Ata Rahman is a Digital Marketing Officer at Imperial who volunteered at the Great Exhibition Road Festival in 2022 and is joining us there again for 2023. We caught up with him to find out more about his experience.

 What attracted you to the idea of volunteering at the festival?  

A few reasons actually. One was because I'd actually heard about it before I worked for Imperial, and I always thought it was a really interesting idea, but I didn't actually know that much about the details of it. So, I thought what a great way to find out more about what it's actually all about and what goes on. I've always felt quite attached to South Kensington because I am a West Londoner and I used to go to the museums all the time. I remember seeing the event probably about five, six years ago, and I thought this looks really interesting and kind of wanted to get involved. I was really happy to know that Imperial was part of it, which I didn't find out until obviously two years after I started because they were covid years and it wasn't happening. I thought this was just kind of a great way to jump in. 

Secondly, I always like these sorts of volunteering opportunities at the College because you get to meet people you never work with. I think that it's really important to learn more about what goes on at the university because there's probably about 10 million things going on at Imperial at any given day! It's just a great way to get to know other people and build positive relationships across the college. Those are my main reasons for kind of jumping on board with it really.  

Would you recommend volunteering at the festival? 

Yes. You get to work with new people and I think it's a nice kind of way to see a lot of what goes on in the festival. 

There's lots of different roles that you can do. I did a few different things on the day, but I think there are even more and you do have time to wander and explore a little bit yourself. It's not just about doing stuff, you get breaks and you are able to pop in and see what's happening all around the place. 

It's more than just queue management or what people might consider slightly more mundane tasks. You get to see a lot of what happens while you're there. It's quite action –packed! 

I was on a tent where they were extracting DNA from strawberries, which was surprising that you could do. It made sense once they explained it, but it was quite good because I got to watch the whole activity while I was part of it. So, it's more than just sitting around. The staff at Imperial are really nice and if you want to do something different, they're really amenable to you trying out different things and shifting people around. 

So, it isn't you just sat in the same place all day, like you really do get to learn a lot. The sheer scale of things that are actually going on across the festival is just crazy, the amount of activities that are on. So you get to learn a lot as well.  

It's quite different from other volunteering opportunities when you're just kind of at the front, you know, handing out tickets or something like that. And they obviously do have those kinds of roles, but I think because of just where it's located everything is quite condensed in a sense. You always see a lot going on and you'll still have the chance to meet the people running the activities and ask them some questions. I think that makes it more interesting and worthwhile.  

Do you think there were any kind of skills that you developed through volunteering at the festival? 

I wouldn't necessarily say skills but I think knowledge. I work in central marketing, so a big part of my role is understanding the public perception of the college and the activities that we do and the courses that we have, so I think this was a really great way to gauge public interest and develop understanding around that. 

For example, how lots of people come to the festival knowing the museums, but they won't know Imperial or they'll have some knowledge of us, but they won't have that much. And it's really interesting to see what people's perceptions are of Imperial, but also science. That was a really interesting thing for me. 

I spoke to a lot of guests at the festival and just hearing reasons for why their kids were interested in science or their kids weren't interested in science. Or their own perceptions of science and the future of the UK and just their own understanding of South Ken and how the organizations all interact with each other and the different kinds of activities that were on offer was really interesting. 

I've kind of fed some of that back into my work. So I think from a staff perspective, you're able to, almost like cross section of the public that we try to engage, and you don't have to be in a marketing or a comms space role for that to be relevant because even if you're an academic, it could be really interesting to see what kind of things people are thinking about, particularly to try and do more outreach with schools and try to get more people into stem regardless of where they're from and you know, all the barriers that they have. So it's just really interesting to hear what things excite kids about science, what their parents know about science and what they know about options and what they understand about Imperial and what's the right route to study. 

That was really interesting from a staff perspective, because one of the biggest aims of the festival is to get local families involved who are from more disadvantaged backgrounds and things like that, get them interested in science. So yeah, it's definitely important. 

Do you have a particularly favourite moment from the day? 

So, there was a particular family that came, and they were from West London, not too far from where I live, actually. So, we got chatting for quite a while and they had a little boy who was a year one, and he came fully prepared, dressed in a lab coat and a bow tie ready to do all his experiments. And I just thought, oh my god, I'm obsessed with this. And he just had the time of his life doing the DNA experiment. And he was telling me all about the different things that he'd been doing that day. He'd been to the earthquake stimulator; he'd been to some of the medical labs that Imperial had that they were exhibiting. 

It's just such a joyous thing to watch someone of that age just really getting involved with the different things. And from the conversations that I had with his parents, they weren't from a particularly privileged background. Attended a local state school, you know, and they were just so grateful for this festival.  

I heard quite a lot from families on the day wish it was more publicised across the board. Because they would say they knew lots of other families that their kids go to school with or their friends that would want to attend something like this, but they didn't know until the last minute.  

So, I don’t know whether, there's more that we can do. I'm sure there's plenty of things in the pipeline, but also with it being the first year it was on, after two years of being off, it's probably, you know, there was only a limited amount properly that could happen. 

I think that that was really nice to see though, that there is interest out there, but just watching that kid and just watching him enjoy himself. Although I'm not a scientist myself, I'm a lifelong learner. In that sense, like I'm always studying something, and I think it's just really nice and pure to see someone of that age really just enjoying, having fun, extracting something from a pipette, from a strawberry. If not just really cute.