Science on a soapbox comes to King George Square

Doctor Megan Saunders spoke about how rising sea levels will change coastal conditions. Photo: Robert Shakespeare Professor Vickie Clifton from the Mater Medical Research Institute discussing the effects of stress in the womb. Photo: Robert Shakespeare

In the age before mass communication, standing atop a soapbox in public places was one way the citizenry was able to make a point to an audience.

In the post-digital age, women at the cutting edge of technology are going back to 19th century methodology to talk science and challenge gender stereotypes.

Soapbox Science co-organiser Alienor Chauvenet said it was all about demystifying science and, importantly, bringing it to the people.

And Dr Chauvenet said she had no trouble finding volunteers to spend their Saturday afternoons on a King George Square soapbox, even with the threatening grey skies.

“We have 12 speakers today and we had 57 applicants,” she said.

“So 57 women said ‘this is a new event, I’ve never heard of it before, and I want to get on a soapbox and take my science to the public; to tell them what I do and show them that scientists are quite diverse’.

“So no, it’s actually very easy to convince people to do it.”

Dr Chauvenet said Soapbox Science started in 2011 at Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park in London.

“Every year since then, 12 women scientists were selected to get on soapboxes,” she said.

“I was in London as a volunteer for two of those events and, when I moved to Australia, we agreed I would bring it here.”

Soapbox Science had proven popular in London, Dr Chauvenet said, and she hoped to see that success replicated in Brisbane.

“Usually, we’d get between 2000 and 15,000 people walking through the event and so it’s quite a big crowd,” she said.

“From conducting a few surveys, we know that people tend to stay for a few minutes and families stay a bit longer.

“There has only been positive feedback – there has been absolutely no negative feedback – so I’m hoping for the same thing in Australia.”

Dr Chauvenet said the hardest thing about organising the first Soapbox Science event in the southern hemisphere was whittling down the speakers.

“We looked at trying to get a diverse range of subjects, because this represents science,” she said

“So we went for a range of subjects and a range of career stages.

“We have professors, lecturers, postdoctoral fellows and PhD students, so we tried to represent a good mix of things.

“We could have picked another 12 women and it would have been just as great.”

There were four soapboxes in King George Square, with each speaker having one hour to speak about her research over the three-hour event.

Within minutes of the first speakers getting on their soapboxes, a small crowd was already starting to stop and see what was going on.

For Dr Chauvenet, that was a welcome early sign.

“It’s great, isn’t it,” she said.

“It’s about bringing science to the people and showcasing the diversity of scientists we have in Australia.”

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