The Last Engineer Standing #IEng2012

Students have spoken. The votes have been counted. The winning engineer is…

I just spent two of the best weeks of my science-communicating-life participating in the event I’m an Engineer, Get Me Out of Here! sponsored by The Royal Academy of Engineering. Starting last Monday, March 12th, five engineers each in six different zones competed X-factor style for student votes, answering students’ questions about engineering, our personal lives, and everything in between. My own zone was the ‘Health’ Zone: mechanical engineer Martin Wallace, mechanical engineer Joanne Davies, biochemical engineer Emily Bullen, and biomedical engineer Amit Pujari, and myself – now a biological engineering and science communicator – participated.

My own expertise within the health zone? Nanotechnology!

Every day this week, students had to vote for their favorite engineer… and the engineer with the fewest votes got evicted, or ‘thrown off the island’! After 5 days of nail-biting competition this week, and plenty of fun to boot, student participants from a dozen schools in the UK voted me the winner! I couldn’t believe it! I’m honored and excited to start spending the 500 pound prize toward an online STEM engagement project to link scientists with students and vice versa.

So what was the event like? A whirlwind of questions and a whole lot of soul searching! Students could leave questions on the website for engineers to answer on their own time, and then teachers booked several live-chats per school during which 10-20 students would bombard us with questions! It took a while to warm up the fingers and type as fast as I could to address all the students’ questions during our 30minute chats, but after I got the hang of it, it was incredibly exciting and fun!

I’ll always remember my two weeks in “I’m an Engineer, Get Me Out of Here!”. I now have high school students from Britain following me on Twitter, finding out more about what it’s like to be an engineer. And the most amazing thing to me was the level of interest in and knowledge of science and engineering topics that these students had! I swear, I should have been asking some of THEM questions. One student told us during a live-chat event how he wants to combine aerospace engineering and a career as a pilot in the Royal Air Force… he already has dozens of hours of flying-time and a grasp of aerospace engineering that I’m certain I don’t have!

Any scientist or engineer – or even STEM communicator! – who wants a pick-me-up should participate in this event. I myself am inspired to create a new innovative channel for ongoing dialogue between scientists and young students on scientific projects based on my participation in this event – I now have idea seeds in my brain that weren’t on my radar 2 weeks ago!

Here are some of my favorite questions that students asked us engineers (and my answers!):

How do you get the nano particles so small? Do you cut them with lasers of something..?

How does engineering relate to our everyday life?

What do you think is the best way of engaging young students in science and engineering in a way that they understand everything?

You work with nanoparticles so that you can treat disease, but aren’t there worries that using nano technologies can actually be damaging to your health?

As a female engineer, do you feel like you have time to spend with your family? Or is your whole life based around your work?

How do the nanoparticles travel around the human body?

Have you ever been on tv?

What type of things did you do/write in Journalism?

Do you think that a cure for cancer could be created in the near future?

How are jumpers and hoodies made from empty coke bottles?

At LSU, you did a project where you attatched medical drug agents to the nanoparticles, how did you do this?

What would you do with the prize and would you like to meet the other engineers?

The globe is amazing! Would you say that experimenting with nanomaterials like that is something that you do a lot?

How are nanoparticles formed?

Are you worried about your works enviromental impact? Do you try and reduce your carbon footprint?

If you could improve one element of the technology you use what would it be?

Can you give me an example of one of the experiments that you do in your subject?

Do you think there will be a day when all diseases will be curable?

Me: I hope so, but all diseases – that is a lot of diseases to cure! Also, as we create cures for diseases, for example viruses, these viruses mutate to become resistant to our medicines. This is a REALLY big problem right now for bacteria that are becoming resistant to our antibiotics (http://www.cdc.gov/tb/topic/drtb/default.htm). Viruses especially mutate very fast because they don’t have enzymes that our own cells have to slow down mutations from happening. It is very hard to say whether we could create drugs or some other type of treatment that would fend off all disease forever… but science is here to try!

Thanks for listening!!

Register to take part in I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here yourself! Click here.