09 May, 2022
Sometimes I find myself talking the ears off any of my friends that will listen about my work, but I have found that it may not be the best way of spreading the excitement about my research. This encouraged me to volunteer with the Institute’s Public Engagement team to help educate the public, and hopefully transfer some of my enthusiasm for, epigenetics. A fascinating field of research into understanding the changeable layer of gene regulation that does not directly affect the DNA sequence.
I was inspired after experiencing the Institute’s first escape room ‘The Cell Escape: Cell Signalling’. After watching the participants having fun, and how much of the science truly got through to them, it left me thinking of how extraordinary this type of engagement was. I just kept thinking on how I could apply it to my own work. The initial thoughts of creating the escape room were quite daunting, as I feared I wouldn’t get many interested colleagues, and that no one would have time. Nevertheless, after speaking with them, I found many were eager to be part in creating such a unique engagement experience. I guess scientists are often excited by puzzles due to the nature of our work. Before I knew it, the daunting feeling had grown into optimistic anticipation of what we would be doing.
Newly armed with a team of intrepid volunteers and overwhelming excitement and encouragement from the Public Engagement team the project was propelled forward at full speed. After many meetings and discussions within the now quite large team of interested researchers, an escape room with many interesting epigenetically themed puzzles was created. The main goal of the escape room would be to attract the attention of a public, many with little to no knowledge of epigenetics, and encourage them to start thinking on ‘What is Epigenetics, and how it does it affect me?’. The initial narrative we developed would see participants solving a number of puzzles to help guide a stem cell through the process of differentiation towards the desired cell fate, cardiac muscle cells, hopefully learning about epigenetic concepts and mechanisms along the way.
We managed to get the room fully running with prototype complex puzzles, before handing off the draft room to be finalised by a product design company. Unfortunately, this is when the world was faced with the developing COVID-19 situation and we were all put into lockdown, and the project was inevitably put on hold. With no sign ahead of when we may be able to go forward with in person events, we were all a little disheartened.
In these dark times, the positive attitude from the ever-adaptive and inventive Public Engagement team encouraged us to not give up so easily. They suggested a brilliant alternative, that we turn the escape room into an interactive online experience instead. With science experiments on hold many of the original team dived right into discussions on how to transform our initial plan into an online format. Regrettably the vast majority of our original puzzles would only work in a physical environment, so it was back to the drawing board! But we would not be so easily deterred, we rallied our ideas and came up with a brand-new room from scratch, one better adapted to an online and unguided environment.
We took this opportunity to virtually bring members of the public into the Babraham Institute, stepping into the shoes of a visiting researcher, getting a glimpse of inside working lab spaces and facilities in pre-recorded videos which guide participants through the room and help explain the key epigenetic concepts. We wanted to give people a chance to experience the many different techniques, and the great colleagues we work with and highlight the wide diversity of people and jobs within the Institute. We then replaced physical puzzles with more visual or text-based puzzles which could be viewed either on a web page or printed out, and with the help of the Public Engagement team and professional designers, we were able to get the online escape room looking professional, enticing, and ready for the next Cambridge science festival. Getting this new and improved version of the escape room required many more people getting involved, making it not only an epigenetics department effort but an Institute wide effort. I think we did extremely well. Even if I do say so myself.
The much-anticipated day came and our room went live online. We started to receive such wonderful feedback from a very wide spectrum of participants. It was gratifying to see members of the public engage with the escape room and science concepts it attempted to teach, (especially after such a long and complicated journey to the final product). We were also excited to see the feedback from the public showing an increased awareness of epigenetics and how it plays a role in our lives, mission success!
We were even more excited to learn that Launchpad, a company used to support creating in school resources, part of Form the future, had approached the Institute’s Public Engagement team about adapting this online resource into a new resource to help introduce Epigenetics into classrooms. To help develop the epigenetic escape room into a classroom-ready resource we applied for the public engagement seed fund, which the Institute has put forward to help aid all of the scientists with turning their ideas for engagement into reality. We were lucky enough to receive the fund and with this assistance we were able to return our new shiny online escape room into the physical world once more, creating sleek and beautiful booklets for students to use and adding additional resources to support teachers running the activity. This took our idea one step further allowing us to reach a diverse range of schools, some who may not have the resources available to effectively use the online version and thus help reach students regardless of their school’s privilege.
Working alongside many teachers and heavily with a secondary school in Sawston, we hammered out the last of the kinks in the lesson plan that we scientists with little experience teaching in the classroom were oblivious to. Despite some initial nerves we ran our first classroom trial which complimented a discussion session with a couple of Institute scientists from the project. The combination of escape room and Q&A session resulted in fantastic levels of engagement with the students, with the puzzles prompting many interesting and insightful questions into the field of epigenetics, and hopefully some future epigenetic scientists were inspired that day. This modified version of the escape room is now able to be run by teachers to help support their science education curriculums with or without a Q&A discussion session , and maybe someday soon when it is safe for us to return to visiting classrooms we could do this in person.
I think although we were at first concerned of what may become of the room during the initial roadblock of lockdowns, the approach from the engagement team and all of my colleagues who were involved has resulted in an amazing outreach tool. One that has not only effectively sparked interest and understanding into the field of epigenetics, but will now go on to reach a significantly broader audience than we had initially hoped. We all still look forward to working to finish our original in person ‘The Cell Escape: Epigenetics’ escape room, and hopefully seeing it launch as successfully as the ‘The Cell Escape: Cell Signalling’ escape room that first inspired us. It has been a truly wonderful experience working with so many different people, who are just as excited to talk about their science as I am.
I hope this experience sparks new ideas and gives you more of an overlook of the support that the Institute Public Engagement team can provide. To any fellow researchers even remotely thinking on responding to the call, to discuss your science with the wider public, I strongly encourage you to get in touch with public engagement and begin your own adventure!
Become a Babraham Institute researcher and puzzle your way through a world of science! See how quickly you can make sense of the experiments and get your research published. Time is ticking but by collaborating with your team you will surely succeed in solving the puzzles and finding the answer!
This online escape room style event is fun for all the family with no specific expertise or prior knowledge needed (though puzzle solving skills will definitely give you the edge!). You will work your way through a series of puzzles with the answers coming together to let you complete the activity. There is a timer so see how quickly you can solve the clues, but beware, you will receive time penalties for incorrect guesses or using hints too early!
Play the game here!
This isn't the first escape room from our researchers. Find out more about the others.
09 May 2022
By Laura Benson