In September, when Julia Markowski will stand on a soapbox in front of Berlin’s main train station to talk about her research, she will also hold a ball of wool in her hand. “I’m interested in chromatin conformation, but nobody knows what it is,” says the doctoral student from Dr. Roland Schwarz’s research lab. “I can use the wool thread to show how chromatin fibers are folded and explain why their location and behavior in the cell are so interesting for my work.”
Starting a conversation
She is one of the young scientists at the MDC who are committed to “Soapbox Science.” The initiative was founded in the United Kingdom in 2011 with the aim of making female researchers and their work more visible. The concept: once a year, a Soapbox Science event takes place at central locations in various cities around the globe. At these events, female scientists from different disciplines talk about their research. They stand on a podium – the soapbox, which gives the event its name. Their presentations are short, lasting only a few minutes. Afterwards, spectators and passers-by have the opportunity to ask questions and talk to the researchers.
Dr. Dubravka Vučićević, a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Uwe Ohler’s lab, already took part in the fall of 2019. Last year, the MDC participated for the first time. Now the young woman is part of the Berlin organizing team: “I believe that all researchers should share their knowledge with the public. Soapbox Science is a wonderful way to advance the dialogue between science and society.” Markowski takes a similar view. “Science isn’t a black box and it is all around us, everyday. We can explain everything we do. Anyone can understand science if he or she is curious and enthusiastic,” she says. The bioinformatician also wants to inspire young people in their career choice: “As a researcher, you can discover new things your entire life long, it never gets boring!”
Vučićević has always been interested in scientific communication, and not just since Soapbox Science. Her topic is genome engineering with CRISPR/Cas9. She explains what this is, talks about how she works with the gene scissors in the laboratory, what is possible with them and what might be possible in the future. She likes the public exchange afterwards best. “I really enjoy answering questions and satisfying people’s thirst for knowledge. They appreciate being able to ask a scientist direct questions,” says the biologist. She also finds this kind of exchange important for her own work: “Normally, we researchers think about very small problems. It’s good to take a step back and see your work in a larger context.”
Role models for young women
The fact that female scientists involved in Soapbox Science want to draw attention to themselves is a key point for both women. “We celebrate women in science and see ourselves as alternative role models for young women,” says Vučićević. She herself also uses the opportunity to network with others – the Soapbox Science events now take place in more than 50 cities on every continent, and over 1,500 female scientists have taken part so far.
Markowski is interested in presenting herself as a woman who conducts research, because she often notices how prejudiced people can be. “The fact that I work as a bioinformatician as a young woman with long blonde hair, that I do ‘hard’ science on the computer, coding and implementing algorithms, never ceases to amaze people,” she says, describing her experience. She wants to give science a different face, away from the old cliché of the light-skinned, graying professor. “Many researchers at the MDC and other institutions come from distant countries. At events like Soapbox Science, we can also fight racism, show that foreigners are not always fugitives, but do important work as researchers,” she says. The message is that science can be accessible to everyone – no matter where you come from or what your gender is.
Text: Wiebke Peters
The next Soapbox Science event in Berlin, which will include presentations by MDC researchers, will take place on September 19, 2020, from 2 to 5 p.m., at Washington Square in front of Berlin Hauptbahnhof.