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Engaging the public with science

'Ageing: no escape?' sounds like a headline which would attract people's attention. That is exactly what Dr Penelope Mason, a postdoctoral scientist in Dr Lynne Cox's lab in the Biochemistry department, was trying to achieve when she used the title on a poster to tell the public about her research.

Penelope's poster raising some thought-provoking questions about ageing

Penelope's poster raising some thought-provoking questions about ageing

Penelope was a finalist at the perspectives event, a competition held at the annual 6-day festival of the British Science Association in September. She won a cash prize, was interviewed for Radio 4's 'Leading Edge' and enjoyed dinner with some of the big names in UK science.

The competition, aimed at early career scientists, is intended to enhance and showcase the public side of scientific research. The challenge for this year's participants was 'How does your research affect society, and how does society affect your research?'

Entries for the competition were short-listed earlier in the year on the basis of an application form. The task was then to design a poster that communicated these issues in an engaging way to the public at the British Science Festival.

"I work on Petri dishes full of cells which are a model ageing system", says Penelope, "but I can see there's this ageing population increase. My poster allowed me to talk about the economics and psychology of ageing as well as the basic research that I do and topical research that has just come out."

British Science Association

Penelope was one of the 36 short-listed participants who received training before the Festival. "We went down to London for the day and a graphic designer talked about the posters for a bit. We did some mock-ups and got to have a chat about them - just so that we felt more comfortable."

Once down in Guildford for the Festival, she was out with her poster explaining her science to the public almost immediately. "I did the shopping centre which was basically two or three hour slots on Saturday and Sunday in Guildford shopping centre going 'come and talk about ageing'''. She found it quite hard but fun. "It's a two-way thing. Most of the people who actually talked to us said it was really interesting".

Later in the week, a panel of science writers, science communicators and scientists judged the entries - both the posters and the participant's ability to engage the listener. Penelope was selected as one of the six finalists. Although she did not win the competition, she was delighted to have made it to the final.

'The Festival is like a really good conference, covering all of science and technology'

One of the most interesting aspects of the competition for her was observing how well the participants tackled their specialised areas. "It was good seeing how people managed to talk about really quite difficult things in a way that would bring people in."

She was also impressed by the Festival, especially the 'X-Change' - an informal discussion over drinks at the end of the day with some of the scientists who had given talks. "It's like the best of the day. It's really good because if you can't get to the event, you go to the X-change and the speakers all get up and do stuff - Bill Bryson gave a 10 minute talk."

Penelope back in the lab in Oxford

Penelope back in the lab in Oxford

The decorum of the press conferences she attended surprised her. "They were so polite," she comments. "I've been at much worse discussions that that just at normal scientific talks."

Having had such a great time at the Festival, Penelope is keen to drum up wider public support for it. She would also encourage other scientists to enter the perspectives competition. "The Festival is like a really good conference, covering all of science and technology. If you're at all interested in what's going on in science, it's great. And if you're interested in talking about science, it's brilliant - I've never had so many people want to talk to me about my work."

The perspectives competition is just one of several science communication activities that Penelope has taken part in. Her research is supported through the 'New Dynamics of Ageing' programme funded by the ESRC (Economic & Social Research Council), which has a strong public engagement component. One of things she does locally is volunteer at the hands-on science gallery at the Science Oxford Live centre.

Having previously worked at a research institute in the States where she says there was a 'work or nothing' ethos, she is pleased that public engagement activities are recognised as important here. "I feel like I can talk about science till the cows come home. I would certainly like to do more and I've got a poster now which is probably something that I wouldn't have the time to do otherwise."

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