Sharing the Magic of Phytoplankton: Soapbox Science

07 Dec 2023 | By Lillina Ruiters
Lillina Ruiters

Oceanography MSc Student, Lillina Ruiters - 2023 Soapbox Science Speaker

07 Dec 2023 | By Lillina Ruiters

My family comes from a disadvantaged community on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, historically a designated ‘coloured’ area. I am the first scientist in my family, and I cannot think of anything more important than inspiring a new generation of young scientists.

Science can be intimidating and inaccessible to those that are not in academia or research, but the value of communicating our research to society at large has become increasingly important. Making science accessible helps us to build trust with the public which allows for more informed decision-making and addresses misconceptions (e.g., a big one being climate denialism).

I am an oceanographer and recently, I had the opportunity to help bridge the gap between science and society at the SoapBox Science 2023 event on Saturday, 25th of November 2023 at the V&A Waterfront. Inspired by the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park in the United Kingdom, SoapBox speakers had to stand on a podium outdoors and engage with people walking by for an hour each. SoapBox Science is a worldwide public outreach platform promoting women and non-binary scientists. The event featured eight women scientists, each involved in a range of research, from nuclear physics to fantastic fungi. I spoke about the ocean and phytoplankton with a talk titled, “Southern Ocean’s Light Show: The Magic of Phytoplankton”. 

L Ruiters Interactive Display at Soapbox Science
L Ruiters
L Ruiters and Sister

The goal of the event was to communicate complex research concepts in a way that resonated with a diverse audience, and for me, it was also a personal opportunity to share the research I am doing with my extended family. All the speakers were encouraged to have interactive displays for the kids and enough information to keep the adults interested. My interactive display took the form of numbered magnetic fish in a fish tank, and kids could use magnetic fishing poles to fish for a fun fact about the Southern Ocean – and it was a real hit! I had my 16-year-old nephew as my assistant to help out with the fun fact fishing and the highlight of his day was when a young man approached him and asked what science he studies. In the image above, Lillina shares a moment with her sister, Lerato Ruiters (11 years old), hoping to inspire her and many other youth to follow their passion!

An event like this is a reminder that “representation matters”. It is so important for the public to see that scientists come in all shapes, sizes and colours; not just the stereotypical eccentric old white man in a lab coat (although we did wear lab coats). And the people who stopped by the event were the same: all different shapes, sizes and colours. Anyone has the ability to be a scientist, they just need the inspiration and the access, and this is one of the many reasons why science communication and outreach is so valuable.

Soapbox Science 2023 Group Photo with all the organisers, speakers and volunteers

The team of women presenters were dynamic, engaging and their passion for their research truly shone throughout the event. I was personally inspired by all of them and very impressed by the incredible research that has been carried out at a range of academic institutions. I would like to encourage other women and non-binary scientists to participate in this event in the future. As an early career scientist, it was an invaluable opportunity to share my research with others, but also an opportunity to learn how to breakdown a complex topic like "photophysiology" into bite size chunks that anyone can understand.

The Cape Town event was organized by Dr Lucia Marchetti (from the Department of Astronomy at the University of Cape Town), Dr Carly Young-Bailie (University of Cape Town), Dr Luna Pellegri (University of Witwatersrand and iThemba LABS), and Dr Rosalin Skelton (South African Astronomical Observatory). Read more about the event on the UCT website here.