Christina Astin is the co-founder and mentor of the Young Scientists Journal, the world’s only peer-reviewed science journal written, edited and run by scientists aged 12 – 20. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics (IOP). She is a passionate science communicator having taught science at prestigious schools for about 20 years. She is a science education consultant and Head of Partnerships at The King’s School, Canterbury, UK.
Tell us about your academic background.
Christina Astin: I only have an undergraduate degree. I am not a natural science researcher. My whole life has been spent in teaching pretty much. But I did my first degree at Cambridge in natural sciences and also management studies. At Cambridge, you can’t do pure science; you have to study a range of different courses. So, I studied some physics, material science, geology and maths. And then I went on to do management studies which is sort of like an MBA program. I took a job in London working for a big multinational company. I missed the academic life. So I went back to college and trained as a teacher. I taught physics for 22 years, running physics and science departments in a variety of schools. About 10 years ago, when I was head of science at King’s School Canterbury, I decided to set up YSJ with Ghazwan Butrous. My academic interests remain physics and physics education, astronomy, and cosmology.
YSJ differs from OTHER HIGH SCHOOL JOURNALS in terms of offering students complete ownership of the journal.
What does your work these days entail?
Christina: My focus is very much shifted towards public understanding of science and encouraging young people to get involved in science communication. And I am also passionate about partnerships. So, about half of my current role is in linking people together and linking schools together.
You are a Fellow of the Institute of Physics (IOP) and you also work for the Institute; what does the work entail?
Christina: I’m a Teaching and Learning Coach, which means I spend a day and half a week coaching science teachers for whom physics is not a specialism. I don’t know what it’s like in Pakistan but in UK, at least in state-run schools, all teachers have to teach all three sciences – chemistry, biology and physics, at least up to age 16. And then people specialize. The trouble with that, of course, is that if you got a chemistry degree, you might be teaching physics which is out of your specialization. That means, there is a lack of confidence particularly in doing practical work, running whole class practical sessions. My job is to work with science departments in schools across this part of the country and try and improve their confidence and subject knowledge. I also mentor some early career physics teachers.
What was the idea behind Young Scientists Journal (YSJ)? There are already many journals and many more are being introduced. How is YSJ different from them?
Christina: The idea behind it was two-fold. One was to provide a vehicle for publishing school students’ original science research because it is unlikely that a 15-year-old will get published in Nature or Physics Letters. So it was to provide a publishing house for that.
Secondly, it was to encourage and enhance young people’s science communication skills not in some artificial way but in a real, authentic setting. There are quite a lot of other science journals where the articles are written by school students. The editing and proofreading of those journals are done by adults. YSJ differs from them in terms of offering students complete ownership of the journal. The work entails editing, production of the journal, web development, PR and marketing, outreach, talking to sponsors and so on. This makes YSJ special.
YSJ runs an annual student conference. Do you think having a conference exclusively for high school or maybe younger students is a good idea? Conference is mostly about original research. So, a conference for high school students might suffer from lack of originality.
Christina: Actually, that element of original research and students presenting their research as posters and orally is a feature which has been increasing in our conferences. There is no shortage of original research even at school level in the UK where these conferences take place so far. Schools are encouraging their students to undertake original research. The Royal Society, UK’s learned science society, gives out grants to help fund projects at schools which really incorporate original science research. In fact, YSJ has published quite a few articles arising from this research. YSJ dedicated issue 17 to that. That element at the conference is absolutely central. We would like to dedicate more time in conferences to that.
But the YSJ Conference is also an opportunity to get world class scientists to come and speak to young people. That’s such a wonderful opportunity for them.
It is incredibly important that if you are good aT communicating, you do that communication and share that skill.
How important is science communication and science outreach? How is it related to publishing? Does publishing fall in science communication or outreach? What is the difference?
Christina: In my view, science outreach is anything which connects science research with a wider community. Now, whether that’s a wider community of scientists or public at large, it does not much matter. Both are important. Of course, it is essential that any science which is carried out is published. It is important to put it out there amongst a community of scientists. Newton’s famous words are that you can stand on the shoulder of giants and see further. That’s absolutely essential. There’s no reason why a 16-year-old scientist can’t join that community as importantly as Newton himself.
In terms of communicating with the wider public, I do feel that is extremely important. Life for all of us has become more technologically driven. And I think there is a terrible danger that we will have a disconnection between the use of technology in everyday life and the understanding of it – understanding of how it works and its potential dangers. I think it is the duty of scientists to make sure that the public around us is informed scientifically as citizens of the world.
One cannot ride two horses at the same time, it is said. Do you think it is possible to play an active role in science communication while doing cutting edge research?
Christina: Jim Al-Khalili – a quantum physicist working in the UK – was asked exactly this question in his interview for YSJ. He said initially when he started to get into making TV and radio programmes about science, some people were quite critical of him. He said, “I have to work very hard but I can do both”. It is incredibly important that if you are good at communicating, you do that communication and share that skill.
What are your expectations of Spectra?
Christina: Your editorial board looks very impressive – lots of nice people there. I think your aim is to publish some original science research and some opinion related stuff like blogs. That is absolutely excellent.