Dr Samantha Terry is a Lecturer in Radiobiology and an award-winning Public Engagement Leader. She shares her experiences and reflections on leading a science stand – “Hot Stuff” – as part of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, 2018.
What started with a rather naïve application to the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, finished at a fancy evening event at the Francis Crick Institute for being awarded with the Outreach and Engagement Award as Established Researcher by the Royal Society of Biology .
How could I say no to being lead exhibitor on the biggest event on the public engagement calendar, the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition? (Especially if I could use the title “Hot Stuff” to explain our research at King’s College London and the Centre of Medical Engineering using radioactivity to image and treat disease).
I have to admit: I was naïve when I applied. My public engagements until that point had been fairly limited and basic; I had taken part in “I am a Scientist – Get me out of Here”, Pint of Science, Soapbox Science and a Royal Society of Chemistry Public Lecture, all with relatively small audiences and simple activities aimed at one audience. However, in 2017, the Summer Science Exhibition figures showed that over 12,000 people attended and that the audience varied across the spectrum in both age and experience in the sciences.
I started the 9-month planning process with getting funds. These were surprisingly easily obtained through the generous support of the EPSRC/Wellcome Centre of Medical Engineering, as well as the King’s College London Public Engagement Small Grant Scheme.
This is my 9 Step Plan on – How to Produce an Amazing PE Event (on Time and on Budget)…
Step 1: Consult many people in my network to discuss ideas around the key messages (1. Radioactivity is all around, 2. Radioactivity images disease, and 3. Radioactivity treats disease).
Step 2: Set up a core project planning team to collaboratively plan, design and produce the exhibit stand and activities. We had two public engagement managers, two lecturers, a PhD student, a preclinical imaging facilities manager, a postdoc, the University Radiation Protection Officer, and a design student.
Step 3: Set up workshops, talks and events to develop the stand (i.e. with primary schools and various patient and public involvement groups). We went to Brook House Primary School in Tottenham to engage with 2 classes, each with thirty 7-year olds and had sessions with both the BRC Patient and Public Involvement Advisory Group and Imaging Sciences Public and Patient Advisory Group, whose input was invaluable. For instance, an activity called ‘Be the Radiographer’ was scrapped as the groups felt it was too controversial: “[It was] too real and would remind me of the pain I went through” was one of the comments.
Step 4: Plan activities. Activities included “Hunt the Unwell Organ”, an LED-based radiotherapy game, radiation time trial and a rap on radioactivity in bananas by biochemist Alex Lathbridge (Thermoflynamics). The apron/organ game was well received at the primary school having been named ‘epic’.
Step 5: Promote our stand by any means possible. This included using Twitter accounts at the academic/departmental/school/faculty and King’s level as well as creating content on the King’s College London website. We also created a 2-minute introductory video of research from our Department that explains how our interdisciplinary research goes from synthesis of new imaging tracers and therapies (chemistry) to evaluation in cells and animals (biology) to finally clinical translation (clinicians, engineers, physicists).
Step 6: Get volunteers. We amassed 54 volunteers (undergraduate, Masters and PhD students, postdocs, lecturers, Professors, Heads of Department and School, clinicians, medical physicists) to man the stand across the week. Also included was an undergraduate student whose stipend was paid by the King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Programme.
Step 7: Train volunteers. Most participants attended our training on how to engage the public and tackle difficult topics as advised by representatives from Cancer Research UK and Understanding Animal Research. Also, a handbook was created with helpful information about the research we do in a larger context.
Step 8: Evaluate success by an external person who observed and interviewed not just people attending the stand, but also the people involved in manning the stand. In summary, it was clear those involved in Hot Stuff, from the visitors, the project team, and the researchers, enjoyed it immensely. Hot Stuff not only led to an encouraging level of awareness and interest in radioactivity, but also in engagement itself. Furthermore, this report provides evidence to: a) support such activities in promoting the communication of science; and b) indicates there is potential, and demand, for the development of further engagement activities.
Twitter engagements for key Twitter handles involved in promoting the stand saw on average over 40,000 impressions and between 700-1200 engagements over the course of the Summer Science Exhibition week. We were also interviewed on BBC Radio which further promoted not just our research, but King’ College London, too.
Step 9: Carry on. As activities are well defined and set up, anyone can take part in any event with little notice or effort. Several activities have been used since the Summer Science Exhibition, including at New Scientist Live, King’s Health Partners’ Summer School, and the RSC Chemistry at Work event in 2018. The activities continue to inspire academics and postdocs to include public engagement in their grant and fellowship applications.
For our hard work in public engagement over the last few years and for having created activities with longevity, I have recently won the Royal Society of Biology Public Engagement and Outreach Award, which is a great accolade for our School to receive. It also showcases that public engagement is valued by prestigious societies; my recent shortlisting for a King’s Award, for example, demonstrates that King’s celebrates our involvement in this arena. We’ll continue to work in this vein, and make every attempt to make public engagement a part of researchers’ every day life.