Samuel Vennin is currently completing a PhD in cardiovascular medicine. His research focuses on establishing new relationships between blood flow and blood pressure in the ascending aorta. He works across both the Department of Clinical Pharmacology and the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Here he reflects on his experience in taking part in the Royal Society Summer Exhibition and New Scientist Live.
In research, we spend a lot of time experimenting and creating knowledge to share it within our community. We ponder how best to convey our ideas to our peers, write specialist articles, give complex talks, design elaborate posters etc. The rationale for that is clear: to advance science, we need to communicate with those who are researching the same topics we do. This approach is undeniably efficient, but it tends to blind us and make us forget that sometimes, turning to a non-specialist audience can also benefit research.
Over the summer of 2017, the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences and its Centre for Doctoral Training engaged in several public engagement events highlighting the research happening at King’s. At the prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and the popular New Scientist Live, the stands we animated were mainly focused on the heart and showcased many of the School’s fields of expertise such as medical imaging, cardiovascular modelling and 3D printing for medical purposes. Over these two events we had over 5000 people visit our stand, from children to retired people – we even had a royal visit! For many of us, this was the occasion to have a different discussion about science.
Have you ever tried playing tennis without a racket? Or if you really wanted to have a racket you would have to create one first? Public engagement in science gives you that exact feeling. You can’t assume you and your partner are playing the same game, nor can you use the tools you would normally use (the words, the concepts …) without explaining them first. If you both really want to play, it will require some effort and creativity.
That is what I love about engagement: it doesn’t come easy but if you manage to infuse your message, the intellectual reward is immense. You don’t talk about pacemakers to 5-year-old kids the same you would with retired people. Their understanding of heart mechanics is not the same, nor is their experience of cardiovascular disease. Therefore no two conversations are the same and if you have a prepared speech, you will quickly have to go off-script. This keeps you alert and ready to shift gears to better get your message across. It is different from teaching in university because instead of trying to bring students to understand an established and structured knowledge, here you have to tweak that structure to bring it to the person you are interacting with. It is a totally different intellectual dynamic.
It is important for researchers to experience that dynamic because, as the saying goes, what is clearly thought out is expressed clearly and the skills gained through outreach activities hence translate nicely into the research world. Even when talking to an audience familiar with your field, like at a conference, most of them won’t know about your particular topic and its specificities. It frequently happens to me that I don’t understand talks from researchers whose field of investigation only borders mine. That is mainly due to the high degree of interdisciplinarity in the medical field as people come from backgrounds as diverse as electrical engineering, computing sciences, biology, chemistry or medicine. But if you can get a lay audience to understand your research, surely you can do the same with people who share some fundamentals with you. Being able to talk to all researchers will not only benefit the quality of the feedback you will get, but also gives you more visibility in the research community. One can never stress enough the importance of communication skills in research.
But there is more to engagement than personal fulfillment or achievement. When applying for grants or fellowships, a process in which funding bodies are looking for impact, showing that yours didn’t limit itself to publications in fancy journals or commercial applications can be the tie-breaker between you and another applicant. Having participated in public engagement shows that you are genuinely passionate about your research and spreading knowledge to the rest of the world, not just the people familiar with you field. Besides, some of the funding bodies are charities and can only fund research through donations. It is important for them to highlight examples of how that money is being used. This sparked some of the funniest interactions I had doing engagement: since I am funded by the British Heart Foundation, people were pleased to know where the money they raised running marathons went to!
I hope this blog will entice more people to participate in such engagement activities. It is another fun and rewarding way to contribute to science.