Category Archives: Public engagement
Science communication to the public – adults and school children, from primary up to A level – without jargon to discuss a subject.
OK OK, so perhaps that title is a bit over the top given that I haven’t published many blog posts at all as yet but here is the reason for that.
In this new uncertain world outside of the protective womb of academia, I am now left to fend for myself – gone is the umbilical vessel feeding my brain nutrition in the form of seminars and stimulating coffee break conversations with colleagues (when we weren’t talking about hummus or cheese). Gone is that warm and protective environment – so familiar by the time of completing my PhD and two research posts in the same institution, surrounded by friends and being shielded from the big bad “real world”. After spending so long studying and in the academic environment, I enjoyed the work and the nurturing and stimulating atmosphere but I also think that my skills can probably be better applied to science outside of research. It is hard to make the break and leave that familiarity behind – the real world demands a lot more. I have had a lot of positive feedback but am lacking in experience outside of academia and unfortunately, public engagement doesn’t count enough at the moment with the employment situation so terrible for all. Great – overqualified and under experienced!
Well, I am now putting that to rights and is the reason why it has taken so long to blog again – I have been trying to sort out moving to London from Manchester, my home for the last 10 years. It has taken a little while to sort out the kerfuffles and logistics of moving and there have been many things to arrange. But now, kind and generous friends have taken me in and are helping me settle in whilst I try to overcome the hurdle of being under experienced. Next week, I will start a month-long internship at Breakthrough Breast Cancer to work with their Senior Information Officer – this will get the ball rolling for making contacts, getting some experience and seeing the difference in research in an office-based context.
Now that I am settled down a bit more, I can finally get back to blogging! This was greatly helped by the entertaining talks and inspiration last night at the first ever UK Science Blog Prize arranged by the lovely people of Good Thinking and Soho Skeptics. My first weekend in London and I get to go to something so fun that soothed and cradled my inner geek – like coming home and being embraced. The ten shortlisted bloggers gave very entertaining talks that I hope they write up on their blogs as they were varied and contained a mixture of humour (in one case complete hilarity – thank you very much Dean Burnett of Brain Flapping), advice and tons of inspiration. We were entertained halfway through by the amazingly talented Helen Arney who regaled us with ukelele music and also had us all in fits of giggles – I think I have developed science crushes for both, Helen and Dean! And really, Ben Goldacre was spot on saying that all the entrants were remarkable in doing such excellent work in sharing their passion so effectively with others all for the love of science and for wanting to break down the “us and them” barriers between scientists and the public. This last point in particular was emphasised in the talk by one of the shortlisted candidates – the anonymous Neuroskeptic – that it is vital to explain science to all, not just science geeks, because it is a way for understanding the world around us which is increasingly vital as the influence of scientific progress impacts us all in our day to day lives. How can we debate the big issues discussed in politics without having some knowledge of their influence and impact? It is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly share and is the reason I got into public engagement in the first place and why I am now doing this blog and why I imagine a lot of other scientists pursue public engagement or science blogging.
Now, normally, this would be written up as, ‘but there can only be one winner!’ However, the judges were so torn between two of the shortlisted candidates that they decided to have joint winners as well as the three runners up! Many congratulations to the runners up:
* Oliver Childs, Henry Scowcroft and Kat Arney that together run the Cancer Research UK Science Update blog to help people deal with all that conflicting information out there about the causes, prevention or cause and simultaneous prevention of cancer that seems to change from week to week in the mainstream media (Kat Arney also has her own personal blog).
* Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science explains expertly and with humour anything from birds that use passwords to spiky beetle penises.
* Dorothy Bishop of BishopBlog discusses many different academic-related matters and more and is a champion of the ‘oldies’ (her words, not mine).
The two winners then that are now even more highly recommended given that they are prize winners and all:
* David Colquhoun of DC’s Improbable Science battles ‘quackery’ – pseudoscience and alternative medicine – without rest whilst being a Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.
* Suzi Gage of Sifting the Evidence where she has fast amassed a massive following as she explains statistics and epidemiology. All the more remarkable given that she is still completing her PhD and as David Colquhoun quipped – he and Suzi were likely the oldest and youngest entrants for the competition.
For a very brief moment whilst I was there, I did feel intimidated in the presence of such eloquent, prolific and popular writers, feeling that I have entered the blogging world too late. But then I came to realise that I can learn so much and only move on up from here. As Suzi said in her talk, one of her tips – there will be at least one person out there that will enjoy what you have written and that is important. That was always how I felt doing schools events, some days there would be classes that consisted mostly of kids that had a fun trip to learn science at the museum forced on them but there would always be at least one that was dazzled by it and had wonder in their eyes, and that really does make it worth all the hard work you put into doing such things. So, I have a lot to learn and a lot to do from here on in. I have a few exciting projects that I may keep under wraps for now (until I learn whether the proposals are successful or not) even though they are making me quite giddy with excitement! Now that I am settled, one of them is to get writing and I have a few topics lined up. However, if there is anything to do with brains, developmental biology, fruit fly research or other biology topics that you want to know, feel free to suggest and I shall try to tackle them, or point you in the direction of someone that has already done it very well. Looking forward to some exciting times ahead! 🙂
Here is a link to the Come Fly With Me poster (Perspectives poster) after which the blog is named. The info below was my application to the competition and got me selected as a finalist, what do you think about it?
Please describe your research in a way that is accessible to a non-scientist.
(250 words MAX.)
I am trying to understand how eyes are formed and how to cope with jet-lag (through examining the daily body clock) by studying fruit flies. I am trying to understand this by studying their genes. Astonishingly, there are a lot of similarities between human and fruit fly genes – the ‘master’ eye gene in fruit flies is 94% similar to the human gene! Animals’ genes are like their blueprint – they carry all the information required to make the animal. These blueprints are ‘read’ by a set of various proteins (‘labourers’ of the body), other sets of proteins then carry out the instructions from the genes. In different parts of the body, different proteins are used to read only the genes that are required for making that part of the body. For example, when an eye is being made, eye-making proteins read genes for making eyes but not genes that make legs. As the eyes are formed, there are lots of different genes and proteins (factors) involved at the same time and we only understand a handful of them at the moment. Sometimes, out of the several factors that are used in making eyes, some of them are sometimes used in making other parts of the body, for example brain cells. The main protein that I am investigating is used for making eyes and the part of the brain that forms the daily body clock. I am trying to see what other factors that make the eye also make the clock.
Why do you want to take part in perspectives?
(250 words MAX.)
I have been fortunate enough to have had several opportunities to try and spark my love of science in others during the course of my Ph.D. This has been through doing Researchers in Residence; demonstrating biology practicals to school groups and the public at Manchester Museum; setting up a ‘show-and-tell’ style exhibit at Manchester Museum for the ‘Darwin Extra Big Saturday’ event and demonstrating the intricacies of the brain to primary school children and at a train station as part of the ‘Brain Bus’. I think that it is important to make science accessible to people so that they know and understand it. As my research is sponsored by a publically funded research council, I also believe that the public have a right to know about current research that is, ultimately, funded by them. Perspectives is another fantastic opportunity to talk to the public about science and my own research.
What impact does your research area have on society (direct and/or indirect)?
(250 words MAX.)
Fruit flies are a popular and widely researched animal in life sciences. There are some remarkable similarities in how flies and humans function at the level of cells and within the cell. This high degree of similarity means that research on fruit flies can shows us how humans develop, this helps us understand how diseases start and progress when something goes wrong in the normal process. This can potentially have a massive impact on society down the line.
My research is contributing to a full comprehension of how genes work. Despite having a vast amount of information today about gene and protein interactions, we are still only scratching at the surface and new advances continue to be made. Strengthening this foundation is important to have a strong grasp on how genes and proteins work together as a network. The human genome has been sequenced but we still only understand a minute fraction of the data due to a lack of full insight about what is contained within. This is essential for a full understanding of genetic disorders and searching for targeted therapies. Thorough comprehension of the genetic basis for a disorder can aid drug development, allowing it to be targeted to the individual needs of the patient.
Understanding the body clock is becoming a vital issue as health effects caused by jet-lag and shift work (that disrupt the body clock) have only just begun to be appreciated. The cost of these to the individual and to society may be phenomenal.
How has your research (or research area) been shaped by society?
(250 words MAX.)
Using the fruit fly as the research animal of choice is in line with government policy to reduce, refine and replace the use of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish where possible in scientific research. Genetic studies in flies are currently being used to learn about a wide variety of issues that have become more pertinent in recent years; for example, drug addiction, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease can all be studied in fruit flies! Given the breadth of research possible in fruit flies and the need to replace higher animal models where possible, fruit fly research is a valuable alternative.
Another instance of society influencing research is down to our 24-hour lifestyles in the Western world that are becoming more and more prevalent. This leads to a large proportion of the work force doing shift work or disrupting their body clock for leisure. This in turn will have an ever greater impact on the costs incurred by the NHS in treating the outcomes of these lifestyles. These lifestyles, therefore, are certainly dictating the sort of research that is required today.