The “I’m a Scientist” competition, which originated in the United Kingdom, reached across the pond for its first USA event in May 2015 -- and EEB graduate student Jeff Shi is the winner.

Elementary and middle school students engaged with five selected scientists during this American Idol-styled online event wherein scientists competed and students judged. There is no cost for schools to participate.

Students from across the country challenged the scientists during fast-paced, live text chats asking anything and everything, limited only by their own curiosity. Students voted for their favorite scientist – Shi – who won the $500 prize for public scientific outreach. The event took place May 11– 22, 2015.

Shi called the experience “really exhilarating!”

“Because so many of the questions were during a live chat and happening simultaneously, I had to answer really quickly and accurately, but also in an engaging manner,” he said. “Also, kids have a tendency to ask very different questions from adults, so it was a refreshing take on a lot of things I think about on a daily basis.” He was even asked about many things he never thinks about at all in completely unrelated subjects. And he added, “It was also an exercise in speed typing!”

Shi said the best question he got was what advice he’d give to kids who want to be scientists. “I told them that the best thing you can do is to keep asking questions about anything and everything that you're curious about. Most importantly, I told them to not be discouraged when no one around them knows the answer, because the mark of a good scientist is asking questions like that! Although I did have a lot of kids ask me if you can make hybrid human-bats from DNA (or people like Batman), which I had to say no to.”

“I got pretty into it - I would guess I spent something like three or four hours a day answering questions at peak times.” About half was through live chats and then the rest involved answering questions submitted that the scientists couldn't get to during the lives sessions.

Shi think these interactions with scientists mean a lot for the young students. One was seriously asking how to get involved with bat research or EEB stuff at his age, because he was getting really interested.

Of course, the students weren’t the only ones to benefit. The scientists developed their communication skills, gained a fresh perspective on their work, and found out what young people think about science and the role of scientists.

Shi will use his winnings to photocopy skulls using 3D printing technology to make replicas for teaching and outreach because, he said, most people find it hard to imagine just how diverse bats are. Here’s how he begins to describe his work on the website: “I study the world’s bats, and how evolution has molded them into a group of superhero-like animals as spectacularly diverse as Batman’s gadgets.”

Read Shi’s engaging “I’m a Scientist” profile and view all the students’ questions to him (over 125!) and his answers.

Here’s a fun sample: Q: “Who is your favriote (sic) superhero?” A: “You might have guessed this, but it’s Batman.”

Rows upon rows of bats at the U-M Museum of Zoology.