Fifteen to One | Dr Alexa Ruppertsberg

“I’m proud of it because it’s the outcome of what I love to do: creating new things, going where nobody has been before, defining what that could be, bringing people together, making connections.”

Fifteen to One | Dr Alexa Ruppertsberg. April 2023

In the run-up to Be Curious on 13 May – one of the highlights of the University calendar – Public Engagement Team Leader Dr Alexa Ruppertsberg reveals the exciting plans in store for this year’s eagerly anticipated instalment of the hugely popular research showcase and the inspiration behind her work. 

Discover the vital community engagement undertaken across the University and the vision, passion, belief and tenacity that drives our researchers to make a positive impact on people’s lives. 

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

Together with my team, I’m looking after Public Engagement with Research and my job is to make research relevant in people’s lives. I’m leading on embedding a culture of engagement, collaborative learning and experimentation to foster
transformative public engagement with Leeds research.

What really impresses you about Leeds?

I’m impressed by its people. The enthusiasm and the passion of people to do something with purpose and for the good of society is something I treasure very much. And rather selfishly, I’m impressed by the breadth of disciplines at Leeds, which means I’m guaranteed to always learn something new.

What question have you most frequently been asked in your role?

Can you help us with publicising the event?! 

What are you most looking forward to working on?

I’m always looking forward to working on something new – that’s the researcher in me, I suppose. That work ranges from the strategic to the very hands-on. The latter brings with it a touch of realism that I find is necessary to balance the ambitions. 

On a strategic level, I’m involved in developing our community engagement work across the institution together with colleagues from almost all services, which is exciting as we test a different kind of leadership model. I hope we can bring a more democratic and power-sharing kind of working to our community engagement.

On the hands-on side, we used the past two years to develop a whole portfolio around Be Curious – the annual open event showcasing the University’s world-changing research to the wider public – from online evening short talks (Be Curious: Lates), children’s books (Be Curious: Read) and maker kits about research topics (Be Curious: Make) to research animations (Be Curious: Create). But the highlight is really Be Curious: Live – the one day a year when we open the doors for families to discover some of the incredible research that goes on here. 

Be Curious sounds amazing! What can we expect from this year’s showcase?

Researchers have put forward great ideas that make the programme so diverse, so we hope there’s something for everyone. We always aim to champion the many ways researchers have an impact on lives, especially for those living in Leeds. Sustainability drives many of the activities in Parkinson Court giving curious minds a way to get involved in their futures. On the mezzanine level, people can explore how the physical sciences help develop new technologies and ideas. In the Michael Sadler Building, activities demonstrate the extensive way researchers contribute to improving health outcomes and treatment of diseases. 

The galleries and archives across the campus bring their exhibitions to life with hands-on workshops showcasing their spaces and the role they play in the cultural scene in Leeds; Stage@Leeds joins us with taster sessions for their Young Company Theatre group. And – fingers crossed – there will be a live link to an Arctic research vessel!   

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career?

It started with my father, who instilled a passion for learning and curiosity, and then my PhD supervisor, who created – in my view – the best possible research environment ever. While I don’t have my own research group, I nevertheless aim to create environments in which people can grow and blossom. The best possible thing any of us can do is to help others to be the best they can be. 

We all have that professional or personal achievement we’re incredibly proud of – can you tell us yours?

I’m proud of my son and I delude myself that I had some influence on him and it’s not just the genes! I’m also proud of my husband – still married after all these years – and I built a life and career in a foreign country speaking a different language, like many other colleagues. 

Professionally, there’s pride in having been able to lead public engagement from grassroots movement to established ongoing service function here at Leeds. If you compare this to other universities, some of my peers weren’t that lucky; many are still on fixed-term contracts. I’m proud of it because it’s the outcome of what I love to do: creating new things, going where nobody has been before, defining what that could be, bringing people together, making connections.

I’m proud that along the way we’ve created a brand with Be Curious – that we livestream research talks worldwide, that we publish children’s books, that Be Curious got shortlisted at the Child Friendly Leeds Awards, that our academics win prizes for their engagement projects or get public engagement champion grants. That’s just a consequence of vision, passion, belief, tenacity and a good portion of luck! 

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now?

I didn’t think about a ‘career’! Perhaps that’s a mistake, but the truth is that it was always just the next step given the circumstances and opportunities at the time. My Maths professor once asked me what I was aiming for in life. He expected some post or job role. I said I wanted to be happy and that’s still true today. It’s proven to be a good compass.

If you didn’t work in HE, what would have been your chosen career?

All I knew was that I wanted to study biochemistry. What I wanted to do with that, I had no clue. It was just so interesting. I didn’t get into biochemistry, so settled for biology and it’s been a godsend, as it turned out I have a dislike for being in a lab! I became a psychophysicist studying human visual perception. The only other idea I had was to become an opera singer. I can sing but I have never even sung in a choir, so it was a bit of a bizarre idea! 

What are your campus highlights?

I’ve worked on out-of-town campuses, in universities spread across a town, in hospitals and research-only institutions, but being on a campus in the city is special because I feel it keeps you grounded and better connected to the communities we serve. 

What’s your favourite location on campus?

I love the garden near Roger Stevens. When I used to work in the Faculty of Medicine and Health in Worsley, I would take the path through the garden to look what was growing at the time. I distinctly remember the smell of cabbage, which gave me a sensation of productivity. No idea why!

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit?

After 12 years at the University, there are still white spots on my map! I’ve never been to the Institute for Transport Studies.

What do you do to relax away from University life?

As a family, we walk. If I lived closer to mountains, I would ski more often, but given where we are it’s once a year only! Since the pandemic, I’m a lot more involved in my garden and I also started with HIIT (high intensity interval training), which I still keep doing three times a week. I’m attributing my good mental wellbeing to those little bursts of exercise. I didn’t believe this would have much of an impact, but I’m now totally convinced and am on a mission to encourage others to give it a try! 

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?

I don’t have a favourite destination; I like to see unfamiliar places, preferably with mountains. Japan and Patagonia are still on the bucket list.

What’s your random claim to fame?

Fame with a little ‘f’ with our visitors to Be Curious: Live, who don’t know me but are impacted by my ideas. I’m more than content when a six-year-old tells me that he had the best day of his life, or an eight-year-old says she wants to come to the University every day. Job done! 

Be Curious 2023 | Full programme

See the full Be Curious 2023 programme, which features more than 40 interactive stalls and activities, from marvellous microbes, robots and chocolate trials to DIY spell books and a brain booth!

Be Curious is also on Twitter! Organisers of the annual event use the site to showcase the University’s world-changing research to the wider public. Its sister site – @UniLeedsEngage – has undergone a makeover. Now called UoL Public Engagement, it will focus on how the PE team support our researchers in the wider community. 

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