It takes a good reason to get me out of bed before 9 am on a Saturday morning. Luckily science is a great reason, and getting a chance to share science, even better. This weekend our research centre joined other scientists from Manchester at the Body Experience at Manchester Museum. The whole museum was turned in to the human body for a family day, complete with real kidneys and pieces of brain to see and touch (I recommend before lunch, not afterwards!) and plenty of games and activities explaining parts of our body. We represented the immune system, challenging visitors to identify good and bad bacteria, hit a flu target with Velcro antibodies and find the infected ducks in our pond. The duck pond was dreamt up by one of the postdocs in ourlab as a way to explain how your natural killer cells identify infected cells to target. We’ve used it at quite a few public engagement events and the bright yellow ducks never fail to draw interest. Of course some of the younger children just want to play with the ducks, but with older children, or parents of children just playing, I had some great conversations about the immune system. From the entertaining to the reminders of why research matters, here’s a few of my conversations over ducks.
I was amazed at how many children and parents could do my explaining job for me. After watching his child indiscriminately scoop healthy and infected ducks from the pond one parent just commented ‘That’s autoimmunity’. This sparked allergy top trumps from the others around the pond. I’ll happily take that idea to future events. On another occasion, after hearing how many different antibodies B cells make, one person commented ‘They must need instructions for that’, jumping straight to the idea of genes encoding proteins with no prompting.
Of course, not every conversation is a success. One child calmly informed me that he never gets ill and has no immune system, because he is a robot. Another showed a lot of interest, hoping for a budding researcher I dropped the ‘so what do you want to be when you grow up?’ question, and was quickly shot down with a confident ‘I’m going to be an engineer’. A loss for biology but a win for engineering.
There were more serious notes too, one parent shared that he had recently started to learn about the immune system after a friend was diagnosed with leukaemia. Phrases like ‘white blood cell count’ had meant nothing to him before, so talking about white blood cells and what they do helped unravel some of the mystery. We also talked about matching MHC for bone marrow transplants. Research into the immune system has given us the knowledge to treat these diseases, but sharing that understanding with people whose lives are touched by those diseases settles some intimidating unknowns.
By the end of the day everyone was ready for a cup of tea and a rest, but both researchers and visitors left with plenty to think about (and plenty of playdough models and stickers to take home). The feedback overwhelmingly asked for two days next year, bring it on!