By: Dan Mead, the 25th Anniversary Sequencing Project Coordinator
Date: 20/12/2017

We recently wrapped up the ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’ public engagement event. This was a fantastic exercise aimed at getting the public, specifically school children, excited about sequencing genomes and science in general.

Here’s how ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’ worked – 25 Genomes style:

We divided the species into five themes, each of which had their own ‘zone’:

  • Flourishing (species on the up in the UK)
  • Floundering (endangered and declining species)
  • Cryptic (species that are out of sight or indistinguishable from others based on looks alone)
  • Iconic (quintessentially British species that we all recognise)
  • Dangerous (invasive and harmful species)

In each zone were between 7-9 candidate species that had been proposed via an online poll of scientists, wildlife experts and interested members of the public.

Close, but no cigar…

The poll to suggest candidate species for the public vote ran throughout September and into early November and we had a pretty good response. Most of the replies were pretty sensible, and quite a few had very detailed justifications by experts (one ran to nearly 5,000 words, complete with references). But some suggestions were rather left field.

In the very first section of our explanation of the purpose of the poll, we say: “…we are embarking on a brand new project to sequence a cross-sample of UK biodiversity.”

Bearing this in mind I suspect some people weren’t that keen on reading or were just chancing their arm. Here are some of the more ‘exotic’ suggestions:

  • Resplendent Quetzal – a cool-looking bird, with a cool name. If you’ve not heard of it that’s because it lives in central America (not the UK).
  • The “Hoff” crabKiwa tyleri – so named because of its hairy chest, reminiscent of Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff. The species can be found in UK oversees territorial waters, but it’s not in the UK.
  • Fire Salamander – yet another cool name, and it looks pretty sweet too. Unfortunately only found in mainland Europe.
Fire Salamander - pretty, but not UK-based. Image Credit: William Warby, Wikimedia Commons

Fire Salamander – pretty, but not UK-based. Image Credit: William Warby, Wikimedia Commons

Some non-UK resident species suggestions were a little easier to spot:

  • Greenland Shark
  • Mongolian Gerbil
  • Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher
  • Asiatic black bear
  • Italian Mediterranean buffalo
  • Alpine grasshopper
  • Tasmanian Devil (funnily enough, this species has already been sequenced right here at the Sanger Institute.)
  • Antarctic Krill

Back to I’m a scientist, get me out of here – 25 Genomes

The idea for the zones was that each species would be represented by a ‘champion’ (or team thereof) and they would answer in the first person, to keep things more fun and relatable. It worked well:

Screenshot of I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here - 25 Genomes online chat

Screenshot of I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here – 25 Genomes online chat

During the ‘I’m a scientist get me out of here – 25 Genomes’ event was running anyone who logged on could vote for their favourite species, one vote per zone. When the vote was finished, the winning species from each zone was added to the 25 Genomes project.

Getting engaged with the students was the most successful way of winning. In all the zones the species that were among the top two most active in the live chats and answered more questions on average had a much better chance becoming the zone winner.

The winners!

The winning 5 species of the public vote for the 25 Genomes Project

The winning 5 species of the public vote for the 25 Genomes Project – Common Starfish, Asian Hornet, Eurasian Otter, Fen Raft Spider, Lesser Spotted Catfish

In all around 5,000 people participated in the events and there were over 150,000 page views, which sounds pretty successful to me.

One final invaluable piece of information that I learned from this whole process is that the Latin name (Onopordum acanthium) for Scotch Thistle is “donkey fart thistle”. In ye olden times people used to think that donkeys fart a lot if they eat it*.

*from the iconic zone Q&A

About the author:

Dan Mead is the 25th Anniversary Sequencing Project Coordinator, for the 25 Genomes Project for the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge.

More on the 25 Genomes Project:

25 Genomes Project web page 

Posted by sangerinstitute

From the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a charitably funded genomic research organisation