Bridging the (c)gap

How a core facility has opened its doors to the world

Two women wearing blue lab coats and a man and a woman wearing red lab coats and goggles are standing in a laboratory and smiling

The Cellular Generation and Phenotyping (CGaP) team have put a lot of effort into public engagement over the past few years. A group of CGaP staff have formed a core public engagement team who come up with engagement ideas and ensure that facility members are able to take part in events or run engagement activities. The team have come up with creative outlets, like quizzes and pop-up labs, which have enriched major events such as Campus Open Saturdays and LifeLab - the Cambridgeshire European Researchers' Night. Here, the team describe their journey.


Laura Letchford: I think it all started in 2017. Rachel Nelson, our Head of Department, suggested that we should explore more opportunities with help from the Public Engagement team, and that’s when we realised there was so much we could do! Up until then, we had done some talks in schools, and other bits and bobs, but it was never structured, it was always ad hoc. 

Emily Souster: It was clear when I joined the team at CGaP, that Public Engagement was an important focus. Being a core facility, it is rewarding to not just be seen as a structural asset, but to have that extra opportunity to reach out and speak to people. I came straight from University to CGaP. In my final year, I did a module on science communication. It really piqued my interest, gave me some useful insight and it was then great to have the opportunity to give it a go. 

Maria Garcia Casado: It’s something we all like, and we are always ready to help each other out. It’s a great way to build a team, and to keep up with what each other is working on too! I was at a private company before coming to Sanger, and each time we had visitors, I would volunteer to give them a lab tour and teach them what we did. I absolutely love my work and I like talking about it with other people. So, when I started at CGaP, Verity approached me and said, there’s an Open Saturday coming up, would you like to be part of it? And I said, yes, of course! and I liked it so much I asked her to keep me in the loop for the next ones. 


A screenshot of the CGaP public engagement team on Zoom: a group of five white females with blonde and dark hair, smiling to the screen, and a white male, also smiling to the screen.

The CGaP Public Engagement team: Rachel Nelson, Verity Goodwin, Rebecca McRae, Adam Jackson, Laura Letchford, Maria Garcia-Casado and Emily Souster.

The CGaP Public Engagement team: Rachel Nelson, Verity Goodwin, Rebecca McRae, Adam Jackson, Laura Letchford, Maria Garcia-Casado and Emily Souster.

A teenage boy and a young girl, along with an adult, are looking and interacting with a professional microscope at the Wellcome Genome Campus
Three people engaging in a laboratory activity: two young women are delivering the activity and a middle aged white man is trying it out by testing a pipette.
A set of public engagement activities in an open space at our Hinxton Hall Conference Centre. A group of people are trying out lab equipment and talking with members of the CGAP team

The CGaP team running their activities at the Wellcome Genome Campus Open Saturday event in Hinxton, UK

The CGaP team running their activities at the Wellcome Genome Campus Open Saturday event in Hinxton, UK

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A teenage boy and a young girl, along with an adult, are looking and interacting with a professional microscope at the Wellcome Genome Campus
Three people engaging in a laboratory activity: two young women are delivering the activity and a middle aged white man is trying it out by testing a pipette.
A set of public engagement activities in an open space at our Hinxton Hall Conference Centre. A group of people are trying out lab equipment and talking with members of the CGAP team

The CGaP team running their activities at the Wellcome Genome Campus Open Saturday event in Hinxton, UK

The CGaP team running their activities at the Wellcome Genome Campus Open Saturday event in Hinxton, UK

Adam Jackson: Like most of my colleagues, my first experience in public engagement has been in CGaP. There’s a lot of effort that goes into keeping it as diverse as possible. For example, we met a retired group, the Letchworth Strollers, before lockdown, and it was a great experience. They were very interested in cancer research, so we gave them a tour of the lab showing them what it looks like day to day to work on cancer cells. We’ve also been involved with schools, so I do feel we are reaching a varied set of audiences. 


Verity Goodwin: We have quite impressive labs to show, and it’s always great to see visitors’ faces when they walk around. Our practical lab activities are a great asset. We can take them wherever, into a school or a library, and they can literally be doing science. I personally stepped into public engagement because I wanted to show the different options for a career in science. It's not necessary to have a PhD to do science, lots of us don’t have them and we’re still going up the career ladder without them.


Watch the CGaP team's virtual tour of their labs

Watch the CGaP team's virtual tour of their labs

A young boy smiles as a female scientist shows him a small plastic tube with a blue lid and which contains a red liquid. An adult man wearing a checked blue shirt is leaning on the table next to the boy and smiling

A female scientist in a black top and black trousers is demonstrating how to use a pipette to three people: a girl with glasses, an adult man in a grey hooded top and an older man wearing a blue top
A female scientist with long curly blonde hair is sitting at a large white table covered in laboratory equipment. A young boy wearing an orange top is standing next to her and learning how to use a large pipette

The CGaP team have run several activities during the Wellcome Genome Campus Open Saturday events

The CGaP team have run several activities during the Wellcome Genome Campus Open Saturday events

Maria Garcia Casado: Something which has always struck me is the misconception people have of what a scientist is or looks like. There is the tendency to think we are different somehow, that we don’t have a social or family life, that we are isolated people. Breaking down these misconceptions is really valuable to future generations who might be daunted by the idea of choosing science, due to the things they think they’ll have to miss out on.

Emily Souster: We recently did a virtual tour of our department. We filmed some of us at work in our department and then presented it live as we spoke, taking us through our equipment, which gave us a chance to explain what we do in each place and why it’s important. We got a lot of questions like; what do I have to study to have this job? What degree do I need to have to be considered? Are you taking applicants? It was really gratifying to see such interest in what we do.

Adam Jackson: Oddly, public engagement has made me more interested in the job I already do. Routine makes you lose perspective on what you’re doing. It’s also good to get the skills to communicate with people from different age ranges and backgrounds and then listen back to their perspective of the scientific world.

Laura Letchford: It definitely helps you remember why you do your job. Having people interested in what you're doing, children with those big eyes looking at you, you feel like you might’ve inspired them and that they’ll do science in the future. You get so caught up in the day-to-day you forget some of the bigger picture and, actually, this work impacts people and that is very powerful. 

Rebecca McRae: Speaking to different people, of all ages and places, gives us more experience to talk about the work we do and we can then gauge what level we need to pitch it at. The more we do, the better we get. I had never done public engagement before coming to Sanger, and now I can’t imagine my work without it. One of the reasons I joined the Public Engagement team at CGaP is that I have always considered myself a shy person, but I do have passion - I love what I do and I wanted to use this as a way to help myself to talk more confidently about the work I do. This then helps if I have to present the work I do or if I'm speaking to fellow scientists or postdocs on the projects that I'm doing. 

Laura Letchford: Of course, there are challenges - the main thing is finding the time because we're all busy and it's easy for other things to take priority, which is why I think it's really important that our head of department is really supportive of it and all of the managers in our team really value it. This makes it so much easier.

Verity Goodwin: I remember at the beginning when I first had to do lab tours, it was quite daunting because I had never done it before, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. I would definitely say, and I can speak on behalf of the whole team, that it’s been huge in our confidence and presenting and public speaking. I’d also tell someone who’s just starting out, just to keep going, it gets easier. Start small. 

Adam Jackson: To those who’d like to start in public engagement, but don’t know how,  I’d say: don’t be too worried about it. Don’t worry if you get it wrong the first time, because you’ve always got time to explain yourself. It’s not a lecture, it’s more of a conversation. Take it step by step. 

A female scientist wearing googles and blue gloves is smiling as she holds up a stack of five cell culture plates containing red liquid
Two female scientists wearing blue lab coats and blue gloves can be seen through a gap in two shelves in a laboratory. They are smiling. The woman on the right is using a pipette
A female scientist wearing safety goggles and a blue lab coat examines a stack of flasks containing red liquid in one hand. Another hand is holding another stack of flasks also containing red liquid.

The CGaP team working with cells in the lab

The CGaP team working with cells in the lab

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A female scientist wearing googles and blue gloves is smiling as she holds up a stack of five cell culture plates containing red liquid
Two female scientists wearing blue lab coats and blue gloves can be seen through a gap in two shelves in a laboratory. They are smiling. The woman on the right is using a pipette
A female scientist wearing safety goggles and a blue lab coat examines a stack of flasks containing red liquid in one hand. Another hand is holding another stack of flasks also containing red liquid.

The CGaP team working with cells in the lab

The CGaP team working with cells in the lab