Bringing science to the people in Edinburgh!

Rosie McDonald is a PhD student at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) in Edinburgh and is part of the NERC IAPETUS Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research focuses on quantifying greenhouse gas emissions from freshwaters and lake sediments. Rosie took part in the Edinburgh Soapbox Science event on 22nd July 2017.

Soapbox Science brings scientists to local people on busy streets, from Exeter to Edinburgh and many places in-between, to engage and inspire those who wouldn’t normally come across science in their daily lives. Not only is Soapbox Science an innovative outreach platform, it also promotes and empowers female scientists and the work they do. Soapbox Science was established 7 years ago, with the idea inspired by Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, which is historically an arena for public debate. The concept is simple; 4 researchers wearing lab coats are stood on ‘soapboxes’, doing a rotational circuit to share their work with passers-by. There were no microphones, PowerPoint presentations, or scientific posters, only materials from everyday life to support the talks – quite a different stage for many researchers!

Through the power of Twitter, I found out that Edinburgh Soapbox Science were looking for volunteers and quickly signed up as I really enjoy engaging with the public and supporting fellow scientists! There were three sessions of speakers (from students to professors) over the whole afternoon covering a diverse range of expertise in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) from across Scotland. Talks ranged from participating in clinical trials, electric cars, exercise and cancer, the secret world of bats, to forensic soil science. The speakers were supported by a number of volunteers who helped draw in crowds, chat to the public about science, assisting with props, and recording data about the public engagements.

Some of the Edinburgh Soapbox Science organisers, volunteers and speakers at The Mound, Edinburgh. (Photo: Dawn Smith)

I supported Professor Lorna Dawson (@Soilfit), a soil forensic scientist from The James Hutton Institute, during her pitch, titled ‘the answer lies in the soil’. You may have already come across soil forensics through the Sherlock Holmes mystery, ‘A Study in Scarlet’? Forensic soil science explores the variability in organic, mineral and soil DNA signatures and the impact of transfer and mixing of soil on items such as fabric and footwear. Every place on earth has a unique biogeochemical signature which can be invaluable at tracing the origin of physical evidence, as the geology indicated by a soil’s inorganic mineral content can narrow the search to a broader region, while organic matter content can help localise the soil at even finer scales.

Lorna shared her passion for science, relating interesting facts, the importance of soil science in solving forensic cases, and how rewarding her science can be. We had lots of photos relating to soil forensics which grabbed the attention of onlookers, for example, soil traces on shoes and clothing, soil in a washing machine filter, and even ground-penetrating radar scans showing disturbed soil layers. Lorna would ask people to describe what they saw in the photos to start a discussion and build up a story. People were very engaged and asked many follow up questions! Lorna also used what people had to say to illustrate wider principles of soil forensic science and linked this to well known cases in the media. For example, a trace of dirt on a shoe could link to a footprint at a scene of crime, or mud on a spade could guide police to an undiscovered grave. People were also surprised at the diversity of soils and how analysis of the microbial DNA held within soils was so effective at finding bodies and overturning alibis in courtrooms for solving both old and new crimes.

Lorna and I looking a bit rained upon but discussing soil forensics with members of the public. (Photo: Dawn Smith)

The experience was very rewarding, particularly seeing how people light up when they are enthused or learnt something new. The event was surprisingly intimate which made people feel at ease and open to being involved in discussions and asking questions. Even the Scottish weather didn’t put people off interacting! If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend giving science communication and public engagement a try, especially Soapbox Science as it is an unusual but effective way of bringing science to people in an open and understandable way. Not only does it feel good to get out there and think about how to make your science relatable, but also engaging with such a wide range of curious people stimulates your own thinking.

Author: Rosie McDonald

Twitter: @RosieMcDonald91

For more information about Soapbox Science and to find upcoming events near you, head across to the website: