Golden Eagle project volunteers setting up activities before visiting a prison (2019)

Categories: Sanger Life25 August 20203.1 min read

Inspiring prisoners and their families with genomics

“I want to inspire kids, let them know that though they are having a really tough time now, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I want them to know they can do well, whatever happens.”

Carmen Diaz Soria

Carmen Diaz Soria is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sanger Institute. Last year, she was awarded an Enabling Fund grant from the Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement team. Her plan was to take science activities into prisons, for offenders and their families.

“I had the idea a long time ago. I wanted to work with kids and families that can normally be quite alienated from science engagement activities,” says Carmen.

Setting up

Carmen approached Steve Scott, previously Senior Public Engagement Coordinator at the Wellcome Genome Campus, with her idea. “Carmen wasn’t sure whether her idea of going into prisons was feasible. But we chatted and I’d told her others have done similar schemes and she realised it would be possible.”

Carmen spoke with a team at the University of St Andrews who run ‘Cell Block Science’, a similar programme, to learn from their experiences. With assistance from Caroline Lanskey from the University of Cambridge, Carmen approached prisons across East Anglia to see who might be interested in being involved in the project.

They found a prison to work with, and Carmen met with staff and residents to discuss the approach and what activities would be of most interest. She was invited to attend a day when families visit residents, spending several hours together. The activities had to appeal to a wide range of ages - from primary school age children to adults – and bring the science to life.

Carmen (fourth from left) with fellow volunteers on the Golden Eagle prisons project, 2019

The activities also had to use equipment suitable to take through prison security – for example no devices that are able connect to the internet and no alcohol is allowed - both of which are used in a lot of experiments.

“We wanted to give families something to talk about, so they could engage together in the activities. Thanks to the staff and residents at this prison we were able to do that. They have been instrumental throughout the project and like us, are very enthusiastic to bring science into prisons” Carmen says.


A foldscope paper microscope

Carmen’s research is into Schistosoma mansoni – a parasitic worm which causes schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease. She took in a foldscope (a folding microscope) and slides with the worm on for people to take a closer look.

“It was really great. Seeing the kids being surprised, or their face of horror, when they looked down the foldscope and saw parasites was amazing. People don’t usually have that interaction with parasites,” said Carmen.

“They also don’t usually have much interaction with scientists. I think it’s important to challenge peoples’ stereotypes of what a scientist is. Science is diverse, and we don’t all wear white coats.”

Carmen’s colleague Dr Michal Szpak agrees: “We got a chance to meet with people. Everyone was curious, not only about DNA and genomics, but about us as scientists.”

“Engaging with external groups reminds you that what you do here, everyday, is amazing. And it’s fun.”

Feedback from the residents was overwhelmingly positive and the prison has invited the team back for more family visit days.

Carmen has named the project Golden Eagle: “I called it the Golden Eagle project because they are such magnificent, beautiful creatures. And they are inspiring.”