‘Inspiring Stories’ with Kath Woods-Townsend

LifeLab Manager


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 do you do engage?

​​​​Everything we do at Life Lab is about engaging and outreaching with the public. Much of what we do with our education materials is about translating the research that we know is so important for young people to make good choices at a young age for their future health. So for us it’s about translating that research in a way that’s engaging to young people so they can take that knowledge and make good choices for themselves. Its also about engaging their teachers and also about them reaching out into their families as well. So the way we outreach and engage with that side of things is really about recognising that for young people it’s about understanding the science behind the health messages for themselves. We know that just being told what you should and shouldn’t do doesn’t resonate with young people particularly, as they are finding their independence and make their own choices. So being able to understand for them selves why its important, we feel is an crucial step for engagement with the research. Along side that we also take any opportunities for standard outreach we run events for science week and hospital open days. Any chance we have to showcase the work we do to different audiences is really important. One of the things that struck me when I started on this journey 12 years ago, was just how powerful short sessions with scientists were for young people themselves, they were so fascinated in hearing about the research that happens at the university  and so that felt like a really powerful way to be able to showcase [this] research to a wider audience. And generally, teenagers don’t show it in the moment, but the feedback we get from them afterwards was just how fascinated they are by the research at the university.

We always take part in science and engineering week, the hospital open day and big bang career events. [We take] any opportunity [we have] to put stuff out there and entice the public to come to us to take part. By bringing our understanding of the things that people enjoy doing, like hands on interactive activity, this attracts younger children which then brings their parents and older siblings. I also think that being able to explain your work to a 13-year-old, is a perfect pitch.

You mentioned there the feedback you get which is fantastic, what is the overall reaction you get?

Thinking about our wider work we did with Lifelab and the education module, what I love about my job is being at life lab and hearing the buzz of all the young people at lifelab and eves dropping on some of their conversations where they are talking about some of the activities they’ve been doing and the light bulb moment they’ve had through the life lab teaching. And then thinking about the Meet the Scientist sessions, after these students write feedback about the scientist that took part, so they are already having these conversations on what they learnt. With the Meet the Scientist session, students only ever meet 2 scientist that take part so there is always this anticipation of who is the other scientist and what were they talking about so hopefully that generates some discussion on the coach on the way back or for teachers to pick up back at school.. We find that teachers are also so fascinated by the sessions.  Science teachers are far removed from the cutting-edge research, but they are in teaching because they want to inspire the next generation, but this is an opportunity for them to be inspired. We also ask all the young people to fill out an anonymous evaluation form at the end of the day, and you can see through those comments the impact of the whole day but also those sessions with the scientist they met. I find it terrifying that we still have these perceptions of what scientist are and do, despite all the work the STEM community do to challenge those perceptions, that is how people still see science and scientist. So we still regularly get comments coming through that scientist were just regularly people, not posh or geeky, and they could see themselves in them, so I feel we’re doing our bit to challenge these stereotypes with young people

​​​​​​How did you gear your career gear into the education side of things following a career in science?

I was originally a pure scientist, I did a PhD in human developmental genetics, worked as a post-doc and I love science, I love being at the bench and doing the experiments, I never felt driven to go down the fellowship PI route for science, and knowing how precarious and competitive an academic career can be, I retrained as a school teacher. I come from family of teachers, so it was quite an easy decision to make in someway and I really had that sense of wanting to inspire the next generation. So I think I went into teaching with a naive approach of wanting to inspire the next generation of scientists and share my love of science. School science isn’t like that. I found it challenging knowing what science is like and how it works and then seeing how it gets taught, because the reality of how you do science is not how its taught in school. Whiles I really enjoyed the interaction with school students and young people and building those relationships and seeing them grow, I found the constraints of the school curriculum difficult. It just happened that this job came up, and this job brings together all the things I really enjoy, all the science I loved couple with working with young people. It was just a dream job. I wouldn’t have been able to do my job if I didn’t have my teaching qualification, because I understand and have an insight into the school education system, school students lives in school and what’s important to teachers. My experience in schools allowed me to build into the LifeLab programme a way for it to be simple and straightforward which allows teachers to just pick up and run with it or adapt and fit it into their curriculum.

What has driven you to participate with outreach?

The reason we go into science and teaching is because we want to make a difference, so this job brings the two together. As a scientist, you sit behind the bench and you don’t see the [immediate] impact of what you’re doing. With this job I see the translation of the research around the developmental origins of health and disease and knowing how important it is to make good lifestyle choices from a young age, I see this translated on a daily bases into what we do with young people and see the impact on them.

I think it’s really important and relevant to touch on your work with the saliva testing programme and its introduction into schools, and the impact that it has on the education and children’s lives. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how that married into the work with showcasing the impact of science?

A year ago when we shut our doors, we found it really challenging knowing that all our work is for young people and we know that they are going to be having a really tough time, so how do we adapt what we’re doing in order to support them? Up until then, all our work has been non-communicable diseases, and communicable diseases were not an area of our work. So over the summer with all the work and resources we were trying to provide, I was just reflecting and seeing the discourse in the media and twitter, and seeing that scientific literacy is such a bed rock of what we need in our society, we need be able to provide a basic level of scientific literacy to normal everyday people, so they can understand the guidelines we were being asked to follow and why, so they can understand why its important for themselves to make choices and so they can understand that these choices are not just for themselves but for their families and communities too. I was really struck how at the heart of what we do is scientific literacy which is even more important today. In August, the opportunity came up for us to be involved with the saliva programme as it was moving into phase 2 which was piloting regular testing in education settings. We were really keen to show that this isn’t just about asking young people to do a test, because we know that won’t generate high levels of participation then, what we need to do is explain why its important to take part in regular testing so that they are wanting and choosing to participate rather than it just being an expectation that they should participate. Holding strong to the beliefs of enabling young students to understand the science behind the health messages we set up engagement activities and materials, and the feedback we got was great and surprising [because] what we were hearing was just how amazing it was for [teachers] to have conversations with their [students]. Teachers don’t have the time, space, or expertise to teach things [surrounding Covid and the pandemic] so providing these resources for teachers to have these conversations with students… Children and young people haven’t been include in these conversations, their voices haven’t been heard, so giving the young people the chances to have these conversations was really powerful. The younger generation are the ones that are going to be living with the consequences of this pandemic, so we need them to be in the best place and to understand what happened and what they lived with and to be able to process it.

What would you say is the impact of your work?

Describing impact is really difficult. We are part of the university so the work we do at lifelab is founded by research grants, we run randomised control trials where we have pre imposed measures to show the impact of what we’re doing. We’ve shown that taking part in the lifelab programme changes knowledge and attitudes we are currently working on a trial  which is looking at translating that into a behaviour change. As part of this NIHR founded research headed by Prof Marry Barker from the MRC, a game was designed for phones, so students go through the LifeLab programme as normal and teachers have a behaviour change teacher professional development session using the work of Wendy Laurence and ‘healthy conversations’ skills to give teachers those skills to have these conversations back at schools with their students and then students go home with an app that helps them think about how they use this and put their choices into habits, so from an impact perspective we’re looking to get that data to show that what we do is making changes, we know it make changes in knowledge and attitudes, so what we need to do next is show it makes changes in actual behaviour.

From an engagement with science perspective, we ae seeing those changes and engagement with science and a shift in what science is and what scientist do. Its not just for the students but also for the scientist that take part. I think as scientist we get told a lot about doing Public Engagement and impact and this provides a way for scientist to be able to do public engagement but also because it is an ongoing process scientist can come and do sessions, reflect on the sessions, and the come and do things differently and see the impact of the engagement themselves and see the questions and how those questions impact on the research they do – it really is that 2 way impact for the scientist as well.

For the saliva testing programme we know how high the participation rates in saliva testing have been, and when we saw the numbers started to drop in older years, we went back into the schools and did more engagement sessions, and those numbers picked up again.

Why do you consider public engagement, outreach, and the work you do, to be important?

I feel that for any research that happens, the point of doing that research is for the public, so we need to be communicating with them, so it has to be not just about us telling them, but a conversation so they can inform what we’re doing. So many times, the scientists have said that a question by students, has made them reflect on their research. We need to be having these conversations so the public know about the research that’s been happening and why its important for their lives so they can also value research. Pre pandemic there was allot of discourse about how we don’t need experts anymore and now we know how much we do need experts. So now it’s about having these honest open conversations with people.

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 Kath Woods-Townsend

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