Eagle-eyed readers of Coffee & Cake, Pizza & Beer will have noticed that in the post about Final Year Talks, I made reference to some Outreach work I took part in back in March. Well, finally, two months down the line, I can tell you about it! Hurrah!
So why the delay? Long story short, I was waiting for the publication of my write-up about it in Microbiology Today, the magazine of the Society for General Microbiology. I wrote most of the text, and it was edited and shuffled by Marjan van der Woude and Philip Kerrigan. More importantly, does this count as my first ‘first author publication’? I’m saying ‘yes’, and to hell with you naysayers.
The article is on pages 126-127 of May 2011’s edition of Microbiology Today (view the magazine online here), otherwise it’s copied out below for you lazy folk:
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THE YORK FESTIVAL of Science and Technology is a week-long event aiming to Bring Science to Life for all ages. The Centre for Immunology and Infection (CII), a joint venture between the Hull York Medical School and the Department of Biology at the University of York, has again promoted public understanding of microbiology at one of the Festival’s showcase events, Science Discovery Days. Held at the famous National Railway Museum, this event allows children and adults to get hands-on experience of contemporary issues in science. This is the second year that the CII participated, and we were eager to build upon the previous year’s success to demonstrate key aspects of our research in a light-hearted but educational format.
The location of our stand, right in front of one of the main entrances, boded well for a large number of potential visitors. Also working in our favour was a team of enthusiastic CII scientists to guide guests of all ages through the wide selection of original activities.
For many of the youngest visitors, the chance to dress up as a scientist and use the plethora of crayons to colour-in pictures of microbes proved irresistible. No doubt many family photo albums are now enriched with pictures of future Nobel Prize winners, and fridges are decorated with colourful bacteria and parasites.
Another popular attraction for our younger visitors was the ‘White blood cell fishing game’, where players used immune cells (magnetic fishing rods) to fish out metallic germs from the body, which consisted of a tank filled with red and white ping-pong balls. Eventually, this leisurely fishing game turned into a race against the clock, with children pitted against friends, siblings, and even the occasional self-confessed competitive dad!
In addition to posters and a slide show showing off some of the imaging work done by members of the CII, we set up a couple of microscopes. A high-powered bright-field microscope connected to a computer monitor was used to look at slides of a variety of tissue sections. We also had blood smear slides from animals such as frogs, birds and fish to compare to a human blood smear, showing differences that surprised everyone, even some of our researchers!
Making a return this year was our popular ‘Good guy/ bad guy’ game. Players are given cards with images of various bacteria, viruses, parasites and human cells and are invited to guess whether they are good or bad for us. A refreshing view on ‘good and bad’ was provided by one youngster who claimed a neuron had to be good for allowing him to talk, but bad when it made him feel pain! Many parents satisfied their curiosity as well, learning for example that ‘C. diff ’ is a bacterium. We used a physically more active variant of the game for Friday’s Discovery Day exclusively for groups of primary school pupils. The students were asked to cast their vote by running to scientists Dr Good or Dr Bad, while listening to a lively presentation on properties of the cell in question. This game illustrates that not all ‘germs’ are harmful, but if we do come across bad guys, our immune system is very effective at fighting them off.
Key to the success of both days was our CII team of scientists, spanning all career stages from PhD students to senior lecturers, who were on hand to demonstrate the activities. A lot of preparation went into the development of the materials and activities, so it was rewarding for everyone to see them being enjoyed. We were delighted with the success of this year’s Discovery Days, and intend to return next year.
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So that’s the official statement, as it were. To follow up, I thought I would add a few additional points and musings.
As mentioned above, from the previous year’s outreach activities we had a game called ‘Good Guy / Bad Guy’: Visitors are given cards with pictures of various bactieria, fungi, parasites, viruses, human cells, and immune cells, and had to decide whether it was bad for us or good for us. We wanted to make this the basis of our ‘workshop activity’ for the friday’s primary school event, but for this, we needed some new cards with new bugs that the kids may know something about. As such the job was assigned to me and fellow PhD student Amy to decide upon them and find the images for them. Clearly we wanted some interesting good and bad guys to talk about, but we also wanted some cool pictures of them too – so we scoured the internet (or more specifically, Google Image Search) for them. A word of advice – the weak-of-stomach should avoid browsing through images of either “Tetanus” or “Clostridium tetani” for whatever reason. Really, it’s not even worth checking.
I was also involved in the running of the activities on the day. For the friday with the primary school children, this meant wearing a big tshirt with GOOD written on it, with a colleague – or adversary? – wearing a BAD tshirt. We had a good response from the children, who seemed to enjoy the game, and kind words from the teachers, who were asked to fill out a feedback sheet. It was nice to see some of the teachers getting involved in the game too! I think we were successful in our first outreach event of the weekend at the grand surroundings of the National Railway Museum, despite one of the children innocently asking at the end, with deadpan delivery and comic timing Stewart Lee would envy: “so… what’s this got to do with trains?“.
Saturday was pretty much as described in the article; about five volunteer scientists (wearing the very exclusive and extremely fashionable one-size-fits-all-scientists CII tshirt) walked around our stall, manning the microscopes, and chatting to the general public about what the CII does. I spent most of the time on the micrscope with the tissue section slides and blood smears – looking at highly organised tissues like the small intestine and the retina, in incredible detail, still amazes me. And as for blood smears? Well, frog blood is crazy, mark my words.
Outreach Activities like the York Festival of Science are really great fun, and something that I’d personally encourage all PhD students to get involved in whenever they have the chance. It’s particularly rewarding when working with children, to see their funny little faces light up when you show them something really cool – like a section through a muscle fibre, or a video of a parasite invading a macrophage, or our awesome tshirts.
I would also argue that it is our responsibility as scientists to take our research to the masses, in an attempt to not only educate, but to go some way to justify our very existence. In this ‘Age of Austerity’, we should demonstrate why we need the large sums of money we receive in the form of grants, not only from publically-funded research councils, but particularly from charities funded by donations from the public, who give in good faith that the money will go to help tackle problems like infectious diseases, climate change, honeybee decline, cancer, habitat loss, or whatever is important to them. It also benefits us in other ways, for example to broaden our career prospects and the dispell myths of scientists being out of touch with every day society.
To summarise, a couple of fantastic days of science outreach. I’m sure the CII will be back next year, and I will definitely be doing more outreach activities like this in the future.