Last night, MPs, early career researchers and representatives from learned societies gathered in Parliament to bridge the gap between politics and science, and between academics and the lay public.
The occasion was a poster competition, STEM for Britain, aimed at finding not just the best science, but the people who could communicate it most effectively to a non-scientific audience.
The Attlee suite in the impressive building of Portcullis House was crowded and buzzing throughout the evening, as MPs dropped in to visit their constituents and find out about their work. Calum Kerr, SNP MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, was full of praise for the event. "I think it’s fantastic that you’re here showcasing leading-edge science from across the UK. Well done for doing so – and keep doing it!"
As well as talking to politicians, each poster exhibitor received a visit from expert judges – all leading chemistry academics – and had just a couple of minutes to explain their research as simply and clearly as possible. The research topics were wide and varied – from fingerprinting techniques to molecular origami.
Our chief executive, Robert Parker, was on-hand to present the prizes. "It’s really great to hear young people talking about their research", he said.
In his speech to the competitors he emphasised how chemical research improves our lives in many ways that we take for granted.
"It holds the key to some of the big challenges that keep politicians up at night – like healthcare and climate change. That’s why it’s so important to nurture young researchers like our STEM for Britain finalists – and why we need to make sure that the UK continues to be at the forefront of global science."
The gold medal in the chemistry category, and the top prize of £3,000, were awarded to Yvonne Choo, a third year PhD student at Newcastle University.
Originally from Malaysia, Yvonne’s research is about a clingfilm-like polymer membrane for water splitting devices that will be vital for clean hydrogen production. She hopes that this will lead to a greener and more efficient source of hydrogen in future, which could in turn be used as a fuel for cars.
"It’s a part of artificial photosynthesis", she explains, "mimicking how plants would use sunlight to make fuel to grow. In a similar way we’re using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen – of which hydrogen is a fuel that can be used to power cars with."
"It’s very exciting to win – I just can’t take it in. It’s an acknowledgement of all the hard work over the last two and a half years."
"I’m a fan of science communication and I think it’s important to do outreach. It’s particularly important to talk to MPs because they are the decision makers."
James Cooper from the University of Edinburgh took home silver, and a cash prize of £2,000, for his work on molecular cages.
"To even get to the stage of being able to present your work here you have to be able to show you can communicate your research to people who don’t necessarily have the same scientific background that I do," he said.
"It really means a lot to win. It gives me an extra level of confidence and pride that at some point, the work that I’ve presented has been considered to be intelligible to the layperson and that I can communicate it in a way that people think is worthy of winning, which of course I’m very proud to do."
The bronze medal, and £1,000, went to Sam Dalton of the University of Strathclyde, in association with GSK, for his poster on new drugs for treating inflammatory diseases.
"It’s great to have the opportunity to present my research to such a wide audience", he said, "to explain to people what medicinal chemistry is and why it’s interesting and why it’s relevant.
"It’s really nice to have my research recognised in this way and I’m really proud of it."
STEM for Britain
STEM for BRITAIN (formerly called SET for Britain) was established by Dr Eric Wharton in 1997, and aims to encourage, support and promote Britain’s early-stage and early-career research scientists, technologists and mathematicians. It's an opportunity for MPs to speak to a wide range of the country’s best early-career researchers, across five subject areas.
It is supported by the Institute of Physics, The Physiological Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Council for the Mathematical Sciences.
The event was made possible this year with financial support from Research Councils UK, Warwick Manufacturing Group, the Clay Mathematics Institute, the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, the Institute of Biomedical Science and the Society of Chemical Industry.