Queen Mary, University of London PhD candidate Allan Pang has come out on top in I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!, the annual X-Factor style competition pitting science experts against each other for the hearts and minds of the UK’s school kids.
Over a two-week period, secondary school students submit a series of questions online which the scientists try to answer by the next day, communicating their research in the best way possible. Pupils then take part in live online Facebook-style chats with the experts, where they ask questions, express their opinions and learn more about the scientists.
Allan was revealed last week as winner in one of eight separate categories, or ‘zones’ in the competition. Each zone contains five scientists, all in very different fields, who are gradually eliminated in four rounds of evictions.
“It was a tough competition,” comments Allan. “Three of my competitors are ‘seniors’ – they’ve got their doctor’s title already – while the other is a marine biologist, and kids love animals!”
Allan’s research interests lie in the field of x-ray crystallography, a technique used to visualise protein structures at the atomic level. His work focuses on trying to piece together the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of bacterial proteins. These proteins assemble into a polygon which converts different types of alcohol to use as food by bacteria.
He says: “I had to really make an effort to grab the attention of the kids because crystallography isn’t a subject that many people know about. I managed to pull it off by finding a common ground with them. For example, I play Xbox and I tweet (@xerophytes). Once I had their attention, then I could get more ‘science-y’ and answer their questions.”
“Some of the students’ questions were really challenging and a lot of them were actually out of my league,” Allan admits. “This only helped me to broaden my horizons and go in search of the answers.”
The competition is supported by the Wellcome Trust. As winner of the ‘Yttrium Zone’ category, Allan received a £500 prize which he will donate toward outreach programs run by the Young Crystallographers Group (part of the British Crystallographic Association), in which he is the webmaster.
He adds: “The International Year of Crystallography, a celebration of 100 years of X-ray crystallography, is in two years time. Because of this, we would like to reach out to as many people as possible, letting them know the basic things about crystallography, and letting them know how crystallography helps society.”
Allan Pang is funded by the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary and is currently working under the supervision of Professor Richard W. Pickersgill.
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