‘Inspiring Stories’ with Edd James

Professor in Cancer Immunology


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.

How did you get started with public engagement and what activities do you do?

‘It’s not something that I went into thinking I really want to do public engagement and this is what I’m really excited about, it’s something that I fell into and thought this is really important and I enjoy it and I can see how it could be of benefit not just to me, but to the people I’m talking to.’ …I do a little bit of talking to support groups and to families and people who have cancer, but that’s evolved as I’ve gone through. The real start to my public engagement was talking to friends who have no scientific background. That started the process of appreciation for being able to communicate clearly with people, it is a skill, and it’s something that some people may start off better than others, but you will learn as you go through. When I came to Southampton, I got engaged in lab tours, typically for fundraisers or people who are stakeholders in the charity and wanted to see where their money is spent and to show them the impact of their donation. You could see that there was a thirst for knowledge. With any [public engagement] opportunity that arose, there is always a level of apprehension that goes with all these things because you don’t know who these people are and the questions that come from the public require you to really need to know your subject. One of the things I encourage in my team is getting students early on to be involved in public engagement, because you have to truly understand and appreciate what you’re doing to be able to present that to the public.

What was the main driving factor for [getting involved in public engagement]? Was it your enjoyment for putting the information out in a simpler way or the satisfaction that you got from people?

It’s a bit of both, being able to have the satisfaction and being able to explain things and get to see people suddenly click. It’s events like hospital open days or the New Forest Show where you get anybody and everybody coming in and you know their knowledge level [ranges] from almost nothing to really engaged in the subject so it’s that thing of pitching it at the right level. But at the same time, when you’re breaking it down into simple chunks and you’re getting that sort of reaction, you start to get some really difficult questions back. And that happens from anybody, regardless of their background. One of the other driving factors is seeing sensationalist headlines sometimes, particularly on cures for disease, so the public perception is, ‘why are we funding this when we’ve already cured it?’. Importantly, you’re not standing there teaching like you may do in a classroom or lecture. Many of the people who ask questions didn’t enjoy that arena or they didn’t find that a useful way to learn so having the ability to have those discussions, allows them to get engaged and then the questions come out. It is really education by stealth. It’s arming them with a bit of knowledge and giving them the tools so that they can look at the headlines and think ‘do I believe this?’

What sort of events do you do and what’s the format of your engagement?

I created a couple of different activities where we the idea was we had a shooting gallery game where you took on the role of the killer T cell, and so you had to understand how you could identify a cancer cell from a normal cell. The most recent activity is developed in collaboration with Cancer Research UK and Winchester Science Centre and the idea is trying to show in an arcade game style how a killer T cell recognizes the actual physical interaction with a normal cell through the Major Histocompatibility Complex molecules. This game only takes 45 seconds to play, but you can see as people go through it, they understand. Again, education by stealth without them realising that they are being educated, and I think that works really well.

I also do a lot of discussions where I’ll talk about the state of immunotherapy, particularly to certain Cancer Support groups and I’ve also been doing talks for the University of the Third Age, which are professional retirees who want to learn more. In these talks I like to include some audience participation and use simple activities like the Jelly Bean challenge game where the audience have to identify one jelly bean that has changed colour between two images. I use this as an analogy for killer T cells to be able to identify the cancer cell from other healthy cells. However, in one image I remove the colour and ask which cell is different. This is really challenging and represents the changes that cancer cells can develop to evade the immune system. To date no one has correctly identified the cell with the change!

What are the reactions you get?

When kids play you can see how their brains are like sponges, they just take up everything. Once they get in the activity, you can see them starting [to think] ‘that’s really cool’. And then when you start to get slightly older kids, particularly those who are more interested in science, you ty to convince them it’s OK to be interested in science. If you’re interested and you really want to do it, just go for it. it’s keeping that interest an excitement going.

This highlights one of the importance of Public Engagement and Outreach which is making sure people understand that they can do science and that and it is an option for them. What would you say is the importance of doing Public Engagement and Outreach?

I was really lucky in that education allowed me to progress to where I am now and so it’s giving kids the opportunity to do that, it’s just trying to get that inspiration and confidence in people to say, yes you can do it. You should be able to do it.

…You also get to speak to patients and people who have been affected and understand that because I’m a scientist, I know the science, but as I am not a clinician I don’t necessarily appreciate that side of things and how patients deal with everything that goes with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Just one conversation gives you so much understanding and then you can take that experience and when you’re talking to the next set of people, you’ve got a little bit more understanding and can create a better connection so that you have greater engagement with them and have an understanding of the disease from their perspective.

The other question following on from this is impact. What is the result of what you doing?

You can’t really follow the progress of the people you talk with so it’s difficult sometimes to know the impact depending on what level of public engagement you’re doing. Some of the talks I give are to support groups, so I will see some people more regularly. Some come back and say, ‘oh, you’ve really inspired us to do this’.

[Public engagement is about] giving the information at the right place at the right time, and I suppose more acutely now with things like COVID vaccination, you can see that impact more readily because you’ve got people who have the knowledge and the expertise, giving the information [to the public] that they need to be able to go to their other family members or friends and say, get the vaccine. A lot of what we do is funded by charities and they have to raise that money and for people like Cancer Research UK, they do a really good job of engaging and discussing and chatting with stakeholders to raise money for research. As part of the fundraising campaign to build the new Centre for Cancer Immunology, I was involved in many events, talking to potential donors about what we do and why it’s really important, which was a real success.

The University is a large community, but it’s also within an even larger community of the city, and it’s making sure that that’s all cohesive and brought together, then you can do things like start to show what the impact is of the University on the city.

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 Edd James

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