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‘Smugging’ – v. To catch someone off guard and show them your science. 

by Guest Author on 19 Jul 2016

As part of the MRC Festival of Medical Research, one group of scientists struck out from the lab and into the street to explain how our immune system works and how we might be able to make it fight cancer. Dr Martin Christlieb tells us why.

One of a props - a ball of chocolate that says 'Don't eat me!'

A brightly-coloured ball representing a healthy, or potentially dangerous mutant, cell. Image copyright: Peter Canning

How much does your audience care about your science? One answer to this might be ‘slightly less than you do’. We should all allow our passion to shine through when we speak to people, whatever it is. After all, attitudes are infectious. But to be infected, someone has to actually be there to hear the enthusiasm in your voice. 

We are all constantly saying how busy we are, whether we’re a scientist or not. In fact we often use it as badge of pride. So, how much does your audience care about your science? Enough to walk down the road to come and speak to you? Enough to catch a bus? Enough to use the park and ride? How far would you travel to speak to someone about medical research?

Cue the inspiration not to invite people to our labs, but to take our science to them.  By setting up a stand between a car park and the shops, we planned to catch people as they went about their daily business.

With support from the MRC, as part of the 2016 MRC Festival of Medical Research, three MRC-funded research units bought a gazebo, a table, some props, and hired a 7-seater minibus. Each morning for a week we left the Old Road Campus in Headington, Oxford, and travelled to towns up to an hour away from our research laboratories.

Our destinations were a mix of shopping centres and supermarkets. The aim was to see how many people we could engage when they were out doing something else.

We had a dark blue table cloth, bright white hoodies, some brightly coloured balls and our message was simple. For the immune system to do its job, it must be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys inside your body.

Normal healthy cells help by covering themselves with a chemical signal telling the immune system: ‘don’t eat me!’. Invading bacteria don’t have this message so they get eaten by the immune system. Mutated cells often lose the signal, so they get eaten too. But if a potentially dangerous mutant cell keeps putting out its ‘don’t eat me!’ signal, the immune system doesn’t spot it and we have a problem.

In our demonstration the participants could become the immune system themselves and eat the mutated cells, which turned out to be made of chocolate.

MRC scientists explain immunotherapy in the supermarket

Curious Morrisons supermarket shoppers in Swindon. Image copyright: Peter Canning

Our visitors quickly mastered the basic message and we could go on to tell them about a new antibody-based drug that is being tested to block the ‘don’t eat me!’ signal sent out by mutated cells, so the immune system can destroy them.

How did our audiences react to being smugged? Most walked past without stopping. But curiosity and cries of “Science and chocolate!” induced about 1 in 10 people to stop by and listen, which was enough; set up in a busy place, the stand attracted 150 people each day.

So how much did our audience care about our science? It turned out to be quite a lot in the end:

What a great way to learn!”

“My tax money is well spent on this research.”

“That’s so cool!  This is the best day of my life.”

“What you’re doing here is really important to explain to the people here what you’re doing.”

“You’re not collecting money?  Why not?”

 “Absolutely brilliant!”

 “Wow! I understand it and I’m a science idiot.”

We were on the road for seven days and touched the lives of 986 people across the Thames Valley.

How much does your audience care? Maybe not enough to come to you, but they might just start to care with the help of some well-thought-through smugging.

The Oxford Science Roadshow was a collaboration between Dr Martin Christlieb of the CRUK/MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, and Dr Bryony Graham of the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit and the MRC Human Immunology Unit.  It was delivered in Newbury, High Wycombe, Aylesbury, Swindon, Banbury, and Witney during the 2016 MRC Festival of Medical Research.   

The second annual MRC Festival of Medical Research will take place from 17 – 25 June 2017.      

Read about Oliver and Paul’s event tips: Are you in a healthy place?

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