Former plant ecology student Dr Annalisa Alexander now cultivates talented young people wherever they may be – helped by Imperial’s talented undergraduates.

Dr Annalisa Alexander and her green van outside the  Outreach classroom.
Looking out: Dr Annalisa Alexander and her green van outside the Outreach classroom.

Words: Megan Welford / Photography: Emli Bendixen 

The Imperial Outreach team is on the brink of world domination. It has 700 schools on its books, astronaut Helen Sharman in its crew and a bright-green van ready to bring Imperial science to the masses. 

But it wasn’t always this way. When Head of Outreach Dr Annalisa Alexander (PhD 2004) joined the Schools Liaison Office in 2004, there was just one programme – the Pimlico Connection, a partnership with a local school. Now there are mentoring programmes, tutoring, numerous school partnerships, a summer school, science activities in schools, a dedicated lab, a community space… and the van, of course.

As a doctor of plant ecology, Alexander was perhaps just the right person to grow Imperial’s outreach. Although she had planned an academic career, when her PhD funding ran out in 2003 she took a job in Imperial’s newly founded Volunteering Centre – and found her passion. “I discovered all these talented students who were not only academically gifted but wanted to share their knowledge. They were asking, ‘How can I go and teach maths in schools?’” So, when the liaison job came up, she grabbed it. “It’s not so different from plants – outreach is like a greenhouse. We have a hunger for nurturing things carefully, watching them grow.”

Alexander cultivates using a sense of wonder. “As a scientist myself, I know how important and exciting it is to study science, but kids don’t always see that. When final-year engineering students go into A-level maths classes, kids are asking, ‘What’s the point of imaginary numbers?’ The student can say, ‘Well, we use it for wing design’, and straight away that’s more engaging. You start the year with pupils who aren’t that interested, but by March they’re flying. And peer pressure is very strong for teenagers, so we work with teachers to pull under-performing students into the spotlight and see what they can do. It’s about raising aspiration.”

She gives the example of one student who came from a school in Holland Park, and a family in which no-one had gone to university – and who now works at CERN. “He was a quiet student but very bright and the school didn’t know what to do with him. He wasn’t getting the right nourishment. We tutored him and he ended up coming to study particle physics at Imperial before going to CERN. I smile when I think of it.”

Alexander says she is “insanely proud” of Imperial’s outreach. “My pleasure now is that students who came through our programmes come back to us and say they want to do mentoring. We’re forming a big outreach family.”

It’s a growing experience for the Imperial students who volunteer, too. “They might know chemistry and be very bright, but being able to translate that for kids is quite a skill.”

As well as having its own “incredible spaces” for school pupils aged five to 18 – the Wohl Reach Out Lab at the South Kensington Campus and the Reach Out Makerspace at the White City Campus – the Outreach team has also been able to provide a wealth of resources for families to learn at home during the recent lockdown period. For instance, Reach Out Reporter and Reach Out Continuing Professional Development offer an online primary school science news service and 30 pre-prepared courses for teaching five- to 11-year-olds.

“But as soon as we can we’re looking forward to jumping in the van and getting back out there,” says Alexander. “We’re bringing outreach to your space, saying, ‘We’re Imperial, we do science and we’re really cool.’”

Dr Annalisa Alexander is Head of Outreach at Imperial College London.