We thought it was about time that you get to know Braintastic! Science founder Ginny, so we asked her some questions about life, science and everything...
Have you always been interested in science?
I was always a really curious child, asking questions, trying to understand how and why the things around me worked. And I was really lucky that my parents encouraged that. They answered my questions when they could and when they couldn't, they helped me to find out for myself or explained that that was something no-one knew. I think that really encouraged me to keep asking questions, to keep wanting to find out what was going on around me. As I got older that developed into my love for science.
Why did you decide on a career in psychology and neuroscience?
It was a happy accident really! I started studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge uni, thinking I wanted to be a chemist. But in my first year, as well as the chemistry, I took a course on Evolution and Behaviour – even though I didn’t study Biology at A level. And I loved it! I was fascinated by how many unanswered science questions there were about our amazing brains, and how much it could tell us about why we do what we do. So I moved away from chemistry and for the next two years of the course focused on psychology and neuroscience, developing my particular interest in how our brains work and how they drive our behaviour.
How did you end up in Science Communication?
While I was at university, I fell ill with a virus, and then developed a post-viral syndrome. As it continued to affect me, I was diagnosed with an illness called chronic fatigue syndrome, or M.E. Of course, as a scientist I wanted to find out what was causing my symptoms, and how to treat them. But, frustratingly, there has been very little research on the disease, despite the fact that it affects an estimated quarter of a million people in the UK alone[i] (and even more now, with the prevalence of Long Covid patients, many of whom meet the diagnostic criteria for M.E.). This meant I had to learn to manage it myself, being very careful to pace myself, and not over-do physical or mental activity.
One surprising benefit that came from my illness is that it really focused my mind on what I love doing. With only a fraction of the usable hours most people have each week, I didn’t want to waste them on something I wasn’t passionate about. So when, after I graduated, I tried a part-time research job, I quickly realised it wasn’t for me. Instead, what lit me up inside was the volunteer work I was doing with organisations like the British Science Association, and Cambridge Hands-On Science. I loved interacting with young people, talking to them about the science I was so passionate about, and seeing it light a spark inside them as well. So I decided to build a career as a Science Communicator.
What do you like doing in your spare time?
I enjoy cooking and baking, particularly cakes and other delicious things. I also love to dance, and used to be quite serious about it before I fell ill. My favourite is salsa, but it's not something I can do regularly now, particularly when I'm performing on stage and doing work which takes up a lot of my energy. But I still enjoy it when I can!
During a lot of my spare time, I focus on very restful activities. I find I can watch relaxing TV or listen to audio books, both activities that let me switch off physically and mentally. I have to make sure I recharge, so that when I come back to Braintastic! Science and my other work, I can give it as much energy as I possibly can.
What is your earliest science memory?
I have a really strong memory from early primary school, being at a friend’s house and playing with a cornflower-water mixture on her kitchen table. I guess I didn't know at the time that I was “doing science”, I was just amazed by the weird, cool slime we created. I remember squeezing my hand and finding it became a solid then being astonished by how, as soon as I relaxed my hand, it ran back through my fingers like a liquid.
Of course, I now know that this is a shear thickening fluid. When you squash it, all the particles of cornflower get pushed together and they can't move, so it acts like a solid. But as soon as you stop squashing it, the water can start to move again, and the solid becomes a liquid. But it was that moment of wonder, and coming across something that I had never experienced before through hands on science that really inspired my love for science.
I also have wonderful memories of the end of term challenges that our primary school used to set us. We had to do all sorts of things, from making a little car that could travel the furthest down a ramp, to dropping an egg off the top of the school without it breaking! These science fun experiments helped me develop my creativity and problem solving – skills I still use today!
What science books did you like reading as a kid?
I've always adored reading, and as a child I devoured all sorts of books - a huge amount of fiction, but also quite a lot of nonfiction aimed at kids. But my favourites were always the “Horrible Science” books. I think I had every one in the series as well as pretty much all of the “Horrible Histories” and quite a few of the other ones like geography. But the science ones were my absolute favourite. I loved their humour, and the fact that they weren’t afraid to include science’s messy bits, and they really helped develop my love for science.
I also enjoyed visual science books, like the ones published by Dorling Kindersley (now DK). I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I remember that I have now been involved in writing more than 5 of their books (including How the Brain Works!) If my writing helps nurture just one child’s interest in science, I feel that I am doing my job right. And it’s not just children I want to engage- I recently wrote my first solo book for adults, Overloaded, to help everyone understand their amazing brains that little bit better!
Who is your favourite woman in STEM & why?
There are so many wonderful women in STEM, but someone I have a huge amount of admiration for is May-Britt Moser. She was one of the winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for discovering cells in the brain that respond when you are in a specific position in space. These are known as place cells and they act like coordinates in your brain, allowing it to build up a map of your environment. You can then tell exactly where you are in that mental map, based on these particular cells.
One of the things I admire about her is that not only is she a fantastic scientist and researcher, but she also has wonderful fashion sense. When she collected her Nobel Prize, she wore the most amazing custom designed ballgown with shimmery, beaded neurons all over it - based on the place cells that she had discovered. I love that she helps smash the stereotype that you can't be both feminine and a fantastic scientist. I think sometimes, as women in science, we feel like if we spend time on our appearance, if we enjoy clothes, fashion, hair and makeup, we will be seen as somehow less professional. But that shouldn't be the case. We should be able to both have fun and be serious scientists. I love that she wasn't afraid to get up onstage at such a huge event wearing this amazing science dress, inspired by the neurons she discovered.