Frank Schwach demonstrating Benchling

Categories: Sanger Life6 August 20208.2 min read

From locked down to reaching out: re-inventing public engagement for the “new normal”

Last year there were over 1,200 visitors at the Wellcome Genome Campus, from school groups and code clubs on tours, to families and individuals at open days and evening talks. Since the Campus closed to visitors in March in response to the ongoing pandemic, staff have been finding new ways of engaging with people who want to find out more about our work.

Here, Frank Schwach details his experiences of setting up live webinars and lab tours, aimed at secondary school children but open to anyone who wanted to learn more about genomics, or view the mosquitoes on Campus.

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When, like so many people all across the country, I looked around my office in early March this year to make sure I had everything with me that I might need to work from home for the longer term, my glance fell upon three large crates stacked in one corner. I wouldn’t need those for a while, for sure. These crates were packed with baseball caps, mainly in blue, red, green and yellow, with a few other colours on the side. They were the props of a public outreach initiative, we called the “Theatre of the Cell”. We used to take these to schools and make pupils immerse themselves in molecular biological processes. Standing in ladder-like formation, they would take on the roles of the building blocks of DNA or race through the DNA chain as an enzyme that breaks apart the double helix or copies it.

It soon became clear that such close-contact public engagement activities would now be about as realistic as sending a class to Mars. Back to the drawing board!

As schools closed up and down the country and children had to start learning from home, they often lost the interaction with teachers. Videos are a great resource for learning but they do not replace the immediacy of a lesson taught by a real person in front of you. Someone who can answer your questions. Someone who is investing their time right now to teach you. As I was looking for interactive content for my daughter, I came across a coding club that was being set up by the wonderful people at Redgate, a Cambridge-based software company. My daughter and I loved their live-streamed Scratch code club, which was very well organised and run in a way that dealt well with security and safeguarding issues. It was inspiring to see this in action and it was clear that now was the right time to put something together for ourselves.

A virtual lab

But how could we include a practical component in a workshop about molecular biology if we can’t be in the lab or even take some basic bits and pieces of equipment to a school? Luckily, there is a great free tool out there that biologists use a lot these days, called Benchling. Being web-based, it requires no installation and we could demonstrate it on our screens while participants could have a go from home. Benchling is a tool that allows viewing and manipulating DNA sequences - the instruction manual for living organisms. 

Together with Alena Pance, Fran Gale and Mike Norman from the Public Engagement team at the Wellcome Genome Campus, we decided to focus our first workshop on a technique called the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which has become widely known as a method employed in the detection of SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

We developed a lesson plan for a 90 minute workshop during which we would show the genome - the instruction manual - of the SARS-CoV2 virus, demonstrate how to search biological databases to identify the virus by its DNA sequence, and introduce the PCR technique. Participants would be able to log into the Benchling tool during the workshop and have a go at designing the primers - short DNA molecules that give the PCR method its specificity and, as such, are the core component of the PCR test. This would give us a lot of opportunities to discuss general molecular biology as well as virology. 

Cindy Smidt and Hannah Jagoe during a live broadcast from the malaria labs (both working alone in a laboratory and so were not required to wear a mask)

At the time of writing, we have delivered this workshop seven times and reached more than 500 people. We have learned a lot since starting it. The format we have now settled on uses the Zoom webinar platform. Attendees cannot share their audio or video and we don’t allow chat between people. This does feel a little restrictive at first, but it also makes it very secure. To preserve a feeling of being together at an event, we have up to three co-presenters on the call who constantly monitor the chat, answer some questions directly in the chat and read out other questions to be answered by the presenter. To break the ice a little bit when we start, we now like to ask people where they are joining in from. Everyone has something to say at that point and everyone loves to fly their flag, plus it is great to see people joining you from across the country and, indeed, the world. 

We have had great interactions with our participants and lots of great questions. After the workshop, we ask participants to fill in a survey and we have been blown away by the comments people have left us. Luckily most are positive but there are also useful criticisms that will allow us to improve these sessions. But it is the fact that people are giving their time after a 90 minute workshop to write detailed comments that has been unexpected and overwhelming in a very good way. If anyone who has left us feedback of this sort happens to read this: thank you ever so much, we appreciate it a lot! 

Alena Pance giving an introduction to Campus during a live broadcast

And of course, things can go wrong as well. When we ran the workshop on the Zoom webinar platform - instead of a regular Zoom meeting - for the first time, we didn’t know that there would be no waiting room. So once we had set up everything ahead of the scheduled start time we were just having fun with a bit of colleague banter. When the time came to let in the participants from the waiting room, my heart stopped when I realised that there was none. The webinar platform has a similar feature called “practise session”, which allows the panellists to set up without participants and then click a button to let everyone in. Alas, we hadn’t encountered that one yet. So it turned out that we had been live broadcasting our little banter to the (luckily small fraction of) the world that had been in the room with us for about 15 minutes already. And of course nobody was in a position to warn us because we had muted everyone. Ah yes, security can sometimes work against you.

Live broadcasting

Yes, live broadcasting has its pitfalls and things can go wrong but it also provides a thrill to presenters and participants alike that a pre-recorded event simply cannot deliver. So we went further and put together our latest event: a live-broadcast from our malaria labs, with two colleagues showing the labs, the equipment and even the mosquitoes that we need to do our research. Hannah Jagoe and Cindy Smidt joined the team for the event. Fortunately, nothing (big) went wrong on the day and we had a lovely session and lively interaction with our 80 visitors. We would never have been able to take so many people into the lab in person. Never mind the “Blair Witch” filming style - people loved that it was definitely authentic and had a feeling of immediacy that a polished broadcast would not have had. Go ahead and do this with your own lab, it is fun!

Recently, I also had the opportunity to join a careers talk event that was live-streamed into a year five classroom. It was heart-warming to see the children back in class and I found myself wishing to be there in person. I do miss the old way of doing public engagement but I think there is a lot to be said about the new approaches as well. While the schools around Cambridge have always had scientists queuing at their doorstep, schools in rural settings far away from universities and research centres are probably struggling to get an actual scientist in front of the class. For that reason, I think live-streamed workshops will have a place in our work for the long term future. And of course, once you start on this path, you can’t help trying to get that one student that will break your own  record in terms of geographical outreach: we are currently at about 9600 miles (Hong Kong), so come on New Zealand!

Frank Schwach


None of this would have happened without the lovely people at the Public Engagement team, in particular Alena Pance, Fran Gale and Mike Norman.

The “live from the malaria labs” event was made possible by the hard work of Alena Pance, Hannah Jagoe and Cindy Smidt, with video editing provided by Alena’s son Aleš. 

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Dr Frank Schwach’s profile

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