Leading questions

11th April 2014
By Anna Middleton

Students taking part in the online competition. Credit: I'm a Scientist

Students taking part in the online competition. Credit: I’m a Scientist

“Why do we itch – what’s occurring in our bodies?” and “Do animals have belly buttons?” These are just a few of the questions that were fired at me by young people taking part in the Wellcome Trust funded online schools competition ‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here’.

I’m really proud to have won in the Computational Biology Zone but, since I’m not a computational biologist, I doubt it was my knowledge of this research area that clinched it! The experience of taking part in this web chat with schools around the country taught me that sometimes the value of engagement isn’t in knowing something but in being able to explore an answer together.

When dealing with questions such as “why do fingernails grow faster than hair” my answers often led back to genetics, evolution and natural selection. These were ideas that were unfamiliar to some of the students and opened up more philosophical questions for them about why we are the way we are and where religion fits in.

Some of the questions were more personal; it’s a great benefit of the open, instant messaging format of ‘I’m a Scientist’ that young people feel confident enough to ask the questions that really matter to them. One student asked why your hair falls out during chemotherapy; she wanted to know because her mother was receiving cancer treatment. I was able answer this burning question for her and also to say how sorry I was that she was going through this.

A popular personal topic was acne – understanding this very tangible teenage issue led on quite naturally to discussions about bacteria and to questions about antibiotics. Young people were taking answers and forming follow-up questions; joining the dots themselves and learning through the process.

One of most positive interactions I had was with a boy who became fascinated with the ethical issues genetic counsellors deal with. For instance, we discussed why some deaf parents might prefer to have a deaf child. Each time he would come back with more questions – he was so surprised and said that he’d never thought about ‘what is normal’ from this point of view before. You could see the light bulbs going on during the conversation.

Science is often perceived as a difficult subject and this can be off-putting. It can come across as abstract as it may not always have the immediate and human appeal of subjects like media or psychology. I hope that speaking to young people in a forum like this can help to change these attitudes.

By taking part in ‘I’m a Scientist’ I was keen to show that not all scientists work in laboratories; to demonstrate that science isn’t just chemistry, physics and biology, it’s far reaching and has a multitude of applications; and I wanted to be visible as a woman in a scientific field.

Anna Middleton is a social scientist and registered genetic counsellor researching ethics and genomics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

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