According to Selina Wray, being a scientist nowadays is about more than just sitting in a lab doing experiments. A cell biologist at UCL, Dr. Wray is researching Alzheimer’s disease. She investigates how the tau protein starts building up in the brain as the disease and dementia progress, causing damage to nerve cells. Yet, somewhere between the brain cells and microscopes, she finds time to share her findings with the wider world.
Throughout her career, Selina has woven her scientific work together with public engagement and communication projects, aimed at various audiences. Her adventure started during her PhD with ‘open lab’ events for the public, which then later evolved into coordinating engagement projects with Alzheimer’s research UK. Her involvement in public engagement cannot be overstated. She ran the Science Museum Day at the Science Museum which attracted 4,000 attendees and has taken part in many other events, including Pint of Science.
Selina believes that it is important for scientists to engage with the public. She says that, first and foremost, it helps distill many of the misconceptions around research, which is particularly important for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Scientists have been working on figuring out the disease and finding potential treatments for several decades. But applied solutions are still lacking, so patients are waiting to feel the impact of the research on prognostics and day-to-day life.
“Without information on ongoing research, people could easily think that nothing is being done, no progress is being made,” explains Selina. “Talking about what we do can help explain the progress that has been made even if it hasn’t reached the clinic yet. We can tell them why that is, why progress might be slower than in other areas, what work we are doing and how that will eventually translate to benefits in clinics.”
Talking about the research also empowers patients. Over the last five years, there has been an increase in funding for dementia research “…because patients and family members have felt informed enough and confident enough in the research, and the work that is being done in the field to give money to accelerate the process,” she adds. In addition, since the work is funded by the public, via the government or charities, “it is really important that we tell people what we are using their money for and why.”
According to the researcher, there is also an opportunity here for science journals to make information more accessible. “It would be nice if whenever a paper is published, a short commentary, an interview or a podcast is published alongside it for a lay audience. Anyone interested, scientist or not, could access the information. This would also push scientists to think about the general interest of their work, why it is relevant and important. It would help both scientists and the audience place the work in the bigger picture.”
Over the last decade, science communication platforms and events have flourished. There are now a plethora of ways to participate in communication, both as scientists and as somebody simply hoping to find out more on a subject. “For me, it is something I do alongside my research. But being a science communicator has become a full-on career,” explains Selina. “The landscape is very different now. The charities we work with have dedicated people working in sci comm. Their role is to think about what we scientists need to communicate and how to do that in the most efficient manner.” They are there to help, offering training, support and guidance on how best to communicate science with different audiences.
“Having a professional by your side helps you feel more confident. They offer the support of someone with experience,” says Selina. She also adds that you do not have to jump into science outreach with a big event. There are many more informal ways to communicate science, like social media. Online platforms help you to open up a dialog with the public in a more casual manner. “You can also give it as much or as little time as you want.”
Her final advice: just jump in and give it a try. “The first time is never going to be perfect, but eventually you will get better at it by trying out what works and what doesn’t. Your skills will evolve and get better with practice.”
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