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By February 1, 2022EXIST, Insight


Dr Alice Mills and Dr Natalie Whitehead of the Exeter Science Centre

Alice and Natalie are the founders and directors of the Exeter Science Centre. The duo are dedicated to engaging the public with science.

Alice has a PhD in Astrophysics from Durham University, and was the Science Outreach Officer for the University of Exeter from 2015-2020, developing and delivering workshops and talks across the South West.

Natalie started setting up the Exeter Science Centre as soon as she finished her PhD in Physics at the University of Exeter in September 2019. She was a passionate science communicator during her PhD and undergraduate Masters degree, leading many workshops, outreach events and giving talks to schools and the public.

How did the idea of the Exeter Science Centre come about? At what stage is the business now in its development?

Natalie: During my undergraduate and PhD in Physics at the University of Exeter, I was working with Alice regularly on science outreach activities – Alice was the Outreach Officer for the College of Engineering, Maths and Physical Sciences (she has a PhD in Astrophysics). I was trying to work out what to do as a career after the PhD which would have the biggest, most immediate positive impact, and after visiting some exemplary science centres, I could see the huge importance of these kinds of visitor attractions for connecting the public with science. It was a bit of a light bulb moment – it just seemed to be the missing piece in the STEMM offering in Exeter and the South West. Alice loved the idea – it’s something she’d been dreaming of doing for years – so from then on, we started planning! That was back in early 2019 – we’ve since set up the Exeter Science Centre as a charity (CIO), developed our business plan (which can be read on our website) and started working on some fantastic projects to help connect people with the inspiring research and industry in the region.

Why Exeter?

Alice: Exeter is a really central location from which we can serve the whole of the South West, and there’s a noticeable gap of science centres in this region. The climate emergency and the pandemic clearly highlight the importance of science in our lives, and the need to improve scientific literacy to help everyone make informed decisions. We need to be celebrating and making more use of the world-leading education, research and industry that’s happening right here in the region. We should be so proud that Exeter is a globally-recognised centre for climate research, and yet it’s not that widely known amongst the general public! For so many reasons, Exeter is just an ideal location for a science centre, and we believe it could be a really key component of Exeter’s culture and tourism offering.

Can you share the location of the new centre?

Natalie: We hope it can be in the city centre, but we don’t have any formal plans in place just yet. We want to help with reimagining the high street, as well as being directly accessible for people who wouldn’t normally engage with the sciences – this is hugely important for us. We want the building to look incredible too, and this is another way to get people excited about it! Think green walls with bird boxes and insect houses, rooftop gardens, renewable technologies with live monitors – we’d love it to be a zero-carbon exhibit in itself, that demonstrates how buildings can be good for people and the planet. We think amazing structures shouldn’t just be in places like London or Paris – why not Exeter?

What’s the innovation/ thought process/ driving force behind Exeter Science Centre?

Alice: Our mission overall is to educate, motivate and empower people to make a difference in the world, and this drives everything we do. We feel the most effective way to do this is by moving away from the traditional top-down ‘disseminating STEMM to the public’ approach, to genuinely engaging the public and moving from STEMM to STEAMM (STEMM + Arts). The best science centres we’ve seen are really STEAMM centres. By blending the arts and sciences we can make a really meaningful experience that appeals to a broad audience, with an emphasis on creativity, play and experience. We think STEAMM is integral to society and culture, and we really want to highlight that in the work we do!

What do you want to achieve in the business in the next 12 months?

Natalie: We’re keen to expand our impact by employing staff this year, and we will be strongly focusing on fundraising as well, both for our activities and for the building. We’ll be working with our philanthropy advisor and targeting capital grant funding to make this happen and hope to build even stronger connections with our stakeholders in the city and region.

What’s the achievement you are most proud of to date (in your career or business)?

Both: Perhaps just getting to this point! When we look back on what we’ve achieved, despite only having a small team, a limited budget and a number of other challenges (COVID being a significant one!) we’re really glad to be where we are and are more determined than ever to grow our organisation and increase our impact.

And what’s been the biggest challenge?

Alice: One of the biggest challenges has been launching our Community Interest Company in February 2020, only a month before national lockdowns. This hugely hampered our networking, in particular the very natural networking that comes from in-person events. We’re passionate about co-creating the science centre alongside all the different people that will one day visit it, and those who will contribute to the exhibitions. COVID has really limited our opportunities for meaningful conversations with communities around the South West, and we’re really hoping to change that this year.

How can the regional business community support the Exeter Science Centre?

Natalie: Apart from sponsorship (which we will also be exploring this year) and working with STEAMM businesses to help share their work with the public, we would be grateful for networking and funding opportunities, and help in getting the word out by sharing our social media posts and helping us to reach as broad an audience as possible. We’re certain that the organisation, and the science centre building it’s housed in, will be an incredible resource for the public and for other organisations in the region. Help us make it happen!

What does your average day look like or what will your average day look like when up and running?

Alice: There doesn’t seem to be an average day at the moment! We’re having to learn as we go along, and with just two of us responsible for the day-to-day running of the charity, an average day is a mixture of networking meetings, charity admin, developing and delivering engagement activities, planning future activities, keeping our webpage and social media up to date, fundraising, managing volunteers/interns/work experience students and much more. Life is certainly pretty busy!

What do you wish other people knew about your work?

Natalie: That we’re trying to do things differently. In particular, we’re trying to reimagine how a science (STEAMM) centre could be: more of a cultural hub for a city and region, more experiential and story-based, more focused on active research and industry, and more of an active research project itself that works with psychologists, sociologists and artists to really have a profound and lasting impact on everyone we interact with. While there’s a blank canvas, we’re keen to be creative and bold with it!

How does your work connect Exeter nationally / globally?

Alice: We’re already making connections with globally-connected organisations in the science centre world, and we’d aim for our science centre to truly be an open-source, world-leading exemplar, that can be emulated elsewhere. In the meantime, we’re looking to work on science engagement projects that make these national and international connections – and there might even be our first international project in the pipeline at the moment. Stay tuned!

What piece of advice would you share with other entrepreneurs?

Natalie: Get a strong team behind you! You’ll need at least two of you working in the core team, and ensure you are supported by a range of advisors from various areas of expertise to guide you.

Why and how would you encourage young people to consider STEMM careers?

Natalie and Alice: Why: Our society depends on STEMM innovation – we can’t imagine there’ll ever be a time when STEMM skills aren’t in demand! So there’s a strong employability reason, but also something we think is hugely important: you can make such a difference in this world by working in STEMM. Whether that’s in helping to tackle global challenges, making the infrastructure for our society, or improving quality of life for people through innovations, there are so many exciting and impactful things to work on. How: by providing more opportunities for young people to see what STEMM careers are all about, and by making STEMM a more regular feature in their lives (and a science centre can help with this!).

Do you have any events in the pipeline that you’d like to share? 

Alice: At the moment we’re working hard on preparing our pop-up exhibition ‘Breaking the Ice’ (more details here). This will take place at Maketank, Exeter from 11th-14th and 18th-21st March, overlapping with British Science Week 2022. We encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to come along to meet the local scientists involved in some inspiring research, and get involved with our plans to make the science centre. The exhibition is centred around climate modelling – which not only helps us to understand our own climate and how it is changing, but also the climates on other planets. We’re so excited to give people a feel for how the science centre could be!