Science in the shopping centre

Blog posted by: Tim Coutts, Clinical Trial Administrator, Oncology Clinical Trials Office (OCTO)

Public engagement is not just for scientists.  As Tim Coutts reports, public engagement with research is something everyone can get involved with.

On Wednesday 20th June I spent the day at Castle Quay shopping centre in Banbury on a  stand for the MRC Festival of Medical Research.  The stand was organised by the CRUK/MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit, the MRC Human Immunology Unit, and the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine.  The team for the day consisted of myself, Martin Christlieb (The Department of Oncology’s Public Engagement Manager) and two Biology DPhil students from other areas of the Medical Sciences Division.

We spent the day talking to shoppers about this year’s theme: Genome Editing and DNA Repair. To aid in engagement were various activities, including a giant bone marrow with cuddly blood and cancer cells, and a 3D printed model of a DNA strand with some Reference RNA, made in such a way that you can swap bits out to demonstrate DNA repair or editing.

Genome editing has many applications in medical research.  We may be able to treat some diseases, such as leukaemia and sickle-cell anaemia using this technology.  For other diseases, such as cancer, genome editing may be the key to understanding our enemy so we can better target the bad cells leaving the good ones unharmed.

In addition to our interactive activities, we gave out free bags, pens and leaflets which provided written information about Genome Editing. We had meaningful conversations with 76 people, including one lady who took part in a breast cancer efficacy study 20+ years ago looking at reducing the number of fractions of radiotherapy given. Through our discussion I was able to explain to her that now there are a lot of studies looking at different drug/radiotherapy combinations in order to further reduce the amount of treatment needed and achieve better outcomes.

It was a really rewarding experience to be able to talk to the public, and many of them were keen to share stories, especially about cancer and participation in trials. We all get the departmental emails asking for help at public engagement events and it’s sometimes tempting to think “it’s for the scientists, not me”. All I’d say is, think again, because you probably have something to offer (besides, you don’t need a DPhil in Molecular Biology to explain DNA repair to an eight year old…!).

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