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MRC Festival: Bringing research to life

by Guest Author on 15 Aug 2018

Are you interested in coming along or taking part in next year’s MRC Festival of Medical ResearchDeborah Barber explores some 2018 highlights and shares tips learnt along the way for making public engagement a success.

For the last three years we’ve kicked off our summer with the MRC Festival of Medical Research. This year, over 10 days in June, 43 events were held by MRC institutes, units and centres, and teams of MRC grant holders.

University of Sheffield event, 'Getting to know medical research', for the MRC Festival 2018.

‘Getting to know medical research’ with MRC-funded scientists based at the University of Sheffield

Sharing science

Public events are a popular way to share research. But knowing the audience is key. Scientists from the University of Sheffield organised a family-friendly day with hands-on activities as a hook for discussing their research.

Professor Marcelo Rivolta helped people see inside the ear to illustrate his research about stem cells in deafness. Visitors looked at ear structures in gerbil skull models through a microscope, then tried inserting a device, called a cochlear implant, used to improve hearing.

While these activities were aimed at teenagers and adults, children weren’t forgotten – with ears to colour and 3D models to build. “Public science events can attract a new generation of inquisitive minds,” explains Marcelo. “I think it’s really important to show that anyone, irrespective of their gender or background, can be a scientist.”

Researchers crouched down to speak to young child

Engaging with a budding scientist at MRC Harwell’s open day

New perspectives

But it’s not just about the visitors’ learning new things. Engaging with, and listening to, the public can provide scientists with new perspectives on their research. “People’s curiosity may help reformulate science-driven questions,” says Marcelo.

For MRC Harwell, hosting an open day enabled researchers, students and technicians to highlight their work and show how their laboratory mice are cared for. Over 500 people participated in interactive activities and attended talks about genetics research.

Postdoc Dr Petrina Lau shares her highlight: “A nine-year-old brought her younger sister over, then pointed at the neurons I’d shown her and explained their features. It’s difficult to describe how satisfying it felt.”

Support is available for researchers keen to get involved in public engagement. “I attended an MRC public engagement course which helped me think about the visitors and frame my responses to what they may ask,” says Marie Hutchison, at the MRC Mary Lyon Centre. Our website also has resources on planning, doing and evaluating public engagement.

Dr Owolabi showcasing his work on tuberculosis to members of the community at MRC Unit The Gambia

Dr Owolabi showcasing his work on tuberculosis to members of the community at MRC Unit The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Involving the community

MRC Unit The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine showcased their scientists’ achievements through talks and interactive demonstrations. Over 200 people came, from community elders to influential politicians, to hear about tuberculosis (TB), nutrition and disease control research.

Discussing TB with the community is vital to help patients access treatment and encourage participation in research. “It was an opportunity to discuss misconceptions about the spread of TB and debunk stigmatising attitudes,” explains clinician Dr Olumuyiwa Owolabi. “We need the involvement of the community – we cannot end TB alone.”

Educate and inspire

Attracting and inspiring new talent is important. And events for young adults can give them a glimpse into a researcher’s world. The MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis invited students to a hands-on disease outbreak simulation, teaching them about infections and the associated societal issues.

Researcher talking to four teenagers sat around a table in a teaching laboratory

Attentive teens learning about infectious disease with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London

Being proactive in starting discussions is vital, as Dr Caroline Walters explains: “Asking open-ended questions provides feedback to help you convey your message effectively.”

Ambitious students asked career-related questions to explore their options. “We picked presenters from different backgrounds to show that there isn’t one path to a career in epidemiology,” says Research Assistant Lazaro Mwandigha.

Hit the road (or web)

Taking activities to everyday places allows people to meet and speak to scientists, an opportunity they may not otherwise have. MRC-funded researchers and staff from the University of Oxford* united to deliver another ‘Science in the Supermarket’ roadshow. Across six locations, they chatted with shoppers about tax-funded genome editing research.

A group of shoppers talking to researchers

Mixing genome editing with shopping at the ‘Science in the Supermarket’ roadshow

The best way to engage parents and their kids is by getting everyone involved. The team designed their activities for young children but by being flexible, they successfully catered to all ages. “A competitive family came by, so we adapted things and created games that kept them engaged,” describes Tim Coutts, an administrator in cancer-related clinical trials.

Online events are another great way to engage with the public. Liza Selley explains how she, along with 24 other MRC-funded researchers and support staff,  connected with over 1,400 UK school students online through the I’m a Scientist…’ MRC Festival Zone.

There’s just one last recurring piece of advice: get stuck in and have fun!

*MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford, MRC Human Immunology Unit at the University of Oxford, MRC Molecular Haematology Unit at the University of Oxford and CRUK/MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology.

Next year’s MRC Festival of Medical Research will take place from 13-23 June 2019.

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