Bringing the natural world to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

Post by Dr Ian Wilson

On 12th and 13th June 2019, the natural world took over a corner of the atrium at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Nightingale song and the tinkling trickle of a running stream played out across the atrium as a spotlight drew the eye to our little collaborative corner of creativity. I had joined colleagues from the Department of English to host an outreach event encouraging better understanding of, and empathy with, ‘Nonhuman Species’ via a mixture of attention-grabbing science and imagination-sparking creativity.

Members of the Department of English helped children explore their creative sides by encouraging them to think about a number of different species and what their lives are like. Could they explain in an acrostic poem the nature of a tree? Whilst colouring in pictures of nightingales, could they stop and consider what emotions a nightingale’s song makes them feel? Or could they find their new favourite story in our stack of nature-themed books and lose themselves in a world away from the hustle and bustle of the hospital? Our empathy and fascination with the natural world and non-human species are key to our understanding and appreciating them so we hope that these activities will have sparked some curiosity in our young visitors.

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At the same time, I paired with Creative Writing PhD student Bernadette McBride to show the public that science and creativity can belong hand-in-hand. I work in Dr Stew Plaistow’s lab group, investigating the effects of climate change on populations of Daphnia magna – so-called ‘water fleas’. Daphnia magna is a keystone species, meaning that, if it is affected by climate change, the impacts upon other species and factors within the ecosystems in which it resides will also be affected. As such, the importance of understanding temperature-induced effects on population diversity and genetic content in Daphnia cannot be understated.

 I brought with me a model of the Plaistow lab group’s experimental pond set-up at Ness Gardens, Wirral. This allowed me to better explain our work to older participants but also gave the younger children the opportunity to catch Daphnia magna from our miniature ponds and see them up close and personal on a TV screen-equipped microscope. Children were shown the different body parts of the twitchy micro-crustaceans on the screen and were given Daphnia-themed word searches and colouring sheets, whilst older visitors were told all about the group’s research at Ness Gardens.

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Bernadette, meanwhile, is writing a short story from the perspective of an individual Daphnia magna for a collection of tales concerning climate change. As such, children were given the opportunity to take what they’d learned about Daphnia magna and use their creativity and imagination to think about how Daphnia might feel and what they might notice about their environment as it changes through climate change.

 We hope that our event made children think more about the natural world, as well as making the public aware that science and the arts don’t always have to be viewed as disparate entities – sometimes one can influence the other, leading to even greater insights. This is an event we intend to run again in future in different locations across the city as the Department of English looks to broaden its audience.

 

 

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Liverpool LightNight – The Antimicrobial Avengers

Each year Liverpool hosts a one-night only art festival where local companies and organisations open their doors to the public. The evenings consist of performances, talks, workshops and more with this year’s theme: Ritual. STEAMLab – a collection of researchers and artists who are interested in sharing scientific knowledge through art – hosted the Antimicrobial Avengers.

In modern society, it has become almost a ritual to reach for the antibiotics as soon as you start to feel unwell. Antimicrobial avengers aimed to engage children and adults with the idea that antimicrobials are not a magical cure-all, before showing them how nature is inspiring research into alternative antimicrobials. For example, the structure of shark and gecko skin prevents bacteria from attaching to their surface, and Komodo dragons have antimicrobial proteins in their blood which make them resistant to many bacteria – important when you have enough bacteria in your mouth to cause sepsis with one bite! Antimicrobial surfaces are being used to develop sterile medical equipment such as catheters, and komodo blood proteins are being researched for possible applications.

Our event had 3 main stalls: a mini interactive exhibition of komodo, gecko and shark skin rendered in clay by Helen Birnbaum; a make-your-own bacteria stall; and a complete the comic strip stand, featuring ‘Shark Girl’ and ‘Komodo Dragon’ versus the evil ‘Superbugs’ in a series of comic strips (see here) designed by our Artist in Residence, Jess Irwin. Jen Adcott from the Centre for Cell Imaging provided videos of bacteria in action which were played throughout the evening.

Families began filtering in from 5pm onwards. Their knowledge ranged from the level of doctors and researcher to almost nothing at all. It was a fantastic evening of engaging children in science (or in one case designing a friendly bacteria called shiny who apparently lived in its creators eyeball) and talking to adults who had genuine interest in the subject.

It was a wonderfully successful event and fun for all involved. Talking with adults and children about a topic of such great importance is always rewarding, especially when they learn something new. Everyone had a great time and we can’t wait to do it all again!

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Mark Roughly, Jess, Raechelle and Louise for making this event possible and to the rest of the team for all the extra help on the day

Funding from the Centre for the Humanities and Social Sciences of Health, Medicine and Technology (CHSSHMT)

From the University of Liverpool: Raechelle D’Sa (Lecturer)– Louise Reynolds (Postdoc)- Nicola White (Research technician)- Jen Adcott (Technician)– Helen Davison (PhD student), Jess Irwin (MA Art in Science, Artist in Residence)

From Liverpool Jon Moores University: Mark Roughly (programme leader of MA Art in Science)

Others: Helen Birnbaum

 

Smithdown road festival weekend – Being a superhero scientist for a day, engaging with Alder Hey scientists from the Experimental Arthritis Treatment Centre for Children (EATC4Children)

Saturday 4th May – Sunday 5th May 2019

It is 8 am on a weekend when the alarm clock goes off and for a moment one might wonder “”why on Earth did I volunteer to help in a public engagement event on my day off?”. Shortly past 10 am we start to set up and any negative thought is simply out the window.

Greeted by amazing Dr Angela Midgely and her family, they are already setting up the small gazebo that will be our base for the next 6 hours. One minute in and we are already having fun. Our objective is to engage with all the wonderful pool of possible future scientists and introduce them to the wonderful Superhero Team in your Body project. Through 4 different activities suited for a wide range of ages our young participants will use games and craft to learn how cells in your immune system are superheroes that keep you safe.

It is 11 am and the community garden is already full with parents and kids ready to start engaging with the event. Together with the scientists from the Alder Hey team, we are ready to start the fun. The kids get to decorate superhero masks, create little microbes, learn about the immune cells of the body through games and even do a couple of experiments to separate cells and detect proteins (with a tailored lab coat of course!).

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Superhero Scientist team and some of the participants

At around 17h, on our way home, though tired, we could not possibly be happier. We have spent our day with so many youngsters, full of energy, creativity and inspired to learn that it has really recharged my mood. We engaged with at least 100 children and they all left our stand proudly wearing a badge with the motto “Science rocks” or “Science is Awesome”, a superhero mask and a small lab-book for their future experiments.

What can we say? There are plenty of worthwhile Public Engagement opportunities around us, sometimes it takes a bit of a push to get involved but we can tell you, it is really rewarding and worth your time.

Guest post by Eva Caamano-Gutierrez (IIB) and Rachel Floyd (SoLS)

Telling tales of multiple Ps – Dr Lydia Cole

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity* to talk, twice, about a topic related (slightly tenuously) to my research and very close to my heart.  On the evening of Wednesday 19th September I stood on the stage at Leaf, facing the Ignite Liverpool crowd, to present on “The Three Ps”; and on Saturday 22nd September I stood on a soapbox in Sheffield’s busy shopping district, to shout about “Peanut butter, palm oil and peat; getting un-stuck in the mud” to a bunch of slightly bemused passers-by.  They were quite different forums with which to share my knowledge and passion, but I learnt a good deal from preparing for and presenting at each.  Here’s a quick low-down of each event, which might hopefully inspire you to get involved in the future.

Ignite Liverpool is the brainchild of a community organisation that runs quarterly events, providing a platform on which anyone can talk for a whistle-stop five minutes about a subject they are passionate about.  The challenge is to convey a coherent story in five minutes, in synchrony with the visuals on your 20 slides which flash up for five seconds in a continuous reel.  I managed to mumble in time to the slides until the penultimate one, where my dialogue turned to dust!  It was a fun experience though, and useful in considering how to design succinct propaganda.  If you’d like to know more about the tale of The Three Ps, you can watch my performance here.  I would recommend giving Ignite a go if you live in Liverpool, or any of the other cities where it’s held (e.g. Sheffield); it’s a great opportunity to practice your public speaking and communication skills on any topic of your choice, in front of a very supportive, slightly tipsy crowd.  The most hilarious talk at the last event was entitled Any Colour you like, where all of the slides where shades of black!

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Reeling off about peat at Ignite Liverpool!

Soapbox Science proved a less well-polished, more chilled-out and slightly chillier event!  The initiative was started eight years ago by two female Biologists, with the goal of creating a public outreach platform on which female scientists could promote their science, whilst simultaneously increasing the profile of women in the STEM sector.

I chose to talk about the same issues on the soapbox as I did on the stage: a narrative around the prolific commodity, palm oil, which links our consumption behaviour in the UK to the draining and deforestation of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia.  Orang-utans, the people of the forest, were the protagonists, of course.  As part of my PhD research (a few years ago now!), I explored the long-term ecology and contemporary management of the coastal peat swamp forests of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, and have since been monitoring their declining condition and the ever-expanding state of industrial oil palm plantations across the region.  Though my Soapbox performance was not as succinct as I’d hoped (more prep required next time to catch the attention of a transient audience), I managed to have an interesting discussion with several members of the general public on topics of environmental sustainability and the RSPO.  The conversation with one chap, as engaged as he was disillusioned, only concluded when we decided that capitalism needed to be scrapped.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel qualified to propose an alternative solution.

Illustrating the link between peatlands, palm oil and peanut butter

I found both experiences hugely valuable, primarily because I gained some idea of the level of knowledge amongst the general public on some everyday consumer issues.  People were less aware than I’d realised.  To place your science into a ‘real world’ context, to understand how it might fit into the lives of your neighbours, and to learn how you can inspire people to care as you do, I would recommend standing up on as many platforms as you can.

*The opportunity was created by me through signing up to two events without realising they were in the same week!  I questioned my life choices many times when preparing for them into the wee hours of the morning …. though as per usual have no regrets, in retrospect.

Dementia Public Engagement Day

On Wednesday 23rd May, scientists from Team Madine and Team Turnbull went on a mission to educate the public about dementia research as part of dementia awareness week, at the Alzheimer’s Research UK North West public engagement event hosted at the Institute for Dementia (University of Salford). The event was a hive of activity and a cornucopia of fun! Through the media of Lego®, giant KerPlunk!, cells and real brains members of the public were introduced to all things dementia, including how diet can affect your dementia risk, the development of novel inhibitors of dementia-associated proteins and the links between dementia and other diseases.

Kiani Jeacock, James Torpey (Madine group) and Scott Guimond (Turnbull group) showcased the fantastic research happening at the University of Liverpool through informative posters and a ‘Draw for Dementia’ activity. People were invited to draw the first thing that came to mind when they heard the word “dementia”, which resulted in some really interesting and thought-provoking work!

On the day, they also met people who had dementia themselves or who had friends or family with dementia. This was an educational experience for the scientists too, as it highlighted the translational aspect of their work and emphasised the importance of research into these poorly-understood conditions.

Overall it was a well-organised and enlightening day, and events like these are fantastic for both researchers and the general public alike.

Thanks to ARUK and the Institute for Dementia for hosting!

 

Build My Future Festival

by Meriel Jones

I’ve given many talks about careers in the Life Sciences following from a degree, but this one was rather different. It was in the Baltic Triangle region of Liverpool, an area listed in March 2017 by ‘The Times’ newspaper as among the coolest, hippest places to live in Britain. The Northern Schools Trust were holding their two day Build My Future festival where 400 young people explore future career options. However, using 15 sites in the Baltic Triangle and including many personal stories about careers is distinctly different from usual.

The first day was given to keynote speakers (such as local MP Alison McGovern and local entrepreneur and chair of the Baltic Triangle CIC Liam Kelly) and introduced career pathways, including the Life Sciences.  The second day included people’s tales of their careers for explanation and inspiration, as well as more general talks, practical motivation and finished with a social event.

When I arrived at Baltic Creative on the 17th of November 2017, I walked into a coffee shop in a warehouse-style shed, and wondered where I’d be speaking. All was soon revealed through a door in the trendy chipboard wall which concealed a meeting room. While waiting, I was recognised by one of the teachers hosting the event, because, as a graduate in Genetics from the University of Liverpool, I’d taught him.  He’d followed his degree by working in biomedical research and then entering teaching.

My audience of about 30 young people had already listened to two speakers about their own careers in the Life Sciences. However, they were very attentive and several took notes. At the end I was asked thoughtful questions, including about opportunities for study abroad during a degree. I anticipate that in the future, members of today’s audience will return to share their career experiences with future young people.

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My experience of the Aurora Leadership Programme

by Klara Wanelik

In March this year I embarked on a leadership training course for women in higher education, called the Aurora Leadership Programme. You might be thinking, why would I go on a course like this? Well, as an early career researcher (ECR) in this sector, I am very concerned by statistics like this:

“The proportion of female students (55%) and graduates (59%) in the EU exceeds that of male students, but women represent only 18% of grade A (professorial) academic staff”1

The aim of Aurora is to take positive action to address this under-representation of women in leadership positions in the higher education sector.

I attended four development days at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (quite appropriate really!) and met hundreds of women from the higher education sector. It has taken me a while to digest all of this but I think I am finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I include some of my thoughts in this blog post with the hope of inspiring other female ECRs, and more generally inspiring others, to start questioning what it means to be a good a leader. I focus on two aspects of the programme that I found particularly useful. This choice is personal, and I’m sure that other women attending the programme would choose differently. But here goes…

Exploring core values

In one of the sessions, we were given a list of universal human values and asked to circle those that were most important to us: our ‘core values’. At the end of the session, each group pooled their results together on a kind of ‘value map’, where values were grouped under terms like universalism, benevolence and power. What I found particularly striking was that our table had circled lots of values in the former two groups (like equality, honesty and loyalty) but the power section of the map (with words like social recognition, public image and authority) was completely empty. And it wasn’t just our table, a colleague of mine who attended the programme in London, told me the same happened there.

How could this be? How could these women who had come together for the sole purpose of developing their leadership skills (some of them already in senior leadership positions) not feel that they identified with any of these values? There are two possible answers: 1) they didn’t feel comfortable sharing these values, or 2) they genuinely didn’t prioritise them. Given the spirit of openness that Aurora encourages, I assume that the second answer is the most likely. This isn’t a gender-specific phenomenon – we heard that men in leadership positions who completed this activity also highlighted the non-power-related values. This, I think, calls into question what we think a leader should be. Many of us still hang on to a traditional view of a leader being a dominating individual, with full authority, who is driven to do what he/she does for the recognition, wealth and/or the power they receive in return. This is a view we really need to shift. By doing this activity, we were being encouraged to consider the individuality of leadership and the importance of authenticity; staying true to your values, while leading. As one of the facilitators suggested, the best leaders are those that create the next generation of leaders. I think this is perhaps a more useful (and interesting) view of leadership than the traditional one.

Importance of storytelling and leading with “why”

In another session we learnt about the importance of storytelling in leadership. This sounded a bit odd to me at first, I’d never really put the two together but then I got talking to a woman on my table who proceeded to tell me about some charity work she was doing, somewhat connected to her work as a lawyer. The way she created a narrative about the people she was helping and what she was doing to help them captured my attention. I wanted to sign up straight away, even though I would have been of very little help (I’m a biologist not a lawyer!) It was at this moment though, when she was masterfully telling her story, that I realised how powerful storytelling could be in getting people to do what you want them to do.

The tables were turned on another occasion, after I watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek, which was recommended as part of the pre-work for an Aurora session. In his talk, Simon Sinek talks about inspiring action by leading with why we’re doing something, rather than how or what exactly we’re doing: “people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it”. Soon after watching this talk I had the opportunity to re-formulate my ‘elevator pitch’ about the research that I do. There is a real diversity of women on the Aurora programme, from professional services to academics, and from all different fields. On this occasion, I happened to be sat next to (another) lawyer, and to be honest, I was pretty sceptical about being able to really (genuinely) get her on board. To my surprise, my pitch did get her genuinely excited about my research and asking multiple questions. I still remember the look on her face! I’ll be trying my best to lead with “why” from now on.

Thank you

I would like to thank IIB for funding my place on the Aurora programme, all the inspirational women I met during my time on Aurora and my colleagues in IIB for supporting me along the way. Special thanks to Zen Lewis, who provided much needed encouragement and support and pushed me to re-apply for Aurora after I was initially unsuccessful in securing a place.

If you are a female ECR like me, I hope this post will encourage you to give the Aurora programme a go and to start thinking of yourself as a leader!

  1. Morley, L (2013) Women and Higher Education: Absences and Aspiration