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Newly funded projects

Over the next year we are supporting researchers to run exciting and innovative public engagement projects through our new Public Engagement Fund. 

The fund forms part of our commitment to support our researchers in public engagement by helping them to involve the public in their work, whilst gaining crucial new skills and experience. 

Supporting our researchers in public engagement makes the research we fund more relevant, more responsive and more impactful, and is a crucial part of our mission to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity. 

Find out more about the funded projects below and contact the public engagement team if you would like to find out more.

Why are some people left handed?

Dr Silvia Paracchini, University Research Fellow, University of St Andrews

An outstretched hand

Dr Silvia Paracchini will develop an interactive activity for the public to explore handedness, genetics and statistics, while collecting data for research. 

“Recently, I identified the first gene to be statistically associated with handedness. This discovery stems from the measurement of handedness along a continuum using a tool called the pegboard test. Before this, genetic screenings compared left and right handers as two separate categories, which produced no results.”

Dr Paracchini and the team plan to make a tablet based version of the pegboard test that allows the public to discover their own degree of left or right-handedness, as well as where this sits in relation to the population. They plan to take the activity to local schools, as well as into local prisons as part of St Andrew’s Cell Block Science initiative. 

The project will act as a catalyst for exploring the complexities behind a relatively every day phenomenon, while contributing important data for our understanding of neurodevelopment. 

The sensory universe 

Dr James Geach, University Research Fellow, University of Hertfordshire

Stars in the galaxyImage Credit: NASA, ESA, Jennifer Lotz and the HFF Team (STScI)

Dr James Geach will use specialist techniques to communicate astrophysics to children with special educational needs. 

“My research broadly focuses on understanding the evolution of galaxies across cosmic history. By using observations of distant galaxies and combining these observations with models of galaxy formation, I am trying to understand how and why the main properties of galaxies, such as their gas content and star formation rates, have changed over time.”  

Through the project the team will develop a ‘sensory universe’, a space specifically designed for children and young adults with special educational needs and disabilities. The space will utilise the UK’s largest inflatable planetarium and turn it into an interactive universe, filled with sensory representations of galaxies. The team hope to involve specialist schools, local government and charities in the initiative to provide a safe, stimulating space for those that visit. 

The team hope to gain new perspectives on their research while involving a currently underrepresented group of the public in their work.  

Metamaterials for primary schools

Dr Ventsislav Valev, University Research Fellow, University of Bath

A robot being shown to a classImage Credit: Ventsi Valev

Dr Ventsislav Valev will bring school children to his university to participate in workshops based on materials research. 

“My work focuses on the interaction between powerful laser light and nanostructured materials. I use tiny bits of gold that are twisted (chiral) to create artificial materials (metamaterials). These materials increase the effects of light on molecules, with potential benefits for the development of pharmaceutical drugs.”

Dr Valev and his team plan to build on previous school workshop experience by bringing the children into the university and linking activities to specific labs, as well as involving an artist in the process. Children will be given a project to design patterns for new metamaterials at home with their families. The most interesting designs will be fabricated and studied in Dr Valev’s lab and the students and family members will be credited as co-authors of resulting publications.

Dr Valev will target primary schools where students have low science capital and hope to increase students’ appreciation of science, as well highlight the links between science and art.

Collisions in cosmology 

Dr Andrew Pontzen, University Research Fellow, University College London

ForestImage Credit: Michaela French

Dr Andrew Pontzen will pair artists and scientists to create works that form the basis for the discussion of theoretical cosmology.

“My research topics – including dark matter, dark energy and inflation – are increasingly central to modern cosmology, and yet are abstract and unfinished.”

Through the project, Dr Pontzen and the team hope to provoke the public to respond to the unfinished ideas of cosmology and to recognise the creative struggles at the heart of modern science. Dr Pontzen, alongside artist Michaela French and designer Helga Schmid, will work with students from the Royal College of Art to create a mixed media installation at the Grizedale Forest Visitor Centre, Cumbria. The installation will act as a catalyst for dialogue between artists, scientists and visitors to the work. 

The team hope to demonstrate the role of research in defining our culture and society, as well as generate mutual understanding and appreciation through collaboration between artists and scientists. 

Soils are great! – engagement project with Swansea schools 

Dr Emilia Urbanek, Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, Swansea University

Children playing with soilImage Credit: Emilia Urbanek 

Dr Emilia Urbanek will engage school children in soil science through classroom and outdoor based experiments. 

“My research focuses on soil-water relationship and its influence on carbon cycling, microbial activity and organic matter decomposition. In my research I focus on climatic changes affecting soil conditions, as well as soil’s ability to mitigate the climatic changes, for example by carbon sequestration.”

Through the project, Dr Urbanek wants to give the children a glimpse of the scientific activities and measurements she does on a daily basis. The children will first undertake a series of experiments to determine the effects of soil types and water conditions on plant growth. They’ll then use what they learn to decide which soil to use to grow plants on their school grounds. The project will culminate in a display by the students at Swansea Science Festival. 

Dr Urbanek hopes the project will allow children to appreciate the science done at a local university and inspire them to take up research careers in the future. 

Genetics and the self

Dr Elizabeth Tunbridge, University Research Fellow, University of Oxford

3 pieces of material sewn togetherImage Credit: Eleanor Minney

Dr Elizabeth Tunbridge is collaborating with a local artist to explore the links between genes and our individual personalities, and how science can elucidate them. 

“My research investigates the brain mechanisms linking individual genes with psychiatric disorders. I focus on a subset of genes that code for calcium channels, which influence signalling within cells. My current research aims to identify the channels that are most relevant for psychiatric disorders and understand how they affect brain function, with the ultimate goal of developing new treatments.”

Through the project, Dr Tunbridge will work with Eleanor Minney to create an artwork based on a 2014 study that identified 108 genomic regions associated with schizophrenia. The work will consist of three layers, one representing these regions and another representing a whole self. The third layer will link the two outermost layers and represent the research that is attempting to understand the links between genes and the individual. 

Dr Tunbridge plans to use the artwork to open up discussions about the ethical dimensions of mental health research, as well as its implications on wider society. This project is the start of what will hopefully become a longer term partnership, further exploring the wonder and beauty of neuroscience. 

Frameworks assemble!

Dr Timothy Easun, University Research Fellow, University of Cardiff

Molecules shown in virtual realityImage Credit: Adam Nevin

Dr Timothy Easun blends cutting-edge research with an innovative approach to participatory virtual reality. 

“My research is to make self-assembling Metal-Organic Frameworks containing channels a few nanometres across, and to try to understand how small molecules move within them. This is hugely important in storage of fuels like hydrogen and methane, for CO2 trapping, and, most critically for this project, for molecular separations of hydrocarbons or in water desalination.”

Dr Easun and his team will develop a simulation of molecules used in his research and use this virtual world to involve the public. To overcome the restrictive nature of a VR headset, the simulation will be displayed live on a 3D Projector, allowing multiple people to participate. The team plan to develop a game where you are challenged to transfer molecules between channels in a framework, giving people an immersive view of Dr Easun’s research.   

The project will provide the team with new skills and experience, as well a chance to discuss their approach and findings with the public. They will also make their code and methodology available for all to use, hoping others will learn from their approach.