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Breaking down barriers with ‘Sensory Science’

The intracellular cell group with their Sensory Science exhibit in Cambridge

Through our BSI Communication and Engagement Grant scheme, we recently supported a collaborative art project to make science more accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Here, Stavroula Piliou, a PhD student involved in the project, explains how the resulting exhibit brought the complexities of the immune system to life in a range of tactile art pieces. 

In a society increasingly shaped by scientific progress, it is crucial that everyone – regardless of their background or ability – can take part in discussions about scientific inquiry. But science communication is so often limited to the written word and visual diagrams, in articles which can often be dense and inaccessible to a broad public audience. With our Sensory Science initiative, we aimed to break down some of these barriers.  

Under the leadership of Dr Erica Tandori, an artist with low vision from Monash University in Australia, and Professor Adrian Liston from the University of Cambridge, our team of PhD students collaborated with artists from Anglia Ruskin University to produce a suite of models designed to communicate the intricate and varied role of our immune system. We especially wanted to engage people who are blind or have low vision.

Collaboration enhances creativity 

By translating these complex scientific concepts into tactile multisensory art, we were able to bring to life the role of our immune system in four primary areas: neuroscience, autoimmunity, infection and cancer. The models, which appeal to a range of sensory experiences including touch, smell and hearing, were exhibited in March as part of the Cambridge Festival.

Resin brains crafted using cake moulds were used to illustrate the differences between a healthy brain, one affected by traumatic brain injury, and one impacted by multiple sclerosis, with the latter using a pet warming blanket to demonstrate inflammation in the central nervous system. 

Another model detailed the progression of cervical cancer and its metastasis, by depicting bacterial invasion into cells using sponges of different sizes, shapes and textures. Elsewhere, tactile posters explained the biology behind coeliac disease, and visitors to the exhibit even had the opportunity to hear their own brain activity, as Dr Stuart Favilla mapped brain waves into sound using innovative audio techniques.

A transformative experience 

The impact of the project on the immunologists involved was profound. The collaboration not only allowed us to articulate our research through multiple senses but also encouraged us to think creatively and outside the box. The experience sparked a deeper appreciation for inclusivity and community involvement in science, and demonstrated the importance of diverse perspectives that can enrich our understanding. 

The exhibit was very popular and gained significant public attention, including from BBC Look East, who reported on the initiative for their news programme. Most importantly, the general public gained a deeper understanding of the complexities of the immune system, and of its role in health and disease. 

What next for Sensory Science?

Following the success of the exhibit, we have received numerous requests to present our work at more science communication events, and some of the artworks have been incorporated into the medical student laboratories at the University of Cambridge. We are now planning to extend the impact of the exhibit by documenting and sharing our experiences in one or more scientific journals. The Sensory Science event was truly a reminder that the most effective innovation comes from the collective efforts of a diverse and inclusive community. 


Stavroula Piliou, PhD student at the University of Cambridge 
With thanks to Professor Adrian Liston, Dr Erica Tandori, Dr Stuart Favilla, Dr Julia Johnson, PhD students from the University of Cambridge, artists from Anglia Ruskin University and everyone else involved. 

BSI Communication and Engagement Grant 

This grant scheme funds projects to spark interest in and strengthen understanding of immunology, and helps to build your engagement skills. The next deadline is 1 October 2024. Find out more and apply here