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"Wonderwoman" Professor Kathy Sykes roughs it for science

Press release issued: 12 January 2004

The Open University/BBC Two series Rough Science has set Professor Kathy Sykes numerous daunting challenges since the show premiered in 2001. In the current series challenges relate to space exploration

Professor Kathy Sykes is up for a challenge; why else would she volunteer to go to one of the hottest places on earth to undertake brain-frazzling scientific challenges with limited equipment and unreasonable time limits?

The Open University/BBC Two series Rough Science has set Kathy numerous daunting challenges since the show premiered in 2001. In the current series challenges relate to space exploration and for anyone who knows Kathy it will come as no surprise that she tackled the challenges with energy, creativity and resounding success.

Perhaps that combination of energy and talent is why The Guardian recently labelled her one of Britain's 50  "women to watch", The Daily Mail describe her as one of this year's wonder women, Eve magazine name her among Britain's 20 smartest women, and 19 magazine crown her one of Britain's top 19 women of influence.

It could also be because she is currently the Collier Chair in Public Engagement in Science and Engineering for Bristol University, a mentor for scientists communicating their work, a co-director of the Cheltenham Festival of Science, a trainer in communication and media skills to scientists and a visiting research fellow at both Bristol University and King's College London. On top of which she travelled to Death Valley, USA for the latest series of Rough Science, scheduled to be broadcast in January 2004.

NASA test their kit in this harsh desert terrain, so it is the perfect place to see if Kathy and her fellow scientists could take on the might of NASA in their own backyard.

Kathy has lived a dynamic and varied life, from teaching physics and maths to schoolchildren in Zimbabwe to working at Explore@Bristol as Head of Science to being a magician's assistant in Florence.

Among the many striking things about Kathy is that she does not conform to any stereotype that her accolades or her PhD bring to mind. Many would think that a female physicist, whose PhD researched polhydroxybutyrate (Biopol) would be dull and mousy. Or they might suspect that someone so smart and influential must be too dedicated to her career to have any time to experience the other delights of life. But they'd be wrong on all accounts. Her scientific commitment is matched only by her involvement in other interests as varied as scuba diving, caving, drawing and salsa dancing.        

Though her greatest love will always be science and this is a passion she is keen to pass on to others, through participating in programmes such as Rough Science.

"Rough Science encapsulates much of what drives my passion for science: the challenge of solving problems with a group of people very different form me; having to be creative; and then explaining some hard ideas along the way. The extremely tight deadlines, limited kit and sweltering heat are a fantastic way for me to push my boundaries - both as a person and a scientist'," said Kathy.

Among Kathy's challenges in the upcoming Rough Science series are making a communications device that carries a voice on a sunbeam (as there are no sound waves in space), designing a spacesuit with built-in cooler system, building an aerial surveyor that can float above land and designing a rocket using water as fuel.

The scientists taking the Rough Science challenge with Kathy are: chemist Mike Bullivant from the Open University in Milton Keynes; physicist Jonathan Hare from Sussex University; geologist Iain Stewart geologist from Glasgow University; and botanist Ellen McCallie from the USA.

Kathy's passion, drive, vision and charismatic personality has seen her front a number of TV programmes, such as Ever Wondered (focusing on the science of food), Mind Games (logical puzzles quiz show with Simon Singh), BBC Knowledge - Journey into Space and Time (interviewing astronomers) and Truth About (a series of scientific programmes on emotions).

Kathy's passion for science has seen her give hundreds of talks to schoolchildren, women's institutes and other groups on science and science-related issues.

"Science is often seen as boring, difficult and unglamorous. So it's important for programmes like Rough Science to show-case the opposite. As well as showing that scientists are normal people, who enjoy having fun and being creative, and also that we sometimes fail at things," said Kathy.

Jonathan Renouf, Rough Science series producer, said:  "People often think of science as something difficult, something that they don't understand. But I think this series shows that a lot of science is actually surprisingly simple - and fun! I defy anyone to watch the show and not come away with a sense of exhilaration and surprise at what the rough scientists are able to achieve, using nothing more than simple tools, ingenuity and the resources they can find in the desert. And for those who think science is a bit of a boy thing, it's particularly rewarding that in Kathy and Ellen we have two inspirational women scientists who convey the excitement of what they're doing with such passion and humour."

Rough Science continues tomorrow, Tuesday, January 13, at 7.30 pm on BBC2.


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