Dr Annalisa Alexander, Head of Outreach at Imperial, has been awarded the President’s Medal for Excellence in Societal Engagement.
The winners of this year’s awards have worked tirelessly to inspire others, engage the public, and bring our research into the real world Professor Maggie Dallman Associate Provost (Academic Partnerships)
At the helm of the College’s Outreach team since 2013, Annalisa is responsible for overseeing the delivery exciting and inspiring activities for young people from all backgrounds.
Her team works with schools, colleges and community organisations to inspire, raise aspirations, stimulate interest in STEM subjects and support attainment from primary school through to A-Levels by working with pupils directly and supporting teaching staff.
The President’s Medal is given out as part of the College’s annual President's Awards for Excellence in Societal Engagement. These awards celebrate staff, students and community partners who have gone the extra mile to bring the College’s work to the wider public. Awardees judged to have made particularly exceptional contributions are selected to receive the President’s Medal for Excellence in Societal Engagement.
Professor Maggie Dallman said: “The winners of this year’s awards have worked tirelessly to inspire others, engage the public, and bring our research into the real world. They represent Imperial at its best. Their passion and dedication is inspiring and they are thoroughly deserving of this recognition."
The Societal Engagement awards form part of the President’s Awards for Excellence programme, with similar prizes also being given for research and education.
Discovering a passion
Annalisa joined the College in 1999 to undertake a PhD in plant ecology. While she was writing up, she got a job at Imperial’s Volunteer Centre as an administrator, organising ways for students to make a difference in the community. Despite originally being convinced that she wanted to pursue a career in academia, it was there that she discovered her passion.
“I just really loved what I was doing. It felt really meaningful, to be able to give something back and make a difference. I didn’t want to stop doing that and just go back to research. So a year later when a job cropped up in the School’s Liaison Office, I jumped at the chance.”
Annalisa became responsible for setting up in-school science tutoring programmes with Imperial students for pupils at underperforming schools, to enable them to raise their attainment in maths, physics, biology, and chemistry. These programmes had an extremely positive impact on the pupils and their progression. Annalisa explained: “We started to see young people who have been through these programmes getting into Imperial, and wanting to volunteer themselves. That’s when you can see the enduring impact that this work has – it’s what has always inspired me.”
Since then Annalisa has developed and managed a vast collection of programmes, including e-mentoring, summer schools, and the INSPIRE PGCE training delivered in partnership with Canterbury Christ Church University. She became Head of Outreach in 2013.
She said: “I am constantly in awe of how willing Imperial students are to give their time to help others. They work so hard, and are so driven, and yet I am never short of student volunteers.”
Annalisa has seen many changes since she began her career. Previously focussing almost exclusively on secondary schools, her team now run many programmes with primary-aged children, to inspire an interest in science at a young age.
“When children find something frustrating or boring they quickly switch off from it,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to reach them while they’re still young, and capture their imagination. We’ve even done sessions in the nursery!”
Today outreach and societal engagement has become central to the College’s mission. Sharing the wonder and importance of the College’s work is now a core pillar of Imperial’s strategy. Annalisa said: “Imperial staff and students have always done this sort of thing, but it was historically done on the side, sometimes without anyone even knowing. Now it is championed at Imperial at the highest level, which is a really positive change. But that passion has always been there.”
The opening of the Wohl Reach Out Lab in 2010 represented a step-change for the Outreach team, Annalisa said. A first for the sector at the time, it provided a dedicated, state-of-the-art laboratory to deliver educational activities for young people. Thousands of school students have since visited the lab to take part in hands-on STEM activities.
“Suddenly we had this incredible inspiring space that was safe for children and that was entirely ours, we didn’t have to beg, steal or borrow labs from across the campus every time we wanted to bring a group of young people in. It meant we could do so much more.
“Seeing the Reach Out Lab full of excited children, watching it click for them, is amazing. Sometimes I stand at the back of the room just to absorb the atmosphere!”
The Invention Rooms at White City – the College’s pioneering community innovation space which opened last year – presents new opportunities for the team. It houses the Reach Out Makerspace, which includes cutting-edge equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and wood and metalworking machinery, with a range of programmes designed to help young people embrace making.
Annalisa said: “It’s an opportunity for us to do something completely different. It lets us do really innovative off-curriculum work that young people simply wouldn’t have the opportunity to do otherwise – like prototyping, and making their own ideas a reality.”
“It’s all about helping young people to feel confident and empowered. They don’t have to go on to be Imperial students, or scientists. I just want to help young people be excited about science, and see the potential in themselves.”
Speaking about winning the President’s Medal for Excellence in Societal Engagement, Annalisa said: “I am totally humbled and honoured to receive this award. But everything I do I see as a team effort. I’m so proud of everything we’ve achieved together.”
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