Out of all the tasks and responsibilities I have completed for this PIPS placement, writing up my experience and doing it justice is by far going to be the most challenging. I suppose I should start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, so I have heard). At the start, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a PIPS placement, in a slightly arrogant way I assumed, as a mature student, that I had a lot of work experience and I thought that experience of research was really the most important thing for me and that there wasn't anything at all other than hard core research and lab experience that I could benefit from… oh how wrong I was.
I had always enjoyed the idea of working in outreach and public engagement, bridging the gap between what scientists in imposing lab coats and hazardous looking laboratories actually do and what the general public think they do. I approached my ‘soon-to-be’ PhD project supervisor, Miriam, for some advice and she put me in touch with Charlotte, a recent PhD graduate who worked heavily in outreach and had been hired to organise Warwick’s marquee at The Cheltenham Science Festival.
I met Charlotte a few days later to go through what she wanted me to help with and to get me started on a few tasks. It started off lightly, with some paper work and finding things like tablecloths, then as it got closer the work load increased to designing materials we needed (posters, lanyard inserts etc.) more paperwork and generally assisting Charlotte in all the prep work needed for Cheltenham to happen, and then as if out of nowhere, the day to go to Cheltenham arrived…
The enormity of what Warwick were trying to do hadn't really hit me until I got to Cheltenham and then it started to get real, this mythical marquee we had been obsessing over for the last 6 weeks was suddenly stood before us in a giant flappy blaze of white tarpaulin glory, we walked in to a blank canvas and got straight to work transforming the space into the versatile classroom/showroom/café it was needed to be!
In the following few days this space had to be a diverse landscape, moulding itself to hold engaging and exciting school sessions in the morning, where academics from various departments would get show off their science and deliver some ‘wow factors’ to eager brains and the next generation of scientists. Later in the day it was home to a drop in session where members of the public come to talk to the people behind the science, cutting out the media middlemen. Finally in the afternoon the marquee played host to Warwick’s Ideas Café, an informal platform for academics to engage further with mature audiences to answer questions and encourage discussion.
It is probably well worth noting that this was the first time Warwick had been involved with the science festival, most universities had a stall or a small tent and everyday was a rough repeat throughout the week, Warwick’s mentality to the schedule can be summed up as ‘go big or go home’! Everyday we had different events on, not just one, sometimes we had three to five different sessions, each with their own set ups and equipment. Not only was this this a big event by Warwick’s standards, even Cheltenham Festivals were in awe of what we were trying to achieve and deliver.
During the week I was exposed to a huge range of platforms for engagement with the public and I got to be involved with some of the demonstrations during the drop in sessions. I was privileged enough to work along side some amazing people from all areas of the university from project organisers to Pro-Vice Chancellors and I also got to meet some of the people occupying the highest positions at the university. All in all, this was a network enthusiast’s dream! I got to hear about Frankenstein robots, see the crown jewels (replica), learn how to grow crystals, how to make a diamond, what we can use magnets for and supercool conductors.
The week was hitch-less and seamless, everything was organised to within an inch of its life and anything that popped up, unplanned, was quickly sorted as we were a strong team gaining more and more experience (in buckets) throughout the week. We were given access to the VIP lounge where were were able to catch our breath for five minutes as well as a bite to eat and all the teas and coffee you could drink. I played it cool sitting next to Lord Professor Robert Winston, renowned physicists Brian Cox and Marcus Chown, who no matter how hard I tweeted, would not visit our marquee!
When it came to Sunday, our final day at the festival, it was a mixture of emotions, myself and Charlotte had worked the entire festival from start to finish; from before doors open to well after doors close with very little sleep in-between. There was a sad, exhausted, satisfied atmosphere in the air knowing that we had done a good job and that everyone who visited our marquee or taken part in a demonstration had left happy that they had received the best treatment or service that could have.
Sitting here now, writing this blog, there is so much I have had to skip over and miss out (what happens in Cheltenham, stays in Cheltenham), so my experience here on screen may not do justice to the phenomenal time I had in Cheltenham. If you are a current PhD student looking for PIPS inspiration then I recommend looking to work in public engagement at the University of Warwick. The team are amazing and the experience will open doors and put you in touch with people you wouldn't have any chance of meeting otherwise. If you are a prospective student who is still looking for a university to do your PhD I can not speak any more highly of the MIBTP and of the University of Warwick, the entire team were welcoming and respected me as part of the team and not just as an intern to fetch and carry.
In the haze of the aftermath, with the wrapping up and unpacking, through bleary tired eyes, one thing is certain, I have made memories to last a lifetime that I wouldn't have had if it wasn't for my internship through my PhD. Great things grow from small PIPS.
Matthew Teft - 2014 MIBTP student