Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Being 8 years old, staying 8 years old....

I love how even the lab's solutions room can provoke a state of wonder in someone who has never set foot in a library of chemicals before. The -80C freezer also gets a good reaction. That's before we're anywhere near the electrophysiology rig and confocal microscope. Having the chance to open someone's eyes to the realities of working in a lab is pretty great, and it's why I encourage A level students to come in and talk to scientists and spend time watching experiments. Recently, a student asked me if I got bored analysing my data. I answered truthfully: 'yeah, sometimes it's a little repetitive but if I want to know the answer it has to be done!'. She looked confused for a moment and then it dawned on her: "Oh! In my practicals we already know what the graph should look like so it seemed a waste of time!". 

The idea that science is uncertain and creative was alien to her. She had been taught to get the 'right answer'. Happily, she agreed that not knowing was much more fun - and then began reconsidering her plan to study medicine in favour of a pure science. I don't know what she will decide, but I do know that the spark of curiosity we have about science as kids can get lost along the way in that quest for the 'right answer'. We don't talk about uncertainty and failure enough - and certainly not in a way that encourages creativity and mindful observation. But poking the world and seeing what happens comes naturally to kids - and so, these pieces from two 8 year old ScienceGrrls make us grin from ear to ear. Aimee Bromfield-Brown spent a day with ScienceGrrls in the Natural History Museum (Tori Herridge) and Imperial College London (myself, Clare Bakewell and Alexandra Anderson). Lara Smith wrote in to tell us that science was great - we agree! Have a read, and a smile. And then let's work out how we nurture Grrls like them. 


My name is Aimee Bromfield-Brown. I am 8 years old and I love science.

My auntie told me about a group called ScienceGrrl and she contacted them for me. They arranged for me to see a real scientist and a laboratory. My trip was even better because I actually did this:

First I went to the Natural History Museum. I got to see fossils. There were many interesting things like rigid sloth poo - yuk! And a baby dwarf elephant's teeth and bones - wow!

I then went to a lab and a scientist did an experiment and showed me how many colours there are in grass. It actually looked green to me before. There were 3 and it was amazing.

Then I went to another lab where they were doing an experiment about worms and their food. The scientists wanted to know if the worms went to the food that was good for them and avoided food that was bad for them, or whether they tried the bad food first then went to the food that was good for them.

I really liked the science I saw.

ScienceGrrl encouraged me to want to be a scientist even more. That experiment worked!!


Why science is great! By Lara Smith

Science is really cool! There are so many amazing things to find out and do! It is also extra-fun. Read on to find out why…

I think science is fun because you get to find out really cool facts and do really fun experiments such as making gloop or even swinging water over your friend’s head! The great thing about them is that things almost always don’t turn out the way you think they will. Also, there will definitely be a great fact or two to be discovered.

I would like to be a cosmologist when I grow up. This is because I am really interested in cosmology and astrophysics. I have a telescope and have tried to focus it on stars but I’m not able to. Luckily, I have found out more from lots of other sources such as going to the Science Museum and watching the documentary Wonders of the Solar System. I have learnt lots from it and would really recommend it to you. 

My favourite science fact is…

LIGHT TRAVELS AT THE SPEED OF 186,000 miles per sec

So, what do you think? Science is great, but are you interested? I hope you are! If you are, here are some websites you should look at: - help astronomers classify galaxies - explore the surface of mars for the first time
These are both zooniverse projects. For more, go to
 Some programmes to watch:
-Stargazing Live 
or if you like animals…

Thanks Aimee & Lara - you've made our day!

Monday, 13 May 2013

TrowelBlazers: celebrating awesome trowel-wielding women

Image reproduced here with the kind permission of the Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University (, Image A_340), and may not be further reproduced without permission

It’s easy to imagine the academic world at the turn of the 20th Century, right? A world closed to all but the most privileged of men – whiskered gentlemen in stiff suits, pipe smoke and port, explorers with a whiff of pith helmet about them.

Imagine, then, arriving on the island of Crete in 1904 to find not one bold, brave young woman researcher digging up the past – but four: Harriet Boyd, Blanche Wheeler, Edith Hall and Dorothea Bate.

Or the Arabian Desert in 1900, where that striking figure riding towards you, headscarf billowing, at the head of a caravan of camels is not Lawrence of Arabia – he was barely out of short trousers then – but Gertrude Bell.

Try archaeology* in the interwar years, then. In our popular imaginations this is proper Indiana Jones territory. But in 1929, on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, Dorothy Garrod was leading an excavation team of five women. Over the next five years, in caves dotting the steep-sided cliffs of Mount Carmel, Garrod’s team would uncover remarkable remains of Neandertals and some of earliest evidence for modern humans outside of Africa.

There were many, many women archaeologists, palaeontologist and geologists in the 19th and early 20th Century who were well known and respected – then – for their work and achievements. Now, however, they have been forgotten. This isn’t totally surprising – after all, how many men from those fields are household names? But it’s more than just forgetting a name or six; we’ve failed to retain the idea that women like these formed a significant – if under-represented and often resented – part of the cultural and academic landscape. We’ve allowed them to slip from our popular consciousness.

It’s a cautionary tale.

Fast forward to today. Women are a significant, but under-represented, part of the cultural and academic landscape (sound familiar?). Like our predecessors, we face institutionalized prejudice and inequality, even if our individual work is respected. In fifty or a hundred years time, will our existence and contributions have made as small a dent on people’s imaginations as the women of yesteryear?

Not if we can help it! On Friday we launched the TrowelBlazers blog to carve out more space on the Internet for the story of women’s contributions, past and present, to the fields of archaeology, palaeontology and geology (authors note: we aren’t above a spot of land grabbing, and given field-boundaries are a tad blurry and multi-disciplinary study common, we will also be featuring women geographers, explorers and anthropologists).

By scouring the Internet and beyond for images and videos, and posting them alongside short, readable snippets of information, we want to reset people’s imaginations. As the blog grows, we hope that the volume of entries – as much as the individual stories – will be its own powerful testament to just how significant these women were, and continue to be.

Because it isn’t just the derring-do of pioneer-era women we are interested in, we want to celebrate the full diversity of trowel-blazing women working today, from all backgrounds and from all parts of the world. On top of this, we want to highlight the networks of women that have worked together over the years – something often lost in heroic tales of success against the odds, where women are inevitably framed by a world of men.

It’s quite an agenda we’ve set ourselves, and we need help building up this picture. We aren’t historians of science - we are learning too - and we know that we haven’t even scraped the surface of the awesomeness of these trowel-wielding women (even if we are quite proud of our spreadsheet with nearly one hundred women on it already). Anyone can submit a post to our blog, or join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. Together, we can showcase the aggregate contribution of these trowel blazers.

One exception to the rule can be dismissed, many exceptions cannot. In essence, that is the spirit of TrowelBlazers, served up with a dash of ancient wonder, a sprinkling of adventure and – of course - buckets of mud and sweat.

* Yes, archaeology is a science (some bits more than others), but we are interested in women beyond the realms of science as well.

The TrowelBlazers blog can be found here:

TrowelBlazers is run by Victoria Herridge (@ToriHerridge), who provided this guest post, Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch), Rebecca Wragg Sykes (@LeMoustier) and Brenna Hassett (@brennawalks). They all also tweet at @trowelblazers.