Facing our public: WTCHG at the Cheltenham Science Festival

Public Engagement Officer Brian Mackenwells spent a week with a rolling cast of volunteers from NDM in the Discover Zone at Cheltenham Science Festival earlier this month. The Taylor and Knight groups did their bit for WTCHG

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Schoolchildren get to work on DNA extraction, aided by volunteers from WTCHG

How many DNA bracelets could we make in a day? How many strawberries could be squished? And how many people could we get to make a disgusted face? These were the questions we faced as two groups from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics – the Taylor and Knight groups – stretched their communication muscles, and had some fun, at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

Cheltenham Science Festival, for those that don’t know, is one of the country’s leading science festivals, with over 350 speakers and at least 50,000 people taking part over the six days. This year was the second year the Nuffield Department of Medicine was a sponsor of the festival and sent along a different research group every day to take control of the NDM stall in the ‘Discover Zone’. The Discover Zone is a free area for families and schools where they can go and meet people working and studying in universities, industry, and charities, and take part in some fun, hands-on activities. Last year it had around 10,000 people come through the doors over the six days of the festival, and it seems to have topped that number this year.

The WTCHG had control of the NDM stall on the Thursday of the festival. The Jenny Taylor and Julian Knight groups came together to develop some new activities, and run the stall on the day. Katie Burnham, from the Knight group, said ‘It was a lot of fun planning the activities, and it was a good opportunity to meet and work with new people from the Centre, doing something a little bit different to normal.’

IMG-20150616-WA0007And it was pretty different from normal lab work! The two groups helped people extract the DNA from strawberries, discover if they could taste phenylthiocarbamide (PTC – detecting the bitter taste is under the control of a single gene), make a bracelet in the pattern of a DNA sequence, and solve a puzzle that demonstrated modern sequencing techniques. Katie said, ‘I had some interesting conversations with visitors to the stall, and it was really nice to hear some positive comments about the sort of research we’re doing.’

Every researcher that took part really had to expand their communication skills, as speaking to almost 1,000 people in a day, all at a wide range of ages and ability levels, was no small job. When asked for advice for others thinking of taking part in running a stall, Pamela Kaisaki said ‘If we get to do it again, I would like to prepare in advance one blurb aimed at primary school students, and one for secondary school students, because I sometimes ran out of things to say!’

As well as having an impact on the researchers, it clearly had an impact on the audience too. Pamela recalled, ‘One thing I overheard was a boy explaining to his friends that DNA was what determined things like the strawberry shape and number of seeds, which I thought was a good explanation.’ Katie particularly remembers ‘It was also very satisfying to have a teacher watch her class react to the results of the taste test, ask us for more information, and take away a couple of worksheets and information on where to buy the supplies.’

It was a great experience for the researchers that took part, for the centre, and for the department, and we’re all looking forward to next year!

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