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Meet the Rough Scientists

Interview: Kathy Sykes

Kathy Sykes

What do you do?
I did a PhD in physics and after that I started to build a new hands-on science centre in Bristol called 'At Bristol', so I spent about five years coming up with ideas for wild things to show scientific principles. And since then I've been communicating science in different ways.

How and why did you end up working in science?
I think I really started to want to do science when it came to my third year at university. If you'd asked me in the first year of my degree "Will you go on and do a PhD, will you do any more science?" I'd have laughed in your face. But when it came to the third year I started doing a project on something I was absolutely passionate about. I thought it was so interesting. Project work is a bit like doing Rough Science in that you're trying to make something work, build something. I just enjoyed that so much that I had to carry on and that's why I did my PhD.

Were there any figures that inspired you to work in science?
The people who influenced me to do science in the first place. I wasn't even going to do A-level Physics, but I had a fantastic physics teacher and he said "Hey, Kathy, you're really good at physics — please stay". And I stayed. I thought he could potentially be a good teacher but he was mind-bendingly good and he was the one who just made me feel that physics could be magical. So it's down to him really. He was called Mr Quill.

Who in science do you admire today?
There's a scientist who I really admire today: a guy called Professor Richard Gregory. He's seventy-five and he's still coming up with new theories that are absolutely gob-smacking. And he's been able to work in psychology and look at optical illusions and what they teach you about the brain. But then he uses what he understands about human perception and applies it to other areas like astronomy. I just think he's amazing.

If you weren't a scientist, what do you think you would have done instead?
If I hadn't done science, I really don't know. When I was a kid I thought maybe I wanted to be a counsellor because I enjoy talking about feelings with everybody all day and later on I thought, well if you were something like a tour guide then you could go to fantastic places around the planet and still keep talking to people. But I didn't think that'd be intellectually satisfying enough so I really don't know. I'm glad I ended up where I did.

How would you define the differences between the scientific theory and Rough Science practice — what problems are you encountering?
I think when you're in a science lab you strive for the best, the absolute best, equipment you possibly can have, and so you won't make do with something that will just do the job — you try to get the best things so that you've got the best chance for your experiments to work. And time isn't as big an issue. You know that you've got to get a PhD done in three years or a research grant done in a few years but you take the time to make sure everything's absolutely perfect. Whereas here you've got three days to do a task, so you just have to do it and if something works you just keep with it. And that is quite a big compromise. I think that was the hardest thing I've had to learn so far: just to kind of not strive for the perfect thing, just do with something that will do the job.

Do you see the problems in terms of the individual scientific disciplines, or do you need a more holistic approach?
I think in science it's really important to try to have a holistic approach. I think it's one of the problems in science today that people are really in these narrow channels and fields, and the more that you can talk with people in different disciplines you know the better you do. And it is, I think, a treat here because you've got different kinds of scientists and so actually to solve any particular problem bringing all of those things together can be much more powerful than just, you know, say having a physicist.

What have you learned?
The main thing that I've learned here is to be a bit less precious about things. When I began with my thermometer I wanted the best thermometer — I wanted really thin walls so it wouldn't take too much heat away and it would get the temperature right. But in messing around trying to get the best one I just took too long. I could have made a simple one that worked and then made it better. And I think that's one of the biggest things — just get the job done and then try to make it better if you've got the time.

Are you concerned about any recent scientific issues?
There are some real issues coming up in science now that we really have to take seriously. I think our understanding now of DNA — it's as though we've lifted the whole lid on life. We can change the fundamental thing that makes us who we are. And that's not just something that you let scientists run away with and play with: it's something that the whole of society has to get to grips with, think about, talk about and decide how we use the science.

Why is science important? Why should we bother trying to understand it?
I think it's a real tragedy that so many people feel excluded from science when it has so many beautiful, surprising, mystifying things about it. But it's really important that people at least get to grips with some of the issues around science and that everybody feels they have a right to talk about the issues that affect the whole of society.

How is science fun?
Science can be really fun. Some of the things that we've been building are really fun and some of them are absolutely mad. One of the things I like about it is you can really enjoy a beautiful rainbow and then you can understand how that rainbow was formed. I think the two things together just make it more special: that you can understand it and that you can enjoy it as well.

What do you think is the largest impediment to scientific advances at present?
One of the biggest things that slows up scientific progress at the moment is the way that scientists are all working in these really narrow channels and not talking to each other enough across disciplines. I went to a conference on brain research and I found one person who was a psychologist looking at Alzheimer's, somebody else who was doing scanning, somebody else who was a physiologist and they didn't talk to each other. And it was just like all you guys who are studying one disease, get into a room, talk about it, you will work out so much and learn so much from each other. I think that's the biggest problem today.

How does the Media affect scientific research?
I think the Media has a really big impact on scientific research more than we expect it to. I think you know when an issue like BSE comes along or say, even worse, genetic modification, because the public have got so worried, and I think they needed to be worried. But because they've got so worried it's actually affected whether people continue to do research, and so I think the way that the Media presents science in the first place makes a big difference to how the science is perceived — and that affects us all.

On a day-to-day basis, what scientific discovery do you find essential?
I think on a day-to-day basis the main scientific discovery is probably electricity. That's the thing that I think is the most useful in my life. I mean, it just affects, you know, if things are too cold you heat them up, if things are too hot you cool them down. We just use it and take for granted all the time.

What do you find hardest to cope with in your job as a scientist?
When I was doing research in physics I think the thing I found hardest is that some parts of science are really exciting — they'll be the moments, the eureka moments, where you see something nobody's ever seen before and you run up and down the corridors at midnight screaming — and then there are also loads and loads of hours of really dull stuff. And it varies according to the kind of science that you do, but there's always some really dull stuff that doesn't involve any intellect. And it's that dull stuff which is the hardest to cope with.

What would you really like to be good at?
What would I really like to be good at? I don't know. I'd really like to be able to tango well!

What's the difference between art and science?
There are quite a few similarities between art and science. For both of them you've got to be really creative and I think it's easy to forget that about sciences. The thing with science is that you have to convince people that your theory is one that's useful whereas with art you can do wild, crazy things and it still counts. It can still be viewed and some people can still enjoy it whereas with science you have to persuade the community that what you're doing is really valid.

If you were to make a scientific discovery and become very rich, what would you do with the cash?
If I were to make a load of money, however it were, apart of course from giving a load of it to Amnesty, I think what I'd really like to have is different ways of travelling so I could get around this planet really quickly. So it could be I'd like a helicopter, I think I'd like a yacht, I'd like a couple of hang gliders. So different and exciting ways of travelling.