How to be a cancer detective?

Initiating conversations about cancer

Sarah Moody, Tim Butler and Emily Mitchell, part of the Cancer Grand Challenges Mutographs team, tell us their experience in the Cancer Detectives project, which had the aim of fostering better understanding of the habits in our lifestyles that can lead to different illnesses, such as cancer.

Sarah: Cancer is an extremely sensitive topic, especially when you think about the factors that trigger it - most of which have to do with prevention and good habits. From the start of working on the Mutographs project - looking at cancer prevention - Tim, Emily and I felt that public engagement was an essential part of our duties.

We wanted to develop an activity that was lively and accessible, so, supported by the public engagement team we focused on identifying the audience, content and message. We chose children as our primary audience for two reasons: firstly, our project focuses on prevention, to nip cancer in the bud we need to adopt good habits as early as possible; secondly, we wanted to foster child-parent conversations about tricky topics like smoking. 

This is how we came up with the Cancer Detectives project: we wanted to have an activity for school children visiting the campus, and then a lighter version for festivals and other external events. When we heard about LifeLab at the Grand Arcade in Cambridge in 2018, we saw it as a great opportunity to run the activity with a large number of people from different walks of life. We started planning, nervous and excited to finally see our project take off.

Emily Mitchell, Sarah Moody and Tim Butler from the Cancer, Ageing and Somatic Mutation (CASM) Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Emily Mitchell, Sarah Moody and Tim Butler from the Cancer, Ageing and Somatic Mutation (CASM) Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

"When you do interact with the public, you can see that people are excited by what you're doing and value it. This definitely gives you the impetus to carry on."

(Emily Mitchell)

Pop-up science stands at the Cambridge Grand Arcade for LifeLab in 2018

Pop-up science stands at the Cambridge Grand Arcade for LifeLab in 2018

Sarah: On the day, the experience didn’t turn out quite how we expected. Although the timing of the event was not ideal for connecting with our target audience, we did have some interesting interactions with teenagers and parents, which led to enriching conversations on the topic. It was fun, although exhausting! After the session, the three of us sat down for a debrief and discussed what had worked and what hadn’t.

Emily: I learnt a great deal from our first time at LifeLab. I had done smaller public facing things previously, but it struck me then just how complex the planning was, making me envisage public engagement in a different light.

The children’s excitement at the time was fuelling and made me think, I want to do more of this! I also had the opportunity to engage with their parents with a more scientific discussion and talk seriously about smoking in particular. The opportunity of spreading our knowledge to help make informed decisions to a wider audience felt so valuable.

A child working on the Cancer Detectives activity sheets.

A child working on the Cancer Detectives activity sheets.

Emily at Lifelab in 2018 running the cancer detectives activity.

Emily at Lifelab in 2018 running the cancer detectives activity.

Tim takes a Cambridge Science Festival participant through the Cancer Detectives activity

Tim takes a Cambridge Science Festival participant through the Cancer Detectives activity

Item 1 of 3

A child working on the Cancer Detectives activity sheets.

A child working on the Cancer Detectives activity sheets.

Emily at Lifelab in 2018 running the cancer detectives activity.

Emily at Lifelab in 2018 running the cancer detectives activity.

Tim takes a Cambridge Science Festival participant through the Cancer Detectives activity

Tim takes a Cambridge Science Festival participant through the Cancer Detectives activity

Tim: For us, our public engagement work needs to be linked to our actual scientific work, and Cancer Detectives helped us achieve this. It was also natural to share Cancer Detectives with the scientific community, as it was part of our work at Mutographs. We took it with us to the Mutographs International Scientific Meeting at the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) headquarters in Lyon, France, and had the opportunity to show how it worked to peers and colleagues. We were surprised by the number of people interested in the project who wanted to take it away and run it themselves. We made the resources open and available (to colleagues) via our own website too.

Tim Butler, a white male scientist, seems to be talking with someone about their public engagement activity

Tim engaging at the Cambridge Science Festival

Tim engaging at the Cambridge Science Festival

Before joining Sanger I had done a fair amount of involvement work in graduate school back in the United States, so it seemed like a natural thing to do. Working with cancer patients is always emotionally taxing but has been a useful perspective building on my end.

A take home message for me is that the more you talk about your science to different and diverse groups, the more you learn. Or even just to scientists that aren't geneticists, particularly now that science institutions are encouraging more interdisciplinary work.

To be honest, it is gratifying when people come back at you with praise for your work and your role in the advancement of science. You feel useful. In fact, public engagement has two sides to it, you value your work more but you also feel more humble in your research. The challenging questions we got in different interactions, for which we just didn’t have an answer, shows us there is so much we don’t know (yet). 

Sarah:  I started in Public Engagement thanks to an opportunity flagged by the Public Engagement team. They were looking for participants for Cafe Sci. I was initially terrified, so I said yes! Engaging with the public has definitely helped me to explain my work, even to the people who fund us, for example, which is quite a diverse group as well. 

Of course, this is a learning process. One of the first people I encountered at LifeLab in 2018 was a terminal cancer patient. He had some very tough questions for me and I had to put into practice everything I had learnt on communicating effectively on sensitive topics. When doing Public Engagement, there can be challenging interactions which can potentially demoralise you. You just have to take it on, be prepared, because the experience, what you learn, is worth the effort.

Sarah giving a public talk at Cafe Sci Cambridge

Sarah giving a public talk at Cafe Sci Cambridge

Emily: The main thing that I’ve taken out of public engagement is feeling like our work can make a difference. As a scientist, it's often very easy to get tunnelled down on what you're doing so that you actually fail to see the wider implications for society. When you do interact with the public, you can see that people are excited by what you're doing and value it. This definitely gives you the impetus to carry on and also gives you a wider picture of your work and what it means. It essentially helps me connect with my work - I’m not just dealing with a numbered sample, this sample represents a human being.

How does the activity work?

The Cancer Detectives activity features a large board with a main DNA sequence at the top and two more sequences at the bottom, which are labelled ‘UV light’ and ‘smoking’. The DNA sequences that are at the bottom have been modified and participants have to select a card identifying the correct modification (e.g. T>A or C>G).

Participants are then given a worksheet in which they have to work out the cause of the mutations. To help them with this process, there is a clue board with the associated changes (e.g. smoking is  C>A). Once they're finished, they get a reward “I’m a cancer detective!” sticker.