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Lecturer who puts the fun into science is UKs first chemist to become Professor in leading communications role

From calculating how many eggs Spiderman needs for breakfast, to busking his own brand of street science, Mark Lorch inspires and entertains, bringing the subject to life.

From calculating how many eggs Spiderman needs for breakfast, to busking his own brand of street science, Mark Lorch inspires and entertains, bringing the subject to life.

Now, he has been made a Professor of Science Communication and Public Engagement at the University of Hull.

Professor Lorch is one of only a few scientists in the country with this title, between them they have backgrounds in biology, physics and technology, making him the first chemist to hold the title. He said:

I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to play a lead role in the science communication community. I do this because it’s fun, it’s fabulously enjoyable job and I get to go out and entertain and enthuse people and I find it incredibly rewarding and wonderful to have been given the opportunity to do this in such a senior role.

Hull University wants to be a hub for education and also from there, linking to industry, so it is critical that people see us as an open and accessible place. We want people to come onto campus and enjoy the experience.

There are only a handful of professors of Science Communication in the country so it is a real mark that the university is taking this seriously.

Professor Lorch came to the University 10 years ago in a research role which led him to becoming a lecturer, he then became a senior lecturer, and three years ago became the Assistant Dean for Engagement in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

One of his most recent academic projects have involved working with chemistry students using virtual reality building game Minecraft to teach young scientists of the future.

They created a Minecraft world, called MolCraft, which aims to help youngsters learn about the world of chemistry, including the structure of proteins and chemicals.

The world, allows youngsters to roam around looking at molecular structures which have been specially built by students at the University. Professor Lorch said:

This was a great project to get students involved in. MolCraft has been visited from all over the world, it has had thousands of downloads and visits to the server. It provides a remarkable setting to teach chemistry. I really enjoy visiting the server and giving impromptu chemistry lessons the other players of the game.

As well as his academic role, Professor Lorch has been heavily involved in science outreach.

He started the Beverley Science Café five years ago, which is still ongoing and sees scientists give informal talks in a café-style settings to engage the public.

He has also developed the University’s Christmas Lecture, which has evolved and now sees thousands of children public attend the University each Christmas for lectures on different topics.

The University’s annual Science Festival has also grown in size and stature under Professor Lorch. Around 6,000 people visited the campus this year for the free event. He said:

As well as carrying on the work we are doing, we want to support the growing industry in the region to inspire people to take up careers in science and technology. We have the likes of Siemens investing heavily in the region, three University Technical Colleges, with all these opportunities for training and education, and I see part of my role is to inspire people to take up these opportunities.

But just as importantly, I want people to appreciate science and technology in its own right, in the way people would go to a music concert to appreciate the music. I want them to go to science events to just enjoy the science.

One of the ways Professor Lorch does this is through taking science to the streets.

He and a team from the University spend time busking in the streets, entertaining members of the public. Professor Lorch said:

It is one of my favourite things to do, because you reach so many people. People often come to science events because they are interested in science, but busking is something very different. You can approach someone on the street and show them something very quickly and you can instantly turn their reaction on its head. They can go from not interested to ‘oh wow’ show me some more. There are people who initially say they are too busy to stop that then then end up getting quite engrossed in what we have to show.

Professor Lorch is also an accomplished author in his field. He is the most read academic on The Conversation, out of more than 30,000, with almost 8 million views to his articles to date.

He has also had a regular blog for the Guardian, a column in the New Humanist and regularly takes part in expert Q&As for BBC Focus.

With the ability to talk to audiences of every age, his engaging manner is also getting him noticed in the publishing world.

His fun ‘Superhero Science’ has seen the Royal Society of Chemistry commission a book about Spiderman’s breakfast. Dr Lorch said:

I had just watched the Spiderman film and thought that he produced a huge amount of spider silk which needs a huge amount of protein, so I got thinking about where he gets all that protein from. So I worked out how much he would need for his breakfast for one scene.

Working out the fall distance and the forces involved, as well as how thick the spider silk would need to be, Professor Lorch was able to calculate how much protein Spiderman would need.

“For his breakfast for just that scene, he would have needed about 900 eggs,” said Professor Lorch, who is also about to have a book published which he and other academics wrote in one weekend at the Manchester Science Festival.

The University, under Professor Lorch, will begin running a Masters degree programme in Science Communication and Public Engagement from September 2017, which will incorporate modules in the drama department so students can learn about performance, as well as creative writing placements. Professor Lorch said:

There is a real appetite for science in the region. The city is getting attention, there is a growing awareness of Hull and I am privileged to be a part of this. I am setting my sights high.

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Director of Education, Sarah Robertson, said:

It is great news that a chemist has been given this opportunity. We have worked with Mark for a number of years on innovative ways of teaching chemistry, not least his MolCraft project. He has also been one of our most staunch advocates in reflecting on how best to communicate science in light of our Public Attitudes to Chemistry survey.

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