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PUBLISHED: 12:20 12 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:21 12 March 2015

Kelly Chaplin (right) at the House of Commons

Kelly Chaplin (right) at the House of Commons

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Young Bexleyheath scientist grills politicians on science policies

The select committeeThe select committee

Never mind the TV debates - MPs got a grilling last week from a panel of young scientists at the House of Commons, determined to hold them to account over their policies. Bexleyheath’s Kelly Chaplin was among them, writes Sarah Linney...

DAVID CAMERON may be doing his best to dodge the TV debates - but politicians had a far scarier foe to face last week in the form of the cream of Britain’s young scientists.

Ministers, shadow minister and backbench MPs were quizzed by eminent young people about a variety of science issues at the annual Voice of the Future event at the House of Commons – and among them was Bexleyheath’s Kelly Chaplin.

Miss Chaplin, 22, was on a panel quizzing science and universities minister Greg Clark, who is also the Conservative Tunbridge Wells MP, last Wednesday.

The session took place in the Boothroyd Room, used by select committees, with the young people taking their places around the horseshoe-shaped table where MPs normally sit.

The politicians instead found themselves in the witness box, being questioned instead of doing the questioning.

“It was really interesting and exciting,” said Miss Chaplin.

“It was amazing just being in the Houses of Parliament and seeing the daily goings-on, being in a room where MPs sit and seeing how they prepare for parliamentary sessions.”

The question Miss Chaplin had planned to ask concerned what the government was doing to encourage more women to study and follow careers in science and technology.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of time, she didn’t get to pose her question during the 40-minute session, but she felt it had already been adequately covered during the rest of the discussion.

“Mr Clark was really nice to everyone and very engaging,” Miss Chaplin said.

“He said it was a really important issue and progress was slow, but it was something that was moving forward, and that there were a number of policies they were looking at to close the gap.

“I think it’s an issue which is coming to the forefront of people’s minds.”

As a woman entering a traditionally male-dominated field, it’s not hard to see why Miss Chaplin might be thinking about issues of gender equality. But why, when progress has been made in so many fields, does she think there is still that imbalance in science?

“I think regardless of gender or race, everyone should have equal opportunities, but this is something people have struggled with for decades, right back to when a woman’s role was perceived to be being a housewife and having children,” she said.

“I think that subjects like science, technology and engineering are stereotypically associated with men, and it’s about being able to find a way for women to realise that those kinds of roles are for women as well. We need to promote those careers to them and make them see them as something they could go into.

“But it’s encouraging that more female students are taking subjects like engineering. Even a small increase is good.”

A former Erith School pupil, Miss Chaplin did well in her GCSEs but wanted to go into employment when she left school at 16.

But, unable to suppress her natural thirst for learning, she returned to education two years ago and is now studying for A-levels in biology, business studies and psychology, which she will sit in May and June.

She is fitting her study around her full-time job as an administrator at the Inspirational Development Group, learning under her own steam through distance learning organisation the National Extension College.

“It was always in the back of my mind to go back to study and do my A-levels,” said Miss Chaplin, who lives with parents Lindsey, an office manager, and Wayne, a supervisor at a manufacturing company.

“I was born with a natural curiosity, I guess, and I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world and wanted to know how things work.

“A lot of it is textbook work, and I have a tutor who is available by phone or by email. It’s quite a lot of work, but if you have the determination to do it then it spurs you on. I don’t have much of a social life at the moment.”

After her A-levels, she is hoping to pursue university study, possibly in the field of biosciences or biomedical sciences.

“I don’t want to leave work altogether – I like my job – and with the fees students have now, I can only see it as a positive if I can try to pay those off sooner,” she added.

“So I am looking into the different options I can take. Birkbeck College, which is part of the University of London, offers evening classes and a number of universities now offer part-time degrees.

“It will definitely be something around biology, but there are so many different aspects of biology, from forensics to genetics, that it’s quite hard to pick just one! A-level has opened up so many areas to me.”

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