Career Profiles: Paul Higgins

I am an Irish Research Council fellow (scientist) at the Astrophysics Research Group in Trinity College Dublin.

For the past five and a bit years I have been trying to figure out what makes sunspots erupt, hurling hot gas off the Sun, often toward the Earth. While working on this complicated problem, I have also been trying to get the general public more interested in science.

Here is how I went from sitting in my lab, quietly working away on analysing sunspot data to leading a science-education outreach programme…

Getting started
After five years as an undergrad in California, and four years as a postgrad at Trinity College Dublin, I finally managed to get a PhD in physics!

In addition to learning theories of physics, I honed skills in writing effectively, problem solving, being proactive and thinking critically. Knowing the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of physical theories is important, but to be a successful scientist you have to employ all of the above in your research.

When I started out in physics at Berkeley in California, I was hired by Prof. George Smoot to work on the Universe Adventure. The goal of the website is to explain abstract ‘cosmology’ concepts (the theory of the structure and evolution universe) to secondary school students.

I had a lot of fun making animations about how the super dense and hot Universe expanded after the Big Bang, and came to be the huge fairly empty place that it is today. This is really helped to spark my interest in science-education outreach.

Public speaking
I have always been excited to talk to the public about science, but was very nervous about speaking to a group of students (many scientists are afraid of teenagers!).

However, during my PhD I was offered a chance to do this from the comfort of my very own desk. I competed in the ‘I’m A Scientist Get Me Outa Here!’ Space Zone challenge, which pitted me against four other scientists in answering space related questions from secondary school students. We interacted with the students through text-based chatroom events, allowing me to overcome my fear. Now I am a LOT more comfortable talking to students.

Democratising science education
In the end, I won the competition! I was awarded €500 to kick-off the outreach project of my choice. I came up with ‘Solar Surfer’, an educational web-app designed to teach students about the Sun, planets, and space by combining text, images, game elements, and simulations.

The funds were used to begin developing content and also helped myself and a group of other researchers and educators to apply for and win a much larger Google CS4HS grant to develop the interactive elements of the project as a series of teacher and student development workshops.

So, this year I happily find myself directing the Student2Scientist programme. There are loads of really smart and creative teachers and students out there.

This project allows them teach and learn science in a more intuitive way, by designing a simulation or game based on a scientific concept using the Scratch educational programming language. Student2Scientist is making text-book science come alive on your computer screen!

Right now, secondary-school science teachers can sign up for one of our three workshop dates. Student workshops will take place this autumn.