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Taking science into school: why both sides benefit

by Guest Author on 15 Feb 2018

Colin Plumb PhD researcher at MRC CRM

Colin Plumb, PhD researcher at MRC-CRM

Science fascinates people of all ages. But for interested young people, higher education and a career in the lab can feel like a daunting and distant prospect. Colin Plumb is a PhD researcher at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) at the University of Edinburgh, where an unexpected collaboration with a local school is inspiring the next generation of researchers and even refuelling his own passion for his work.

Researchers don’t always make the best teachers. We’re prone to getting caught up in small details, which can consume our thoughts and divert attention away from the bigger picture. It’s unfortunate, because the big questions in science are often the most interesting. They’re the reason many of us were seduced by science when we began studying it in school. Helping to mentor young science students at Castlebrae High School has forced me to examine why I got into science, and I think in many ways re-learn things I had forgotten.

An inspirational student

The mentoring scheme at CRM had its beginnings with Castlebrae High School student, Kelsey Wallace. After taking a tour of the institute with other local students, Kelsey approached the public engagement team about the possibility of undertaking a summer job in the building. Through this arrangement, Kelsey had the opportunity to meet the staff and scientists working in the CRM, to see how science is practised day-to-day and to discover some of the challenges being faced in the field of regenerative medicine.

Kelsey and Colin at Castlebrae High School

Kelsey and Colin at Castlebrae High School

Kelsey’s positive attitude inspired a researcher at the centre, Sabine Gogolok, and the mentoring scheme was born. We wanted to give local students who were interested, but perhaps slightly intimidated by science, the opportunity to interact with real scientists.

Taking scientific study further

I couldn’t wait to join-up and soon was one of several CRM researchers visiting Castlebrae every fortnight. Sabine and I teamed up with a Kelsey and her fellow student Conor. They were curious about what we studied (I explained my research on cells in the pancreas and how it might help people with diabetes) and, to my surprise, they also wanted to know about how we had become scientists in the first place. The content of the mentoring sessions was kept varied and flexible; whether helping with chemistry and biology coursework, or advising on the best ways to search for reliable references online.

Kelsey and Conor’s interest in higher education soon became a fixture of the sessions. By the end of the school year, both had their sights set on further study. It would be wrong to take credit for sparking an enthusiasm that was already there, but I think the mentors brought something that felt like a distant possibility into sharper focus – that higher education is attainable if you want it. If successive years of mentoring can help this feeling permeate through the school, we will have achieved something great.

A rewarding experience for all

It wasn’t out of a strong interest in teaching that I got involved in mentoring but rather a belief that it’s important for any institution to contribute to building the community around it. And this sentiment applies doubly to scientific research institutions; research councils can invest in communities in a very real sense but it is up to scientists to engage on a more personal level. The mentoring scheme between CRM and Castlebrae highlights what can be gained from scientists interacting with the local public. Communities gain insight into what is currently possible and what might be possible in the future. Equally importantly, if scientists are afforded more opportunities to reconnect with the ultimate goals of our research, it can only serve to fuel our passion for progress.

Learn more about the MRC-CRM school-scientist mentoring scheme by watching their video.

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