How our Big Bang Competition prizes took us to China...

In March 2018, Emily Xu and Bethan Padbury both competed in the Big Bang Competition and came away with amazing prizes. Emily won the coveted GSK UK Young Scientist of the Year title for her research project on separating enantiomers (mirror image molecules) using metal-organic frameworks, and Bethan won the Senior Engineering prize with her model generator which serves as a teaching tool for classrooms.

This August they were given the opportunity to represent the UK at the China Adolescents Science & Technology International Competition (CASTIC), in Chongqing.

We caught up with them to find out about their experience.

Hi! Can you tell us a little bit about CASTIC?

Emily Xu: 'Bethan and I presented our research projects, the same ones we presented as part of The Big Bang Competition, alongside young scientists and engineers from 42 other countries and we were judged by industry and subject experts.

'I was lucky enough to come back with one of the first place awards.'

Bethan Padbury: 'By the end of the week, we made friends with people from all over the globe and received awards for our projects based on the judges’ collated scores and special judging.

'I received one of the second place awards along with one of the Gao Shiqi special prizes for disseminating science.'

Emily (left) and Bethan with their CASTIC medals.

How did you feel going over to China for these awards? 

BP: 'I felt the experience was so surreal as I’d never expected being offered an opportunity like this. Emily and I both had an immense feeling of pride to be able to represent our country as young women in STEM on such a platform.'

EX: 'We were also extremely excited to meet so many other young people from around the world who are passionate about STEM. It was slightly daunting at first, but everyone was so talented and had amazing projects so it was a great experience.

'Neither Beth nor I came to the competition thinking we would win an award but just wanted to make the most of the once in a lifetime opportunity and have fun.'

Why is it important to you to win this award?

EX: 'The most important part of winning one of the first place awards was doing so as a young woman.

'One thing Beth and I noticed was the gender imbalance at the competition, and the lack of women STEM representatives. It is very important to us to use our achievements to create a platform for other young girls to see all the different STEM opportunities available and how success in STEM is achievable.'

BP: 'Yes, going into CASTIC I hadn't contemplated receiving an award for my project. I wished only to take the opportunity to connect with other scientists and enjoy the experience.

'I hope this award shows success is not determined from your starting position and this is a time when women in STEM can succeed.'

What have you learnt since winning at The Big Bang Fair in March? 

BP: 'Since the Fair, I have learnt how important it is to go out and find the opportunities as well as seizing the ones which come your way. Both myself and Emily had to independently reach out to companies and individuals which led to development of our projects.

'We worry that many people are discouraged when the resources for them to develop are not apparent, but I think The Big Bang Fair and everything that has came after has shown how important it was that we created opportunities by asking for the chance to access the resources we needed. I hope to inspire more people to just ask, because you don’t know the doors it could open.'

EX: 'There are so many missed opportunities for young people to explore and enjoy STEM subjects outside their school curriculum. There are plenty of opportunities out there, but it is on you to look for them and to not be afraid to ask questions. If you don't ask you don't get.'

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

EX: 'I just got into Imperial College to study Chemical Engineering, with a Kingsbury Scholarship. This will give me the freedom to expand my exposure in chemical engineering industries and gain more experience. Hopefully in the next four years I will achieve my degree.

'Alongside this, I hope to use my experiences to create a platform for young people and girls so that they can see how accessible opportunities like The Big Bang Competition are.'

PB: 'I hope to achieve a masters degree in Physics which I will be studying towards at Loughborough University. I’d like to gain experience within different industries to explore more career opportunities.

'Ultimately, I hope to be in a position where I can help facilitate the changes I wish to see within the future of science.'

What or who in the past has inspired you?

EX: 'Many people have inspired me to work hard and to get to where I am. My parents worked really hard when I was a child to give me and my siblings the best chance that they could – they both studied at university and worked jobs whilst bringing up 4 children under the age of 5.

'My dad taught me maths so that I could get into James Allen's Girls' School, my secondary school, on a bursary. He has given me the work ethic and mindset that with the combination of hard work, effort and luck, you can achieve whatever you put your mind to.

'Additionally, when deciding what to study at university, a family friend told me that science isn't the place for a woman. This made me determined to not just pursue an education in STEM, but to achieve as much as I could in STEM.'

PB: 'I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by amazing female STEM teachers who have set an example for me, particularly at A level education. They have always inspired me to achieve in science and provided incredible support throughout my school life.'

Do you think STEM has been let down by a lack of women? 

EX: 'Attending a girl's school, I never really acknowledged the lack of women in STEM until I started applying for university. Beth and I really noticed the gender imbalance at CASTIC. Many judges there were shocked by my knowledge and congratulated me on my project, whereas my male counterparts did not receive the same treatment. The quality of my project should not have come as a surprise merely due to my gender.

'I feel that society's attitude towards women in STEM needs to change for any significant progress to happen. I wouldn't say STEM is let down by the lack of women, but that the contribution of women could improve STEM significantly.'

PB: 'Yes, I think the important point is STEM in the future will only improve with more women. I have certainly already felt the gender imbalance, like the feeling of being in an A2 Physics class with a 1:5 female to male ratio. This is partially the product of young women not feeling that physics is a place for them, which is something I wish to change in the future.'

How do you think the STEM world could attract more women? 

PB: 'The STEM world is already working hard to break down the stereotypes of typical male and female subject choices and careers.

'Girls in science need to be encouraged in their curiosity, passion and ambition to achieve in science. I think it is important they are surrounded by figures which set an example and provide the support for them to succeed.'

EX: 'I think the STEM world needs to show the range of careers STEM could lead to; many assume that all you can do is lab work. The creativity and collaborative side of STEM should be highlighted, and the fact that you'll be working with people from all sorts of STEM and non-STEM backgrounds.

'We could also put more effort into advertising the opportunities that are there for young women in STEM, and emphasising that all it takes is the initiative to go out and look for them.

'Finally, we should promote the fact that it is possible to set high goals in STEM and achieve them to the level Beth and I have.'

Enter your own science or engineering project into The Big Bang Competition and see where it takes you!


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