Science festivals – why bother?

Many people think that PhD students are only interested in their specific scientific niche, and that they are chained to their bench for 4 years. Well, this is certainly not true. Many of us have learnt this the fun (but exhausting) way by taking part in outreach events – for example representing the John Innes Centre at major events such as the Big Bang Fair (this year in the ExCel Arena in London), and at the Cheltenham Science Festival. The Big Bang fair is a science fair aimed at schoolchildren to enthuse and excite them about science and the latest technologies. Cheltenham Science Festival is a brilliant festival held in the centre of Cheltenham, open to all ages and scientific abilities, and is designed to bring science to the masses. These events contain a combination of performances, stands and outdoor activities to demonstrate science from all areas – ranging from engineering to ecology.

purple tomatoes

Can you spot the genetically modified tomato?

Our stand was designed to introduce people to the wonders of genetic modification and its exciting global potential. As well as a series of props demonstrating how to genetically modify a plant using a bacteria, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, we also had some real-life genetically modified plants to show. We had two demonstration plants, drought-resistant peas, and ‘purple tomatoes’, (courtesy of Dr Claire Domoney and Professor Cathie Martin, both at JIC). These purple tomatoes have been in the press demonstrating the benefits of foods containing high anthocyanin levels, as well as due to their extended shelf-life and novel colour. Here’s some handy links to more about the tomatoes:

Being at one of these festivals is a brilliant opportunity, both for the public to learn about what we do, and for us to improve our communication skills. Being on one of these stands isn’t just about standing around looking pretty (or at least vaguely interesting). Working at one of these festivals comes with its own unique challenges. Visitors who came asking were both old and young, scientist and non-scientist, and it was our job to aim our information at the level that they would understand – a skill that is improved with every new visitor. We had to be able to come up a diverse range of reasons to counteract the concerns of GM sceptics – which we naturally encounter since genetic modification of plants is still a controversial subject. Many people who have concerns about the technology are generally not aware of how prevalent the technology is globally, often not realising the fact that they have probably consumed many meals derived from GM plants. There was also a general lack of understanding of what genetic modification actually is. This left us with the task of coming up with interesting easy ways of explaining it using just a few sentences. Luckily, there are so many examples of how GM can be used for good that we could talk for hours about its benefits.


Our stand in Cheltenham

With the stand displaying different aspects of genetic modification, people were drawn to the part that interested them most. For example, farmers were generally drawn by barley and pea plants, gardeners by the tomatoes, and other people by the ‘spot the genetically modified pea’ game (or they had received one of our free “How to Genetically Modify a Tomato” newspapers and just wanted to find out more). Many people who visited the stand expected genetic modification to be all about creating bigger profits for companies, e.g.  creating larger fruits for profit. Many were unaware that GM can be used to modify plants to benefit the masses (creating health beneficial tomatoes and sustainable, drought-tolerant peas and plants).

A favourite experience from the festival was realising what a massive variety of people are interested in science, and re-discovering passion for all the sciences. It is so easy to get immersed in your own research and forget what other exciting discoveries are being made elsewhere. It was brilliant being able to have a chance at exploring, chatting to physicists and psychologists, playing with robots and watching the 3-D printer in action. And it was as exciting to see the same interest in reverse, with engineers and chemists being just as interested in what we had to say.

Being able to volunteer at these festivals is a brilliant experience that is fully worth the 8-hour days on your feet. Your legs may be aching by the end, but the buzz from meeting so many interesting and interested people is more than enough reward. We would thoroughly recommend any scientist to try and get involved in these sorts of event, and recommend all non-scientists to take advantage of any they can visit.

By Daniel Knevitt and Isabel Webb – second year PhD students in Cathie Martin and Phil Poole’s groups respectively


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