Inspiring Stories’ with Jay James

Postgraduate student researcher

This is part of the Engaged Medicine ‘Inspiring Stories’ blog series. The blogs explore the stories behind outreach and patient-public engagement activities of staff and students from the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine.

What has driven you to participate in public engagement or patient involvement and how did you get started?

I have a background in teaching and medical research. I find that engaging the public with my research and the important issues of the year fulfils these two passions. Going in to a festival or event is never the same, I couldn’t possibly prepare well enough for the breath of interaction I’ll receive which not only keeps me on my toes but keeps me striving to find the answers so I can share them with those who are interested.

After teaching abroad I returned to science but did not want to give up my link with education. I started by organising my first Pint of Science events four years ago and found that working with the public and scientists was both rewarding and enriching for all parties involved. I now oversee these events for the South East of England whilst volunteering with other engagement organisations. I’m working towards creating my own festival to unite researchers and students to take science beyond their curriculum.

What do you do to engage and outreach with the public or patients?

I have been a part of the Pint of Science festival for the past 4 years. We work to bring researchers from behind the university’s closed doors to local pubs where the public can ask questions to researchers on their topic at themed events across the city. The relaxed setting and interactive talks are a fascinating way to stimulate discussion between these groups. We are currently working on our first full digital festival when interactions between the public and scientists are now more important than ever! During the pandemic I spent some time designing and building my own public engagement activity on how the lung responds to infections which will be taken to local science festivals such as SOTSEF and The New Forest Show. I have found time and time again that hearing how a complex system works or even seeing 2D representations cannot compare to a challenging hands-on activity with a scientist standing by to explain things every step of the way. I also work on several mentoring and tutoring initiatives to improve student engagement with the STEM fields and humanise the scientists they hear about in classes. Finding new ways to bridge the gap between science and the public is very important to me. I am currently working with a Poetic Science initiative, teaching scientists including myself to express our work and other difficult scientific concepts through the art of poetry.

Why do you consider Public Engagement / Patient Involvement to be important?​​​​​​​

Science is often funded by charities or the government so making sure that we communicate this research back to the public is incredibly important. If what we do stays between scientists then it will expand our collective knowledge, but if we can communicate it to the public, it can influence actions, inform policy and make a real and immediate difference. From my work so far I’ve seen that the public do want to be a part of what is going on but when access is restricted to those that can read and evaluate scientific papers it creates a divide. As someone fortunate enough to have been taught to evaluate science articles, which to many can feel like a foreign language altogether, I believe it is important that I work to disambiguate the information to make it accessible to all.

What do you feel is the impact of the engagement events, what happens as a result? ​​​​​​​

Engagement events show science in action, meeting the person behind the research brings it into reality and interacting with them can give anyone a deeper understanding of the field. Writing online or in papers is a one-size fits all system whereas being with people at events allows me to tailor my talk to ensure the message is delivered specifically for my audience. I constantly find that what I considered to be the key questions in my field are not what are of interest to the public which helps inform the way I research and consider my results.

I think that we are at a turning point in engaging the public with science and overcoming the divide, which in an age of pandemics and conspiracies is more important than ever. But more than being important it is an amazing opportunity to get out of the lab and see how science holds up in the real world.

Stay Connected! To find out more about the ‘Inspiring Stories’ series, Faculty of Medicine educational programmes and research, or to get involved use the links below or contact Dr Lucy Green.

University staff or students click here for the Engaged Medicine SharePoint

‘Inspiring Stories’ with Jay James

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