Dr Lauren Fovargue is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Heart & Vessel Modelling group of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at King’s. Her work focuses on personalised computer simulations of patients who qualify for pacemakers to predict whether or not they will improve, since currently pacemakers don’t yield long term results in 35% of patients. Understanding more about how the heart functions will enable her and the VP2HF project to predict if surgery really is the best option.
In late February, my colleagues and I took part in the Science Museum’s Lates event as scientific experts in ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart‘. Currently, there is an exhibition in the Science Museum’s ‘Who am I?’ gallery under the same title which highlights the work done in 3D printing of complex hearts for surgical planning at King’s College London and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals. The Science Museum Lates are a great opportunity for adults to enjoy the exhibits and special interactive events of a great museum (without any children to compete with!) and since I’d enjoyed these events as a participant I was keen to go as a collaborator.
We had a range of cardiovascular experts, from clinical to basic science and from those who interact with patients to those who interact mainly with their computer. Although we’re all linked through the use of imaging in our research, the patient groups we focus on are diverse, like fetal imaging or modelling for dilated cardiomyopathy patients. However, we were all interested in talking about heart and imaging research and had a selection of 3D printed hearts to play with, thanks to our 3D printing colleagues here at King’s.
Personally, I’m a researcher with a computer and by the time patients come to me, I can only see their ID number and MRI images of their heart. My research focus is on predicting whether a person who needs a pacemaker is going to get better, since about 1 in 3 people implanted with one don’t improve. To do this, I mainly utilises tools from maths, physics and computer science to create predictive personal computational models where I can simulate what happens when they get a pacemaker. However, I’ve found that ‘I’m a mathematician who creates computer simulations of hearts’ is not a good conversation opener and I was nervous that I’d have a hard time interacting with people visiting the museum.
Luckily, we had the 3D printed hearts. I knew the purpose of the hearts was to draw people’s attention and bring them in, but I significantly underestimated how helpful they were for me to engage with the public. As a computational scientist, I am sometimes very shy, but the 3D printed hearts gave me a guaranteed way of opening a dialogue with people who looked interested. I learned that starting with ‘Would you like to hold a 3D printed heart ?’ didn’t yield the normal responses of ‘I didn’t like maths’ or ‘I was never good at maths’ but instead peaked peoples curiosity and interest.
After getting over my original nerves, the evening flew by and I had an incredible amount of fun. It was very interesting to have conversations with people of diverse backgrounds and answer all sorts of questions.
We were a team of 8 researchers* and collectively we must have spoken to over 500 visitors in just a few hours. I think people appreciated hearing about how their own heart worked, what makes other hearts malfunction, and getting a picture of what the edge of research looks like. Additionally, I also found it very rewarding to actually feel like an expert for an evening since in research, there are not many days where you feel like an expert. The nature of the job is to push the limits of knowledge so most days you come into work under-qualified for what you need to achieve. People were not only interested in the 3D hearts but in my area of research, and it’s always helpful to practise explaining complicated science without relying on field jargon. Although I may have disappointed someone when I clarified that not all people who have surgery get their heart printed, the public enthusiasm overall was really inspiring. Overall, talking with people about their heart and circulation system was a welcomed change and a really nice chance to remember the impact research can have on our society.
Despite being exhausted from talking (and listening) non-stop for nearly 3 hours it was a really great experience and I would definitely do it again.
* Staff from King’s taking part included: Benjamin Sieniewicz, Samuel Vennin, Liia Asner, Markus Henningsson, David Lloyd, Alberto Gomez, Mari Nevis, Lauren Fovargue and Alice Taylor-Gee.