Dr Michelle Ma is a Research Associate within the Department of Imaging Chemistry & Biology, King’s College London. Her work focuses on designing new pharmaceuticals that can help diagnose cancer. Michelle took part in Soapbox Science, a public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. She stood on a soapbox on the Southbank on 30 May engaging passers-by with her research on whole body diagnostic imaging.
In late May, I participated in Soapbox Science, an event that puts female scientists on Soapboxes for an hour in the bustling London area of Southbank on a Saturday afternoon. There are two overarching aims: 1) to have female scientists discuss science face-to-face with members of the public who would normally not attend science festivals; and 2) increase the visibility of women in science. I’d been tasked with standing on a box, talking about chemistry, radioactivity and diagnostic imaging, and keeping random members of the public interested enough to stay at the foot of my box. Basically, I was busking science!
Saturday afternoon came around and I jumped onto my soapbox. The crowd from the previous speaker was still in attendance so I hijacked their attention by being as noisy as possible. I asked them some questions, they answered politely back, and with the help of some props and some volunteers from the crowd, I demonstrated how whole body diagnostic imaging works, and the role that chemistry plays in this. (You can read more about my research in a previous blog post). A discussion with the crowd started to open up, and this was really the part of the afternoon where we started to engage with the public. There were plenty of questions, all of which were considered and really relevant to the frontiers of research in this field. My audience seemed to have understood everything I’d talked about but there were things that they wanted to know more about: how do you define what is diseased tissue in an image? What is the “cut-off” point in contrast? Why don’t we screen everyone in the population? How do you choose a radioisotope? If a radiopharmaceutical clears through the kidneys, how do you find out if there is disease in the kidneys? Where does radioactivity come from?
As a result of my participation, I was invited to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Public Attitudes to Chemistry launch. My own experience, coupled with the findings and strategies discussed at the launch really enforced some key public engagement messages to me.
Firstly, it is critical that chemists can explain the impact of their chemical research on society. It is not enough that a chemist, or any scientist for that matter, can explain in simple terms what they do on a day-to-day basis. For the science to have a lasting impression on an audience, the audience must appreciate what the endeavour is actually delivering.
Secondly, the public are the shareholders in public investment in science, and so specific questions that the public raise during such events are likely to be directly relevant or fundamental to the future impact that the field will have on society, particularly in medicine and the health sciences. This is a terrific thing! If the public are asking the same questions as researchers themselves, then public engagement can be used to leverage and secure public investment in science.
For these reasons alone, it is important that the scientific community supports events like Soapbox Science. However, I also had a tremendous amount of fun talking with my audience as well as meeting all of the other scientists and volunteers involved!