Lending a hand

Working behind the scenes to support public engagement

A man is sitting in front of his computer and smiling. He is white, wears glasses and has short dark brown hair and a brown beard. He is wearing a blue striped shirt

James Blackshaw is a Scientific Data Engineer at EMBL-EBI

James Blackshaw is a Scientific Data Engineer at EMBL-EBI

I started doing public engagement when I was working at the University of Cambridge. It happened spontaneously: I had a chat with somebody else about doing a public workshop and then just did it!

We added an event to the timetable for the Cambridge Science Festival and put together a half hour presentation on how genetic variants contribute to your risk of developing a cardiovascular disease. We demonstrated it with different coloured balls and a big pot showing how individual influences on risk can change genomes. We liked this analogy - it was visually similar to a lottery machine.

I've always liked talking with people about science and, when I came to EMBL's European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), I decided to get involved in supporting what we could do. Any set of skills you learn just gives you more confidence to go and try something. I didn't try doing something myself from scratch, I just jumped on the back of any activity that looked like it could use a hand and supported them where they needed it. This meant it didn't require a vast amount of creative energy from me, but I knew I would be able to put my skills to good use. It doesn't have to be this big challenge of how on earth do I communicate this thing my lab does? It can just be, well, I've got these skills, where can I be useful?

"I didn't try doing something myself from scratch, I just jumped on the back of any activity that looked like it could use a hand and supported them where they needed it"

For example, I read about the Talking Cells project in one of the public engagement newsletters and went - this sounds like absolutely my sort of thing! When I showed up, the discussion was evolving around how to do safeguarding online, as we were expecting under 18s to participate. My technical knowledge came in quite handy - I looked around for various platforms to try and find something that would let us communicate by text chat and came up with a tool called Discord. I put my skills to use in other ways too. I prepared an internal training document for the team on how to use the tool, and another one for users, for example.

A screenshot of a YouTube video featuring (from top left): Steve Cross, Peter Crawford and James Blackshaw

A still from the online Talking Cells event, with James, host Steve Cross and participant Peter Crawford

A still from the online Talking Cells event, with James, host Steve Cross and participant Peter Crawford

The Talking Cells project ran in parallel to another project, the Wellcome Genome Campus Hackathon. Both activities were part of the Cambridge Festival 2021. In the hackathon, I was mostly fielding questions and was also lightly involved in the reefer (refrigerated container) project, where the aim was to develop an interface to track what was going into the refrigerated containers where the COVID-19 samples were stored on Campus. I also helped some of the participants prepare, and ran through the presentation and workshop before going live with some of them. On the day, I was basically acting as tech support so that others could concentrate on demonstrating the exercise, and I chipped in to help anyone from the public who was stuck during the live coding exercise.

See more about the Wellcome Genome Campus Hackathon that James supported

A video advertising the Wellcome Genome Campus Hackathon

A video advertising the Wellcome Genome Campus Hackathon

James is standing on the left of the picture next to a banner about the DNA in the Garden trail. He is wearing a striped shirt and a brown sun hat and is gesturing his hands while giving a talk. Two visitors (a white woman and a black man) stand opposite him listening to his talk.

James giving a talk to some visitors at the DNA in the Garden trail

James giving a talk to some visitors at the DNA in the Garden trail

I then joined the DNA in the Garden trail team just before the summer. This was a public engagement project to develop a self-guided tour of the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens that could teach visitors a bit about plant genetics. I hoped the experience would be helpful for my own project as it linked to my work at EMBL-EBI. I learned loads, mainly on user interface, and I reflected on how to do that for the database I work on, ChEMBL. It also made me think of the value of good user experience. In the trail project, we created an online quiz which needed to take all these elements into account and also get across a lot of information clearly and simply.

Up until now, I’ve been trying to be in a support role for as many projects as possible. In a way, developing a public engagement activity is a bit like making a sausage. So my focus so far has been to see how the sausage was made. The next step is designing my own sausage. The idea of public engagement has been more interesting to me than science communication, because it's about going both ways and trying to listen to what people are interested in. Sometimes, if you're working on a project, especially in a PhD, you can feel really isolated, because, who cares about the tricarboxylic acid cycle in the malaria parasite? But if I then walked out of the lab, and got involved in a more general engagement project about malaria, for example, which is something that people know about, that is making a difference. 

"If you're out there being a conversational face, people get to see that science is just learning about the world: that we're not trying to obscure what we're studying."

It’s also a way to dispel the myths that scientists are working on little ivory tower projects, of no concern to anyone. If you're out there being a conversational face, people get to see that science is just learning about the world: that we're not trying to obscure what we're studying. We might have to use precise terminology when publishing or when we're presenting to a scientific audience, but I think more generally, people can get a sense that science is a conversation with them.

Thinking forward, what I’d like is to take public engagement to more places that might catch the eye of adults who are curious about science. When the beer festival is back on, why not take some public engagement there? These people know about microbial culture, and they have some idea that complex organic chemicals and their balance are important to the taste of their favourite beverages. So I’ve got together with Simon’s Cider in Godmanchester and the Darwin Tree of Life project at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in order to start a video project on fermentation and produce a special edition cider. We’re going to bring them to the festival and use them as talking points to introduce people to some bioscience. I’m also currently in contact with the local council,  and I've contacted a neighbour who is a pastor of a local church. Let’s explore how to reach the people who will not come to a science festival - who knows what can happen?

A white man's hands can be seen holding some pH testing strips. He is next to the cider press and there is some cider in a small measuring cylinder next to the press.

Part of the project with Simon's Cider - testing the pH and sugar levels. Image credit: Luke Lythgoe, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Part of the project with Simon's Cider - testing the pH and sugar levels. Image credit: Luke Lythgoe, Wellcome Sanger Institute


Some video from James's project with Simon's Cider. The cider is being pressed from apples picked in the Wellcome Genome Campus. Video credit: Luke Lythgoe, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Some video from James's project with Simon's Cider. The cider is being pressed from apples picked in the Wellcome Genome Campus. Video credit: Luke Lythgoe, Wellcome Sanger Institute