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Public engagement, Red blood cells, The immune system, Viruses

Building a blood factory

On 29 September the University put on its largest-ever public engagement activity across several locations and well into the evening.  The Curiosity Carnival aimed to engage people from all over Oxford in the exciting and varied research that goes on within the University.  Dannielle Wellington, a postdoc in the Dong lab, spent the last 4 months organising one of the highlights of the night – The Blood Factory.  In this piece she tells us more about what it was like to be involved.

 

Photo credit: Ian Wallman

I initially volunteered to participate in the Curiosity Carnival by responding to an email from Emma O’Brien (RDM Public Engagement and Communications Officer) asking for people to help design activities.  Having already designed an activity for the MRC Festival of Research and volunteered at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition this year, I knew how fun and interesting public engagement at the University could be. At the first meeting, the idea for The Blood Factory had already been thought up as a concept: an interactive room transformed into a blood vessel complete with heart beat sound, red lighting and activities designed to inform on the various components and functions of the blood.  The specifics were left wide open though. As a member of the MRC Human Immunology Unit (MRC HIU), it was my job to design an activity based on the immune system while Jon Spiliotis from the Oxford Centre for Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism was brought on board to design an activity based on the endocrine system.

Immune system activity in action

After several days of brainstorming and, at times, talking to myself, the activity idea started to form.  I thought of a way of explaining the role of three specific immune cells in a viral infection: dendritic cells, killer T cells and macrophages.  From past experiences of public engagement activities, I knew that the more involved the public were the better the message is delivered, so making it a dressing up and hands on experience seemed perfect. We therefore decided to dress the visitors up as each of these cells according with their role in the body: dendritic cells as detectives, which used a UV torch to find infected cells in a wall of cell bricks; killer T cells as ninjas that could destroy the infected cells with toy weapons; and maid macrophages that could clean the infection to allow restoration of the brick cell wall.  We would talk them through a typical scenario and tell them how their ‘character’ would react in a viral infection.  As was shown on the night, this activity clearly and successfully conveyed our key agenda of informing people that the term white blood cell broadly covers several immune cells, and that each have their own personality and role to play in clearing infections.  Although the initial idea for the activity was my own, I had an excellent team of MRC HIU colleagues who helped to develop the idea and make it so successful.  As a team these guys helped to test run the different ideas and scenarios we came up with, as well as spending time designing or sourcing images, videos and even 3D printed cells that could be used to support the activity. Having a team of people around to contribute and suggest ideas to make my vision came alive was really helpful and the final product wouldn’t have had the same impact without it.

It was great to be able to delegate tasks to other people and with this team looking after the immune system activity I was able to focus my efforts on organising the rest of the Blood factory.  We recruited Christina Rode from the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit to the project to be in charge of our “Components of the Blood” activity, an existing activity that fitted well into the concept.  In this activity, visitors were invited to make up some blood from multiple components such as red blood cells, fat and plasma, represented by aqua crystals (small jelly-like balls). While this activity was aimed at a younger audience, adults and children alike enjoyed putting their hands into the large bags of aqua crystals. Additionally, the Museum of Natural History where we were based offered specimens of hearts and blood vessels for display.

Photo credit: Ian Wallman

With three activities and lots of ideas for room decorations all that was left was to recruit and brief our additional volunteers.  In the end we had 11 volunteers for the night who each gave up four hours of their evening.  Seven of these volunteers had never taken part in a public engagement activity before but are all very happy that they got involved and would love to volunteer for the next public engagement event, either as a volunteer for the actual event or in the slightly more time-consuming role of activity designer and developer.  Luckily being based in the WIMM means that there are always lots of chances for volunteering.

Over the course of three hours we welcomed around 380 people, with a queue waiting outside to get in for most of the night.  Everybody seemed to have great fun using the strange aqua crystals to make up blood, listening to their own blood pumping with our Doppler machine or searching out and killing infected cells.  We even had one young visitor so engrossed by our video that he sat on the floor watching for 20 minutes!  Outside the room, I overheard some excited chatter of people telling their friends what they had seen and done – always a good sign.

Overall, this activity was a great success due to the enthusiasm of the volunteers and everyone’s commitment to the idea. For me, although this is the most effort and time I have had to put into an event or activity, it was all worth it by seeing how excited both children and adults alike were by what we had to tell and show them. Being able to explain science in a way that interests and excites people is not only an important skill for any scientist but also a privilege and I for one can’t wait to get involved with the next public engagement event.

The Blood Factory team

 

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