15 December 2016

Sex & Bugs & Rock ’n Roll wins researcher a British Ecological Society public engagement prize

A passion for dung, creepy crawlies and for taking science to the people has won Dr Ali Birkett, of Lancaster University, one of the British Ecological Society’s first Public Engagement Awards.

For the past few years, Ali has been joining fellow scientists to take a hands-on ‘living’ ecology exhibition tent - called Sex & Bugs & Rock ’n Roll - around community events and festivals, including the UK’s biggest music festival at Glastonbury.  As well as lots of live bugs, the tent features a variety of unusual activities and games for all ages.

“One of the best games is “Who’s poo” where we get people to identify which animals different bits of poo belong to, and it leads very well in to discussing my speciality of dung beetles,” explains Ali, whose PhD looked at how environmental change is affecting the distribution of different species of dung beetles and the knock on effects.

Ali takes a see-through tank full of British dung beetles, plus a cow pat for food, along with her to the tent. “No-one realises there are dung beetles in the UK so as soon as I say they are British it gets people interested.”

Dung beetles’ contribution to the British countryside is much undervalued, according to Ali. “If they didn’t exist, every time you walked through a field of sheep you’d be up to your ankles in poo,” says Ali, who is now a research associate at the Lancaster Environment Centre investigating how leaf litter affects soil processes.

Another Lancaster University ecologist,  Dr Emma Sayer,  was a founder member of the exhibition programme, which involves young scientists from many British Universities. Ali got involved just as she was finishing her PhD and, in 2015 and 2016, was a team leader involved in training other volunteers, managing logistics, and evaluating the success of the travelling exhibition. One of the challenges was getting some of the live specimens and their food on site.

“I remember arriving at Glastonbury with a box full of bumble bees on my lap, as bees don’t like being bumped around and I was trying to soften their journey. The security guard asked what I was holding, and was fascinated. So the outreach began there.

“We also had a pile of cow poo sent to a hotel one year, and the receptionist thought it was chocolate. Luckily she didn’t try eating it.”

One of the best things for Ali is breaking the ivory tower image of scientific research.

”People are surprised that we are researchers: we are all young people in our 20s and 30s, at a festival, they can have a conversation about a band with us, we’re approachable.

“It is really rewarding when someone’s face lights up and they say: ’oh that’s really interesting’. We give out identification guides and people may go away and see what’s in their garden.

“What is the point of doing science if it is not relevant to people. Not only are we funded by the public but are doing the work for everybody.”

Ali was also a founding member of Science Hunters, which uses computer games to engage children (especially those with autism) with science and has done outreach work as a Researcher in Residence with a local school through the Lancaster Schools-University Partnership Initiative, spending time in A level classes “to make the kids aware of what you can do with science, that it’s not just being a vet or a nurse, there are other careers.”

She is surprised and delighted to have won the British Ecological Society PhD/Early Career Public Engagement award, alongside two PhD students. “I’m very honoured to be given an award for something I enjoy doing.

“On a personal level, working with volunteers from all different areas of ecology - for instance one of the other prize winners is looking at paleo pollen - is very interesting. It makes the conversation over a beer at night quite entertaining,” said Ali who was presented with the award on 13 December at a gala dinner during the British Ecological Society 2016 Annual Meeting.

“And watching The Who on the Pyramid Stage as the sun went down was quite something. Then there was the delights of wading through mud at Glastonbury, which was captured on video.”

She has also gained many skills from the experience, which will be useful in her future career.

 “One of things we do is to create an elevator pitch, how do you talk about your work in two minutes, which has proved one of the most useful things for me. I now know how to summarise what I do in sensible words without falling back on jargon.”

Ali wants to keep working in research, and to keep involved with breaking the barriers between science and the public.