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Elaine Duncan and fellow singers
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STEM and singing

Alumna Elaine Duncan (Natural Sciences 2015) is a research scientist, but she is also a talented singer. When this year's Pied Piper Theatre Company's production of Grease had to be postponed, she and fellow performers put together this video at a distance to relive memories of a 2019 show, Hairspray, with the Cambridge Theatre Company.

Hairspray, 'Welcome to the 60's', performed by Chloe Hall, Abigail Mann, and Elaine Duncan (right)

Not only does she spend her spare time performing, she is also passionately dedicated to promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) careers to students from all backgrounds. We asked her about her work, her singing, and her hopes for the future...

How did you first become involved with performing in Cambridge? Were you already singing and dancing at school?

I've been dancing since I was three, and when I was 13 I took part in a local performance of Annie which got me properly hooked on musical theatre! I was a student at UK Theatre School in Glasgow, training for around 12 hours a week on top of my usual school work, performing in various shows and at events including the 2014 Commonwealth Festival. When I got to Cambridge I had to keep singing, so I took part in several shows as a student and was on the committee for the CU Show Choir.  Since I've graduated I've performed in Spring Awakening and Hairspray, and was in rehearsals for Grease (now postponed until 2021).

There aren’t too many female research scientists with such an active performance schedule on the side! How do you fit it all in? And what do your colleagues make of it?

I think I'm just very used to being busy! Most amateur shows in Cambridge rehearse for two or three evenings a week over the space of around four months, and it's just become part of my normal routine. I really miss it when I'm not actively involved in a show - rehearsals are where I see my friends, exercise and keep my mind occupied with learning songs or choreography.  That being said, it's taken me a while to learn my limits - it's not feasible to do something every evening of the week! The same thing applies even during lockdown: I'm at home every evening but I still need to take the time to relax and not fill every hour with virtual quizzes or choirs.

I've found there are a lot of scientists who are musically inclined, and there are a few who perform in bands that we all go to support which is awesome. My colleagues are great and (usually!) put up with my dancing in the lab - there's always some in the audience to see the final show!

You work as a STEM ambassador – what does that involve?

STEM Ambassadors are volunteers who work in science, technology, engineering or maths who aim to bridge the gap between the school curriculum and careers in these fields.  Research has suggested that by the age of 11, most young people have already decided that a career in science is "not for them", so the idea is really to show school students that a career in science isn't about learning facts from a textbook and to demonstrate the huge variety of career options in scientific fields. At my company, Charles River Laboratories, I've been involved in setting up a STEM Ambassador network for employees, creating resources and and liaising with local schools and science festivals. As a company we can reach a much greater number of children and schools than I can manage on my own!

Is there a dream role in a show you’d like to perform one day?

I love anything with a huge dance number, so being part of something like Legally Blonde, Chicago or Mamma Mia would be amazing! Honestly I've never been too fussed about lead roles - I really enjoy being part of a bigger group and have less stress about learning lines...

Do you see yourself staying as a research scientist? What would you like to achieve with your career?

At the moment I'm really happy where I am. I'm motivated by helping people, so I love working in the drug discovery industry even though it's sometimes frustrating to not be able to share the really exciting work we're doing. I don't have a master plan for where I see my career in the future, but I expect I'll always be involved with some form of science - even if it's not in the lab!

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