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Lifestyle

Sarah Chew: TechFest managing director and driving force has helped turn it into an international success

The annual Aberdeen event is celebrating 30 years of bringing science and technology to life for new generations.
Neil Drysdale
Sarah Chew has been instrumental in the success of TechFest. Picture Heather fowlie.
Sarah Chew has been instrumental in the success of TechFest. Picture Heather fowlie.

It was an event which came into being when mobile phones were the size of a brick and iPads and artificial intelligence remained the stuff of science fiction.

And it had to tackle resistance from chauvinists and traditionalists who argued that science, technology, engineering and mathematics were subjects best left to men.

Yet, right from the outset, TechFest was determined to shatter these prejudices and misconceptions by providing an annual showcase in Aberdeen to spark the imagination of youngsters all over the north east and further afield.

And, 30 years after it was launched, managing director Sarah Chew is continuing to send out the message that this festival has no boundaries or barriers, by organising a wonderfully eclectic programme with something for everybody on the schedule.

She wasn’t there at the very start, but has been one of the driving forces behind its development into a key feature of the city’s events itinerary – and Sarah will be at the forefront when the 2023 activities commence tomorrow until November 12.

Sarah Chew has been involved with TechFest for the last decade. Pic: The Big Partnership.

As one of life’s natural enthusiasts, she talks compellingly about the power of collaboration and drawing strength from the input of her colleagues.

A festival on this scale couldn’t be staged and arranged by any one person, let alone survive a pandemic, and still be thriving. But it also wouldn’t be flourishing if Sarah wasn’t one of those beetle-browed individuals who is passionate about discovering new pieces of knowledge and shedding light where there used to be darkness.

‘I have an inbuilt curiosity’

She told me: “I’ve had the privilege of working at TechFest for more than 10 years. My love of science comes from an inbuilt curiosity, but I think the reason why I love TechFest is the way we share science.

“My first involvement came in 1998 when I worked for Live Wire Productions as one of my first roles in science communications and I presented a workshop at TechFest’s schools festival. In those days, it was held at the old Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre. I loved it: working with the schools and the other presenters from organisations all coming together under the TechFest umbrella.

“I am now the managing director of TechFest, which is a STEM charity, and I lead a brilliant team of 10 people.”

Pictured is Dr Ken performing his show with Sarah Chew.

“Celebrating 30 years is a huge milestone for festivals and we are proud to be one of the family of science festivals in Scotland.

“We now run a year-round programme of events, but the festival is still at the heart of what we do and we love hearing anecdotal stories about children and teenagers who came to TechFest in the 90s and who are bringing their own children and grandchildren, and telling us their memories of visits to previous festivals.

Covid spread TechFest’s reach

“One of the positive things that emerged from the pandemic was the ability to have online events where, previously, everything was in person.

“In 2020, we still ran the festival during lockdown, but the fact it was digital actually gave us access to a really wide range of speakers and presenters from all over the world, whom it wouldn’t have been possible to bring to Aberdeen in person. We have retained this element for a few of the events to make sure we have an interesting mix.”

There’s an A-Z of topics in the 2023 roster and, even as Sarah mentioned a few of the different talks, discussions and other events on the menu, it was clear she realises visitors don’t just have to be educated, but enthused and entertained as well.

She said: “I think this year’s programme has a really diverse range of topics and events that really highlights how much STEM education has changed over the years.

“We would never have seen AI as a subject matter until recent years and forensic science, which is always a popular subject, has of course advanced significantly with the development of new technologies.

There is something for everybody

“This is what makes TechFest such a fun and interesting festival, with new and amazing discoveries to explore every time. We have put together a varied programme which is aimed at all ages. There is lots for children to get involved with, but there are plenty of events for adults to enjoy and spend an hour learning or debating a new subject.

“We have more than 25 fun workshops, lectures and hands-on experiments this year which are aimed at children, teenagers and adults alike.

TechFest to commemorate the moon landing’s 50th anniversary

“We have built up a reputation over the years which allows us to attract a wide range of world-renowned speakers, including leading scientists who will share their real-life work and research. We have a particular focus on forensic science, with several events with experts in this field.

“There are also things like behind-the-scenes tours at the National Decommissioning Centre in Newburgh and at Fierce Beer’s brewery, a Q&A session with an astronaut and our ever-popular Family Activity Day at Aberdeen University on November 5.

The north-east is crucial in science

“Other events throughout the festival include Pokemon, cyber safety, wildlife photography, artificial intelligence, gravitational waves, insomnia, volcanoes in Antarctica and reusing waste!

“I’m excited about the programme because it has, I think, something for everyone from the family activity weekend right through to talks and workshops for all ages, celebrating some of the impact the north-east brings to the Scottish STEM sector.”

More than 10,000 pupils take part in popular north-east Stem festival

 

Sarah is convinced that the gradual expansion from modest beginnings to the creation of an annual family of programmes has been the most exciting and significant change as the years have passed. But she’s still as driven and determined as ever.

As she said: “We need to meet the audiences at the best time of year so our schools programme in May and our main festival in November is all designed to allow as many people to take part as possible, and to avoid exams and holidays.

Sarah Chew gets creative with youngsters in Barra. Supplied by TechFest.

Helping to inspire next generation

“As a festival, we can also help to raise awareness for the impact which women have in STEM in Scotland, but also the amazing work that is happening at research institutes and universities here in the region, with organisations such as Novabiotics and Professor Lorna Dawson from the James Hutton Institute.

“If we can help to inspire the next generation, and girls in particular, to follow a career which uses the huge range of STEM skills, then we have done our job well.”

Lorna Dawson: Aberdeen professor’s soil searching has brought her prominence in the courtroom and on the page

None of this has happened by accident. On the contrary, Sarah is proud of how she and her colleagues have the attitude that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.

She said: “I am forever grateful to the team we have at TechFest – this programme has a lot of fingerprints on it as we all work hard to ensure it’s the best we can make it.

“I love seeing the audience joining us for the festival every year with many coming back night after night to enjoy our amazing speakers. I feel like we really get to know everyone, and of course, we are always asking them what else they would like us to bring. It’s hard work but very rewarding.

Bringing science into the community

“Some events stay with you for a long time, such as a talk which Professor Dame Sue Black gave on grave clearing in Kosovo. She was awarded an OBE for leading the forensic anthropology for the British Forensic team there [after the Balkans War].

The Dame who is making history come alive with macabre tales written in bone

“We also love getting involved in other events, such as taking part in the Celebrate Aberdeen parade down Union Street and taking our STEM activities to community events to help spread the word about TechFest’s work and the science festival.

“We are incredibly grateful to our sponsors and supporters, who not only provide the funding to make this all possible and help us to offer admission at just £2 – or free, in some cases – but volunteer their time to support the massive programme of events.”

You can book tickets now at:

techfest.org.uk/festival/2023-festival

School pupils TechFest
Aberdeen pupils in S3 to S6 were encouraged to share their views about the future of Aberdeen. Image: TechFest.

FIVE QS FOR SARAH CHEW

  1. What book are you reading? The Cassandra Complex by Holly Smale.
  2. Who’s your hero/heroine? My mum.
  3. Do you speak any foreign languages? Very broken French!
  4. What’s your favourite music/band? It changes as I am in different phases. At the moment I am listening to [American singer-songwriter] Lauren Daigle.
  5. What’s your most treasured possession? My memories.