|Epic Post of Outreach: The UK National Science Fair (Part 1 of 2)
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
As the week draws to a close, I feel the need to write an Epic Post of Outreach, as it's occupied most of my time from last Wednesday until today. The last eight days have run something like this.
Wednesday, 10 March
Morning: Usual trek from Cambridge to London (Kensington). Work most of a day at Imperial
Late Afternoon: London (Kensington) => London (Euston) => Manchester.
My train to Manchester was absolutely rammed. When I have to take a long train journey alone (> 1 hour), I always try to book into the quiet coach so I can read/write/nap without being disturbed by people who can't detach themselves from their mobiles. Unfortunately, the designation "quiet coach" doesn't hold when the train is full of already-drunk Manchester United fans on their way to watch a Champions League match. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em - or at least, I would have done if a very grumpy elderly lady hadn't wedged herself and her considerable luggage into the seat next to me and refused to budge, not even for the man who actually held a ticket for that seat.
Two uncomfortable hours later, I arrived in Manchester. I asked the taxi driver to take me to the science fair's venue, which was printed in my oh-so-helpful information pack as "Manchester Central". The taxi driver and I were in the position of possessing incompatible accents, no GPS and no clue where that was. Eventually, he had a moment of inspiration. "Ah!" he exclaimed. "GMEX! I take you there." I sat back warily as he hurtled through the streets to a converted railway station clearly labeled "Manchester Central". "Nobody call it that," he assured me. "Is GMEX."
"I'll remember that," I said shakily.
By dint of going to multiple reception desks, I made my way to the science fair judges' meeting room, which was located directly across from the first reception desk I'd tried. After an hour of introduction and instruction in how to enter our marks into the PDAs we would be given the following day, we were allowed a few minutes of freedom. I used it to check into my hotel, The Midland, a sprawling affair with outlandish steampunk decor. I reluctantly tore myself away from it to attend the buffet and networking session. Since the buffet mostly consisted of meat on a stick, networking didn't last all that long. I retired to enjoy the delights of my weird room, an ample supply of bubble bath and the thrilling adventures of Admiral Hornblower.
Thursday, 11 March
Up at 7, showered, then breakfasted luxuriously with a very nice geneticist from Newcastle. Sadly this was the last we saw of one another, since she was judging intermediate (15-16 year olds) science & maths, and I was judging the senior projects (17-19 year olds).
We headed for the conference centre, where I spent the day with a Scottish chemist who had a delightful turn of phrase ("Shall we give her a wee seven, then? Yes, I think she deserrrves it.") We judged eight physics and one chemistry project. The chemistry project was our standout. The young lady was articulate, enthusiastic and had taken a crucial role in what turned out to be publishable research. Her name will appear on that paper. She is 18. (She ended up in the top five individuals who went on to be judged by the celebrity panel n Friday. She finished as runner-up for the coveted "UK Young Scientist of the Year" title.)
Once our judging had finished and we handed in our results, we had to wait for everyone's marks to be collated. And wait. And wait. When our moderation session finally started an hour and a half late, we had visited all the company stalls in the fair and drunk a glass of free wine. We were hungry, tired and annoyed. When we finally looked at the spreadsheet with all the scores, we discovered that, as my friend Chris has predicted, the use of the PDAs was an unmitigated disaster. Scores had been entered incorrectly or altered randomly by the software. The only scores that could be trusted were the ones we'd put down on paper.
In the end, each judge pair selected the highest scoring project. That reduced the field to nine projects, and correct scores were entered manually into the spreadsheet. Then we had to select the top five. Unfortunately, this process was not as straightforward as you might imagine. Each project was scored by two pairs of judges. One judge pair had unwisely given a perfect score, thereby throwing the whole scheme out of whack, especially since the other judge pair deemed the project mediocre. After a lot of acrimonious bickering - and anyone who's spent time in a room with more than five scientists will know just how many toys can get chucked out of the pram in an hour - that project was dismissed, as the rest of the top six had been unquestionably the top choice of both judge pairs.
By the time we got to our dinner at the Hard Rock cafe - you can see how limited my experience of Manchester was - it was 9:30 PM. Those of us that were so inclined proceeded to pour free booze down ourselves until the preceding 13-hour marathon had faded into a pleasant blur. It seemed like a good idea at the time.