Graduate students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology are back-to-back champions in the national “I’m a Scientist” competition. This year, Alex Taylor “was happy to bring the gold back to EEB for the second year in a row!”

“I’m a Scientist USA” is a free online program where school students engage with selected scientists during an American Idol-style competition between scientists, with students as judges. Taylor competed with four other scientists in the Soil Zone (there were two zones; 54 scientists competed to earn one of 10 spots).  The competition began in 2010 in the United Kingdom. EEB graduate student Jeff Shi won the first USA event in 2015.

Students challenge the scientists over fast-paced online text-based live chats. There are no limits to what students can ask, which makes for lively and interesting conversation. Taylor was selected as the students’ favorite scientist, garnering the most votes (43 percent of nearly 400 votes cast) to receive $500 to communicate his work to the public. The event ran from April 25 – May 6, 2016. Students from grades four up through 12 participated.

“Wow, what a whirlwind!” Taylor wrote in his thank you letter to students. “I had a great time participating in this competition,” said Taylor. “Students' questions ranged from silly to thought-provoking, and it was really interesting to get a feel for how scientists are perceived at different ages and schools.”

Taylor’s letter to students continued, “What I wasn't expecting was to get so many excellent questions about why scientists do what we do. You asked questions like ‘Are you trying to make the world a better place?’ and ‘What do you hope to achieve with your research?’ As a scientist, it's easy to get caught up in collecting data and writing papers, and forget what the point of it all is. You all really made me take a step back and think about why science is important, and what we scientists do in society. 

“Yes, science does find new medicines and make our smartphones work, but we also help keep that very human flame of curiosity alive, that burning need to ask ‘Why do birds sing?’ or ‘Where does the wood in trees come from?’ That flame of curiosity is never brighter than when you're young, and talking with you all helped remind me to keep mine alive and burning!”

Students posed many scientific questions to the group ranging from queries about soil and plant science to those about the scientists themselves. Wide ranging topics were discussed from the presence of soil on Mars to genetically modified crops, and much more.

On the lighter and less scientific side, students asked tough questions about favorite ice cream flavor. “Chocolate peanut butter.” And favorite Star Wars character. “Hans Solo, of course. Also, a big fan of Rey.” Even, “do you believe in extraterrestrials?” We’ll let you find out Taylor’s answer to this one.

Taylor’s plans for the $500 reward are to “build an interactive activity for museums, zoos and botanical gardens to show people how important and amazing nodulation is and write about my research on my blog “Thought and Awe.”

Taylor hopes the students learned as much as he did!

[New on the I'm a Scientist website: What Jeff Shi did with his prize money]