Sarah Thomas: The Impact of Science Engagement

Sarah Thomas: The Impact of Science Engagement

Our Adventures in Science Communication project moves forward with this piece from Sarah. Communicating science can have a profound affect on the person doing the talking…

Sarah’s academic career includes a Masters in Medicinal and Biological Chemistry and a PhD in Chemical Biology from the University of Edinburgh. Along the way the she earned a PhD Development Scholarship in Public Engagement, which has fueled her passion for public outreach. She is now a freelance science engager, working mostly on collaborative projects developing activities based on real research aimed at a family audience.

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I have enjoyed a successful stay in academia. I have done all the things you are supposed to do: I have written papers, I have presented my work at international conferences, I have passed my PhD and I was even offered a postdoctoral position at a prestigious university. Yet, the things that I consider my greatest achievements and the defining moments of my career do not appear on my CV.

I decided to get involved with public engagement for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to do something to separate myself from the pack: I hadn’t scored as highly in my final exams as I would have hoped and I believed that doing science communication would somehow make up for this and make me more attractive to potential employers. And secondly, Cancer Research UK provided the funding for my PhD, a charity which relies solely on public donations, and I felt a strong social responsibility to let the public see their fundraising efforts rewarded in the research.

I designed hands-on activities based on my research and made them freely available to the public at the National Museum of Scotland, as part of the Museum’s programme of science festival events. I recruited other PhD students to act as science communicators, to help me facilitate and evaluate the activities. At first I found engaging the public with an emotional topic like cancer research extremely difficult. I was overwhelmed by their kindness and encouragement, as people shook my hand, hugged me and thanked me for my hard work. Until this time I don’t think I had really taken ownership of my research and I did not understand the impact it could have on other people. I was touched as total strangers shared with me their personal experiences of cancer. I met survivors, I met families who had lost loved ones, and I met children and adults undergoing treatment. There were occasions whilst working at science festivals that I couldn’t hold back the tears until I got home, and I had to go and pour my heart out in the toilets of the Museum.

My work in science communication had a profound impact on my academic research. I was more focussed and committed than ever before. After working at a public event, I could not wait to get back to the lab to run more experiments and analyse the data. The failed experiments started to hurt while the successful ones gave me comfort, but a positive result never felt like enough. I worked into the night, ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at work and took only a handful of days off per year. In my down time I took up running and started fundraising for Cancer Research UK. I decorated the walls of my lab with my running numbers and placed my “In memory of Nan and Olly Mclaren” bib next to my computer screen where I gazed at it often. Public engagement gave me a personal connection with my research that lit a fire in my belly.

When I think about my life’s experiences, moments from my time in science communication spring to mind. I met a young family a couple of years ago at a science festival; the parents told me that they felt uncomfortable, that they were being judged but that they wanted a better life for their children and so they were persevering and making their way around every stand at the festival. The father told me that all of his older relatives had died from lung cancer but that he didn’t believe that smoking was linked to cancer. I calmly explained the links, strongly encouraged him to quit smoking and spent lots of time with their sons hoping to give them a great science festival experience. While we finished off the activities, the father quietly walked away and threw his cigarettes in the bin. Afterwards he told me that he wanted to be there for their sons when they go off to university like I had. That is still one of the most profound moments of my life.

Another time I met a shy young girl who was very keen to find out how my diagnostic blood test for cancer worked. She looked so amazed by the UV reactive results I thought it might have frightened her, but she dragged her mother over to demonstrate the activity herself. When the fake blood samples began to glow she animatedly told her mother that this must be what happens when the doctors take her blood away. She was so thrilled to see this for herself; it broke my heart when her mother told me she had leukaemia.

I’ve had some time to reflect on my work in science communication and I think there are a couple of starting materials that can make public engagement really special. For me, engagement with academic research has to come from the researcher. It’s ok if you are not the best communicator or are unsure how to start, get an experienced science engager to help you. The best person to explain your work is you. Secondly, don’t be afraid to be yourself and put yourself out there. Allowing that personal connection to happen and shine through is what captures the attention of the public. They want to get to know you and share the experience with you. And finally, take ownership of your work. In science we are taught to never use the first person and it can be easy to become disconnected from our research. In science communication you must learn to say, “I did it”; the public need to know who you are.

“Hi I’m Sarah. I lost my gran and granddad to cancer and afterwards I went on to get my PhD in Chemistry funded by Cancer Research UK. I miss them a lot. I am proud of what I have achieved, proud to dedicate my thesis to them, and I’m so happy to be here today and share it with you. Here’s to Nan and Olly Mclaren!”

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