by Ralitsa Madsen, Wellcome Trust PhD student in Metabolic and Cardiovascular Disease at the University of Cambridge Metabolic Research Laboratories
Most of us have heard about the Tower of Babel, a biblical story supposed to explain the origins of different languages. Accordingly, living beings do not share a common, or universal language. Is that really true? No. I believe that there is one language that we are all able to speak: the core language of science. As a result, science public engagement activities are able to bring together diverse groups of people irrespective of age, cultural background, skin colour or political beliefs.Why? Because an ‘atom’ is an ‘atom’ whether or not you are Danish, Bulgarian, English, black, white, muslim, Christian, child or adult.
Proof of concept: Big Biology Day in Cambridge was a great success with countless visitors, children and adults, determined to satiate their curiosity about life. A one-day science festival celebrating the life sciences, this event also managed to bring renowned biological organisations under one roof. To name a few, visitors could take part in fun hands-on activities presented by scientists from GSK, MedImmune, Babraham, The Sanger Institute, and many more. Personally, I helped two different groups. At the planning stage, I was involved in developing the Sherlock murder(!) scene with the rest of the crew from the Cambridgeshire branch of the British Science Association (CBSA). Listed as one of the most popular activities on the day, more than 50 visitors per hour engaged with our hands-on tasks, including DNA extraction from bananas, fibre inspection using an optical microscope, liquid chromatography and fingerprint analysis. On the actual day, I was further volunteering for the Biochemical Society and spent most of my Saturday explaining the nuts and bolts of painkillers, which involved helping children build structural models of aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen simply using pipe cleaners, beads and paper. Closer to my own field and the interest of the Cambridge Metabolic Network, The Physiological Society made an effort to teach children homeostasis, energy balance and appetite regulation. Simple, but nevertheless to the point, their use of balances allowed the younger participants (or even their parents!) to determine how many “bottles” of different exercise activities they would need to balance or even surpass the “weight” of various foods, elegantly demonstrating the importance of energy intake and energy expenditure, and why the two need to match to achieve a stable body weight. They further touched upon PYY, ghrelin and other appetite-regulating hormones, and you would suddenly see children running around with stickers saying “PYY makes me full!”, yet another way of getting the message across.
Given the high density of incredible minds who all spend their days conducting research on metabolism and its dysregulation, it is at events like Big Biology Day that we – scientists across all age groups and career stages – must get out to spread our knowledge and demonstrate our passion for metabolic science. Nevertheless, you may still sit out there thinking – “Isn’t public engagement a waste of precious time that could otherwise be spent in the lab producing yet more results for the next high-impact paper? Surely, it must be a waste of intellectual resources to spend a day simplifying scientific concepts in order for non-scientists to understand them?” – the answer is: absolutely not. Indeed, just by observing all the great activities offered by like-minded individuals at science festivals and fairs, you may find yourself inspired (I did!), clearly beneficial for innovative thinking. More than that, not only may you end up with new ideas for your next research project, but you may inspire the next “batch” of great minds with a passion for biological research. I am certainly not claiming that spending 8 hours with pipe cleaners and pieces of paper is particularly exciting. What is exciting is the light in the eyes of children and parents when you explain to them how biology works, why our research is important, and how it applies to everyday aspects of their lives. This is an immensely rewarding experience, and it can even serve to boost one’s own confidence as a researcher!
To make a long story short, the take-home message: true, we need to master complex thinking when designing new experiments in the lab, but a scientific career involves so much more than just being in the lab. What is the point of all our work, if we do not engage with the very people benefiting from it? If our explanations are too long-winded and doomed to fail the famous “granny”-test, our only significant achievement will be the establishment of yet another Tower of Babel that separates scientists from the public. We must not forget the importance of speaking the universal scientific language, free from all complex jargon – an important skill to practice! Importantly, we must not forget our responsibility to motivate the next generation of scientists through fun hands-on activities relaying the universality of science, the essence of our work, and why we should be proud of doing what we do.