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On comet landings and academic inspiration…

Adele Warrilow, Current Affairs

On comet landings and academic inspiration…

By Adele Warrilow:

It would be difficult to write a science blog this week without mention of the Rosetta mission landing the Philae craft on a comet, the result of a ten year project. This inspirational news story has captured the imagination of people around the world – scientists from all disciplines, the general public and children (aka potential scientists of the future). I enjoyed seeing the excitement from the control centre on the news – a particularly great reaction from Professor Monica Grady of the Open University is shown on the BBC website.  In an interview Guardian newspaper, Dr Brian Cox said that showing scientists as people like anyone else can help to inspire the next generation of scientists “If you can make that link – they were people like you! They did their work, they went to university and now they are landing on a comet!… You can do it if you want”.

Even in a high profile space mission things can go wrong, and not just with the technical aspects. There has been considerable media debate about the shirt worn by one of the Rosetta scientists, culminating in a tearful apology. Presenting scientists as real people and not just middle aged men in lab coats is important. My own opinion, however, was that this particular shirt was indeed inappropriate attire for a professional and I wonder why his wider team (e.g., press officers) did not intervene to prevent this – after all they have had ten years to prepare!

As PhD researcher there will be times when our work is going well (even if we are the only ones jumping up and down about finally getting rid of an error code in our analysis) but also times that projects do not go as planned. It is the enthusiasm and curiosity for our subject that keeps us focussed and determined. And you never know, the next big scientific advance may just be around the corner! The “shirt incident” is a good reminder of the importance of the wider training we can access at PhD level such as the Voice of Young Science Media Workshop, practical media training and public engagement.

Last weekend I attended the British Medical Association conference for junior clinical academic. This was a great opportunity to meet others at a similar career stage using a variety of research approaches – from the role of stem cells in skin grafting to global health policy research. Professor Trisha Greenhalgh gave an inspirational keynote speech describing her career and route into academia (as well as competing as a member of the British Triathlon Team!). Prof. Greenhalgh spoke about seeing first-hand the difference that policy could make to health, working on a neurosurgical ward at the time of the introduction of seatbelt legislation. It is this potential to improve outcomes at a population level that has inspired me to have a public health focus to my research.

We hope the Profcast section of our blog inspires you – check it out!

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