Home Science CommunicationCommunity & events SciBarCamb and reclaiming the word boffins

SciBarCamb and reclaiming the word boffins

by Eva Amsen

I’m not a morning person. There are only two things that make me get up on time: fear that everything will go horribly wrong if I don’t (catching flights, last minute exam cramming), and the excitement of way too much fun (birthdays, Christmas). A combination of the two was probably to blame for me waking up at 5AM on the day of SciBarCamb. Not that there was any reason to fear things going wrong. I just like to be prepared.

The opening night had already been amazing: there were so many people, they all enjoyed the name tag game, they mingled, and with the talks that they proposed we’d made a superb schedule for the next day.

On Saturday I woke up at 5, both psyched and stressed about the day. Whee! And eek!
But everything went fine, and we had an amazing day of talks and activities. The absolute hit of the day was Dan Hagon’s session on making DNA from balloons. After going through his entire allotted hour, all of lunch, and the overflow hour after lunch, they’d actually managed to really make two basepairs of DNA out of balloons.

We also had a performance by Professor Karmadillo over lunch, we saw how Jon Heras uses animation in scientific communication, and in a session with Ian Mulvaney and Nik Papageorgiou we discussed the role of scientists in fiction and celebrities in science.

Slightly more academic talks covered the issues around the personal genome, introductions to various tools to facilitate research, what makes people decide to share data out of their own accord, publishing, and music research.

Even though two of the meeting rooms had lots of table space for everyone, Carolina Ödman noticed that “amazingly, most laptops are closed!” There was no reason to open them, because there was so much to see and do and listen to.

At the end of the day, we made use of the fact that our main room was the Debating Chamber and closed with a mini mock debate, chosen from one of the questions that came up during the day. In the “celebrity and science” session, we briefly touched on the word “boffin”: certain newspapers like to use the word as a sort of mild insult to scientists. Should we embrace this and reclaim the word as our own, like we did with “geek”, or should we instead try to get rid of it altogether? We let the attendees that hadn’t yet escaped into the sunshine decide by leaving the room through the “Ayes” or “Noes” doors. And the vast majority said that we should indeed reclaim the word. (46 ayes, 7 noes, 1 abstained).

Boffins and proud!

To emphasise the boffin pride we then hopped over to the Maypole, with the DNA balloon molecule in tow. Kids asked curious questions in the street. Then to Pizza Express, where the poor waitress was inexplicably patient with our chaos and balloons.

Just when I thought I was finally going to completely collapse from exhaustion, the BEST thing happened: we took the balloon DNA molecule to the Eagle – the very pub where in February 1953 Watson and Crick announced the structure of DNA.

And you know what? Despite the lack of sleep, this was the best day I’ve had in Cambridge since I arrived over a year ago. And I’m even willing to set aside my usual modesty and be a little bit proud that I made such an awesome, boffiny, day.

(And thanks to our sponsors, of course!)

The only regret I have is that I didn’t get to talk with everyone I wanted to talk with, and that I felt I had to brush some people off when I was doing five things at once. But I hope I can catch up with everyone another time. I’ve promised three people to help them out with other events, and in a follow-up post I will summarise some tips I gave in my meta-session about science unconferences.


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Cath Ennis April 13, 2011 - 1:54 AM

Sounds great, Eva – well done for putting it all together!

I’m confused though about how one would abstain from a vote that involves leaving the room by a certain door. Is that person still sitting there? Or did they find an air vent to escape through? 🙂

Lou Woodley April 13, 2011 - 10:15 AM

Yay for Cambridge! I’m glad you’ve finally seen it’s good side, Eva. It really is a city full of smart, interesting people and when they all come together on a common project, great things often result. Thanks so much for suggesting SciBarCamb in the first place 🙂 

Let’s not forget to thank the sponsors who made this possible – Science, Digital Science, nature.com, Mekentosj and Abcam (otherwise we wouldn’t have had anything to eat or a place to meet!) and the whole organising team – Nico Adams, Eva Amsen, Michelle Brook, Taylor Burns, Maria Cruz, Dan Hagon, Jonathan Lawson, Matt Wood, Lou Woodley. It was a great opportunity to get to know each other better, and make some geeky, happy memories – roll on the next cool Cambridge project!  

Eva Amsen April 13, 2011 - 9:35 AM

They’re still sitting there.

No, the "Ayes" and "Noes" doors were side doors next to the main middle door that you go through when you’re not voting about anything. Abstaining was leaving through the middle door.

Eva Amsen April 13, 2011 - 10:39 AM

Hey, it has the sponsor slide! =) And I made a subtle point of making sure all the organisers are somewhere in the pictures above. (Though I could probably have found a better one of Matt…)

Tine Janssens April 15, 2011 - 12:17 AM

Sounds like a great day!

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