By Sheena Cruickshank, a lecturer at the Manchester Immunology Group  in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. Sheena’s research focuses on how immune responses start and on predicting how some people are resistant to infection and others are not and get long term or chronic inflammation. When not telling people about worms she runs around after her two active football mad kids and enjoys cycling.
I study worms. Not the worms that you’d find in your compost heap, but parasitic worms such as whipworm, roundworm and hookworm.
Parasitic worms are a huge problem worldwide. Gut worm infections are the major reason that kids in some of the poorest countries miss out on education. In fact, we have been dogged by worm infections throughout our evolution. All human populations have them, as do our ape cousins, and worms are no respecter of authority - even Richard III had them!
Nowadays, in the West we have got rid of most gut worm infections, although many Western children will suffer from threadworm – a species that can cause a rather sleepless night and a very itchy bum, as the females travel down the gut at night-time to lay their eggs in the anus.
However, since Westerners lost the major gut worms (roundworm, whipworm and hookworm), there has been an emergence of diseases such as asthma, allergies and autoimmune diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease. These typically Western diseases are not an issue in the still wormy countries. So, one question that our team has been trying to answer is whether there is a link between gut worms and allergies? More and more scientists think there is. In fact deliberately infecting people with worms – worm therapy – is being trialled for a host of Western diseases.
Let's talk about worms
Our research is mostly funded by the public so it's important to show people what we are doing, and I believe everyone should have the opportunity to learn about science whether they become scientists or not.
To take our research out to the general public, we created the Worm Wagon, which we’ve used with a wide range of groups, including schools, music festivals and community groups. The Worm Wagon is a real team effort and over the years we have amassed a host of props and games that are targeted at all ages that explain specific research findings. For example, we encourage people to pull worms out of a bin full of home-made mucus. This simple game highlights the role of gut mucus in protecting against infection – a discovery from the Manchester Immunology Group. We know that people not only learn things from the Worm Wagon but they also remember important points. At a recent event, a 10 year old boy, who had seen the Worm Wagon before, explained to me why mucus is important and how it changes in infection.
Science can be off-putting for many people and often they fear that we scientists will just bombard them with endless science jargon. So, rather than just talking at people, we use visual aids and pictures that promote discussion and enable us to take our science to diverse and varied audiences.
Engaging hard-to-reach audiences
The link between science and art has lead us to use Rangoli, a traditional Asian art form. Rangoli involves using coloured pigments or materials that are spread on the ground to create colourful murals. Importantly, many people can work together to create a Rangoli, making for a truly interactive art form.
We first piloted this concept with an Asian community group of immigrant women and their children. Working with immigrants from wormy countries is a great opportunity for us to learn first-hand about worm infection, as well as to tell them more about it.
Following discussions about worm infection, the group designed worm inspired-Rangoli templates that were incorporated into the final Rangoli. We then held focus discussions with the community group to better understand their concerns and questions about gut worm infection. The latest step in this project will be to partner science literacy (focusing on worm infection and immunity) with English education using English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at Bolton College. This is an incredible opportunity to learn from these people’s experiences.
Hearing about worm infection and the impact on daily life has motivated many of us to change our research. For example, my research is now focused on developing “biomarkers” to predict who will deal with worm infections badly and become seriously ill with long-term gut inflammation. Because, the gut inflammation resembles inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), it turns out we can use these biomarkers to predict which IBD patients won’t respond to particular drugs. This means they can be provided with the best treatment possible before they get too ill.
My colleagues, Professor Kathyrn Else and Dr Joanne Pennock, are working on vaccine research and making some exciting developments in preventing worm eggs hatching. So our Worm Wagon has gone from being something that we thought would let us tell people about our research, to something that has helped shape what we do in the lab!
Sheena Cruickshank won the Society of Biology Science Communication Award  for an established researcher in 2013. Follow the Manchester Immunology Group on Twitter  to hear more about their public engagement activities.