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Centre of the Cell

It brings the public to the scientists, says Frances Balkwill

Our approach to public engagement with biomedical research is to build a science centre for young people in the middle of one our research buildings.

Centre of the Cell was integral to the design of the Blizard Institute of Barts and The London Medical School at Queen Mary University of London; indeed the original idea of building an exhibition space at the heart of the laboratory came from the Blizard Director, Professor Mike Curtis. When Centre of the Cell opens in June 2009, over 30,000 young people each year will be able to visit our futuristic orange cell-shaped ‘Pod’ suspended within an award-winning glass building.

Short flight of stairs

There are a number of advantages to bringing the public to the scientists rather than sending scientists out to the public. It saves time, ensures that good resources are always available and breaks down stereotypes. Centre of the Cell gives us a custom-made, interactive environment in which junior and senior researchers can efficiently discuss and debate their research with young people – and most of the scientists will only have to climb a short flight of stairs to do so.

Our postgraduate scientists are being trained by Centre of the Cell staff and STEMNET (the government-supported Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network) to act as volunteer ‘explainers’ during the Centre of the Cell experience. Each will spend one or two days (or possibly more!) a year in the Pod. Our volunteer explainers will not only engage in interesting dialogue but their very presence will help break down the stereotype of scientists as white, male, middle aged – and mad. In addition to meeting scientists in the Pod, visitors will actually look down onto other scientists at work before they learn about the research going on below them via film shows, state-of-the-art interactive games and top-of-the-range microscopes. We can reach so many more young people by bringing them to us.

Catalyst for engagement

Equally importantly, we have found that putting the science centre for the public at the heart of a research building is generating an ethos of enthusiastic communication that permeates throughout our medical school and university. The project also acts as a catalyst for further initiatives in public engagement. For instance, in response to requests from teachers, we are already running a series of ‘Meet the scientist’ continuing professional development events. First we are bringing in science teachers but, after a further suggestion, we are including    AS- level students as well. There were about 20 participants for the first of these, but the twelfth attracted over 100.

A critical factor in all of this, and indeed, I believe, any sort of outreach/public engagement involving research scientists, is dedicated, full-time professional science communicators working alongside the scientists. Most scientists do not have the time or experience to ensure optimal performance when faced with non-scientists – they need support and guidance. With help from the Centre of the Cell team, over eighty of our scientists and clinicians have provided expert content, 150 pages of which is already available (alongside some 15 interactive games, teachers resources and much more) on our popular website The Centre of the Cell team has also evaluated every step of the project in our local schools – so far they have involved over 8000 pupils – and they are training our scientists and undergraduates in best practice in science communication.

Time will tell if our model for science communication and public engagement with research is successful, but we dream that one day you will find Centre of the Cell clones in biomedical research buildings around the world. 

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Professor Frances Balkwill
Professor Frances Balkwill is Director, Centre of the Cell and Centre Lead, Centre for Cancer and Inflammation at the Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London
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