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Public engagement, Red blood cells, Stem cells

The science behind the headlines

The Museum of Natural History in Oxford runs many activities to try and engage the public with scientific research, including their regular ‘Super Science Saturdays’ events. Last autumn, as part of a special themed Super Science Saturday called ‘Behind The Headlines’, a team of scientists from Roger Patient’s lab in the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit created a series of different activities to explain the science behind the headline: ‘How tiny fish could hold the key to blood cancer treatment’. In this blog, DPhil student Tomasz Dobrzycki (who helped to create and deliver the activities) describes just how rewarding the event was, and how important he believes it is to make the time and effort to communicate our research to non-academic audiences.

When I think of the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, I picture its extremely rich collections and amaze at its educational value. It is no wonder the Museum is a popular leisure choice for students and visitors. You can easily spend a whole day there, discovering the history of life on Earth, but even half an hour of admiring beautiful displays of genuine fossils or cleverly made models provides a valuable experience and leaves a piece of knowledge in a curious mind.

However, every time I go there, I realised that the visitors are not only of university age or older – the Museum attracts a lot of children! And it cannot be just the famous Dodo, brought to celebrity status by the “Ice Age” animation movie. How can such a place, full of scientific evidence and academic knowledge, keep visitors under 12 entertained? Can science be entertaining at all?

This was the question we faced when our team from Roger Patient’s lab at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (MRC WIMM) decided to participate in an outreach event at the Museum of Natural History. The Museum regularly hosts “Super Science Saturdays”, which are mainly aimed at primary school children. These whole-day events always revolve around one theme and feature special activities for the visitors. When we discovered that the theme for 26th November was “Science behind the headlines”, we thought we could use our research to explain some of the science behind the recently published headline: “Tiny fish could hold key to blood cancer treatment”.

But we could not simply bring our beautiful confocal images and gene expression plots to the public and expect 9-year-olds to be excited. We had to come up with an activity that will entertain children, but also explain the key concepts of our work to adults. After two months of brainstorming and discussing ideas, we were ready to go.

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The team in action!

 

On the day, our team of eight needed around one hour to set everything up. Then, throughout the day, visitors had a chance to participate in one (or more) of our activities. Visitors not wishing to engage in a lengthy conversation with us could just look down a microscope to admire a beating heart and a flowing blood in zebrafish larvae which were 1-5 days old.

The more adventurous discoverers grabbed one of our “heart passports”, which tasked them to find out which animals had the natural ability to repair heart injuries. The answers were located among museum collections, next to the models of animals in question. They included such beautiful species as the black bear, an eagle or a shark.

Other visitors who preferred to stay at our table had the chance to make their own model of blood by mixing small coloured spheres in a cup. Each coloured sphere represented one a specific type of blood cell: red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets or blood stem cells. After completing the passports or the blood making, the successful participants were rewarded with zebrafish stickers.

The whole event included 21 other stalls coming from a variety of departments within the University of Oxford. There were over 100 people running the activities! I am sure that all those involved in the organisation of the event had as fantastic a day as the 2,500 visitors, around half of which were at school age. When you hear from children: “This is so fascinating!”, “You are doing a great job” or “I want to be a scientist one day!”, it gives your work a whole new meaning. But when you hear “I could play here all day!” or “Can we stay a little more?”, you also know you have done a good job engaging the public and communicating your research.

For them, it may have been a day of running around looking for animals or mixing coloured balls in a cup, butut if the spark has lit a little flame of curiosity, maybe you have just inspired the next generation of scientists.

Communicating our science to public is not only fun and rewarding, it  is also important to let people know that our funding, often coming from public money, is being spent on worthy causes. The opportunities are endless! If you are a WIMM scientist and have an idea for an event or would simply like to get involved, or if you’re outside the University but would like to know more about the work that we do, please get in touch with Bryony, the Public Engagement and Communications Officer at the WIMM!

Post edited by Emma Mee Hayes.

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