Embedding Public Engagement

Championing public facing work in a core facility

A picture of Rachel Nelson, a white woman with blonde hair and wearing a mask, working on a computer in a laboratory.

Credit: Dan Ross

Credit: Dan Ross

A picture of Rachel Nelson, a white woman with blonde hair smiling to camera.

Rachel Nelson is Head of CGaP, Cellular Generation & Phenotyping Core Facility. Credit: Dan Ross

Rachel Nelson is Head of CGaP, Cellular Generation & Phenotyping Core Facility. Credit: Dan Ross

In 2018 I decided we needed to embed public engagement within our facility (Cellular Generation and Phenotyping – CGaP), so we set up a team that is now led by Verity Goodwin. I wanted to provide new, compelling opportunities for the team to learn new skills, build confidence and develop wider networks. I also wanted to give them the opportunity to showcase their work and see just how interested other people are in what they do.  Being challenged, having riveting interactions; it reignites energy and passion back into their work.

I wanted to create initiatives for the team to demonstrate the breadth of career options in science, and highlight that there is more to the world of science than the academic path. In doing so they may realise wider opportunities and identify career paths that truly inspire them. The win‑win being that by encouraging my staff to engage in this way, they themselves may inspire the next generation of budding scientists.

Setting up a public engagement team meant we could centralise the activities and allocate time for it. We wanted to be professional when delivering sessions to the public, not just deliver ad hoc presentations, so developed a portfolio of interactive material for diverse audiences. More importantly, being part of a team dedicated to public engagement means that this effort is valued. In appraisals, staff set yearly objectives which include the public-facing tasks. Everyone knows that part of their time will be dedicated to it, so it's not something that can sneak under the radar, and we actively discuss progress at our meetings.

The team have a stacking box which includes all their demonstration material, tubes, histology slides, microscopes, etc. that they take out on the road with them, interactions getting easier each time. We’ve welcomed new audiences as well, such as the Letchworth Strollers, a community of retired people who visited us in 2019. I remember in the early days sitting together in the office and trying to agree on what we could do, who we could talk with - seeing what we’ve achieved so far makes me extremely proud.

I’d say it’s been hugely rewarding. The team has been teaching itself new skills as they go; they’ve written their own scripts, edited their own videos, presented to different age levels; the amount of confidence gained during their public-facing work is invaluable, and then inevitably leaches into science, as well as increasing the profile of CGaP.

It is challenging, of course. Bottom line, we need to get the science done and deliver on projects. At CGaP we put a huge emphasis on understanding resource capacity, that way we know we can deliver the science and create space for other initiatives. Unless we allow space for public engagement, it will not happen - at least not within normal working hours. Luckily we have the public engagement team embedded on campus which helps create an environment where these initiatives can become part of our day job in science.

Public engagement feeds into various long term development goals, building the confidence of our staff as they network, collaborate, project manage and communicate their achievements. The skills they gain also feed into what we do in the lab. They get the confidence to go and speak to more academics, to grow the science, present in formal settings and better plan and structure their work.

Creating such initiatives within CGaP also helps to retain these fabulous professionals. If their roles were limited to just the work on campus, not all would likely stick around for very long. As managers, we spend our lives recruiting and training, only to then lose colleagues within a year or two. The opportunity to be involved in public facing events adds value, and we, as managers, need to acknowledge this. It allows our staff to pick up skills and grow in ways that they might not get at other organisations. It’s definitely a win-win for me.

I should also add that the amount of publicity we get is simply amazing. It increases our profile as a team, attracting good scientists - people want to come and work at CGAP because they’ve heard of it, and they see the opportunities that being part of this team will bring.

This all makes sense to me, it gives me a fulfilment that might not always come if my job was purely about the lab work. I remember working with clinicians on a historical project where we had the opportunity to meet the patients we were working with. Whilst the work in the lab seemed mundane, connecting with the people whose lives you have the potential to improve was a powerful connection. It shows us we are helping support people’s lives for the future, a powerful reminder of the importance of what we do every day.