Interviews with Scientists: Dr Emily Grossman
It was Children’s Book Week this week and we were delighted to chat with science communicator and author Dr Emily Grossman for the latest in our Interviews with Scientists series.
Emily is an expert in molecular biology and genetics who has also worked as an actress and singer, a maths and science teacher, but who now combines her skills as a science communicator, broadcaster, public speaker, trainer, activist, and author of science books. Her book ‘Meet the Microbes’ won the School Library Association 2022 Information Book Award (age 0-7 category), and she is passionate about changing the perception of what it is to be a scientist, especially for children and young girls.
We spoke to Emily about her background in science, her passion for scicomm, and why we must reject outdated stereotypes when engaging children with science…
Thanks for speaking with us, Emily! Please can you tell us a little bit about your background as a scientist?
I studied maths and science at A-Level, then did a degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and then a PhD in Cancer Research at Manchester University. I then went to Guildford School of Acting and trained in Musical Theatre, and spent the next 10 years working part-time as an actress and part-time as a maths and science teacher in my local school. I then moved into a career in Science Communication – appearing as a science expert on various TV shows and media interviews, writing books about science for young people and adults, giving talks on various scientific topics and on science careers, and raising awareness about important issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss (I’m a co-founder of Scientists for Extinction Rebellion), Covid and vaccine safety, neurodiversity (I’m recently diagnosed autistic and ADHD), trans rights (my partner is non-binary), and Why Science Needs People Who Cry (I’m a very emotional scientist and proud of it!).
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?
At school I was constantly asking questions, I drove my teachers and my parents completely bonkers! I really loved solving problems and figuring stuff out, but I also loved singing and dancing and performing on stage. And I also liked helping other people to understand things. So I’m really happy that I’ve ended up in a career where I get to combine all three of my passions!
What was the focus of your PhD research?
I was studying yeast cells and looking at how they divide, what genes control that process, and how and why the cell division process can go wrong. Yeast are simple cells that are easy to grow and manipulate, but are fundamentally similar to human cells in many ways, so studying yeast provides scientists like me with a simple model for understanding how and why human cells can start to divide out of control, which is what goes wrong in cancer.
You now work as a passionate science communicator - why is scicomm so important to you?
It’s so important that people get to see that science is not only fun and exciting but is relevant to everyday life, and that the important things that science can teach us about the world - from why vaccines are important and how to combat antibiotic resistance, to why the planet is heating and what we can to about it - are communicated to everyday people in a simple and engaging way that they can understand and relate to. It’s also important that we change the outdated and damaging stereotype that all scientists are old white men in lab coats with crazy hair and no social life! Young people today need to see a variety of scientist role models who are just like them, so they can truly believe that, no matter who they are or how they feel or think, as long as they are curious and passionate about the world, they can be happy and successful in a career in STEM.
What excites you most about the work that you do?
I love helping people, young and old, to make sense of the world around them. Bringing people from a state of overwhelm or confusion (which as an autistic person is something I feel often) to a state of clarity and understanding. That lightbulb moment when everything makes sense! And helping them use that understanding to make informed decisions about things that will affect their happiness, health and wellbeing - and that of our planet. I also love helping others to believe in themselves and to fulfil their potential, and using my ability to make sense of things (and explain them to others) to help advocate for those who can’t always speak for themselves.
You’ve written some great science books for children - can you tell us a little about them?
My books are written to help young people see that science is fun and exciting and can be used to explain not just important, but also amazing, weird and downright silly things about world around us, from why a wombat does square shaped poos, on which planet it rains diamonds and how much of our DNA we share with a banana, to how to cure diseases, protect our soil and combat climate change. My books are also about the importance of asking questions, having a go, making mistakes, getting stuff wrong, and trying again.
What inspired you to start writing children’s science books?
I spent several years as a resident science expert on Sky1’s Duck Quacks Don’t Echo hosted by Lee Mack and ITV’s The Alan Titchmarsh Show, which involved finding out and explaining fun science facts for adults. I really wanted to do the same for kids!
What can parents and teachers do to get children excited about science?
The most important thing that parents and teachers can do to get their kids excited about science is to stop perpetuating the outdated and damaging stereotype that science is hard or boring, or is just for men or for people who are only logical and unemotional. This can have a really negative effect on young people of all genders, and is so not true! Science is certainly sometimes about problem-solving and analysis, but it is also about imagination, creativity, passion and sensitivity. That’s why one of the things I’m most proud of in my life is the TEDx talk I delivered called Why Science Needs People Who Cry.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
The most important thing I have learnt is to say yes to opportunities, even if they are scary, and to keep trying time and again even when I fail over and over. But also when to say no, when to take a break or change direction, and when to ask for support. I have also learnt what my needs are and how to ask for what I need, which is particularly important for me being recently diagnosed as autistic and ADHD.
What key piece of advice would you give to a young person hoping to pursue a career in STEM?
Never be put off by what other people say or by feeling that you’re different or not good enough. When I was at Cambridge I started off studying Physics, which I loved, but was put off because all the boys seemed so much more confident than me. I decided to switch to Biology in my second year, but was shocked to discover I had done better than a lot of the boys in the Physics exams. But by then it was too late – I had already decided I wasn’t good enough to be a Physicist. There have been so many other times in my career when I’ve worried that I was too weird or too sensitive or too clumsy or too emotional, or just not good enough to be a scientist, but I’m really happy that I’ve finally found a career in STEM where I can do things my way, where I can be my full self, and where I am happy and successful. So my message is, no matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, who you love, how emotional you are, how you learn, or how you experience the world, if you are passionate about finding out about the world, then a career in STEM could be for you.
Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing most?
I love singing and dancing, being in nature, and hanging out with our six cats!
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
My favourite scientific discovery story is that of Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin, because not only was it the first antibiotic that went on to save millions of lives, but it was discovered by mistake, from a science experiment that went wrong. Which just goes to show that science is just as much about making mistakes, keeping an open mind and being curious as it is about working hard and getting things right.
And finally, what’s your favourite science quote?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge” - Einstein
Connect with Dr Emily Grossman:
- Website: emilygrossman.co.uk
- Twitter: @DrEmilyGrossman
- LinkedIn: Dr Emily Grossman
- Instagram: @dremilygrossman1
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