‘Inspiring Stories’ with Jon Dawson

Principle Research Fellow HDH


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 motivated me to get started with Public Engagement/Patient involvement

Since starting my PhD in Southampton I have been very lucky to have found myself in a context where outreach was actively encouraged as a core part of what it means to be a research scientist. For many years Prof Richard Oreffo and the late Dr Trudy Roach involved the group in running an extremely popular event called the Great Hip and Knee walk. This was an annual affair held in Exbury gardens which involved a hundred or so recent recipients of a joint replacement walking a mile to raise money for bone and joint research. More than just providing funding however, it had the benefit of exposing researchers like me to the patient groups for whom we are doing the research. Several conversations I had with patients at these events were, for me, extremely motivational and helpful for keeping the big picture in the midst of the trials and tribulations of a PhD. These type of experiences led me to pursue public engagement as a core activity in my own research group.  

My Engagement/Outreach activities and experiences

I do a fair amount of public speaking on stem cells and regenerative medicine at various popular science events (which I love). I also speak very regularly to church and university Christian groups on the topic of science more broadly where I try to advocate for a conciliatory perspective on what can sometimes be seen as a divisive issue. My main involvement however has been through designing and running a large public engagement roadshow exhibit called the Stem Cell Mountain. The Stem Cell Mountain is essentially a big 3D pinball machine/marble-run designed and made in collaboration with Winchester Science Centre to engage a wide range of ages with the concept of stem cells and their potential in medicine. We’ve used this exhibit as part of a wider Bone and Joint group presentation of our research theme at various events and festivals – particularly as part of the Bringing Research to Life Roadshow run by the PERU team.

One of my earliest (and more terrifying) experiences of public engagement came when, as a recent grant recipient, I was invited to give a talk at a Wessex Medical Research fundraiser. Like a typical scientist, I spent a long time preparing a (rather data heavy) ‘lay’ powerpoint presentation only to arrive at the event to discover that, being a dinner party, there was neither a laptop or projector on which to show my slides. This meant having to stand up in front of the room and give a 20 minute after-dinner speech on my research without any notes. Though the anticipation of having to do this certainly spoiled my dinner, it was in retrospect one of the best things to have happened to me. It forced me to speak clearly and conversationally about my topic without pictures or props and I discovered – to my surprise – that my research was actually of great interest to people! The fact that this was such a surprise to me may say something about how I viewed my own research at the time, but again and again I have found that engaging with an enthusiastic public audience has a beneficial side-effect of rekindling my own interest and enthusiasm for what I am doing.

The importance of Public Engagement/Patient involvement

As well as being good for us as researchers I think, ultimately, keeping stakeholders and the wider public informed about what we are doing is a responsibility that comes from being a beneficiary of public funds. University research is a great act of public trust, and often the fruit of that trust can be a very long time in coming. Public engagement is important because it involves people with the process of research whilst it is ongoing. At its best, good public engagement can allow research to enrich society and culture, even before its goals of improved technology and health have been realised.


Reactions from the public and the impact of Public Engagement / Patient Involvement

Generally people absolutely love discovering that they are able to understand something that they had previously assumed was too technical or beyond them. This I think is what I like most about working with an effective exhibit like the Stem Cell Mountain. We get comments like ‘this is such a simple way to explain such a complex thing!’ Its interesting how a conversation can change once people start to understand a little bit more about what your research is about. Whereas initially there can appear to be indifference or a lack of interest, as people realise they can actually understand what you’re doing and why, there’s more enthusiasm and questions and even a sense of ownership.  

It can be hard to predict how these activities will have an impact because ultimately it all depends on who you end up meeting and talking to – that’s why it’s exciting! For example at our first Stem Cell Mountain outing at the BBSRC Great British Bioscience Festival in East London I met an MSc student from QMUL who, as a result of our conversation ended up doing a very successful PhD project in my group which,  in turn, resulted in a new patent and successful grant application! Overall, the benefit of doing public engagement is that it gets you out there talking to people about what you are doing and why it matters. When you start doing that you never know what might happen as a result!

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 Jon Dawson

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