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Stem cells, face paints, and Highland shows

by Guest Author on 29 Oct 2013

Members of the public at T in the Park: the festival atmosphere lent itself to open discussions about stem cell research

Members of the public at T in the Park: the festival atmosphere lent itself to open discussions about stem cell research (Image copyright: Hope Beyond Hype)

Often communicating science is about going where people are, rather than expecting them to come to you. The people behind Hope Beyond Hype, a project based at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, took that advice to heart this summer, touring Scottish festivals with their tales of stem cell biology and medicine. Here Public Engagement Manager Cathy Southworth reports back.

Some time ago, while working during the summer as a play leader, I became quite adept at painting butterflies and tigers on the faces of young Liverpudlians. Who would have thought that two decades later an opportunity would arise to hone these latent skills on the festival-going Scottish public? It turns out that face painting was ideal for setting up a relaxed context for some interesting chat about stem cell biology.

Engaging people with stem cell research was our aim this summer as we embarked on a five-festival run across Scotland, taking in The Royal Highland Show, T in the Park, Tiree Music Festival, The Wickerman Festival and The Cowal Highland Games.

We wanted to broaden our reach beyond those that might choose to go to science events, such as science festivals or talks. But the festivals also gave us new contexts in which to talk about our science: they have a distinct spirit, particularly the music ones, which leaves people more open to conversation and willing to play and experiment (the pristine July weather also helped).

These relaxed attitudes seemed to dissolve barriers to conversation that we science engagement practitioners often speak about. One such situation that stands out in my mind was when I was standing alone inside our (now iconic) tent on the Island of Tiree.

A young woman (say 18) breezed in and boldly asked me: “so what’s all this about?” Fifteen minutes later we were still talking, having moved briskly through some basic stem cell biology to news articles she had seen and the availability of treatments. I’m sure it was this type of quality one-to-one chat that the Scottish Government had in mind when they announced their ‘Talking Science’ grant round which allowed us to venture out to these festivals.

Interacting with around 7,000 people gave us an overview of what people thought of this cutting edge and often controversial science. Often people’s pivotal reference points were stories in the news at the time (coincidentally, the first ‘stem cell burger’ had just been announced) or a relative’s health condition. The overall sense was that for many people, the field of stem cell research is moving from an abstract concept portrayed in the news, into real lives. Many of the discussions centred on possible stem cell treatments that people had heard about, for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, spinal injury, diabetes and cancer (in cases of blood cancer, some people had received stem cell transplants).

It was satisfying to expose the hope from the hype and to direct people to Eurostemcell for more information. For the amazingly committed team of researchers that took part, there was surprise at the level of knowledge and insights people had on the subject, and so the researchers went away feeling more connected with the impact of their work.

Looking ahead to next year, the team will be at sporting events, so we’ll be working with a different vibe. Maybe face painting won’t be the icebreaker this time … ideas anyone?

Cathy Southworth

Visit the Hope Beyond Hype and EuroStemCell website for more information.

The project is funded by the Scottish Government, the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the MRC.

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