Ruth Thomas – The Oxford Trust

Ruth, undertaking her PhD at the University of Sheffield, has completed her PIPS placement at The Oxford Trust, which is a charitable organisation encouraging the pursuit of science. She worked within their Education and Outreach branch known as Science Oxford.

The featured image is of the Oxford Trust logo

What did you do?

A large part of Science Oxford is their Science Oxford Centre, a hands on indoor-outdoor outreach centre full of activities and woodland to explore. They encourage the children (and adults!) that visit to try out experiments with very little instruction, aiming to make them think ‘like a scientist’.

I had several projects during my time here including the development of a ‘Live Lab’. This additional activity ran as a pop-up event alongside the centre’s Family Days and School visits. My PhD is in genetics, and so I based my Live Lab on the instructions for life (DNA) and how we can extract DNA from strawberries using things you can find in your kitchen! Although unsure at first, the look of amazement on the faces of the children when they realised what they had managed to do was fantastic!

Ruth leading a Live Lab activity where they extracted DNA from strawberries

What made you want to do that particular placement?

During my PhD I had been involved in outreach events with primary schools (Bateson Centre Aquarium), secondary schools (STEM for girls, The Brilliant Club) and also teaching undergraduate students in the lab. In all cases, the students were enthusiastic about experiencing science outside their normal learning environment. I enjoyed running the outreach activities but had little idea of the organisation and planning that went into such events. Thinking that this was potentially an area I would like to work in post-PhD, I searched for an opportunity that would allow me to continue delivering science outside a classroom but also experience the ‘behind-the-scenes’ running of such a company.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I asked for advice from friends, family and my supervisor, to see if they had worked with or had any memorable experiences with science outreach events/companies. I wanted to take the opportunity to work in a different part of the country and, as I grew up near Oxford it seemed a logical place to start. It also had the added bonus of making accommodation easy. A little research into outreach companies in Oxfordshire led me to Science Oxford. They had never taken a PIPS student before so I sent my CV along with an accompanying cover letter to a contact address I found on their website. We met online so I could explain further about the benefits of PIPS to themselves as a host company and they agreed to take me on!

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

Although I had some experience of outreach during my PhD, they tended to be events that were organised ahead of time, and I was just a volunteer. Working with Science Oxford has given me an understanding of the work that goes into the design and delivery of successful outreach events, workshops and family days. They have enhanced my communication skills, teaching me that encouraging people to think and talk about questions is far more effective than trying to get them to the ‘right’ answer. I have taken my analysis of experiments and turned it towards evaluating workshops, measuring the impact and critically assessing the successes and failures.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

Inspiring, rewarding and confidence building!

The opportunity to pursue an interest and gain insight into a job role that I am potentially interested in holding in the future was invaluable. It also highlighted the fact that I had developed skills during my PhD that didn’t require a lab coat, and that these are sought after by employers.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

Find an area you are currently interested in and go with it, this does not have to define your career path for the rest of your life! Don’t be afraid to send out your CV to several companies at once, it is likely that some won’t reply and others will say no but you will get there in the end! Be sure to include a detailed description of what a PIPS placement is, particularly if they have never hosted a student before, it can be a confusing concept!

Due to Covid, I ended up doing my PIPS placement 10 months before I was due to finish. Although I enjoyed every second, I would definitely recommend aiming to do it in your second or third year!

Useful links to find out more

Science Oxford wrote a blog about having Ruth as a placement student: Catapulting careers in STEM – meet our placement student (