Thursday, 20 February 2014

Valentines Day at FameLab

As two of the things I love are science and talking, what better way to spend my Valentines night than at the regional final of FameLab 2014? Arriving at the museum of science and industry to a room decorated with marshmallow hearts to a goody bag I knew there was no better option! 

The running order showed that I was on 5th out of 9 - and the nerves started to kick in! the range of topics presented was vast: from the dating scene of worms to the use of positrons in medicine. I spoke about energy: where we currently get it from and where we could get it from in the future.  My presentation went reasonably well but, as in Birmingham, the judges felt I could have gone for more technical content. Below are a couple of photos from the event and here is a (rather out of focus) video of my presentation, followed by what I was planning to say!! 

© MOSI / Chris Foster Photography

© MOSI / Chris Foster Photography
We use energy for everything: from the calories we eat to the electricity we use to charge up our smartphones. But where does this energy come from? Well, and this might be surprising, here on Earth, all our energy originally comes from the Sun.
But how do we transfer this solar energy into something we can use? Currently, we cheat, and we use these guys: *plant*.

Plants use photosynthesis to convert the radiation from the sun into chemical energy in the sugars that help them grow, making them into tall, green, attractive looking lunches for an animal. Prehistorically, once animals had gone through a lifetime of nibbling at greenery, their bodies became buried under layers of mud and rock. After millions of years of high pressure and temperatures, they decomposed and formed fossil fuels, such as oil or coal. This long and intensive process has converted solar energy into an energy dense material that is really easy for us to transport and burn when we need the energy. However, we are using the Earth's supply of these fossil fuels much quicker than they can be replenished. Therefore, we need to start using alternatives, and harness sunshine in different ways.

So we move on to another form of energy: electrical energy, the movement of electrons inside a material. Silicon has the special property that when it is exposed to sunlight, the radiation knocks electrons out of the molecules. These electrons can then move through the material and, hey presto, we have transferred radiation into electrical energy. This the the process that occurs inside photovoltaic cells, like this one in my calculator. Now this is a form of energy we can use here in the UK. Solar cells work well even in our climate, and we can store the electrical energy in batteries for when it gets dark.

And so this is how we can use the energy from the sun, all on our own, without relying on plants to do our dirty work for us.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

FameLab 2014 take 2: Manchester

After my ill-prepared trip to the FameLab heats in Birmingham, I decided to spend my birthday travelling up to take part in the heats at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, along with a friend who had the intention to go the ones in Birmingham but never made it. 

Much better prepared, I really enjoyed presenting my work. The video of my presentation is here: enjoy!! All the contestants in my heat were also great - including the first human power point I have seen... After waiting anxiously all afternoon, I found out that I had made it through to the regional final! Definitely worth the trip up - and wish me luck for Friday! Come and watch if you're in Manchester...

Monday, 10 February 2014

Oxford Climate Forum

The evening of the 7th February not also saw me turn 25, but also the beginning of the Oxford Climate Forum. This is the UK's highest profile student-led conference and saw a large range of high profile speakers interspersed with panel discussions and a parallel careers fair. The aim was to leave us "Inspired, Motivated and Empowered". 

Friday's first keynote speaker was Dipal Barva, founder of the "Bright Green Energy Foundation" based in Bangladesh. He has been a key player in introducing solar and biogas to rural areas to improve the socio-economics. What they have done is amazing: from few grid connections, they have installed huge numbers of solar panels and biogas boilers - enabling those in rural communities to have access to "clean light" and less polluting cooking systems. My concern was the sheer number of batteries used, but they have introduced incentives for recycling them to reduce waste. 

Dipal was followed by Professor Nigel Brandon, Dr. Nick Eyre, Trevor Nash (Sargas) and Dave Worthington who engaged in a lively discussion about the future of our energy system.  The consensus seemed to be that the technology is ready, but it is the political and social will that is causing a delay to action. Dr. Eyre suggested this was because people are now so disconnected with energy - no longer having to carry it into the house in a bucket! This gave me ideas for my next FameLab talk....

The speaker of Friday was Martin Chilcott, CEO of 2degrees, who began by showing a video illustrating the growth of the world population which was pretty shocking! However, using the mandarin for crisis, which is the combination of danger and opportunity, and the fact that the US now offers more jobs in solar than in oil and gas combined left us feeling positive. 

Saturday began with some moral philosophy from Professor John Broome, who explained how, because we should not inflict harm on others, it is our moral obligation to offset our CO2 to reduce our net emissions to zero. Apparently each of us in the UK shortens someone's life by 2-3 days just with our annual carbon emissions. However, he separated this "justice" from "goodness", which can be achieved in more efficient ways. 

The next panel started with Robert Hunt from Veolia, who has worked a lot in London to reduce emissions from waste. They have saved 9% of their fuel costs by changing the behaviour of their drivers! They have also created a visionary document: Imagine 2050, which portrays the way waste could be managed in the future. 
Dr. John Ingram gave an interesting presentation on food security, and showed shocking predictions to the number of people in the world eating "too much" and "too little". He showed how much food we would gain by eating food currently used for fuel and feeding livestock. 

The afternoon brought the session I was most looking forward to: Communicating Climate Change. James Painter reminded us that most people still get their news from mainstream media, with social media remaining low on the "Trusted sources" list. Ade Thomas, from Green TV stressed the importance of visualisation, illustrated by the Connect4Climate video competitions that have spread information about climate change all over the globe. Their key message was to know the aim of your communication, as this will determine how you do it! 

After just over a day of talks on a huge variety of climate change related topics, I agreed with the organisers that climate change can be viewed not just as a danger, but also as an opportunity for research and development. Inspired by the success stories, I left feeling ready to help take on the challenge! 

The New Optimists: The Next Generation

A few months ago, at a ScienceGrrl event, I met Kate Cooper: founder of "The New Optimists".  This organisation asks scientists "What are you optimistic about?" and publishes their answers online and in print. Kate summarises their motivation in a few paragraphs:
"Science really matters. It’s taken humanity on its most enlightening, its most exciting, its most productive — and potentially the most catastrophic journey of any specie on the planet ever.
The best, perhaps our only option to avert the potential catastrophes facing us is to take heed of the iconoclastic knowledge and sometimes conflicting perspectives of scientists.
What we’re doing here is to create different platforms for individual scientists to tell us what they do and why it matters, and for their collective scientific endeavour to enable better informed decision-making."
The latest expansion to the New Optimists' activities is to create a group of "Young Optimists": scientists in the early stages of their career who are interested in spreading the word about all the great things they are discovering through their research. 

Last week saw the first two meetings of the Young Optimists: one on Thursday at Yorks bakery and one on Saturday night at the Old Joint Stock. Tempted by two of my favourite things (cake, and talking about science) I battled the rain into town on Thursday evening. It was definitely worth it! There were about 12 of us there, from a wide range of disciplines and from all over the local area. After introducing ourselves, Kate encouraged us to ask questions of each other, prompting some really interesting discussions, from linking cancer and evolution to driver-less cars and behavioural change! 

It's currently a project in its early stages, but the aim is to record some of these discussions, as videos or podcasts, to reach out to a wider audience. Personally, I can't wait to get the group together again - it't great to learn more about research you only catch in the news!

More details of the other young scientists involved can be found through the write-up of the events on the new optimists website: