As a public funded research institute, it is important the John Innes Centre engages with the public. After all, people ought to be able to find out what their taxes are being spent on! A research institute will always generate curiosity (what is going on in all those greenhouses!?) and it is all too easy to create an “Ivory tower” effect if there isn’t a mechanism to find out more of what goes on inside. To that end, the John Innes Centre works hard to engage with the public. A smaller event, yet one of the most popular amongst those who attend, is known as the “Friends of John Innes Centre Speed Dating”, which I helped out at this July.
Don’t let the name mislead you though; it’s all quite innocent! The evening is an opportunity for interested members of the public to get to talk to staff of the John Innes Centre in a casual, relaxed setting (unlike some of the more hectic events we attend! See the end of the article for some links). Half a dozen members of staff (at least one senior scientist, a post-doc and a PhD student, plus a mix of other scientists and support staff) each chat with a table of visitors for about 10-15 minutes, and then rotate round each of the groups. All the visitors get to talk to each of the staff members, and the idea is each of them will provide a different view on life and work at the John Innes Centre.
This was the first time I had attended one of these events (there are around 4 a year) and it was quite an experience! In fact, it was my first experience of public engagement as a representative of the John Innes Centre, so I was quite nervous going in. The evening starts off with a short talk about the history and purpose of the John Innes Centre (just to build up tension for the volunteers) and then each of the ‘speakers’ are assigned a group, and a table, and away you go!
And it’s really great! You start off introducing yourself and what you work on, and within no time at all someone has asked you a question. Then you are answering that when another pops up and in no time at all the bell is ringing for you to go on to the next table to start all over again. It’s pretty intense, but very rewarding!
For me, the discussions ranged from what I’m doing (a physicist working at a biology institute always raises one or two questions), to conferences I’ve been on, to the techniques being used here (tough questions for someone who doesn’t work in a lab!) and even advice for a couple of A level students interested in science. Some of the attendees certainly knew a lot more about the bigger picture of the systems I work on than I did! For example, I had no idea the Alder tree forms nitrogen fixing symbioses with bacteria. By no means did the information flow in only one direction.
The biggest challenge for me was really the first few minutes, before anyone has asked any questions. We were of course told to prepare something to say to get things going (who you are, what you do etc.) but you had to be prepared to talk longer for some groups than for others. One trick is to bring along some props from your work to talk about: one of the volunteers brought along some spiders from the insectary!
The evening was hard work, but a lot of fun. For me, I found it a really good introduction to public engagement. It is, as I mentioned, a much more relaxed setting than some of the other events, and so is a great place to get a first taste of public engagement if you don’t quite feel ready for one of the big events. I would definitely recommend giving it a go; you might be surprised by how much you enjoy it!
If you are interested in finding out more about the Friends of John Innes Centre or the events they run, please take a look at the John Innes Centre website
This blog has featured a number of articles on many of the public engagement events we get involved in. Click on the links below and have a read!
By Matt Evans, a 2nd year PhD student