Public Engagement: A Penguin’s Perspective

Issued: Thu, 21 Mar 2019 15:58:00 GMT

Hi, I’m Henry the Science Penguin and whilst at first glance I might not appear to be your stereotypical researcher (probably because I am a cuddly penguin), I am in fact a qualified scientist having graduated with an MSc in Penguin Studies from the University of Dundee in June 2018. I then progressed into parasitology public engagement and outreach, though I have a passion for STEM related subjects in general, at the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Parasitology (WCIP) at the University of Glasgow.

The first event I attended as WCIP Science Penguin was the Glasgow Science Festival Parasite Tattoo Parlour and Crafty Critter Science Sunday Stall. It was a great atmosphere with lots of parents and children alike creating colourful microbes, learning about different parasites and enjoying some of the fantastic comics the WCIP at produced. I absolutely loved the event and it confirmed I had made the right decision to move to Glasgow and progress my career in a direction more focused on science outreach.

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In October 2018, I was very excited to attend my first conference: The 68th American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting in New Orleans, I even got my very own conference name badge! I also got to sneak into the Global Schistosomiasis Alliance meeting the day previous too. I met many researchers from across the globe and learnt a lot, particularly about a parasitic worm disease called schistosomiasis. This infection is the second biggest parasitic disease, after malaria, in terms of disease burden and death. It is found mainly in developing tropical nations and is contracted when individuals enter infective water and the schistosome parasite, known as a cercariae at this stage, penetrates through the skin. It was very interesting attending some of scientific sessions on offer, there were so many that it just wasn’t possible to attend them all. The posters sessions provided a great opportunity to interact, especially with young researchers, and learn about a diverse range of science from the bacteria inside a mosquito’s gut to 3D printed mosquito traps. In my down time I was also able to explore the city and chat to some very friendly people about science who wondered what a penguin wearing a lab coat was doing in New Orleans!

After my adventures abroad it was back to some serious work and the drawing board. How do we teach the public about schistosomiasis and some of the other diseases I’d learnt about on my travels? ‘Poop Pondering,’ an interactive game to teach people about poo, hygiene, worm parasites and treatment was thus formed, and myself and Lauren, a PhD student, set to work to make the idea become a reality. Having been granted the approval of Vickie our fabulous public engagement officer here at WCIP and recruited several students to trial the idea out in the lab offices with much success, we were ready to go! When we were offered the chance to premiere the activity at the Launch of the First Victorians event held at the Glasgow Botanical Gardens we jumped at the opportunity. The game even fitted nicely with the sewage system topic which was one of several displays. So, on a rather soggy January morning we set up the poo themed game inside Kibble Palace and awaited people to come and try out the activity. It seemed to be a hit with the children, who appeared to leap at the chance to fish out some poo from the basins (it’s okay, the poos are fake plastic ones) and get some sweets if they correctly identified the infectious critters attached to their fished specimen. The gross factor indeed seemed to lure an audience that could not suppress their curiosity to discover why four students and a penguin had a game about poo: an object that every individual can typically relate to on a daily basis but is usually too embarrassed to discuss. Some great conversation arose about poo and its place in academic research and infection diagnosis. It was certainly a very fun day. Since then we’ve taken Poop Pondering along to a local primary school where P2 and P3 were extremely enthusiastic and seemed to be very engaged in capturing all the parasite invested poo contaminating the fresh water in the basins!

In March, I ventured up to the Strathearn Science Festival for an intense day of Poop Pondering and teaching people about parasitic diseases, sanitation and hygiene. It was a fabulous day and I even had time to explore all the different stalls and learn about all sorts or science. Absolutely fascinating and some very creative ideas!

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Most recently, I represented the WCIP at the ISNTD Festival, a public engagement conference, in London. There were some excellent speakers and the importance of good communication between scientists and with the general public was reinforced. It was highlighted that it is beneficial to society if information is available at the correct level and provided in a culturally appropriate way to allow people to make informed decisions themselves. Researchers have a responsibility to ensure that their science research is disseminated transparently in a format that is relatable and easy to understand if trust is to be created and maintained in the science field. The value of public engagement and outreach should not be underestimated especially in a world in which technology allows fake news and science fear to spread rapidly. Public engagement advocates presented different approaches they had undertaken to help educate the public about neglected tropical diseases including the creation of a story about a young girl who learns about Leishmaniasis, the creation of an awesome game called Malaria Invasion and learning about the ethics of photography and how we should portray infected communities. A reoccurring theme was that stories should be ones of positivity and not poverty to empower communities affected by debilitating neglected diseases. Lauren and I also ran a workshop on the Poop Pondering game. Overall it was a great event and I returned with lots of ideas buzzing around my head and plenty of amazing contacts!

Well, now I should get some sleep. I have another primary school visit in the morning and plenty of school labs to help at next week! I’ve also got another idea for a fun game to develop and another conference to attend soon so watch this space! Definitely going to be a busy few weeks for me. No rest for the science penguin. To finish, give it a go! There are many forms of public engagement to try: writing blogs, school outreach, comedy ,artwork, games, poetry, pub talks…the list is endless. It is fun and definitively allows for some satisfaction, inspiration and time out from the frustrations of intense research. If you want to keep up with my endeavours you can follow me @henry_science for lots of updates and photos which I hope will cheer up your day and crack a smile or two! It would be great to hear what you’ve been up to too.

Yours in Science,

Henry