Outreach means trying to engage the public with what we are doing in our research group. For me, this mainly means talking to non-specialists about our work and showing them around the lab. These non-specialists are typically interested members of the public and mainly supporters of the charity that funds work in my lab (Cancer Research UK). The most recent batch of activities have prompted this post on doing outreach.
Outreach is challenging. Taking part in these events made me realise what a tough job it is to do science communication, and how good the best the communicators are.
There are many ways that an outreach talk is tougher to give than a research seminar. Not least because explaining what we do in the lab can quickly spiral down into a full-on Cell Biology 101 lecture.
A statement like “we work on process x and we are studying a protein called y”, needs to be followed by “jobs in cells are done by proteins”, then maybe “proteins are encoded by genes”, in our DNA, which is a bunch of letters, oh there’s mRNA, ahhh stop! Pretty soon, it can get too confusing for the audience. In a seminar, the level of knowledge is already there, so protein x can be mentioned without worrying about why or how it got there.
On the other hand, giving an outreach talk is much easier than giving a seminar because the audience is already warm to you and they don’t want you to stuff it up. It’s a bit like giving a speech at a wedding.
The challenge is exciting because it means that our work needs to be explained plainly and placed in a bigger context. If you get the chance to explain your work to a lay audience, I recommend you try.
The big difference between doing a scientific talk for scientists and talking to non-specialists is in the questions. They can be disarming, for various reasons. Here are a few that I have had on recent visits. How would you answer?
Can you tell the difference [down the microscope] between cells from a black person versus those from a white person!?
For context, we had just looked at some HeLa cells down the microscope and I had explained a little bit about Henrietta Lacks and the ethical issues surrounding this cell line.
You mentioned evolution but I think you’ll find that the human cell is just too intricate. How do you think cells are really made?
Hint: it doesn’t matter what you reply. You will be unlikely to change their mind.
Do you dream of being famous? What will be your big discovery?
I’ve also been asked “are we close to a cure for cancer?”. It’s important to temper people’s enthusiasm here I think.
Are you anything to do with [The Crick]? No? Good! It’s a waste of money and it shouldn’t have been built in London!
I had wondered if lay people knew about The Crick, which is now the biggest research institute in the UK. Clearly they have! I tried to explain that The Crick is a chance to merge several institutes that already existed in London and so it would save money on running these places.
Aren’t you just being exploited by the pharmaceutical industry?
This person was concerned that academics generate knowledge which is then commercialised by companies.
My friend took a herbal remedy and it cured his cancer. Why aren’t you working on that?
Like the question rejecting evolution, it is difficult for people to abandon their N-of-one/anecdotal knowledge.
Does X cause cancer?
This is a problem of the media in our country I think. Who seem to be on a mission to categorise everything (red meat, wine, tin foil) into either cancer-causing or cancer-preventing.
As you can see, the questions are wide-ranging, which is unsettling in itself. It’s very different to “have you tried mutating serine 552 to test if the effect is one of general negative charge on the protein?” that you get in a research seminar.
The charity that organises some of the events I’ve been involved in are really supportive and give a list of good ways to answer “typical questions”. However, most questions I get are atypical, and the anticipated questions about animal research or embryo cloning do not arise.
I find it difficult to give a succinct answer to these lay questions. I try to give an accurate reply, but this leads to long and complicated answer that probably confuses the person even more. I have the same problem with children’s questions, which often get me scurrying to Wikipedia to find the exact answer for “why the sky is blue”. I should learn to just give a vaguely correct answer and not worry about the details so much.
The best questions are those where you can tell that the person has really got into it. In the last talk I gave, I described “stop” and “go” signals for cell division. One person asked
How does a cell suddenly know that it has to divide? It must get a signal from somewhere… what is that signal?
My initial reply was that asking these sorts of questions is what doing science is all about!
Two more amazing questions:
Is it true that scientists are secretive with their results and think more about advancing their careers than publicising their findings openly to give us value for money?
This was from a supporter of the charity who had read a piece in The Guardian about scientific publishing. She followed up by asking why do scientists put their research behind paywalls. I found this tough to answer because I suddenly felt responsible for the behaviour of the entire scientific community.
You mentioned taxol and the side effects. I was taking that for my breast cancer and it is true what you said. It was very painful and I had to stop treatment.
This was the first time a patient had talked to me about their experience of things that were actually in my talk. This was a stark reminder that the research I am doing is not as abstract as I think. It also made me more cautious about the way I talk about current treatments, since people in the room may be actually taking them!
With the charity I’ve been to Polo Clubs, hotels, country houses, Bishop’s houses, relay events in public parks. The best part is welcoming people to our lab. These might be a Mayor or people connected wth the city football team, but mainly they are interested supporters of the charity. It’s nice to be able to explain where their money goes and what a life in cancer research is really like.
To do these events, there is a team of people doing all the organisation: inviting participants, sorting out parking, tea and coffee etc. The team are super-enthusiastic and they are really skilled at talking to the public. The events could not go ahead without them. So, a big thank you to them. I’ve also been helped by the folks in the lab and colleagues in my building who have helped to show visitors around and let them see cells down the microscope etc.
Give it a try
Of course there are many other ways to engage the public in our research. This is just focussed on talking to non-scientists and the issues that arise. As I’ve tried to outline here, it’s a fun challenge. If you get the opportunity to do this, give it a try.
The post title comes from “Reaching Out” by Matthew Sweet from his Altered Beast LP. Lovely use of diminished seventh in a pop song and of course the drums are by none other than Mick Fleetwood.