In no particular order, there are a few experiences recently that got me very excited in the last couple of months. In spite of the 3 hour wait, one of these was visiting the Random International’s Rain Room exhibition at The Barbican before it closed. Several hundred people queued for hours to spend 15 minutes in a room in which your movements control the rain. I was intrigued to see how the concept, which clearly hooked people in, was executed. Initially, with noone there, it rains non-stop. As soon as people walk into the rain, it stops – but, to my joy, not completely if, for example, you wear a black coat (it fools the sensors). This made it all the more enjoyable (me wearing a black coat!) – seeing some people getting wet and others walking scott free, the rain parting for them as they walked around. Isn’t life just like that?!
As part of my fellowship, I am fascinated to meet artists whose work is biomedically inspired. I spent an afternoon with Daksha Patel visiting her HotBedPress studio in Salford as she showed me round her artworks inspired by biomedical images of brain scans or neurones. We talked a lot about what she gets out of working with biomedical data – this was possibly a bizarre question for her as she had been working with biomedical data for years – why not? We talked about the social life of data and getting what’s inside of you out there, represented in the world in someway – if scientists can have access to that – why not artists too – it is, after all, our data and part of our bodies to start off with?! This cultural life of data resonated with me – its cultural value beyond medical research but also the potential benefits of using artistic methods to get to ‘know’ your data. It reminded me of another chat i had with artist John O’Shea (who spent time in a biomedical lab making a Pig’s Bladder football) and what he learned from working in a lab but also what he contributed, adding a projector to the microscope set up so that everyone in the lab could see the cells down the microscope, projected up onto the wall, not just the person looking at it at that one moment in time. This simple action, opened up the possibilities of gaining a wider perspective on the cells but also put them into the context of what other people were working on. Again… new scientific insights can potentially flow from that.
Drawing out the connections between nerve cells might trigger something that you don’t see just by looking, but marking them out, articulating them by hand. It’s another way of knowing. The brain also loves patterns and the desire to look for patterns is something that crowdsourced science experiments have latched onto. I hope to explore this in more detail during my fellowship, but have included it in crowdsourced science recent talks <<Slides.
In March, I went along to the Big Bang Fair. This is something, I have to admit, has never been a priority – well, maybe i don’t have to explain myself where others, Stuart Parkinson, Beverley Gibbs and Alice Bell, share related perspectives but I put aside judgements for a day to take the opportunity to experience Roger Kneebone‘s pop-up surgery with his Imperial colleagues. It was exciting to see Roger’s work in action but also being privvy to the end of session feedback which gave insights into his very collaborative, inclusive approach to working. Plus he introduced me to the many people he works with who have created games and other demos which complement the interactive and educational offer.
I am always keen to see citizen science in action, to get an insight into how its being done. As with the drawing of nerve cells by hand, there are insights to be gleaned in seeing things done. I was invited to observe the data collection on the Cheltenham Science Festival’s BIG EXPERIMENT which is crowdsourcing handprints from teenagers to explore the relationship between finger length and career aspirations. Something that Professor John Manning, the lead scientist has written a lot about in adults. It gave me some great insights into how, sometimes, keeping things really simple in terms of data collection makes total sense. The experimental set up was just several A4 scanners connected to laptops to collect the handprints.
My head is crammed full of exciting ideas that am just starting to distil and play about with. What’s been really enjoyable is to do a mix of reading and watching relevant stuff by David Gauntlett and others on and also going out and meeting people and seeing how they do what they do. After three months of immersing myself and swimming about in this creative soup – i’ve been developing a concept for, what will hopefully be, a crowdsourced science experiment (more on who, what, when, why soon!). I had great fun, figuring out whether kids under 14 would be able to articulate the concept… my niece and nephew have reassured me that they totally can… and that trust, collaboration, making and sharing are key… (as well as a lot of fun).
It’s been amazing to have the opportunity to use sensing, making and playing as a way to make connections, foster collaboration, create ideas and experiment, without the obligation of doing a project hanging over me. I have a clearer idea of the kind of professional development that i need and a sense of the people and environments that I’d like to collaborate in and with. With a bit more reading, research and experimentation, I think we’re on track to innovate public engagement with biomedical research that has both social and scientific value.