My journey with public engagement (PE) began before I started my PhD, during my final year undergraduate lab project. Due to a last minute drop out, I was asked to step in and help out at Body Experience, a FBMH event at the Manchester Museum designed for families to come and learn about the human body. I spent the day discussing the complexities of the brain with a wide audience – from excited scout groups to eager grandparents – and I loved breaking down complex scientific concepts in a fun and accessible way. From here I was hooked, and I knew that PE would be an important part of my academic career, and consequently I have tried to incorporate PE in as many aspects of my PhD as possible.
Discussing my research with a range of audiences has been incredibly important for developing my science communication skills, and has improved my confidence and presenting style within the academic realms of my PhD. Outside of the academic world it has given me the opportunity to interact with different people and communities. In a laboratory-based PhD it is very easy to get bogged down in the detail, and spend months obsessing over small things. But when I am explaining what happens in the brain after a stroke, to someone whose family member has been affected by stroke, it helps me to focus on the bigger picture, and connect with the real-world stories. I have also had the pleasure of connecting with sixth form students. The Manchester Access Programme (MAP) is University’s flagship widening participation scheme for local Year 12 students to help local sixth-form student’s access higher education. As a tutor on this scheme I have been paired with students and support to write an academic assignment, alongside answering any questions about higher education they may have (similar to the ones I had when I was in their position). This programme has been extremely rewarding to me, working closely with students to help them access higher education, whilst simultaneously encouraging their interest in scienceAs well as helping me connect with wider audiences and communities, PE has been great for helping me socialise with other students and members of staff. I am lucky enough to be a part of a fairly large research group which partakes in a lot of PE. Joining in in these events at the start of my PhD was an excellent way of getting know my peers in a different and more informal setting. If it doesn’t seem like there is much PE going on within your group, ask your supervisor and they should be able to point you in the right direction. If there still isn’t much going on, then maybe this is an opportunity for you to set something up!
Outside of your research group, there are loads of PE opportunities to get involved in and chances to connect with new people. Why not sign up for 3 Minute Thesis, a competition in which you have to present your thesis in 3 minutes and only using a single slide? Become a Science Busker and perform science demonstrations and tricks to the public? Or you could design and deliver a 6-week lesson plan to year 9 or 10 students with Brilliant Club? You might even fancy joining the widening participation team as a Widening Participation Fellow. You could also get involved with a brand new public engagement programme for humanities PGRs and ECRs. Check out the Universities public engagement website and join the mailing list to find something that suits you!
A highlight of my PE experience was attending Bluedot festival at Jodrell Bank Observatory with ScienceGrrl. I helped create live experiments that ran throughout the weekend which were designed to debunk myths about male and female brains, and aimed to inspire girls and women into STEM positions. Throughout the weekend, I got to meet and work alongside lots of other passionate researchers from the University (and further afield), inspire the future generation of scientists, all whilst partying at the festival!
Immersing myself into PE has helped me navigate through my PhD. It has given me something else to focus on alongside my PhD, and has been another outlet to focus on, which has helped me keep moving forward. It has given me the opportunity to stop, get out the lab and leave the stress behind for a while. Whilst helping me forge strong connections with both my PGR and local communities.
By Claire White, PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences Administration.