A Small Scientist in a Big World

Creative ways of public engagement

Some research lends itself to public engagement far more naturally than others. If it involves cute animals in peril, exotic locations, explosions, illicit substances (not necessarily all at the same time) then it is not going to be difficult to gain publicity. For those of us who don’t work on baby monkeys trafficking drugs in a volcanic jungle it is easy to question who would be interested in a protein modification which may act in a pathway which may be relevant to a rare disease. In theory of course, thanks to the current emphasis placed on ‘translational’ research, we can all write impact statements justifying the relevance of our work. Actually explaining this to people outside of our narrow field is not so straightforward and puts many people off public engagement: “Of course I’d like to get involved but who would be interested? Where do I start?”

Who would be interested?

Potentially anyone. The content is far less important than how you communicate it. After all, you, your colleagues and your funding bodies all judge this to be a worthwhile problem so why wouldn’t others? An unfortunate side-effect of progressing as a researcher is losing a sense of perspective, the amazing becomes commonplace, even mundane. Ideas and tools seem routine and we quickly forget how they appear to non-specialists. From my own experience, talking with adults is a particularly good way to rediscover the excitement and preconceptions behind supposedly simple concepts. The result is a healthy blurring of certainties and the discovery of new avenues to explore. Working with children is a dangerously tempting way to wonder what would happen if you put a match in the flammables cabinet.

Where do I start?

There’s a fair chance you read the last paragraph thinking, ‘I know my work is interesting, the question is: what can I do about it?’ There are a host of barriers, real and perceived, to getting involved in public engagement and the aim is not to explore them all here. Instead I’d like to give some suggestions, based on an excellent recent talk at the Exeter Imaging Network ‘Imaging and Imagination: Creative ways of public engagement for microscopists’ given by Anne Osterrieder the Research and Science Communication Fellow at Oxford Brookes University. Note – you don’t need to be a microscopist or even a scientist to find these useful!!

  • Twitter – I was unsure whether to start the list with this. A show of hands at the talk revealed few people using Twitter and even fewer using it to communicate their work. Isn’t most of Twitter 140 character snippets of inanity, that even the CIA can’t be bothered to read, spewed into a vast cyberdump of virtual rubbish? But then the same could be said of much of the internet. Anne gave the example of how she and other researchers had been contacted through Twitter by American high school students who were researching ‘Organelle Wars’ - a presidential campaign in which the candidates were the nucleus, ribosomes and other internal organs of a cell. This provided a means for the students and their teacher to interact directly with expert cell biologists from around the world to inform their project. It certainly beats Wikipedia.
  • YouTube – continuing the social media theme, we were treated to funny but informative music videos and animations produced by Anne and her lab about their work. Just like Twitter, YouTube contains a lot of dross but it is increasingly used as an information service – type ‘How to [insert technique of interest]’ into the search bar... So if you are musical or a secret Spielberg why not use YouTube to reach a potentially vast range of publics.
  • Stand-up routine – if you’re bit of an extrovert and have always felt that the confines of the seminar room are restricting your true abilities then Science Showoff and Bright Club open mic nights for scientists are for you.
  • Poetry – Anne has worked with the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre to link poets with life scientists. The pairs learn from each other and produce combined pieces of work in each other’s media. The latest creations are currently being prepared to be put online, keep an eye on the website or follow @AnneOsterrieder or @BrookesPoetry for announcements.

I strongly recommend having a look at Anne’s website www.plantcellbiology.com and look at some of the categories which include ‘Fun science’, ‘Outreach projects’ and ‘Science arts and crafts’, there really is something to inspire us all.
This post is clearly heavily oriented towards science but if you are in another field – thank you for reading this far – then I hope that this has provided some ideas on how to bridge the gap between the ‘two cultures’ and generate novel and fruitful public engagement collaborations.

What Marmite can tell us about brain development – a night at Falmouth Café Scientifique

Falmouth Café Scientifique brings scientists face to face with an interested and informed audience with no lectern or Powerpoint to hide behind. The presenter has 20 minutes to put their case, the audience then has 20 minutes to refresh themselves at the bar whilst coming up with fiendish questions to fill the next 90…

Twenty minutes is tricky, it’s not so short that you can whizz through and excuse your lack of depth due to time constraints. It’s not long enough that you can afford to waste time with digressions or droning. All in all, it’s the sort of thing that we don’t like to admit is actually good for us - like visiting the dentist. What do I need to say and how can I do this without waffle or jargon? There’s really no better way to discover whether you understand your subject; that and a couple of dozen random questions. It’s a process that we regularly go through when composing the ‘lay abstract’ of a grant application but those words can seem trite when you read them in public.

My challenge was to convey the excitement and relevance of research into brain development, how one fertilised egg becomes billions of nerve cells with trillions of connections. My talk was titled ‘The Broken Brain: Too complex to mend?’ because I believe that in the rush to fund ‘translational’ research and find cures for nervous system disorders, the role of developmental biology in understanding how the brain gets wired up is crucially overlooked.

It’s nice to have a safety blanket and mine took the form of a model brain I would normally use for teaching anatomy. It was familiar, it gave the audience a tangible idea of what I was talking about, it made me look like I was in a neuroscientists’ production of Hamlet. Most importantly, holding it stopped the excessive hand waving to which I am prone, especially when nervous.

To illustrate the many brain pathways involved in performing a simple action, I tried a new way to get the audience involved. Roughly mapping positions the audience were sat in with a map of the brain, I joined up people sitting in the ‘visual cortex’ to the ‘thalamus’ to the ‘motor cortex’ back to the thalamus and so on…until it ended up with me surrounded by a tangle of wool which hopefully did a good job of showing the many areas that need to be connected for the action they had chosen (skipping). This is not the sort of thing I would normally contemplate doing but having had the usual crutch of Powerpoint removed there remained little point in dealing in half measures; it was interactivity or bust. And in the end it seemed to pay off, the audience joined in with good humour and the resulting tangle certainly proved my point about the brain’s complexity.

So where did the Marmite (other yeast-based spreads are available) come in? A large jar of it became a prop to clutch instead of the model brain. Embryonic nerves are guided to their targets by environmental cues that can be either attractive or repulsive. Like sandwich fillings, the same signal can be one or the other depending on the individual nerve cell that tastes it. Understanding these responses is at the heart of my research and potentially underlies future therapies to promote and direct nervous system repair.

The talk contained elements I had never tried before but at least it was entirely under my control. An open question and answer session holds no such certainties and naturally people’s questions about the brain were far more wide ranging: what is the effect of alcohol or cannabis? Are video games harmful? What causes consciousness? Can we turn the brain off and on again? (My fault for wearing an IT Crowd t-shirt).

Video games

Are video games harmful to the brain...?

Honesty is the best policy. If I could answer all those questions I would have a Nobel Prize (but hopefully still be writing this blog of course). People are happy to hear where the limits of knowledge lie - the challenge is to explain where these are and why, in clear language, without patronising. The problem is usually with the explanation not their comprehension. The other important point is that good public engagement is a two-way process so these sessions should involve the supposed expert researcher listening to people’s ideas and concerns as much as reeling off clever answers or mind-blowing facts (although a few anecdotes always come in handy). Having said all that what did I learn from the audience and the evening then?

  • Give the audience the benefit of the doubt. Questions featured alcohol during pregnancy, cannabis, omega-3 oils, video games, teenage behaviour – all topics that have me instinctively flinching and waiting for some ill-informed rant rehashing tabloid scare stories. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite my misgivings, most people are aware that a balanced diet is better than any faddish superfood, that most things are fine in moderation. They are interested in hearing a balanced appraisal: yes there is evidence that omega-3 can be beneficial for nerve cells but no, we don’t really know for how or when which is why we are studying it.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of social media. I was asked if I have a YouTube channel with the films we make of nerve cells in my lab. It had never occurred to me! (Incidentally this was reinforced a few days later by a talk about public engagement at the Exeter Imaging Network – more about that coming up in another blogpost). Anyway, I’m now determined to get my homepage in order.
  • If in doubt give it a go. Even with minutes to go before I spoke, I was still toying with the idea of chickening out with the wool wiring diagram. I’m glad I didn’t. It put people at their ease and managed to illustrate an important point at the same time.

They are keen to have a wide range of speakers down in Falmouth so if you are at all interested find them on Facebook, they have a small budget to help with travel costs and you are liberally fed and watered, although Marmite sandwiches were not on the menu.