‘Inspiring Stories’ with Sandrine Willaime-Morawek

Associate Professor, Clinical and Experimental Sciences


This is part of the Engaged Medicine ‚ÄėInspiring Stories‚Äô blog series. The blogs explore the stories behind outreach and patient-public engagement activities of staff and students from the University of Southampton‚Äôs Faculty of Medicine. This month’s edition also features guest blogs from those working at the interface between the humanities, arts and medicine.

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

Inspired by the notion of tangles: protein tangles found in the brain of Alzheimer’s disease patients but also wool knots created in crochet, the Detangling The Knots project is an exploration of dementia and Alzheimer’s in different contexts, in the research laboratories of neuroscientists and with patients.

The project started with artists‚Äô residency in the neuroscience labs at the University of Southampton in Autumn 2019 followed by workshops with people with dementia in Winter/Spring 2020. The project website was created in response to the new pandemic conditions we found ourselves in, as a space to reflect on the project now and in the future and as a space to communicate with new audiences. Artists and neuroscientists participated in several online and face-to-face public engagement events, such as the Southampton Science and Engineering Festival in 2020 and 2021, an Exhibition at Red House Museum, Christchurch in 2020 and the British Neuroscience Association Bring Your Own Brain outreach festival in 2021. This last event got us a mention in The Lancet Neurology!

What has driven you to participate in public engagement or patient involvement?

I use stem cells derived from healthy people or Alzheimer‚Äôs patients to grow them in 3D in a dish to become mature and differentiated neurons. This is to model some aspects of what happens in a brain, either healthy or affected by a disorder such as dementia. With this method we can see what happens at cellular or network level very early in the life of the cells, well before the time when symptoms would start to appear in a patient. Artists Barbara Touati-Evans, Susan Merrick and Melanie Ray spent time in our labs to try to understand our research, see how we were doing research, what equipment we used and what data or pictures we were collecting. Barbara used the theme of growth to describe my research as I grow neurons in a dish. This is reflected in the exhibition video with the tubes and flasks that you see and also the growing network in red wool that you see forming knots at the end.

This project particularly interested me, as the interdisciplinary collaboration brought something original and different. Rather than the scientists telling about their research, this time it was artists interpreting research and science through artistic creation.

How did you get started with Public Engagement or patient involvement? 

I met Barbara at a Southampton Neuroscience conference a few years ago, as she was exploring the links between her artistic creation and neuroscience. We explored ways to work together and the project was awarded funding from the Arts Council England and the University‚Äôs public engagement in research unit (PERu). 

When I got involved in the project, I aimed to combine our expertise in neurosciences and art to generate some outreach and public engagement events. I thought it would be a good way for me to be involved in outreach and I hoped that our collaboration could give rise to something a bit different than just me talking about my research. Sometimes, we, scientists, are a bit stuck in the complexity of neurosciences and its specialised words, so having to explain our research to artists was a challenge, however it is great to see how the artists have digested all the details we shared with them and created original artistic composition, that we as scientists can then also use to present our work to the public. It is a win-win collaboration!

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

Although public engagement is not something I was keen on adding to my workload, I realised that it is something important for the wider public and that scientists have a moral responsibility to engage with the public. Our work as scientists is to make new discoveries but also to share them with the world along with the process of research. It is vital the wider public understands the research process, so scientific facts are not confused with opinions, and an expert‚Äôs advice is not confused with a public figure‚Äôs view.  An audience informed about the scientific discovery and research process will be better armed to dismiss fake scientific news!

What reaction do you get during an engagement event?

With more than 26,000 engagements in person and online, we got a wide range of reactions. Generally, people attending our events are interested by the science and ask questions about the brain’s physiology and composition, the disease and how it develops or affects people or about research and the tools and models we use. The audience is also attracted by the artistic side of our events, whether it is something to view, to create, to watch or listen to. Overall we have great engagement of our audience with both the science and artistic sides of our events.

Here are a few comments from audience members: 

“We loved using the strings and learning new things about the brain.” 
“Really interesting style of presenting information. Really enjoyable”
“A really interesting and moving collaboration. I particularly enjoy these arts/science collaborations to see how different forms of creativity work together to discuss a topic or solve a problem.”

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

Apart from the audience engagement, described earlier, a big impact for the project has been how it has affected the scientists and artists who worked on this project. A scientist mentioned how the project has enabled them to look at their research and to communicate with the public in a more creative way including creating a social media account for public engagement.

Another scientist said: “With this successful public engagement project, I have been building on my enterprise portfolio and I will look into developing further this type of collaboration for outreach and public engagement.”

An artist said: “For me, this project has added an extra layer of complexity to my work, working with a scientific/academic institution alongside the social and artistic groups I already work within. This way of working and the deeper research possibilities that it explores will take my practice in a new direction that I am really excited about.”

Our project also had impact on the venue where we exhibited, the exhibition has shown them different ways to use their space and inspired them to show installations and videos in future projects.

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

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University staff or students click here for the Engaged Medicine SharePoint

‘Inspiring Stories with Sandrine Willaime-Morawek

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