‘Inspiring Stories’ with Katie Dexter
Experimental Officer, Biomedical Imaging Unit
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.
As a science communicator with a rare genetic disorder, I am privileged to be involved in many different forms of patient and public engagement – from both sides of the table.
I started in outreach and engagement by running open day tours as a student at university. During my PhD I tutored undergraduates, where I really do think I learned as much as the students, and really appreciated how much teaching helps to improve my own understanding. This opened up other science-communication doors for me, including presenting my research at a public research festival where I found I loved trying to explain complex principles simply and clearly, and coming up with everyday analogies to aid understanding. Seeing the buzz that the public got from engaging with science and research inspired me into thinking about how important public engagement is as a tool for integrating our research into everyday life.
Around this time, I started sharing my work outside of university-organised events. I volunteered to speak at (and later ran) “PubhD Leicester,” where researchers have only 10 minutes to explain their work to non-specialists in a local pub. In the two years that I managed PubhD Leicester, over 40 people regularly attended and it was clear just how much people enjoyed the opportunity to learn about science in a fun and informal setting. For the speakers this relaxed atmosphere helped to boost their confidence, and the lack of a PowerPoint encouraged more inventive explanations. Audience members reported they never knew such research was happening on their doorstep and appreciated the opportunity to ask the experts directly. There was a gap in the market for accessible research talks and PubhD neatly filled this niche. I was hooked.
I begrudgingly stopped managing PubhD to write my thesis, after which I worked as a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Museum. Here, I busked on the museum floor and gave tours of the night sky in the planetarium (the largest planetarium in the UK!) I adored this job but my health suffered, and I missed research, so I moved back into academia.
My genetic disorder, Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia (PCD), makes me at higher risk for respiratory infections as my cilia (small hair-like structures in the airways) do not work properly, and cannot clear the mucus from my respiratory system. This mucus builds up – a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. After my diagnosis I started fundraising for the charity PCD Support UK  through bake sales and exercise challenges, and was active on social media in showing my day-to-day life with the disease. In 2019, the chair asked me to take on the communications role. I was delighted to join the charity but little did I know what 2020 would hold.
The covid-19 pandemic forced the charity communications to change, and fast. People with PCD were considered ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and confined to their homes, shielding themselves from the virus. I personally struggled with this isolation and was thankful to focus on something else; something that would help those in a similar situation. We worked hard and achieved so much: a new website, a new name, our first online events, more social media, more newsletters … We moved everything online.
I now volunteer as the Communications and Research Lead for PCD Support UK where I work alongside amazing and keen volunteers to design, manage, and implement the communications strategy and the huge amount of patient engagement that we undertake. I lean on my science background to translate complicated and technical copy into non-specialist language for our audience. PCD is rare and it can be difficult to access up-to-date, accessible information – this disparity fuels my dedication.
Part of my work with PCD Support UK includes running live online talks with experts across a range of specialties. We call it ‘PCD Live’ and it brings together researchers/clinical professionals and the patient community in a patient-friendly format. We also record and upload these to our website to help disseminate the information as widely as possible. The response is clear from the numbers: we have built a growing community joining us from across the globe.
Aside from PCD Support UK, my main job is working as an Experimental Officer in the Biomedical Imaging Unit. I am a STEM Ambassador and frequently involve myself with outreach and engagement events such as SOTSEF, microscope roadshows, Meet the Scientist (LifeLab) and “I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!” I also develop my own engagement materials including a CT chocolate quiz  and a short video on how we image animals in medical research . I adore participating in science outreach, it is such a fun way to teach science across all ages and backgrounds. You learn what people are interested in and how to communicate effectively to reach different people. Sometimes, the different perspectives that people bring can give you a whole new idea about a problem or a topic. There’s a two-way exchange of knowledge – but the setting means it doesn’t feel like hard work!
I’m currently looking forward to using my skills to support others in the Faculty of Medicine through the Engagement Mentoring Scheme (I am currently completing my bio for the database!) so if you’ve enjoyed this short summary please do get in touch!
 https://create.kahoot.it/share/biu-ct-chocolate-quiz/2fc091f3-d8cb-4a8a-94b6-6b65c1354f0e or https://www.sotsef.co.uk/res/images/usr_def_2022/167_act_digital_resources_type_downloadable_file_1.pdf
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.