Communicating Stem Cell Research to the Public, an interview with Senior Scientist Mette Christine Jørgensen
Communicating the aspirations, experimental strategies and importantly the conclusions of a research project to the general public is an integral part of being a scientist. More than that, scientific outreach is extremely rewarding. The process can be educational and informative, enabling students to visualize the experiments behind ‘text book’ scientific theories. The activities hosted by scientists can be inspiring -pushing an inquisitive mind to focus on a career they had never considered before. Importantly, fostering a connection with the general public often enables scientists to clarify misconceptions that may be circulating in the population.
By Abigail Jackson, Postdoctoral researcher, Semb group.
Bearing in mind the huge, positive impact scientific outreach can have on a community, we must be mindful of how we plan these events. The activities should be the right balance of informative and fun so to not overwhelm the audience. At DanStem, we are incredibly fortunate that our ‘Research Coordinator’, Simone Wenkel, and ‘Senior Scientist’ Mette Christine Jørgensen coordinate our outreach activities, tailoring them for each event. Here we learn from Mette how outreach events at DanStem have evolved during the maturation of the center.
Stem Cell Day 2018
As a student I always recognized the importance of scientific communication and that engagement with the public is a great and necessary skill for a scientist to acquire. Twenty years ago there was hardly any focus on outreach activities and very few ways in which a scientist could contribute to public engagement.
Science in the City was a big, Copenhagen wide initiative, and the first outreach event DanStem participated in back in the summer of 2013. Mette what inspired you to take part in this event?
As a student I always recognized the importance of scientific communication and that engagement with the public is a great and necessary skill for a scientist to acquire. Twenty years ago there was hardly any focus on outreach activities and very few ways in which a scientist could contribute to public engagement. So, when DanStem’s research coordinator –Johanna Keiding - asked for volunteers to help run the Science in the City event, it felt very natural for me to take part. For me the event reaffirmed my belief in the importance of scientific outreach to the public and the excitement around the city made it a really positive experience.
A few years ago DanStem collaborated with Cathy Southworth from EuroStemCell during a stem cell day at Christianshavn Collegium. How did you build on this experience to become independent in the events DanStem hosts?
In 2015, with the recruitment of Simone to the center, there was a new drive within DanStem to organize a big outreach event. We contacted Cathy who had prior experience of organizing educational events in Edinburgh, Scotland. Cathy was integral both in the planning and the execution of the stem cell day at Christianshavn Collegium and it served as a foundation for future events. Seeing the success of such a big event – which included participation from 15 scientists and xx school children – really gave us the confidence and excitement to continue hosting similar activities.
Stem Cell Day 2018
Scientists at DanStem have been involved in many outreach events – from gymnasium-based science days to tours at the center – when you are contacted and asked to host an event, how do you ensure it is a success?
Planning is key to a holding a good event and this starts at the point we get contacted. We get a lot of requests by email to host activities from the public, especially schools, so we have to prioritize them and for us the critical factor is how engaged the contact person is with our ideas. Of course, we need to plan activities that are feasible and manageable for the scientists whose time we are asking to volunteer. We also want the event to be an interactive day, so that the scientists are able to engage fully with those taking part, which in turn inspires everyone at the event to give their best. Most of all we want the activities to be the right balance of educational and fun; that’s why we balance ethical debates with a lot of hands on practical’s – like seeing a chicken embryo inside an egg.
In addition to coordinating the events, you also participate in them. What have been the most surprising and the most rewarding aspects of participating in outreach activities?
I think that for all the events I’ve been a part of, the most surprising thing for me is the level of excitement and engagement – both from the volunteers and those attending events. I was totally surprised that we managed to ‘pull off’ our first event in 2015 and that it was such a big success. It was very unexpected for me to see that all the scientists taking part were equally thrilled with the outcome of the day. I’ve also been surprised by how ‘in awe’ students are during tours of the lab; after many years ‘at the bench’ you can get a bit complacent about the fascinating things you observe during your daily tasks. Perhaps the most unexpected but equally humbling aspect of outreach has been how grateful people are for your time and knowledge. This is especially apparent in emails I receive from the general public asking for information about prognoses for diseases targeted by stem cell therapies. The public - especially vulnerable individuals - are really searching for answers and can so easily be misinformed and mislead These email requests reinforce just how vital it is to relay accurate information to society about scientific research.
Are there any new ‘outreach’ initiatives in the pipeline for the next year?
In the fall of 2019 Simone and I will organize our annual big outreach event – so watch this space! This year our outreach activities have also reached the international community and we are hosting a group of Belgian Bachelor students that want to learn more about a career as a scientist. I am continuing to collaborate with EuroStemCell as I convert a lot of their website into Danish so that our local community will have access to all the great information held on the site. I would also encourage people to take part in the Ministry of Educations initiative to ‘book a scientist’. As part of this initiative, this year, I will be giving a talk to midwives about the ethics of stem cells – so it’s a really fun way to interact with a diverse range of audiences. As we go forward DanStem aims to formalize an outreach program, with secured and stable funding, scientific and administrative coordination, a range of activities, and an advisory group, as a focused and permanent aspect of the center.
If money were no issue, what event would you love to host that would highlight and explain DanStem research to a global audience?
I actually think that the question should be if time were no issue what event would I like to organize – because really time is the most significant thing we ask people to invest during an outreach event. If time were no issue I would like to explore an initiative that was started in Vienna. In the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology outreach, coordinators paired principal investigators with photography artists, who were commissioned to capture the labs research theme. The concept was so successful that the works were exhibited at a big conference, and a beautiful book of all the images was put together. I would love to be able to achieve something similar at DanStem where the research into developmental biology, cancer and stem cells is so cutting edge. I think that images and art can be really strong, powerful way to communicate complicated scientific projects to a diverse audience that is the general public.
If you would like to be part of the next outreach event you are welcome to approach Mette or Simone directly. Alternatively keep an eye out for notifications of future outreach activities in the brilliant DanStem weekly newsletter. We take this opportunity to thank both Mette and Simone for their investment in all outreach events, without them the center would not have such a positive engagement with the community of Copenhagen.