Maggie’s enthusiasm to understand how things work underpins her career in science communication, which includes founding TeenTech in 2008.
Maggie grew up in a farming community where she always questioned the world around her. She remembers being a bit too curious about the sacks of fertilisers and the cans of chemicals in her family’s barn – a nightmare for her parents!
As a child, Maggie had mixed experiences of science at school. Like many young people, she remembers wanting to be a doctor or a vet. Although she enjoyed physics and biology she found chemistry ‘difficult’ and chose to study arts subjects at A-level.
“At the time, I thought I was just incredibly stupid but it was simply the way the subject was taught. I remember being that irritating kid who asked lots of questions and had a board rubber hurled at me to keep me quiet!”
A huge privilege
Maggie studied drama at the University of Manchester, but she often reflected on the road not taken during her daily commute past the hospital. During her final year, she was offered her first job in television on the BBC’s first Saturday morning programme Swap Shop. As a result of a producer watching her lead a live piece explaining the textile industry in Halifax, Maggie was offered the opportunity to report on Tomorrow’s World, which she describes as an extraordinary and unexpected opportunity to learn about a wide range of science and technology.
“Given the opportunity to report on science and technology felt like a wonderful second chance to have the career I’d always wanted. It’s been an incredibly valuable experience because it means I don’t think about the sciences as sitting in neat little boxes, but have always been involved in applied sciences which cut across all areas.”
Maggie is a communicator and facilitator where her role is very varied. One day she may be communicating ideas to large audiences on television and the next, she may be talking about careers, working on policy suggestions or even organising mentors within schools.
Paying it forward
Alongside Maggie’s work as a reporter (most recently on the BBC's Bang Goes the Theory), from 2008, Maggie embarked on a journey aiming to help young people understand the opportunities around them and the skills needed to embrace them. Maggie is CEO of TeenTech which runs large scale events with a supporting award scheme across the UK, to inspire those who never thought a career in science and technology was for them.
“I get to meet many inspiring and fantastically able people who work with us to build programmes that really do make a difference. Often young people eliminate themselves because they believe that science is ‘boring’ or that they ‘aren’t clever enough’ and we want them to reconsider!”
Maggie enjoys working with young people and seeing students that become more engaged with developing ambitious and creative projects. Not only does she see the immediate impact of TeenTech’s work, she also witnesses the long-term benefits. Maggie often receives feedback from teachers informing her that interest in STEM has grown significantly as a result of the TeenTech awards in their schools. In the space of just two years, schools started to run the awards across entire year groups, rather than just entering one or two teams. “Hearing the unexpected ways that we’ve made a difference is fascinating: teachers have told us that they can attend more conferences and CPD sessions to develop their subject knowledge, because the value is appreciated by senior management”.
Back up to speed
Not only does Maggie help students through her own organisation, she also supports others, such as the Daphne Jackson Trust, which helps STEM professionals who have had career breaks of two or more years, get back into research.
“It’s a unique combination of mentoring, retraining and research. I’m very proud to be connected with their work which benefits everyone and means that talent and experience doesn’t go to waste.”
Even though Maggie didn’t study chemistry or science at A-level and university, she has had a successful career in science communication and now helps inspire the next generation of scientists. She advises others to expect a fast-changing environment and to appreciate the role strong digital skills will play in the sciences.
“It’s a huge arena that is so much bigger than anything you may experience at school; it’s important to look into all the applied courses. Check out the universities who offer opportunities for work placements during your studies as this can have a big impact on future employment.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Maggie Philbin
Published January 2015