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Projects we've funded

The Public Engagement Fund forms part of the Royal Society's commitment to support our Research Fellows in public engagement by helping them to involve the public in their work, whilst gaining crucial new skills and experience.

For the second year we are supporting researchers to run exciting and innovative public engagement projects. This year projects can last up to two years and have been awarded up to £10,000. 

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. 

Read about the funded projects below and contact the Public Engagement team to find out more.

 

Targeting cancer cells with light-powered nano machines

Dr Robert Pal, University Research Fellow, Durham University

Dr Robert Pal

Dr Robert Pal will develop an interactive activity for the public to explore his group's ground-breaking research into cancer treatment. 

“My research is driven by the need for the targeted destruction of selected cells and cell types in vivo. Our vision for the future is to develop a series of light-activated molecular nanomachines – nano-drills – to target cancerous cells selectively and safely eradicate them.”

Dr Pal and the team plan to use light-powered remote controlled cars to demonstrate the fundamental principles behind their research. Participants will work in pairs to guide the cars as ‘nanodrills’ into glow in the dark balloons, which act as the cancer cells. The team plan to take their activity to secondary school students in the Durham area, as well as to local and national community events. 

The project team hope to raise awareness of cutting-edge research in an entertaining way and build on and improve their public engagement work.

 

Astrophysics for all

Dr Olja Panic, Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, University of Leeds

 Miley et al. 2018View of a 'protoplanetary disc' 350 lightyears from Earth, as captured by the ALMA Telescope in Chile. Modified from Miley et al. 2018.

Dr Olja Panic is giving deaf people the chance to grasp research advances in modern astrophysics by enriching British Sign Language (BSL) beyond just the simplest concepts. The brand-new set of signs will be designed to effectively communicate the key questions, methods and findings in her research.

“Scientific discoveries are consolidated into knowledge and understanding through active communication. In the hearing community this is a given, but the deaf community is deprived of this possibility because signs for the vast majority of the new scientific concepts do not exist. This is a major barrier that the deaf community faces: the barrier to explore knowledge as deep as one's dedication and intellectual abilities allow. Language is a vessel for proliferation of knowledge and when language does not exist, knowledge is inaccessible.”

Working with experts in developing signs for scientific terms, Dr Panic will develop 50 new signs for BSL, including terms like ‘protoplanetary disc’, ‘exo-Solar planetary system’ and ‘interferometric telescope’. 

The team hope this step of bringing research closer to the deaf community will light pathways to a more inclusive research and higher education environment, and spur discussion about ways to tackle this problem.

 

Plant defence for pre-schoolers

Dr Rucha Karnik, University Research Fellow, University of Glasgow

Plant Stomata-Guarding the EntryImage Credit: Doodle art by Mathis Riehle

Dr Rucha Karnik plans to engage pre-school children in the power of plants to protect themselves from disease, and share what plants can teach us about harmful pathogens.

“My research focus is to study the molecular mechanisms underlying plant responses to their environment. I develop tools for research and investigate at a molecular level, the responses in plants which result due to cross-talk between various environmental stimuli."

Dr Karnik and her team will develop various tools to explain key concepts of plant health to young children. Mixing art, science and music, the team will create a toys and videos that demonstrate how plants protect themselves against microbes.

The project will also employ a local ‘lay member’, who hopes to gain new insights into the scientific process and help the team to pitch their concepts at the right level for the target audience. The project will develop through multidisciplinary collaborations with Dr Abhijit Karnik, Human Computer Interactions Group, University of Lancaster and Dr Mathis Riehle, Cell Engineer and doodle artist, University of Glasgow.

Research experience for teachers

Dr Sinead O'Keeffe, Royal Society - Science Foundation Ireland University Research Fellow, University of Limerick

Dr Sinead O'Keeffe

Dr Sinead O’Keeffe, who is conducting research into optical fibre sensors, is setting up a placement scheme for primary and early secondary school teachers. 

“The teachers will become fully integrated into the research group, partaking in the complete engineering design process from group brainstorming sessions to designing and testing of the sensors. The teachers will assist in the fabrication of the sensors and will test these sensors in a clinical environment. Involving the teachers in the clinical testing of the sensors will raise awareness of the societal impact of the research.”

Dr O’Keeffe hopes that the teachers will become more confident in teaching science, as well as gain new ideas and perspectives for their classrooms. Dr O’Keeffe will also work with the teachers to develop outreach activities based on her research, which can then be delivered to schools in the local area, further increasing the impact of the project.

 

Gull conservation in Cornwall

Dr Neeltje Boogert, Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, University of Exeter

Food thievery by a ringed herring gull in Falmouth (© Emma Inzani)Food thievery by a ringed herring gull in Falmouth. Credit: Emma Inzani.

Dr Neeltje Boogert and Dr Camille Bonneaud will work with primary school children to study the local herring gull population. They will explore how human environmental change has affected populations and find solutions to reduce human-gull conflict. 

“Herring gulls are a common sight in coastal towns around the UK, yet they have been experiencing major national population declines since the 1970s and are now categorised as ‘Red’ (highest priority conservation) on the RSPB list. In most places, however, people are unaware of the decline of herring gulls and they are perceived as a nuisance pest species: they steal food, forage on and spread refuse, defecate on roofs, and call loudly day and night. This leads to regular conflict between people and gulls, which complicates conservation measures for this species.”

The children will work with Dr Boogert, Dr Bonneaud, and their team to capture data from herring gull GPS tags and gull nest cameras and generate and test solutions to reduce human-gull conflict. They will then disseminate their results and recommendations to the local council, as well as through artworks inspired by the project, which will be displayed at an art exhibit organised with Falmouth University.

 

Become a biological engineer

Dr Thomas Gorochowski, University Research Fellow, University of Bristol

Become a biological engineer

Dr Thomas Gorochowski and his team are developing an interactive experience to engage people in the intricacies and importance of DNA sequencing. 

“I use a novel form of sequencing based on tiny tube-shaped proteins called nanopores to read DNA and understand how natural and our own engineered biological programs function.”

Dr Gorochowski will develop an activity where participants will act as the individual biological components involved in converting raw genetic information into functional proteins. Alongside this, experts will demonstrate 3D-printed models of proteins and perform live sequencing demos. 

The team hope to raise the awareness of the positive possibilities for biotechnology and to learn more about the perceptions of people from a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences.

 

Humpback whale culture

Dr Ellen Garland, University Research Fellow, University of St Andrews

E Garland. Humpback whale breaching in Mo'orea, French PolynesiaHumpback whale breaching in Mo'orea, French Polynesia. Credit: Ellen Garland.

Dr Ellen Garland is working with the Dundee Science Centre to animate her research on whale culture via an interactive, multi-media exhibit.   

 

“Visitors will be able to play with whale song using a simple sound keyboard, and also engage in their own cultural song evolution by playing a ‘simple Simon’ listen and copy game. Over time, the ‘song’ at the exhibit will change as a response to people listening and responding, mirroring the processes I have been studying in the wild, and putting visitors at the heart of the cultural evolution of humpback song.”

Dr Garland will work alongside colleagues Dr Luke Rendell and Dr Mhairi Stewart at the University of St Andrews, as well as composers and artists Dr Emily Doolittle and Ellen Thompson, to create the exhibit, and will invite local primary schools to take part in multidisciplinary workshops. 

 

The project will link to a new ‘whale park’, opening on the Dundee Waterfront in summer 2019 and hope their exhibition will provide visitors with the opportunity to experience a ‘deep dive’ into the science of whales and their songs.

Projects receiving extension funding

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 is building on his previous success by expanding his group’s capacity for public engagement with a brand new set of workshops for schools. 

“The children filled in a questionnaire before and after the workshops. Our results show that the children engaged very well with the science: the questionnaire scores tripled for each visit. More importantly, half the children who had thought that they could never become scientists changed their mind, following our workshop.”

The workshop formula is based around an introductory talk by a robot followed by five inter-linked, hands-on activities that explain different aspects of Dr Valev’s research. The team use rigorous evaluation techniques to measure the impact of the workshops. Extension funding will allow the group to further improve the way they collect and analyse this data.  

Dr Valev hopes to measure the workshops' effectiveness at raising science capital and will be incorporating aspects that target the students’ parents and teachers.

 

Genetics and the self

Dr Elizabeth Tunbridge, Associate Professor, University of Oxford

3 pieces of material sewn togetherImage Credit: Eleanor Minney

Dr Elizabeth Tunbridge is continuing her successful partnership with artist Eleanor Minney, hoping to deepen their collaboration and involve new participants.  

“Our general approach - taking time to get to know specific patients, and working with them in as neutral environment as is feasible on a secure ward, has proved extremely successful: it has informed my thinking about the science, Eleanor's art, and we believe it has been of benefit to the patients with whom we have engaged.”

The first phase of the project concluded with an exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery, inspired by Dr Tunbridge’s research and including pieces by Minney as well as patients from the National Psychosis Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital. The next phase of the project includes a residency, further patient workshops and an exhibition designed to communicate the pair’s work to other scientists in the field. 

Dr Tunbridge hopes the project will promote dialogue between scientists, patients and the wider public about the role of genetics in mental illness.

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