In 2019, Ella Hubber, a PhD student from the Centre for Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine set out to design an activity that aimed to spark excitement and interest around her research field. She worked closely with art students from Gold Smiths University to create and exhibit an interactive activity that engaged hundreds of young people with the principles of islet transplantation. She told KERN about her experience and the power of art to communicate science.
Why did you want to engage the public with your research?
In 2011, the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, a show I unashamedly love, featured a story line where a doctor ran a clinical trial to treat sufferers of severe type 1 diabetes with a promising treatment called islet transplantation. People I talk to about my research either mention this story line or have not heard of the research at all. Grey’s Anatomy succeeded where many scientists fail, making a complicated and niche research topic relatable and accessible.
Public and government support of research is generated through understanding and interest. Although islet transplantation is only the tip of my research iceberg, it is also most accessible part as people can see how it might affect them or people they know. I wanted to communicate this part of my research well and spark interest, particularly in young people who are more to pursue this interest further.
How did you engage the public with your research?
We created an activity that simulates the process of islet transplantation. Islets are clusters of hormone producing cells from the pancreas, transplanting them can replace the insulin producing cells that are destroyed during type 1 diabetes. In the activity, participants move polymer balls that represent islets from a donor pancreas into five potential transplantation routes (liver, pancreas, eye, kidney and muscle) via tubes. A sensor within the tubes counts how many islets are transplanted and the number is displayed on a screen, however, the number of “functional islets” is also displayed and is dependent on the efficiency of the transplantation route. Participants must consider what makes one transplantation route better than another, thinking about influences such as the immune system, oxygen supply, insulin reaching tissues and organ accessibility.
This project was funded by the King’s small public engagement grant and the Society for Endocrinology public engagement grant. This extra funding allowed us to take the project further and fund materials for our collaboration with artists from Goldsmiths.
We have been lucky enough to take this project across London and Brighton over the past six months to New Scientist Live, the Evelina Inspiring Youth Conference, and the Society for Endocrinology Conference. The hands-on activity is aimed primarily at GCSE and A-Level students (aged 15-18) but we were able to engage with individuals of all ages and levels of scientific understanding – particularly at New Scientist Live which ranges from scientists to enthusiasts to young people on school trips.
Who did you collaborate with on this project and why?
Last year I attended a degree show for the Digital Arts Computing BSc at Goldsmiths University where I was able to see the innovative tech-meets-art of two friends, Megan Benson and Johanna De Verdier. Meg and Johanna showed off their creative coding and interactive art with a robotic flower that danced with your movement and home-grown fungus that sang when you touched it. I had plans for the islet transplantation activity but didn’t have the skill or resources to execute it the way I pictured it in my head – but Meg and Johanna clearly did.
In between their lectures, jobs and dissertation writing, they molded wax, laser cut and coded. The end result was an exciting scientific exhibition based on my research. The overwhelmingly positive response and level of engagement with the final product demonstrated to me how impactful science outreach through art can be.
What impact did your activity have?
Before each run of the activity, we put questions to the audience to get a feel of how much they already know. Sometimes, we could barely coax a single answer out of groups of shy or disinterested teenagers. But as soon as they stepped up to the activity, picked up the tools and the time started, something seemed to switch on in them. We saw groups of young people huddled around the islets, testing the routes systematically and whispering frantically about why they thought the muscle must be a good route because it’s so easy to access (true) or the eye can’t possibly work because things don’t get transplanted there (false).
We evaluated the activity over the course of the events. It revealed that only 6% of participants knew what islet transplantation was before they took part (many of those 6% were aware because of Grey’s Anatomy). Written feedback showed us that participants didn’t just learn what islet transplantation was but also what an islet was, what causes type 1 diabetes, that you could transplant things into the eye because it is immuno-privileged and that not everything you transplant survives. Facts like these open doors to my wider research question which I frequently spoke about to participants. Most importantly, and in line with our aim, 88% of participants partially (53%) or totally (35%) agreed that the activity made them more interested in diabetes research generally. Admittedly, not everyone was happy. Several people wrote that we need to make the islets less slippery.
How did the experience influence you as a researcher?
One of the most impactful moments of the whole experience was seeing the artists stand behind the stall at New Scientist Live and explain the science of islet transplantation to groups of rapt young people without my input. It showed me that research that is not typically in the public eye can be understood, enjoyed and disseminated by anyone if it is made accessible. As a researcher, this encourages me to not underestimate the public in their desire to understand science and encourages me to continue to pursue collaborative outreach projects.
If you are a King’s research interested in funding your own public engagement project, you can apply for a Small Public Engagement Grant of up to £750. Funds are awarded biannually- the next deadline is April 24 2020.
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