Anastasia Nasopoulou is a post-doc in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Her research focuses on improving the diagnosis of heart failure in the clinic by using medical imaging to detect how well the heart is functioning through its ‘stiffness’ or elasticity. In March 2019, she was awarded public engagement funds from the Wellcome EPSRC Centre for Medical Engineering (CME), which enabled her to host two public engagement events around her research; one as a pilot for her activities through a science stand at national Clinical Trials Day engaging patients and the latter as part of King’s Health Partners Summer School with school-aged young people.
My journey in public engagement started in 2017 when I participated as a volunteer in the School’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, entitled ‘Heart in Your Hands’. At the time, this was mostly due to “peer pressure” as many of my friends were attending! However, this was a great way to “break the ice” as a first timer, as it was a well organised team event and the audience was friendly and genuinely interested in the science we were presenting there. Participation in this event helped me practise my science communication skills and gave me confidence that I could organise a public engagement event myself, especially after I gained a “taste” of how people respond to different activities.
After this initial public engagement experience, I realised the joy of presenting my research to non-scientific audiences. I found that these interactions make you feel really good at the end of the day and fuel your passion for research as you realise people look at you hoping that you will provide solutions to healthcare problems that can drastically improve their lives. But for me personally, an important motivation in taking part in these events, is the chance to present my work to young children and inspiring them to love science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM), as well as offering them a sneak-peak of a possible career in biomedical engineering, in an area they may not have imagined existed before.
Clinical Trials Day is a national yearly event, celebrated across the UK through different activities. On 20th May 2019, I held a science stall in the afternoon in Central Hall at St Thomas’ Hospital. The aim of the stand was to showcase my research to patients and their families, healthcare staff, and hospital workers to increase their understanding of heart stiffness and its implications on blood flow and heart health. For this event, I created two posters; one with accessible background information on my research and one with a giant heart for collecting visitor feedback via heart-shaped post-its to tie in with the theme (and also providing stand decoration!). Owing to the location and nature of the stall and my audience, I understood that interactions with visitors would be time-limited, so I opted for simple, hands-on activities that would “catch the eye”, stimulate discussions and also be fun and relaxing.
[You are] offering them a sneak-peak of a possible career …in an area they may not have imagined existed before.Dr Anastasia Nasopoulou, Biomedical Engineer Researcher
I designed and developed a bespoke “Elastic Heart” activity, which aimed to introduce the audience to the concept of ‘stiffness’, the challenges of measuring it as researchers and how changes in heart stiffness can affect heart function. Further I wanted to reuse resources between events (Clinical Trials Day & King’s Health Partners Summer School), so I had to carefully consider commonalities for activities for each of these specific audiences (patients vs. school children) and consider the space where each event was being held. As such, I bought a set of different size, length and coloured coils or springs to visually and tangibly demonstrate variation in stiffness. Secondly, I used small party balloons that acted as hearts and visitors had to race each other to fill with water (from buckets & water pumps) to imitate the pumping function of the heart. Some balloons were doubled up, to create extra stiffness, so visitors found them more difficult to fill. Both demonstrated the basic principles of my research by inviting visitors to interact with the props.
I recruited two of my colleagues, Mandy Nio and Suzy Lust: Mandy works with microbubbles for estimating heart pressure and Suzy is experimenting with cardiac cells to investigate the origins of bicuspid aortic valve disease. With the help of my team, we managed to engage different people at Clinical Trials Day, discussing our research, raising awareness of how the heart functions and how to improve heart health. We used two different methods to evaluate the success of our stall: (i) colour-coded tokens for visitors to answer questions related to the stall for quantitative feedback i.e., ‘Did you learn something interesting?’ ‘Was this fun?’ and (ii) post-it notes for visitors to give qualitative feedback. Both worked quite well in helping us to see whether we had achieved our aims. We generally received very good feedback (we counted 19 green tokens corresponding to positive reviews) and our biggest compliment was when a mum asked if ‘we could repeat the activity at her son’s school!’.
A mum asked if we could repeat the activity at her son’s school!Dr Anastasia Nasopoulou & team, Clinical Trials Day
I was quite happy with the way the event turned out, although there was definitely room for improvement! However, this type of event was a great way to test pilot my engagement activities, increase my own knowledge and understanding around my subject area, build my science communication skills and manage a team of people, a budget and my time. All of which are important transferable skills in life and especially helped in the planning and delivery of my second event two months later…
In July 2019, I hosted a workshop as part of King’s Health Partners (KHP) Summer School. As the format and audience was different, I adapted parts of my previous stand to better suit the needs and interests of the GCSE-level school students from Lambeth and Southwark. The aim of this workshop was to introduce the students to my research area and the possibility of a career in biomedical engineering and imaging sciences.
For the KHP Summer School, as planned, I recycled all my previous resources and reoriented the activity, focusing more on the educational/career aspect. For this, I found that the heart poster I had originally created with accessible information about the background of my research was very useful. I wanted to provide some context into what I do day-to-day as a researcher but avoid oversimplification of the science (that might make the teenagers loose interest), so I additionally created an interactive game in software I use daily as a scientist (Matlab) where I demonstrated how varying the stiffness in patient’s hearts altered their deformation. And for the “finale”, I adapted my balloon activity by co-designing with Public Engagement Officer, Bella Spencer, a giant aorta blood vessel on the floor (using masking tape!), that the students had to use as a maze to carry balloons filled with water to the end of the room (rather than simply filling in buckets). This was to mimic the motion of blood cells being pushed down the aorta when the heart beats to the ‘hungry cells’ that need oxygen/water/nutrients in the body! It was crude but created a fun and physical way for the pupils to learn and understand my research.
I had different groups of 8 pupils for short 15-minute workshops over an hour – needless to say, I found the KHP Summer School a lot more demanding! Although I was happy with the participation of the students, seeing them engaged and excited with the concepts described, time was very tight and I should have rehearsed the activities beforehand to make sure there was a smoother running time and transition between each. This way I could have also guided them into doing the evaluation tasks (tokens and heart post-it feedback) that we ended up having no time for. Upon reflection, I would have further simplified the activities as it was too much to include in the time slot allocated.
My experience in organising and delivering the “Elastic Heart” activity in Clinical Trials Day and KHP Summer School was definitely invaluable. My interaction with the CME PE team (Bella and Mel) helped me see the public engagement process more holistically. Also seeing a project through from the conceptual level, designing and planning, to delivering my event for different audiences, offered a rich learning experience. I was able to improve my time management and organisational skills, develop my independent and team working experience, as well as gain a real confidence boost – especially when things go wrong – or well! You get a positive response from the people you designed it for.
I realised my research can have a significant impact on people’s lives and has helped re-boost my work with positive energyDr Anastasia Nasopoulou
I also found that interacting with audiences from different backgrounds forced me to see my research in a different light, while having to explain concepts in lay terms helped consolidate concepts and made me think outside the box, forging new correlations in my mind. But most importantly the gain was to actually meet and discuss my work with its real beneficiaries and in the case of the KHP Summer School the future generation of colleagues! The genuine interest people showed me helped with my motivation, as I realised my research can have significant impact on people’s lives and has helped re-boost my work with positive energy.
I absolutely intend to do more public engagement. For the next little while, I will need to focus on my research but I plan to come back soon with an exciting set of activities!