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Engaging with patients: stepping outside the research bubble

by Guest Author on 14 May 2015

How often do PhD students get to meet patients with the disease they spend hours toiling away trying to combat? Probably not often enough. Here Alex Binks, an MRC-funded PhD student at the University of Glasgow, tells us about how an encounter with patients and some coloured balloons helped him step away from the lab bench and think about his research in a new way.

Alex Binks

Alex Binks (Copyright: Alex Binks)

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I was told I had to prepare a ‘project pitch’ for the MRC patient engagement event. The task required us to communicate our research in three minutes or less to a room full of bright-eyed patients, who were genuinely interested in what we do.

This is the first year of my PhD and, maybe rather surprisingly, nothing I had been taught during my undergrad degree had forced me to think about science and research in this way. Not only did I need to think about how to make the attendees understand why I do what I do, but I needed to make it interesting too.

My research focuses on using viruses as potential anti-cancer drugs, and the ways in which they lead to cancer cell death. But how to capture that in a three-minute talk?

After a few hours racking my brain, I managed to piece together an awkward routine involving balloons. The balloons represented cancer cells, and I could use them to explain things like growth, metastasis and death. It all made sense to me at least.

When the day finally arrived, I prayed that at least a few people would be able to follow my three minutes of shouting, coloured balloons and arm waving. At the very least I hoped that no balloons would fly free and hit anyone. Thankfully, once the madness was over, I was able to sit back and enjoy the rest of the presentations from my fellow students.

I could see the excitement in the audience members’ faces, as they learnt about the latest research being done into diseases such as heart disease, cancer and pre-eclampsia. The atmosphere was a refreshing change from the stuffy lectures many of us are used to. This was all new to them, and they wanted to be there, they wanted to learn.

After the presentations we got to talk to some of the patients to hear their opinions and questions. It was immediately clear that they weren’t just here for the free wine, and we started having some great discussions about where we saw our research going, and what it could mean for the future treatment of patients just like them.

Some of us were lucky enough to speak to people who were currently battling with the very same diseases we are trying to fight. It was humbling to hear the stories and struggles that these people had been through and amazing to hear just how knowledgeable they were. I noticed that the patients picked up on things that academics tend to brush over, and weren’t afraid to ask questions that we would never even think of.

As a PhD student, it’s easy to find yourself stuck in your own little research bubble. We become so focused on a single specific problem that we sometimes forget to step back and remember why we’re there in the first place. The event really helped me think about my research in a new way, and has made me think seriously about pursuing more public engagement events in the future.

Alex Binks


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