*Meet the moderators* Live chat with Sophia Collins from NSG

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Sophia and little Tally

Welcome to the third and final chat from our “Meet the Moderators” series. Here we have, at last, the woman whose reputation precedes her, the mind behind Nappy Science Gang and the most fair of all admins: Sophia. No need for more introductions, just read on to find out more about her life and the various lives she’s lived before creating NSG.

So first of all, as we always do, could you introduce yourself and tell us about you and what you did before coming up with the Nappy Science Gang project?

Hello, I’m Sophia, and I guess you all know who I am as I run Nappy Science Gang. My degree was in pharmacology (which is the study of drugs – lots of people experiment with drugs at university, but not everyone can say they did it in lectures). Then, after a couple of years faffing about after university, I realised that I wanted to get into science communication, so I did an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College. Then I spent about 5 years working in TV as a researcher and later as an assistant producer. After that, I worked for the science museum for about 9 months. Then I started running ‘I’m a Councillor, Get me out of Here’, which was about getting schoolkids talking to their local councillors. One day, as I was sitting on the train to work, it struck me that you could do ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here’. So we developed that idea, got the funding and it became a much bigger project than the councillor one. Now I’m a Scientist has been going for 8 years and thousands of scientists and tens of thousands of kids have taken part in it. I stopped working for them a couple of years ago (except for doing freelance bits here and there), but they have still very kindly provided us with this chatroom we use for all our livechat.

Q: What did you do when you were doing the TV research stuff?
Sophia: I was working on science programmes, which is like the nerdy end of the media. I was once working on a very make and do type science show called ‘Science Shack’, presented by Adam Hart-Davies (you can probably imagine the sort of thing it was). On a particular occasion, we spent a whole day in the office building loads of different paper aeroplanes and seeing how far we could make them fly, and that was work! So I loved stuff like that, but it’s not all glamour and parties with Madonna, you know? Also, TV production companies spend most of their time developing ideas for new shows, then pitching them to broadcasters, but only 1 in 100 pitches ever gets commissioned, so I spent a lot of time working on shows that never got made. And most of that time my job consisted of ‘finding stuff out on the internet’, then calling people and talking to them to find out more. That was one of the things I loved about the job – you email some world-leading scientist and say you are from the telly and can you speak to them, and they nearly always say yes. So you get to talk to total experts in their field and have them explain it all to you! And to be fair, I guess that even if you are a world-leading scientist, most people still don’t want to talk about the nitty gritty of your work, so I think they were just pleased someone was interested. Anyway, after that first research stage, if you are developing a TV pitch you have to try to come up with the details of what would go into the show – what would you see on screen – and write it up in a way that sounds really exciting. If you are working on an actual programme that is getting made, you write scripts, find people to interview and set up loads of logistics (like book hotel rooms, transport or whatever).

Q: Did you get to travel to amazing places?
Sophia: I did get to go to America once. But mostly I was only ever doing filming in the UK.

Q: So did you go from that to the science museum? And what was it like working at the museum? I think I’d like that, but then I also think it might be a lot harder than people imagine.
Sophia: The Science Museum job was in between TV jobs, because in that industry it’s all so freelance, you have to take whatever work you can! At the time I was working on an exhibition that the Science Museum was doing for the Sellafield visitors centre (previously, Sellafield did their own exhibitions, but visitors were really sceptical, so they got the Science Museum to do it). My job was to research and write loads of content for interactive computer screens, occasionally research and write stuff for new exhibits, but also write news stories for their website and a summary of nuclear and electricity-related news every month.
Q: I’m intrigued by the I’m a Councillor thing. I knew about I’m a Scientist, but not that one. How did that come about?
Sophia: Shane had come up with the idea and started it up one year, as a way for local councils to do something for Local Democracy Week and try to engage more with young people. Originally it was more like a message board and the live chats were added later on. The first year he did the live chats, he took on a load of moderators to oversee them. A friend of mine, who is also a friend of Shane’s, had sent an email round with ‘Poorly paid but interesting work on offer’ as a subject line, which of course I decided was just the ticket for me. Half way through the first day Shane realised that managing a team of 15 moderators on top of everything else he was running for the event was impossible and I got promoted to chief moderator. Fastest promotion ever!

Q: Has it been easy to get the funding for the citizen science projects going?
Sophia: This (Nappy Science Gang) is the first citizen science project I’ve run. But in the main, getting funding for public engagement with science projects is not easy, but I think it’s also not as hard as in some other fields. For example, I think that if you want to get funding for an art project, there’s a finite pot of funding and two million struggling artists trying to chase that funding. Whereas with science engagement stuff, the Wellcome Trust gives out a lot of money and of course they are selective, but I don’t think they are turning down as many people as the Arts Council are. Also, I think the Wellcome Trust are just fab and they have a really forward thinking idea of what science engagement projects should or can be.

Q: Was it hard to convince the funders that cloth nappies were a good area to invest in?
Sophia: I don’t think so. Although the committee meetings where decisions are made are behind closed doors, so I don’t know what the discussion went like on the day. But I think they liked that the project was citizen-led (since most citizen science projects aren’t) and that it was sort of pushing the envelope of making it more democratic. I don’t think they were that bothered about what the subject matter was, in a way, as long as it’s engaging people in a deeper way with science.

Q: Did you have to give a very detailed plan when applying to the Wellcome Trust, or was it very lose to allow for member input?
Sophia: Sort of a mix of both. I drew up a very detailed plan of what we would be doing when and how we would do things, but what I didn’t specify was what questions we would choose to investigate, what experiments we would design, etc.

Q: I don’t know if it’s appropriate to ask yet, but how successful do you think the project has been at engaging people with nappy science?
Sophia: That’s fine to ask! In general I am really pleased with the project so far, although some things have been a lot harder than I expected. As far as I know, no-one has done a project like this before, so we are making it up as we go along! There’s probably lots of things I would do differently if I was doing it again. I thought getting from questions to a finished experimental protocol would be a lot easier than it has been, hence my carefully worked out timetable went out the window some time ago…

Q: I think that the expert chats have been very interesting. Has it been difficult to arrange the experts?
Sophia: I can say no, it’s been super-easy, but that’s because Laura does most of the work on that 🙂
To which Laura added: I find it’s a mixed bag – some people are really keen on chats, some people say yes but I have to chase a bit, others don’t respond at all.

Q: When we will start with the experiments, how will you keep it so each citizen scientist is performing it in the same way?
Sophia: I think that’s not my problem to worry about, that’s the group’s job to work out the design of the experiments. My job is to provide the framework for that to happen. Does that make sense? Hopefully that doesn’t sound dismissive of me! But it is part of what people in the groups have been trying to think through and work out – how they can make the experiments valid tests of what they are wanting to test. And it’s exactly the same thing that professional scientists have to think about all the time.
It sounds like your role is more like the gathering people and giving them a good place to sort it all out.
Sophia: Exactly. It’s like I’m the host of a party. I’ve provided nibbles and music, but you have to make your own conversation. Actually, that’s a bit of a rubbish analogy, but I can’t think of a better one…
Not at all! It’s really interesting and exciting to see who plays what role and how it’s all coming together. Honestly, I love it – nibbles and music. Someone has to do it! And when people have the “nibbles and music” they are more likely to take part.

Q: Do you want to step in and make sure people are doing it properly or are you OK with being the facilitator?
Sophia: Good question. There is a tension for me there. It’s hard to step back completely, especially if not much is happening on it’s own. You do have to nudge and ask leading questions and stuff. One thing I’ve learned is that it is hard to run a project like this on Facebook, partly because lots of stuff won’t appear in people’s newsfeeds. If people had come along to an event, it would be much easier to say, ‘Right, you go on this table, and your group have an hour to come up with a plan for X’, and people would do it. But online people see a post, think, ‘I don’t know the answer’ and just click on something else.

Q: What have you liked best about what we’ve done so far?
Sophia: Oooh, good question. I can’t really answer. I think I am expecting the actual experiments to be the best bit.

Q: Do you think that you have reached the audience that you intended?
Sophia: There are a lot more members in the group than I was expecting – I expected maybe 300 at most. Of course only a small percentage of people in a group are very active, but that’s the same with everything. The live chat write-ups and so on get shared, although I’m surprised more people don’t come to the chats or read the write-ups. Hopefully once we have ANSWERS they will get shared and passed around.

Big thanks to Sophia who sat in her car for over an hour with a laptop on her legs and a wireless dongle to tell us about her interesting professional life, and also to everyone who came to our “meet the moderator” chats! I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about us and our background (you can read Laura’s here and mine here).

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