King’s Health Partners: Summer School 2021

Every year, the School’s research staff and students take part in King’s Health Partners (KHP) Summer School with the aim of inspiring and exposing young people from local Lambeth and Southwark schools about careers in science by engaging them with their work. Amaia was one of nine of the School’s researchers who took part in the online event this year and shares her experience. 

I am Amaia, a Postdoc in the department of Imaging Chemistry and Biology. My research is focused on developing medical imaging techniques using novel therapeutics (i.e., drugs and imaging agents), mainly using positron emission tomography (PET) imaging and isotopes that are unstable atoms, which emit radiation. 

CT scan (left, B&W) and dual PET-CT scan (right, colour), detects function to locate disease in the body

I am passionate about finding new ways to use radiation and I love working in our research department at St Thomas’ Hospital. What I like the most from my job is having the chance to work with people with very mixed science backgrounds as physicists, chemists or biologists. Daily, we learn from all these disciplines and it never gets repetitive or boring. 

Summer School Workshop: Hot Stuff

On the 6th July, Dr Samantha Terry, Senior Lecturer from my Department, and I delivered a 45 minute workshop as part of the King’s Health Partner Summer School 2021 with the aim of

(i) improving pupil’s understanding of radiation and it’s uses in healthcare

(ii) reduce misconceptions around radiation and increase exposure of young people to get to know the existence of this sort of work

(iii) inspire pupils about careers in science through a perfect example of how a science degree can take you to many different types of jobs, learning and training

There were around 24 attendees who joined us, made up of students from non-fee-paying secondary schools local to King’s (Lambeth & Southwark) who were at the end of GCSE/considering their A levels (around 15-16 years old). After a disrupted year of school studies, due to COVID, the Summer School sort to provide an exciting and novel way to engage these students in science and further learning. 

The workshop was held online via Teams due to the restrictions; nevertheless, we wanted it to be interactive and dynamic as possible. We used a mix of short presentations, videos and Padlets (online interactive boards that allows users to add comments and media anonymously – see Figure 1) to direct the student towards a set of learning objectives but also leaving time for informal two-way conversations to get answers to their questions. 

Figure 1. Screen capture of Padlet with a task for pupils to post ‘radioactivity’ images beforehand

We wanted to make a few points related to radiation clear. Firstly, in small doses, radiation is all around us and it is not necessarily dangerous.  

Before the session, we asked them to take a look at our Instagram account @radiation_hotstuff from our department (made by Ines Costa and Dr Samantha Terry), which gives examples of common objects that emit radiation. They were then asked to take pictures and add them to the Padlet beforehand so we could discuss each object with them and whether they were correct.  

This was an excellent way to also gather what they understood about radiation beforehand so we could prepare answers and pitch content accordingly. They came up with lots of great images (see Figure 2.). Samantha explained, using their pictures, that in our department we are interested mostly in ionising radiation and radioactivity.  

Why is this important? Whilst most of the objects the students posted were indeed radioactive examples (A to C in Figure 2), there were quite a lot of mentions of technology, such as – mobiles, laptops and TVs (Figure 2 D). These objects emit radiation, but it is not ionising, therefore they are not radioactive. Samantha explained that non-ionising radiation interacts differently with things and explained the broad range of light and its different characteristics e.g., the electromagnetic spectrum. 

Figure 2: Objects that emit Ionising Radiation (used in lab/healthcare):

A – Smoke detectors contain a small amount of americium-241 which is radioactive

B – Some fruits and nuts have naturally high levels of potassium and a small fraction of all potassium is radioactive

C – Granite has radioactive elements like uranium, thorium or radium that will decay into radioactive radon gas

D – Technology e.g., Mobile phones, TVs and laptops emit non-ionising radiation

This exercise made them realise that from cosmic radiation (from the sun and in the atmosphere) when taking a flight, to eating fruits that contain radioactive isotopes (for example bananas), to construction materials, such as granite – radiation is everywhere!  

Secondly, damage by radiation depends on the dose and type of radiation and can be useful in healthcare. In our department, we are researching new ways of using radioactive molecules to improve diagnosis and treatment of a variety of health conditions (i.e., cancers, heart disease), increasing the benefits and decreasing the side effects for patients. 

While preparing my sections I was trying to remember which concepts would have been new to me as 15-year-old, and I think most of them would have. I thought most students would think of the toxic effects of high doses of radiation that we can find in popular culture. I do not think I could have named a positive well known effect of radiation when I was 15. We asked them what their thoughts on radiation were, you can see some of their answers in Figure 3 below. They surprisingly listed technical physics concepts as “particle radiation”, “electromagnetic spectrum”, “fission” or “gamma rays” – see Figure 3 wordcloud.  

A couple of answers from the students were indeed related to the toxic component. For example, they mentioned the Chernobyl disaster. Probably due to the recent release of a dramatized limited series on the topic, that frankly, it is quite thrilling – and the science accurate – even for radiation workers!

Figure 3. Wordcloud of the students’ responses when we asked them ‘what do you think of when you hear the word ‘radiation’ and ‘radioactivity’?’ before showing them our videos (bigger the word appears indicates more times the word was given as an answer from different students). 

Lastly, we wanted to show our department – how we work, the diverse team and the different labs needed to develop these new imaging and therapy tools. I created and edited two short video tours that we showcased during the workshop – one of the clinical PET imaging area and the patient journey when getting a scan (courtesy of Sarah-May Gould) and the other in our research labs with scientists’ carrying out their daily work. 

After a short explanation on how radiation and radioactivity are used in hospitals, we showed them a virtual tour video through the PET centre in St Thomas. After watching this, we asked them again ‘what do you think of when you hear the word ‘radiation’ and ‘radioactivity’? (answers in Figure 3) and ‘how radioactivity in used in the hospital?’ (answers in Figure 4). 

Again, the answers showed a shift towards the content of the video and the presentation, which proved that they were able to take in a lot of information in a few minutes. Some of the words that surprised me were “doses”, “storage”, “controlled” or “shields”. All of them key words in radiation world. Other concepts that I showed insight in Figure 5 wordcloud were, “safe”, “internal” or “therapy”, as these concepts are usually explained to patients when they receive a medical scan or treatment that uses radiation.  

Figure 4. Wordcloud of student responses after watching the video to the same question ‘what do you think of when you hear the word ‘radiation’ and ‘radioactivity’? (bigger the word appears indicates more times the word was given as an answer from different students). 
Figure 5. Wordcloud of student responses after watching the video to the same question how radioactivity in used in the hospital?’ (bigger the word appears indicates more times the word was given as an answer from different students). 

Reflections 

As an experience for me, I have learned a lot. My previous experience with public engagement were sessions with patients in which we tried to answer their doubts. These Q&A sessions were less formal and less time constrained. For this workshop we had a maximum of 45 min, and it was challenging to fit in all the information. 

I felt confident in delivery the session? as I co-hosted with Samantha Terry and had support from the Public Engagement team (Dr Melissa Bovis); who have a lot of experience and were able to create an effective agenda for content and timings for the workshop.  

The Padlets used in the workshop allowed students to interact anonymously, which seemed to promote their participation, and was chosen over the chat box option. To be honest, in a preparation meeting I feared not being able to catch their attention and to get very little participation – not only was that not the case, but I was really impressed with the insightfulness of their answers, as they showed meaningful background knowledge.  

I also gained video recording and editing skills as a result of being involved. I recorded some videos in the department and I have to thank all my colleagues that volunteered to appear in the video with little notice (Arshiya, Azalea and Oskar). I find that videos are a great tool to concentrate information and I will try to use this media for future workshops. I would love to do this again face to face at some point; I think the online workshop has some advantages but in general a physical tour would probably allow them to have more realistic view of the department. 

As for their opinion we asked them “What has surprised you about this session and what will you tell your friends?” and they answered things as “radiation is everywhere”, “that old TVs were radioactive”, “that it is important to keep the radiation contained inside the labs using lead” or “just because it emits radiation doesn’t mean its harmful” which aligned with our learning objectives – see Figure 6.  

The feedback we received during and subsequently from the session demonstrated the students enjoyed the session and that they understood that research and science teams are made up of people of many different backgrounds, to get a creative environment with different points of view in the department, which fulfilled our key aims for the Summer School and session.

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