I’m a scientist, get me in there

John Robert Davis, a developmental biologist from Kings College, reflects on his experience answering Life Fantastic questions with I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here! and asks if we need to do more to teach students about evolution.

  • The Mexican tetra or blind cave fish (Astyanax mexicanus)

    The Mexican tetra or blind cave fish (Astyanax mexicanus)

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I logged into my I’m a scientist account and went straight to the chat page. The moderator Josh was already set-up and asked “Was I ready for another session?” I nonchalantly replied, “Oh yeah.” But truthfully, as with my previous chats, I waited with butterflies. What will I be asked? Could I answer the pupil’s questions? What if I get it wrong? All of a sudden on the instant messenger the questions started coming in furiously. 

Do you enjoy science? How did you become a scientist? What is your favourite cell? Can stem-cells stop aging? I got down to it, typing as fast as I could, trying to answer as many questions as possible. Then out of nowhere...When whales get ‘washed-up’ what if they are trying to evolve?

I stopped typing and chuckled. I didn’t know if it was a serious question or a brilliantly facetious joke. I started to type my response after careful consideration but before I hit send the chat was over. The thirty minutes had disappeared and the student logged-off.

Luckily, yorgandji14 had posted this question on the I’m a scientist website. My answer in short; “If they are they’re not doing a very good job of it.”

I spent an enjoyable week with the I’m a scientist team. Answering questions all to do with Alison Woollard’s Life Fantastic CHRISTMAS LECTURES. It involved online chats that left you buzzing with excitement as well as answering questions, some on topics I didn’t know anything about. Topics ranged from science as a career to details about what type of microscope I use. But a reccurring theme was about evolution. What amazed me the most was that students didn’t seem to understand evolution.

Evolution in education is a hot topic at the moment. In recent years high-profile scientists, such as Sir Paul Nurse, have spoken out about how evolution is taught in schools. However, most focus has been placed on the evolution versus creationism debate.

Chatting to students during my week on I’m a scientist, I found they did not reject evolution. Instead, they seemed to struggle with how evolution works. It was not the time-scales involved but more how changes in genes can lead to changes in proteins which lead to changes in species. As well as struggling to understand how the environment can impact on what should minuscule changes. One example from Alison's lectures that seemed to blow the students away was cave fish losing the ability to see. Surely sight is an advantage and these fish are devolving?

I do not know if my answers helped explain evolution to the few I talked to. I hope they did but even if the students took nothing away I certainly did. I learnt that it is my responsibility as a scientist to explain my research to the public, and that doing this can be hugely rewarding and fun. Not only does it break down barriers in understanding but allows the public to see science has a human face.

Science is having a recent resurgence in popularity as more and more scientists engage with the public. I would say to everyone, jump on the band wagon and get involved. Not only will it allow you to promote and explain your research but I can guarantee that you will enjoy it. You never know, you might be asked a completely left-field question like “When whales get ‘washed-up’ what if they are trying to evolve?”

John Robert Davis is a final year PhD student at the Randall Division, King's College London. He researches the migration dynamics of Drosophila immune cells, known as hemocytes, during development and how they are able to form patterns.  

I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here! is an engagement event that gets school students talking with scientists online. The main events run in March, June, and November every year. For more information and to find out how to get involved go to imascientist.org.uk.

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