Reaching out to Year 9 students

Dr Marc Kvansakul discusses the importance of outreach, scientific engagement and inspiring the next generation

Dr Marc Kvansakul, Associate Professor at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, on the importance of Year 9 outreach, scientific engagement and unexpected outcomes.

We need to sell science. Every scientist is reliant on taxpayers to fund their research. We need to make sure that society knows about what we do and why it is valuable. Most adults are too busy with the mortgage and kids, and don’t have the leftover brain capacity and enthusiasm to engage. So targeting high school kids, and Year 9 students in particular, is a way of imparting that understanding at an early age. When students come to us for outreach, they remember all the whiz-bangery, that it was really cool and that they had a great time. It works because they get to see what happens here and they understand it is useful.

It’s a tough audience. With a group of Year 9 students, you can tell in a microsecond if you have lost them, and you have about thirty seconds to get them back. You better have something, or there is a mass drooping of heads and you are done. So I turn what I do into a story. My lab works on infectious diseases. I have a nice microscopy image of Ebola that looks like Mickey Mouse, and I say, “If you get this, all your internal organs will turn to mush.” That always gets a reaction. I explain that my job is to work out how infections overwhelm human defence systems. To understand them, we need to understand what molecules look like and what they do. The detail is fairly irrelevant. What I would like them to take away is that these diseases have killed millions of people. It is up to scientists to help limit the loss of life.

Students need to know who I am. My own story tells them a lot about what it’s like to have a career in science, because the moment I started my training I became an itinerant migrant in search of opportunities. I grew up in Germany, and spent time in the United States and the United Kingdom before moving to Australia. That is typical for most scientists, but it is something that many kids find interesting, especially when they were born in the same town and haven’t travelled anywhere. It is important they understand that this is something I am passionate about. They might like playing footy, well, I like solving structures, and there is no real difference.

When outreach works, it is super special. I recently met a former outreach student at a pretzel stall, who stopped me and said, “You are from La Trobe. I was in your outreach class.” We then talked for ten minutes about how this was the single most wonderful experience of her school years. I changed her outlook on science and how she will think about it for the rest of her life. And that’s just one person. Two thousand Ivanhoe Grammar students have participated in outreach, for example, and we received 23% of their first preferences in 2016. In terms of social impact, this program gives the biggest bang for the time I spend on it. Ultimately, it is all about inspiring young people. And that’s super special.

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