December 15, 2016, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

Behind the scenes at the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

Nel Taylor a PhD Neuroscience student gives an update on her placement as a Media Assistant for the 2016 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

dsc_0217_720Every year on TV over the Christmas period there are a series of 3-4 hour long Royal Institution Lectures on a given science topic. Last year’s was on Surviving in Space and presented by Dr. Kevin Fong. All of them are accessible no matter what your level of scientific knowledge. Back in 2010 Bruce Hood did a series on Neuroscience (my area of research) and I absolutely loved his way of explaining things and putting a different spin on everything that I was learning in the course of my degree.

This year, Professor Saiful Islam, Professor of Material Chemistry at the University of Bath, is running the Lectures around the theme of ‘Energy’ and I’ve upped sticks and moved to London for a 3 month Media Assistant placement supporting press promotion for the Lectures. My role as a Media Assistant means being well organised, knowing how to write, and how to use social media effectively.

“The moment when I walked into the Royal Institution building for the first time felt pretty awesome. This place has so much scientific history to it. And then I got to go stand in the lecture theatre itself! The actual lecture theatre from the actual Lectures! The ‘me’ from my childhood could never have dreamed that was possible.”

To get started I wrote two press releases for local media, aimed at getting people excited for a show based on the 2014 Christmas Lectures that is going to Edinburgh in December this year, and I helped to set-up and proof-read a new section of the website which hosts some great heritage science videos. Aside from my media work I also spent time helping to organise a bursary for kids who could never normally afford to come to the Lectures, and I got to meet the lecturer himself, Prof. Saiful Islam, who was lovely and very interesting.

_20161121_161133Later in the week I was really excited to go and see the archives of the Royal Institution which have loads of cool stuff including the first crystallography machine, various original electrical generators and also the first ever isolated samples of the elements discovered in the Royal Institution. I got to actually stand in Faradays old lab (not a replica, the actual lab), and see the hidden archive room which included cool things like the original world’s largest pencil (it has since been usurped by another one), a piece of original meteorite, and original letters and books written by some of the most highly prestigious scientists in history.

I was pretty tired by the end of my first week! London, plus the hour commute each way takes a bit of getting used to. But it had all gone well.

The following week I went to help out in the Young Scientists Centre. It’s essentially a science lab down in the basement next to the museum where school kids can come do some science. We had a group over from Ireland who were all around 15-16, and on their strange and kind of awesome year of doing practical’s and school trips rather than lessons and exams. They had to solve a ‘crime scene’ by matching up a set of DNA. They had 6 samples – the crime scene sample and 5 ‘suspects’. By processing and running the DNA using electrophoresis, they could see a match between the killer and the crime scene sample. It was nice to see kids of that age being able to try something that I have done, sometimes on a daily basis, during my PhD, and that I didn’t get to try until my third year of my undergraduate.

Other work I was involved with was watching some old Lectures from 1991 (the year I was born!) and checking for copyright content so we can release the old Lectures on Youtube so everyone can enjoy them. The ones from 1991 are really interesting, presented by Richard Dawkins on evolution. Plus I’ve been sorting out some fact sheets on the Lectures, and press releases for the Lectures themselves.

At the Royal Institution they have evening events on, talks and lectures and things on various topics which are stewarded by staff. It’s a good gig to get because you get to watch the session, which is pretty awesome, and you get paid to do it. This week I managed to get 2 shifts, one for a talk with Mike Massimo, an astronaut who has been into space a bunch of times, and another on the science of stress where they had a panel of neuroscience experts on stress giving everyone an introduction to the subject.

It’s all going well and I’m enjoying it. I’m also getting more used to the travelling and times so hopefully I’ll be less tired as time goes on.

To keep up with Nel’s placement journey please visit her personal blog at:

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