From the Lab to Engagement

From the Lab to Engagement

Hi I’m Mike, the adult and communities Public Engagement Officer at the Babraham Institute. I am passionate about enabling underserved audiences to engage with opportunities to make science more inclusive and open. I'm looking forward to embedding this into the community and adult audience engagement programmes at the Institute.

However, it wasn’t that long ago I was in a lab…

I graduated from a BBSRC DTP funded PhD at the University of East Anglia almost 3 years ago. My research focused on bacteria that essentially breathed using solid minerals in the environment rather than oxygen. In doing so they generate a flow of electrons that can be

Bacteria powering device
The pink liquid you can see is the
bacteria. They are producing electricity
that is then flowing into the circuit
and powering the calculator. Either side
of the device are other examples of
devices generating electricity from
bacteria.

easily harnessed as a source of electricity. I’d spend my days (and often nights) tinkering with these bacteria’s DNA trying to better understand how exactly they did this and if there were ways to get them to make more electricity. Pretty cool right? I really enjoyed working in the lab and getting to do such a range of research but I always found it frustrating that the progress we were making in the lab wasn’t being used in the real world. The reason it wasn’t was the same that is for many discoveries in the lab. No one knew about it and so couldn’t even start thinking about how they could use it!

That was what got me interested in science communication and public engagement. During my PhD I helped establish a branch of the British Science Association in Norwich (which is still running but now as the Norfolk and Norwich Science Association), organised Pint of Science talks, wrote articles, visited schools, and generally spoke to people whenever I could about my research. I really enjoyed hearing the huge range of views people had and it really did start making me think differently about my research. I soon realised it was a career route that I wanted to at least explore.

As I was finishing writing my thesis I took a job at the Wellcome Genome Campus as their Science Engagement and Outreach Officer. It was a new role in the team and had been made to specifically focus on raising the quality of the public engagement being done by working to engage audiences who have traditionally been underserved and marginalised by science and engagement programmes. It was a great three years where I got to work with so many fantastic people to develop events and activities for young people and adult community groups. We established links with schools across the region (many of who had never even been approached by any Cambridge institute), expanded the science festival and community events we worked with to reach out into more rural areas, and transformed the way many researchers approached public engagement to really highlight the mutual benefits to be had from working with public audiences. My role at the campus was split between school and adult audiences, which was great, but I always found the adult community audiences that bit more exciting to work with. Not being tied into the UK school science curriculum and getting to work with people who had more lived experiences and were often far more ready to discuss their views always felt more real for me. So when I saw the Public Engagement Officer role at the Babraham Institute with specific focus on adults and community groups it seemed like the perfect job for me!

That brings us to now. I joined the Institute at the end of July so have been getting to experience starting a new job whilst working from home in lockdown! Everyone at the Institute has been great and really supportive. It’s also been an interesting challenge continuing engagement programmes in the virtual world but we’ve got lots of great activities and events in the pipeline, including:

  • Our series of online Science Spotlight talks which started in August
  • A great range of events for The Cambridge Festival (March – April 2021)
  • Many more to be announced soon!

For more information about upcoming events, please click here.  Alternatively, if you would like to be added to our public events mailing list, an Institute staff member who would like to get involved in engagement, or anyone looking to find out more, please do get in touch.