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Inspiring the next generation of scientists – For Alumni, By Alumni

Wendy presenting the XX Factor show about women in STEM at the Science Museum, London

Wendy Sadler MBE (BSc 1994) is the founding Director of science made simple – an award-winning social enterprise that offers science shows to schools and families to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Currently Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy, throughout the pandemic, Wendy has been working on a project called ‘Our Space Our Future’ which aims to increase the number of young people choosing careers in the space industry.

Way back in 1991 I chose Cardiff University as one of the few places in the UK that offered a joint BSc in Physics & Music. Everyone thinks I was a bit odd choosing the course, but I was so pleased I had found a way of continuing with my two favourite subjects. I had vague plans around becoming a sound engineer. However, that all changed in my final year when I began a weekend job at Techniquest Science Centre in Cardiff Bay as an exhibition helper.

I fell in love with the potential of science communication as a means of sharing my passion in a creative and accessible way. As a physics undergraduate, I found that other students often reacted in fear and horror when I said I was studying physics and I was constantly trying to explain why I found it so fascinating. Science communication finally gave me a name for the career I was so passionate about.

I worked with Techniquest for eight years and during that time I spent a working holiday year gaining experience at five science centres (and a science circus!) in Australia. This really installed a love of outreach. Expecting people to visit a science centre is one thing but taking the science to where they are means that more diverse people get to access that experience.

Fast forward to 2002 and I had just completed a year as the Institute of Physics (IOP) Schools lecturer, touring the UK and fulfilling a lifelong dream of presenting at the Royal Institution Faraday Lecture theatre. I decided that I loved travelling and taking science to people, and I wanted to set up my own enterprise with a mission to do that. I established science made simple with a mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. At the same time, I moved back to the University part-time to become Schools Liaison Officer for the School of Physics and astronomy. As the demand for outreach grew, I needed to grow the enterprise and so I applied to become a university spin-out. I still have to pinch myself when I think about the Vice Chancellor of the time (Sir David Grant) and my childhood hero Johnny Ball coming to launch the company in 2004.

Science made simple grew steadily to encompass other areas of the UK and we sought out talented presenters in a range of regions. For a while we had a partnership in Milton Keynes with the OU and have worked extensively with researchers all over the world to help them connect with public audiences and schools.

My work at the University also developed and I became a lecturer and began to integrate science communication teaching into our undergraduate Physics degree. I have also become increasingly involved in the issues of diversity in STEM, helping the University become an IOP Project Juno Champion and recently leading the Athena Swan Silver award for gender diversity.

Debbie Syrop demonstrates waves in our theatre show ‘visualise’. ©Kiran Ridley 2007

In 2005 we received funding from NESTA and the IOP to develop a new concept of science show without words. Working with my team we created a show using scaled-up physics phenomena, live music, and physical theatre techniques. The show toured to over 12 countries and was a sell-out at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. From the success of this, along with our work with more challenging teenage audiences, we won the 2007 EU Descartes prize for innovation in science communication. This had been won previously by two of my other heroes – Sir David Attenborough and Bill Bryson. It was another pinch yourself moment!

We’ve become increasingly interested in how to use role models effectively in what we do to ensure that more diverse audiences consider careers in STEM. Through the challenging months of the pandemic, we’ve been working on a multi-country EU project called ‘Our Space Our Future’. The aim of this is to increase the number of young people choosing careers in the space industry. To do this we deliver targeted outreach to the same students on multiple occasions whilst also influencing their teachers and parents. We’re reaching ten schools each in Denmark, England, Italy, Portugal and Wales and running a rigorous evaluation plan alongside to try and understand more about what is most effective. The message is very much that the space industry is not just about exploration and astronauts, but that many opportunities exist using satellite technology to help us here on earth.

We’d be very interested to hear from any Cardiff alumni who work in the space industry who might like to be featured in this project.

In 2017 I was very excited to receive an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours list. I decided I had to have something science-y to wear so enlisted the help of my colleague Debbie Syrop (now working in School of Engineering) to design me a dress featuring sound waves from the voices of my kids! It was so nice to have something so personal to wear that reminded me of the two passions that brought me to Cardiff all those years ago.

If you’re a Cardiff alum working in education or STEM who would like to work with Wendy to make science more accessible, you can get in touch at sadlerwj@cardiff.ac.uk.

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