In November 2021, Priyanka Surana and Penelope Wintringer committed to participate in an unusual type of training programme. The Collaborative Futures Academy (CFA) was a partnership between Wellcome Connecting Science, the University of Cambridge and the Berlin School of Public Engagement and Open Science. It was a week-long, online training course focused on equity and diversity, creative engagement and challenging conversations – all aimed at engaging the public with science.
Priyanka is a senior bioinformatician at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “I am passionate about inclusivity and visibility of neurodiverse students in science,” she says. Penelope is a scientific database curator at EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). “My motivation for signing up was that I am passionate about making biology more fun and accessible for young people,” she explains.
Here, they discuss the CFA, what they learned and what advice they would give others thinking about taking part in public engagement in 2022.
An unusual training approach
“I recently started at Sanger and had no public engagement experience,” says Priyanka. “I came to the field with grand aspirational goals of bringing scientists from around the world to speak and advocate for science, to not just increase public trust but also to create real collaboration. Because I didn't know where to get started, I reached out to the public engagement team on the Campus and met with Susan Wallace who suggested CFA would be a great crash course in public engagement, collaboration, and communication.”
The idea of the Collaborative Futures Academy was to focus on skills, methods, and creative processes. “It was difficult to grasp what exactly would be different compared to other training,” says Penelope. “Although one thing was certain: that it would be a wonderful opportunity, at least to exchange and get to know new people.”
Even the application process for this training was unusual. Applicants had to create a video, essay, or any other kind of creative expression explaining what collaborative research meant to them, and their hopes for this intense week.
The training involved several short sessions spread across a week, and each day had a specific theme. The first two days were devoted to diversity, inclusiveness, and communication and had a range of speakers with different forms of lived experience, such as being LGBTQ+ or experiencing life as a precarious migrant. “The open vulnerability of the speakers created a space for the participants to be honest, share their own experiences and yet feel safe,” says Priyanka. “People presenting themselves with their privileges positively surprised us.” Other themes included approaching challenging content and working with the media.
As well as the learning themes, the training encouraged self-reflection, and participants had sessions with mentors. “These sessions were very helpful to assimilate the information and connect it in practical ways to our own projects,” explains Priyanka. “The organisers themselves were active participants in all sessions and actively facilitated participants from everyone, not just the extrovert few.”
What we learned
For Priyanka, the most powerful aspect was the short conversation at the beginning of the personal branding session with Aisha, a self-advocate for those with learning disabilities. “Aisha’s story will stay with me and have a lasting impact on my work,” she says. “The main things that really struck me were the importance of getting the community you are trying to serve involved right from the beginning at the design stage. She also made a good point about the need for empowering the underrepresented communities to voice their opinions.”
For Penelope’s part, she was amazed by the engagement of all participants, and how interactive all of the sessions were. “We would have such great conversations in the sessions that we would stay around to talk during breaks.
Through CFA, Priyanka learned to define realistic goals when it comes to working with the public. “It taught me the importance of not focusing on what I want to do, but what my audience needs,” she says. “It also taught me to celebrate the different perspectives that a diverse team can bring to the table and how this can elevate a project.”
Penelope witnessed the importance and benefits of networking, and how it creates opportunities without necessarily realising it. “I gathered advice on how to build better resilience, tackle challenging discussions, and how useful personal branding can be - it tells a story, about our values, our goals, what motivates us, what kind of projects we like,” she explains. “One beautiful value brought up was “Ubuntu” - the Southern African concept of being a person through others.”
“Everyone was very open, sharing their experiences and talking about the work they have done or will do in the future,” says Priyanka. “This helped me not just to connect with others in a true sense but also learn from their mistakes and successes. The diversity of participants was amazing – different backgrounds, unique abilities and varied public engagement experience.”
What we will do now
Priyanka is aiming to make science and academia more accessible and inclusive for neurodiverse students. “To achieve this goal, I am currently trying to connect with others that work in this field. The next step would be to use the existing knowledge of how autistic children consume information to create materials that will help them engage better with science,” she says. “One idea is to use mainstream media - fictional books, graphic novels, and movies, to connect them to scientific concepts. Also to use these media sources to develop their analytical and problem-solving skills.”
“I visualise myself as the enabler where those already working with, teaching or caring for autistic children are truly leaders in helping develop the resources. Also in this collaboration are scientists who will share their research and how it supports or refutes the chosen mainstream media.”
For Penelope, the training helped her to realise how much she values interacting with people professionally. “It is really something that I will be looking to do more,” she says. Both organisers and participants have inspired her to look into moving towards a future involving even more outreach. “When I am ready, I would love to develop video games to approach biology in more interactive ways, although my ideas still need a lot of shaping. For now, I am happy to join other people’s projects and help them however I can.”
“For others interested in public engagement, I would recommend that people start small and that they think of this more as a marathon rather than a sprint,” Priyanka advises. “They should try connecting with those who are already doing work towards similar goals. This will give you access to a wealth of information and will save you a lot of unnecessary effort down the road. Also, talk to your local public engagement team, they can advise you how receptive the community might be towards your project. They are also fantastic sounding boards and supportive of your goals. And finally, do your homework and spend time getting to know your audience. Then, test it on a small group before launching big.”
“I would encourage anyone to take part in a future CFA!” says Penelope. “Even if you are not currently doing any activities that engage with the general public, there is always someone who can benefit from building these skills: colleagues, stakeholders, collaborators. It can help in non-work-related everyday conversations as well. There are always aspects that we can improve. As for engaging, I would also recommend taking part in outreach activities for personal and professional growth, and talking with the public engagement team and volunteers on campus. They are passionate and a real mine of information and advice.”