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23 September 2013

On Friday 5th July, London's Southbank was transformed into a hub of scientific learning and discussion, as some of the UK's leading female scientists took to their soapboxes to showcase science to the general public. Soapbox Science is collaboration between the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science, and its mission is simple: to eliminate gender inequality in science by raising the profile, and challenging the public's view, of women and science.

Soapbox Science is championing a change in gender inequality in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) by highlighting the struggles many women face when pursuing a career in science research. Its long-term priorities are to change the game for women in science by campaigning for equality and good practice in society, academic institutions, and government.

Soapbox Science Founders Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, a ZSL research fellow and Dr Seirian Sumner, a Senior Lecturer from Bristol University, are passionate about the cause and have established Soapbox Science as a vehicle to influence government policies relevant to STEM equality through their Campaign for Change.

Institution-based support for scientists in the early years must improve. In science, the early career years demands a high level of instability with scientists moving between short-term, low paid contracts in order to build the experience and diverse skill set required to secure the much sought-after permanent positions. With these years perhaps coinciding with the time when many may wish to start a family, there can be conflicting demands which put enormous pressure on young scientists. Without institution-based support, such as affordable child care, most early career scientists who become parents find the bulk of their salaries consumed by nursery fees, often making it unaffordable to continue working. Institutes and universities must take responsibility in reducing pressures on early career scientists by making it acceptable for them to balance work demands and personal responsibilities, and help them to do so.

We need to enhance the visibility of women in science. Visibility is an important component of a scientist's career. Helping female scientists improve their profile is a powerful way to help build opportunities for themselves, and increase the likelihood of them staying in STEM careers. It is a self-fulfilling principle - the STEM community needs visible female role models, willing to engage and share their experiences to ensure women's representation in science improves. Events such as Soapbox Science help to raise female scientists' profiles.

Soapbox Science strips away the PowerPoint presentations and jargon to bring the best of science to the streets. Now in its fourth year, the event has gathered support from renowned institutions including the British Ecological Society, Society of General Microbiology, Francis Crick Institute and the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, demonstrating the importance of tackling gender inequalities in science. And, this year, actor, writer and comedian Robin Ince lent his support by hosting a Speaker's Workshop and provide insight into entertaining science communication.

Soapbox Science has been used as a platform to showcase some of the most cutting edge scientists from all corners of the UK, most of which are at the height of discovery and innovation. Featuring some of the UK's top female scientists from the fields of biology, physics, chemistry and engineering, the speakers took to their soapboxes and spoke passionately about their subjects and answered all of the audience's burning science questions. The speakers had to apply for their spot on a soap box – and with over 60 applications the competition was fierce The 2013 Soapbox Science speakers and their discussion topics will include:

Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott
Professor of Microbiology at University of Swansea
"From gums to bums, bacteria through the body"

Dr Cath Waller
Lecturer in Marine Biology & Ecology at University of Hull
"Life at the bottom of the world"

Professor Jane K Hill
Professor in Biology at University of York
"It’s great up north! - species move to track climate warming"

Dr Emily Cross
Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at University of Bangor
"What does it take to Strictly Come Dancing? How our brains learn and perceive complex movement"

Julie Dunne
PhD student in Archaeological science at University of Bristol
"Milking it – how small molecules from ancient pots tell us when humans first started dairying"

Professor Laura Piddock
Professor of Microbiology at University of Birmingham
"Antibiotic resistance and why we need new treatments"

Dr Maria Grazia Vigliotti
Senior Research Associate in Computer Science at Imperial College
"Be aware! Computing is everywhere!"

Dr Zoe Schnepp
Fellow in Chemistry Department at University of Birmingham
"Superconducting seaweed (an adventure in green nanotechnology)"

Dr Sabrina Maniscalco
Reader in Physics, working at the Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences, School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Heriot-Watt University
"Playing the Quantum Computer Game"

Dr Ravinder Kanda
Research Associate in Paleovirology and Genomics, Department of Zoology at The University of Oxford
"Genome Invaders: Friend or foe?"

Dr Maria Ocampo-Hafalla
Principal Scientific Officer at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute
"Lord of the cohesin rings: protecting the blueprint for life"

Jassel Majevadia
PhD student, Departments of Physics, Materials, and Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London
"Crack! Why hydrogen is a menace inside metals"

The event is founded and co-organised by Dr Nathalie Pettorelli and Dr Seirian Sumner; both are holders of The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowships.

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli said:
"Now in its fourth year, Soapbox Science is a platform to showcase the most eminent female scientists in the UK, and to highlight some very serious issues that we have witnessed as mid-career scientists: the disappearance of our female peers. We cannot afford to lose anymore brainpower to gender inequality, as it is unfair that women should have to accept that they are battling against all odds if they want a career in science."

Dr Seirian Sumner added:
"Through events like Soapbox Science and our Campaign for Change, we want to actively bring women of all career stages together and promote that women can have a career in science. More broadly, the STEM community needs visible female role models, like our speakers who are willing to engage, and share their experiences to push for implementation of new measures. We hope that our event will inspire a new generation of scientists, and highlight that with a few small changes, such as career breaks, and part time working, that the female ‘brain drain’ doesn’t have to exist".

For more information on Soapbox Science and its Campaign for Change visit: www.soapboxscience.org

Check Out Some of the New Coverage for the Event:

Doing the Macarena for Science
BBC Science & Environment, 9th July 2013
Read more >

Soapbox Science event boosts gender awareness
Times Higher Education, 11th July 2013
Read more >

Why aren't there more women in science - and how can we change that?
The Independent, 8th July 2013
Read more >

What can you do with a soapbox?
Physics Focus.org, 17th May 2013
Read more >

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