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Bringing the biology to you: public engagement from the Department of Life Sciences

From children's books to science festivals, PhD student Ellie Jarvis explores how researchers are sharing their studies with the public.

children from local schools explore bugs in the Biology labs
Introducing children to scientific concepts at an early age can plant 'seeds of knowledge' and inspire them to keep learning.

Have you ever wondered what actually goes on in universities day to day, besides teaching? Life Sciences researchers are lifting the lid on their work outside the lecture theatre.

Communicating research goes beyond sharing how public money is being used; it highlights the process of discoveries that affect our everyday lives, from pharmaceuticals to conservation efforts.

Researchers in the Department of Life Sciences have been devising creative ways to break down barriers to biology, and even inspire you to participate as a scientist yourself.

Songwriting to storybooks

Professor Tiffany Taylor is an evolutionary biologist in the Department’s Milner Centre for Evolution, working on the evolution of bacterial gene regulatory networks. She published her first children’s book, Little Changes, in 2012, which she wrote while commuting to her postdoctoral research position at the University of Reading. She felt that the concept of evolution should be introduced much earlier in education, and used her poetry and songwriting background to craft a charming story that introduces these ideas in a lyrical, accessible way to young people. It’s so accessible in fact, that she only uses the word ‘evolution’ once.

Following the success of Little Changes, Tiffany went on to produce Great Adaptations, a book of poems to communicate research followed by interviews with the scientists themselves. This challenged her to balance the trade-off between scientific accuracy and interest, and emphasised the importance of a good story in communicating research.

The lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic offered Tiffany the opportunity to create a sequel to Little Changes. Little Letters was inspired by Professor Laurence Hurst and Professor Momna Hejmadi’s discovery that teaching genetics first had a positive impact on children’s evolution learning. The book introduces the idea of DNA and genetics, and the characters in both books overlap to encourage readers to link the concepts.

Planting the seed of knowledge

Tiffany’s main objectives with these books were never to directly increase understanding, but instead to ‘plant the seed of knowledge’. A fitting example of this was when Tiffany received a review stating that the reviewer’s child had referred to the characters (the ‘rinkidinks’) in Little Changes whilst learning about adaptation at school, showing a clear link between the story and the educational content they were being taught.

Tiffany does have plans to write more books, but as a successful professor, mother and principal investigator of her own lab, readers will have to wait a little longer for another instalment. In her next book, she’d like to write about ecology and biodiversity, inspiring young people with the seed of knowledge about the environment around them.

A friendly introduction to genetic engineering

Elsewhere in the Department, PhD Student Josie Elliott takes a more hands-on approach to sharing her research. She’s studying bacterial immune systems and genetic engineering (GE). She runs fun activities for adults and children alike at science festivals such as Futures, whilst battling the confusing assumptions of GE fuelled by media coverage.

The goal of Josie’s science festival stand is to introduce the concept of GE through interactive activities rather than an intimidating news story. Some of her activities include: a ‘spin the wheel’ game of chance of bacteria versus their viruses to highlight the randomness of evolving immune defences; using ‘science tongs’ to extract ‘DNA’ from a Jenga tower to imitate the consequences of continually editing DNA; and ‘spot the difference’ between pictures of genetically modified fish. Alongside this, Josie engages the public in conversations such as the ethics of genetic engineering.

Fighting the stereotypes

Josie and her stand assistants wear lab coats during the festival to avoid the common assumption young children have had that they are teachers, instead of researchers. She wants to challenge the scientist stereotypes and symbolise how young adults, and especially young women, are leading in STEM research but are rarely represented equally.

Josie’s primary motivation to share her research in this way resonates with Tiffany. She wants to provide a ‘friendly introduction’ to ideas rather than teach people something. This gives a framework on which they can develop their knowledge of GE in our everyday lives.

Fun with flies

Citizen science is a catch-all term for public participation in research. This presents as a spectrum, from people clicking on penguins in camera trap photos on Zooniverse, to getting the public involved in designing the research from the very beginning. PhD student Ellie Jarvis’ work lies somewhere in the middle, by asking the public to help her study how fruit flies self-medicate with alcohol. Not only can this help her collect lots more data, but it also highlights the reality of the research process and offers participants an opportunity to learn some new skills.

Ellie runs her experiments at science festivals and workshops to reach a variety of audiences. The activities vary depending on the current experiments she’s conducting, but often involve looking at flies’ food choices. In these experiments, dyes change the colour of the flies’ gut, which can be seen to the naked eye under low magnification.

Through conversations at science festivals, Ellie has discovered that most people choose to participate in activities like these because they know they’re impacting real-life research, and simply having fun doing it. This resonates closely with Ellie’s personal goal with her outreach work. She wants to increase accessibility to real research and highlight the joy in science, beyond the classroom.

Feeling inspired?

If you feel encouraged to connect with researchers and maybe even try your hand at doing some research yourself, there are lots of science festivals in the South West to keep an eye out for.

The Festival of Nature is the UK’s largest free science festival happening early summer across Bath and Bristol. With such a jam-packed programme, you’re bound to find an event to spark your curiosity for our natural world. Futures is also happening across the South West region this autumn, highlighting the world-class research happening at the universities closest to home.

If you’re looking for famous faces and a busy programme of activities, talks, and exhibitions, then look no further than the Cheltenham Science Festival, also happening at the start of summer. Finally, if a nice cold pint at the pub is more up your alley, the Pint of Science Festival happens every May, featuring talks from researchers in your local pub! There’s something for everyone happening here, so make the most of what these festivals have to offer.

This article was written by Ellie Jarvis, a postgraduate research student in the Department of Life Sciences. It was produced as part of the Science Communication Ambassador project in the Faculty of Science.

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