to writing a clickbait title? Ok, fine, I admit that this isn’t a definitive guide on how to be a scientist! This is just one path, mine, which by sharing I hope shows that there is no single or right way to become, and be, a scientist.

In March we celebrate British Science Week, a national event highlighting and showcasing the wonders of science. The theme this year is “growth”, and it is with that in mind that my old schoolmate, Nicola, got in touch. Now a teaching assistant at our old primary school, St Peter and Paul’s in West Yorkshire, she wondered whether I would be willing to speak to the current pupils about my journey to becoming a scientist and working at the Mary Rose. Honestly, my initial reaction was equal parts excitement and fear, and then utter disbelief as the rather large number of years it was since I had been a pupil there formed in my mind! Moving on….

Where to start? How could I put the last 30+ years into an engaging, accessible, encouraging and accurate talk? As I cast my mind back, recollecting threads here and there, it became possible to start to weave them all together. I soon realised that I could connect science to so many parts of my life, whether unfortunate accidents, fantastic holidays, or my subject and later career choices – more details on those in the video below. There ended up being simply too many examples to choose from.

Building beamlines at Stanford Synchrotron

Building beamlines at Stanford Synchrotron (apologies for image quality, this was taken on an old digital camera!)

It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experience of being a scientist, having often felt I didn’t match people’s pre-conceived ideas of what I should look like (both literally and metaphorically!) or their expectations of what I should know and like. I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked questions such as, “Did you always take things apart when you were younger to see how they worked?” or “Do you get all science questions on University Challenge right?” or “Do you LOVE The Big Bang Theory”. My answers are often, it seems, a disappointment! But as the decades of successfully being a scientist add up, I feel even more determined to dispel the myth of what or who a scientist is. Especially having been fortunate enough on so many occasions to work with brilliant people, each bringing something unique to the mix, and realising the power this brings.

The question is, did I succeed in getting some or any of this across to the pupils of St Peter and Paul’s? I hope so, and if the success is measured by the number and variety of questions asked by the audience, then definitely yes; Have you met the Queen? Were you there when the ship was raised? Do you have fun being a scientist? What countries have you been to? Do you get to do any drawing? They just kept on coming, and allowed me to show them all the different things life as a scientist can offer (and yes, we do have fun!). Maybe some of them will go on to become scientists, whether they do or don’t, I hope they went away with less of the black and white image of what a scientist is, and more of the full spectrum of vibrant colour it can and should be.

You can watch the talk given by Eleanor Schofield to the children of St Peter and Paul’s, Years 1 – 6, below.

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