I recently wrote a profile piece for the Discover Materials website, as I’m an ambassador for them. It’s run by a colleague and friend, Chris Hamlett. He does amazing work on behalf of the Henry Royce Institute, coordinating outreach events and ambassadors from several universities in the UK, enabling them to present material science in a sexy way. When he asked me to prepare a profile he suggested it should be ‘>300 words’.
He didn’t really mean ‘greater than’ and even knowing that, I forged ahead to produce something four times larger than he wanted. I was enjoying myself, so I present no defence. So while there is an edited version of my profile on his site, I thought I’d publish the full version here. Hope you enjoy it.
I’m Jon Wood, the Outreach Fellow in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. I’m also visiting lecturer at the University of Chester, where I teach science communication and I’m a freelance science presenter and scicomm trainer when nobody is looking.
How did I get to do all that while never doing A-levels? Well, my story starts in an awful school. I was pleased to be in the 17 percent of students in my year who managed to get at least five GCSEs with grades A to C. Yes, you read correctly, 17 percent! My school really sucked, so I lacked the confidence that they could even get me through my A-levels. I proudly left with my eight GCSEs and quickly found a job in the building trade; sawing timber, mixing plaster, making tea, you get it. It was hard but simple work and I liked it. Besides, I was earning cash and that meant a lot for a kid that had never really had any. I worked for three years before finding myself at college starting a two-year, part-time, BTEC National Certificate in Science course. All because my new employer (the NHS) liked my work and took a chance on me. They ended up paying for me to do a degree in Biomedical Sciences. It took a long time to do college and university, going one day a week, but thanks very much all the same.
Neither of those courses covered engineering, but I became fascinated with the biology aspects and biomimicry; copying how nature does something better than technology can. For example, your eyes are 3D, autofocus, full colour, 576 megapixels cameras that run at ridiculous frame rates, have automatic exposure compensation, and you can fit two in a matchbox. Then realise they are made of just water, sugar, and fats! No matter how much you look at design, it’s always the materials that are the most impressive thing.
My studies gave me the chance to take one apart too. Hearts too! Such cool pumps, yet all soft and squidgy! I liked that. As a curious and slightly mischievous monkey, I’ve been taking things apart since I was little. They didn’t always go back together again afterwards, but I always tried to achieve that crucial rebuilding stage and I learned a lot. My mom also learned to keep her replacement blender in the top cupboard where I couldn’t be tempted to have another go. Engineering stuff always felt like I was applying the science I knew, and having some cool ‘stuff’ to show at the end of it.
Engineering ‘stuff’ means I do get to create quite a few things, but I also need to make them suitable for a very specific audience. I translate hardcore science for school audiences and teachers who don’t have specialist laboratory equipment that researchers do. So, I design and build versions out of recycled things. Computer fans and Meccano make great ‘spin-coater’ machines for preparing experiments on surface qualities; a salad spinner can be adapted to make a great centrifuge for separating substances. Of course, having the kit doesn’t mean visitors to a workshop know what it’s for.
That’s the next part of my role. I train researchers to develop workshops that let visitors experience the story of their work using these objects, inspiring ideas about how you too can do something like that in the future. Think about what you’d like to know from someone who wants to share what they do. What makes their work awesome? How do they do it? Where is the science in it? Which bits of that knowledge do you recognise? Why is what they do important to you? What inspires you about them and what they do? How can you get involved and make a difference to their research? How can you change the world for the best?
I love those questions and thrive on hearing your thoughts about them. Anytime that someone says they have enjoyed a session, learned something different, or that I gave them something to think about; that is when I know I have the coolest job in the world. Sometimes, people are impressed by the simplicity of a piece of home-made kit, or they see the science they already knew in a real-world setting, or they feel moved to want to become part of the solution, rather than unwittingly contribute to a problem like climate change. When someone tells me anything like that, I feel I’ve accomplished something special.
Sometimes, I get to do huge science shows; 500 people in a room, all hanging on a fascinating story. Wonderful! I’ve performed live science on tour with the BBC, sang science songs on stage at a music festival, done science-based stand-up comedy, performed science theatre, and made films about everyday objects that have hidden engineering. I love what I do, and I’ll fight anyone that thinks they have a better job.
So, if I don’t get beaten to a pulp by someone bigger and with a cooler job then I’m going to keep finding new ways of sharing the love of science and being curious! There’s a lot of brilliant ideas out there in nature and every one of them is inspiring to the engineer who recognises the right solution for the right challenge. Like how spiders can spin thread that is the perfect material for sutures; stitches like you get in a hospital. How can we make an artificial version of that material that doesn’t involve farming spiders, who can be cannibalistic in nature?
Talking of long threads, let me hear a shout for candy floss! It’s a glassy form of sugar that is fun to eat and makes your teeth rot if you eat too much. It’s got such a great history; I’ve talked about this in the past. But the same technique can be used to make cavity wall insulation for houses by heating materials till they become liquid and spinning them quickly into fine fibres. If we use different materials in a machine, or heat and cool them to new temperatures, what are the properties of the materials that come out of it? There’s always an new experiment to try.
And that’s the thing about science; you learn to join the dots and follow the clues to find new ideas and discoveries. A scientist’s life is a never-ending treasure hunt. Maybe I’ve made that sound great, or maybe you still think science is not for you. Whichever way you think, this message is for you: Learn to DO science before you decide whether you want to BE a scientist or not. We understand not everyone wants to become a scientist, and a world full of scientists would be a strange place indeed. But you do have to use science every day, even though you won’t always recognise it as such.
Even if you say you don’t like science, you WILL be tested on it at school; it’s compulsory so do your best. Sometimes you might not like a subject because you don’t like a particular teacher. Learn to see beyond that individual and allow yourself to be amazed by something you see. The steps and tools that enable you to test an idea are really simple and you don’t always need to get bogged down in the complicated equations. Don’t feel you need to understand everything fully. No branch of science is ‘fully understood’; we embrace the questions that follow from discovering something. Learning how to DO science does not mean you need to become a scientist, but it will make your life more amazing.