To space and back! The view from a CHRISTMAS LECTURES assistant

Abigail Guillermo

Abby Guillermo, a PhD student from the University of Oxford, shares her experience as a 2015 CHRISTMAS LECTURES assistant.

Read time: 3 minutes
The set for the 2015 CHRISTMAS LECTURES 'How to survive in space'
Paul Wilkinson

After spending 12 weeks in the hustle and bustle of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, I found the need to remind myself that I was in fact a PhD student and that I have to continue the research I left behind 3 months earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I love the lab and the work that I do. But there’s something really special about being a part of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES.

The 2015 topic was all about how to survive in space presented by Kevin Fong, something completely unrelated to anything I’ve ever done before. It was a slightly daunting prospect, but I soon realised that the learning experience was what made the internship a lot of fun. I came to the Royal Institution (Ri) as the CHRISTMAS LECTURES assistant where I was particularly involved with anything to do with demos, props and scouting for collaborators. The best part about it is the fact everyday in the office is different. One day you could be testing a make-shift astronaut in a vacuum chamber, and the next meeting an actual astronaut!

Abby backstage with NASA astronaut Dan Tani
Abby backstage with NASA astronaut Dan Tani, Credit: Paul Wilkinson

One of my favourite days in the office was when we used the Ri-made rocket launcher to shoot peas, carrots, cucumbers and many other things that we could possibly launch to pierce through cardboard. Carrots were eventually chosen for the final demo and was featured in the second lecture to show the effects of a micrometeoroid impact.

On the week running up to the lectures, things can get a bit chaotic. Demos are being assembled (or sometimes only being conceptualized at this point!), props are delivered and every nook and cranny of the building seems to be occupied with something that’s going to be used in the CHRISTMAS LECTURES. Rehearsals are also in full swing, with call times starting at 9.30am and finishing well into the evening. Because communicating with Tim Peake in the International Space Station proved to be quite unpredictable, the script also had to be constantly tweaked to make sure the stuff we got was cohesive with the rest of the lecture content.

Abby working on the CHRISTMAS LECTURES script with Christmas Lecturer Kevin Fong and Executive Producer David Dugan
Abby working on the CHRISTMAS LECTURES script with Christmas Lecturer Kevin Fong (l) and Executive Producer David Dugan (r), Credit: Paul Wilkinson

While this all sounds a bit stressful, I have to say that for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Because of my involvement, I was one of the first few people who saw the CHRISTMAS LECTURES as it evolved and became the amazing show that it is as you see it on TV. I got to work with awesome people from the Ri and production team, as well as meet astronauts and space academics who came as guests and collaborators on the show.

And finally, it’s inspiring to see excited young people as they watch the lectures unfold in the theatre, especially knowing that for some of them, this is the lightbulb moment that tells them to pursue a scientific vocation.

For the next batch of BBSRC assistants, my only advice would be to fully immerse yourself in the CHRISTMAS LECTURES journey. You will get to meet and work with so many amazing people as well as handle a lot of cool demos and props! I’ve been back in the lab for a month or so now and I still find myself missing it. Now that I’ve had this experience, I’ll be eagerly waiting for opportunities to help out within the Ri again in the future.