Rebecca Shutt is a PhD researcher in the department of Physics and Astronomy, and has been volunteering with PPL PWR. Have a read of her story below to see what it's like volunteering as a PhD student, why she enjoys leading scientific workshops and why she finds volunteering so rewarding.

Tell us about your volunteering.

I started volunteering for PPL PWR shortly after getting settled into London/PhD life. PPL PWR describes itself as “a rag-tag group of volunteers” - that began as a student-led initiative in UCL! - dedicated to growing and empowering a community that cares about sustainable futures. I have worked on school workshops designed to empower young people to create innovative devices in response to issues facing sustainable development goals. The scariest part of this was challenging myself to take the workshop lead on the Final Design workshop!

We also supported a summer school run by Professor Chris Howard in Physics and Astronomy at UCL, directed at sixth form students, on both sustainable energy and public engagement skills. Before Christmas, I was thrilled to give back to the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) I am part of by teaching public engagement to the newest cohort of PhD students. I have also enjoyed getting stuck into activities and discussions at the “Green Futures” stall at the Exhibition Road Festival, and in the Einstein Garden at Green Man Festival. Now I am working on taking the lead on creating PPL PWR’s first podcast. The experiences have been varied and it has enabled me to connect with brilliant people from a variety of backgrounds.

How did you find out about the role?

Josh Bailey is a founder of PPL PWR and a post-doctoral researcher in the Electrochemical Innovations Lab, which I am also part of. He is also an alumnus of the same CDT as me. We met through these connections and shortly afterward Josh asked if I wanted to get involved with the PPL PWR schools workshops, and it went from there! It is really nice to volunteer with friends!

Why did you want to become a volunteer?

One reason is my belief that public engagement is a responsibility of scientists and researchers who are publicly funded. Another is that I am driven to forward a future that is greener and more sustainable; where we source our energy from and how we distribute it is a huge part of that. Finally, I am passionate about empowering more people to see that science and engineering is a space they can have impact in. I firmly believe I owe a chunk of where I am and what I am doing to the role models I have, and also to those who have supported and shown me that science and engineering can be inclusive and diverse.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?

For me, evaluation and measuring yourself against success criteria is an important part of volunteering - it is often also quite challenging to pin down and assess. One of my favourite quotes from Terry Pratchett is “Charity ain't giving people what you wants to give, it's giving people what they need to get.”

With my volunteering, my goals are activism, engagement, and empowerment. Creating word clouds and illustrated road maps with the thoughts of members of the public has been a great way to create something artistic together as well as see the impact of the public engagement on different peoples ideas.

The most rewarding moments have just been feedback by individuals speaking to me directly, thanking me for my time and letting me know I have helped them think of things in a different way. Often the feeling is mutual!

What impact has volunteering had on you?

Volunteering has impacted me in so many different ways! I have practiced skills in public speaking, grant application writing, science communication and I've had the opportunity to challenge myself in new roles and settings. In addition, I think that in a largely independent long-term project such as PhD research, it is easy to feel inconsequential and question the impact. But what is the point in science if you don’t talk about it and offer it up to be challenged? Engaging with the public is a great way to stay connected with the impact aims of your research. I am inspired and energised whenever I am among the wealth of creativity and talent in the public, particularly in young people. I think it’s two-way street for education.

What’s the best thing about volunteering?

The best thing is giving time and energy to the things you are passionate about - it is revitalising and mentally nourishing.

And the most challenging? How did you overcome the challenges?

The most challenging part is definitely time management. When embarking on a new project, it can be difficult from the outset to know how much time it might require. Being honest and open with when and how you can input into projects with the project leads is very important. Also, I would say feeling comfortable and confident about putting your hand up and letting people know when situations have changed and you need to adjust your commitments is important. PPL PWR works hard to create a supportive friendly environment to make this possible, and it’s important to check-in with your peers about non-work-related things from time to time and make sure everyone is happy and well.

Tell us about something memorable that’s happened to you whilst volunteering.

A couple of secondary school students came up to me at the end of the workshop I led, sincerely telling me “thank you, you are really inspiring, that was really informative, you’ve really helped us”. Considering how nervous I was about leading a workshop for the first time when the students are undoubtedly tired after a full day of school, it’s hard to match the feeling when you get feedback like that. Another memorable moment was when the students were presenting their prototypes at the awards ceremony after the school workshops. Seeing them taking pride in their inventions and feeling my own pride echoed back was fantastic.

Would you recommend volunteering? If so, why?

Absolutely - it is a great way of making new friends, getting involved in a new community, and working on something you are passionate about! However, it is not the only way to give to the causes you care about. It depends on your situation and what resources you have, and sometimes, time is not a resource people have to give. I have also pledged to donate money regularly to effective charities.

If you want to make a difference through volunteering like Rebecca, browse the opportunities on our volunteering directory to see what you can get involved in.