The view from East Yorkshire

Sarah Elton, one of the scientists who helped out at the workshops discussed in the last blog post talks about her experience on the day.

I was promised lunch and an interesting day out in East Yorkshire. In return, I had to give a talk about monkeys and tell people what it is like to be a scientist. My brief was to be a ‘science expert’ at a weekend workshop, part of a series run by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to find out what the public think of science. I had no idea what to expect – I thought Ipsos MORI did opinion polls for elections. I was also a bit apprehensive: could I give a short talk without that ultimate prop, a set of PowerPoint slides? And would I meet their expectations as a scientist?

Things are never as bad as you imagine. In fact, when my turn came I was relieved to be able to talk. To allow the participants to discuss things freely and not interfere with their spontaneous responses, I had been asked not to speak too much in the morning workshops. For someone who is used to chattering away in meetings and seminars, it took a huge amount of effort before lunch not to say anything. Luckily, I was sitting next to the bacon sandwiches, and as I was brought up never to speak with my mouth full they helped me to stay quiet.

My talk went well – I think – and I didn’t need monkey pictures on screen to distract my audience. Instead, I drew a very dodgy picture of Africa on a flipchart and explained how my research required me to measure monkeys and investigate how their body shapes differ from one region of Africa to another. This isn’t as odd as it sounds. By doing this, we can work out how different groups vary, which helps the conservation biologists identify animals needing urgent protection, as well as revealing some of the factors that influence how mammals – including humans – grow and evolve.   

I work in a medical school, but started my career as a monkey measurer by doing a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology. Anthropology – the study of people and our closest relatives, the primates – is a subject that is part science, part humanities. I was admitted despite having no science A levels: we were taught the science we needed (human biology, zoology, anatomy, physiology and biochemistry) as part of our university course. I then continued my studies to postgraduate level by doing a PhD on fossil primates, specialising in African monkeys.

I’m often asked how a monkey-loving anthropologist got a job in a medical school. It’s simple. I teach anatomy, which forms the basis for my research. In fact, I’m not unusual, and people studying primate fossils often work in medical schools. When Victorian and Edwardian fossil collectors began unearthing ancient primates – including human ancestors – it was the anatomists in medical schools they turned to for help describing and reconstructing their finds.  

Knowing that I am continuing a long tradition didn’t prevent me from feeling a bit worried when one of the workshop facilitators asked the group whether someone with no science A levels should be training future doctors. He also asked whether their views on this topic had been shaped by meeting and talking to me. I was most relieved when the group pronounced me fit to practice, and it led to a short discussion of how scientific knowledge can be acquired throughout life.

I was really surprised by some of the participants’ lack of knowledge of science and the scientific process. I view myself as an enthusiastic science communicator but saw very quickly that arranging events at the British Science Festival and talking to school children reaches only a small part of the population, often those who are interested in and knowledgeable about science in the first place. At the workshop, I met people who were – for the most part – keen to learn about science and discuss it, but who had no day-to-day contact with scientists and didn’t feel involved in science.

To be honest, I felt a bit ashamed. The group laughed when I said “we scientists live among you” – I live on the edge of a council estate in York, and although some of my neighbours work in science, many do not – and suggested that people shouldn’t be afraid to talk to us. However, I (and indeed most other academics and researchers) could do much more to promote our work outside schools and science festivals. Those outlets are undoubtedly important, but reach only a fraction of the population. So, my New Year’s resolution is to ask the local free paper whether they want a column on hot topics in science and to donate some time to the local community radio station. It’s not much, but it’s a start. And if Ipsos MORI asks me to attend another workshop I will leap at the chance, lunch or no lunch.

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