Skip to main content

BSI Public Engagement Award: interview with Professor Sheena Cruickshank

Professor Sheena Cruickshank

The BSI Immunology Awards recognise those who make an outstanding contribution to advancing the field and enabling immunology to thrive. Professor Sheena Cruickshank won our inaugural Public Engagement Award, and we caught up with her to find out what it means to be recognised in this way, and why public engagement is so important in our field.

When did you begin engaging with the public about your work? Was it something you were doing from the very beginning? 

I have always been of the mindset that we learn a lot from involving the public in research, but it was when I became a lecturer that it really took off for me. When I came to Manchester, we had something called the New Academics Programme, which included learning about public engagement. The university was also a beacon for public engagement, and things like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) were beginning to mean public engagement was taken into account when assessing a university’s performance. There was a clear message that it was something that was valued and encouraged, and that in turn created the opportunities and culture necessary for us to really think about the impact of our research, and how to engage people with it. I very quickly began to explore and expand what I was doing in this area, and have continued that process through to today. It’s something you work at through your whole career, and that’s one of the wonderful things about it.

Do you think public engagement is becoming more integral to the scientist’s role and how can researchers be supported to engage more with public audiences?

Change can take a long time in the university sector, but I think we are beginning to see the effect of the changes that have been put in place in recent years. The pandemic also demonstrated just how vital it is that we involve the public in our work, and ensure our conversations with broader audiences shape our research. Research funders, the REF and the Knowledge Exchange Framework, as well as increased emphasis on service-learning and engaged teaching, are all important for encouraging people to think about the wider community. The BSI has played a key role too, supporting really meaningful engagement and involvement. I can think of so many great young immunologists doing incredible work, and it’s so inspiring. My great hope is that all this means it will naturally become part and parcel of what we do as researchers. 

With immunology being an incredibly complex area of science, what are some of the challenges when engaging with people with no prior knowledge of it?

It can be a challenge, but I honestly believe that you can explain anything in simple terms. It’s often about looking for commonality and appreciating what people already know. The pandemic really brought immunology into the limelight, and basic concepts – antibodies, T cells – became more and more part of people’s everyday dialogue. Language is so important, as is understanding how much detail someone needs to grasp a concept. Social media has been helpful in teaching us how to cut down our core messages and say things very concisely. I have also found that my teaching is a great help, because you have to boil a concept down to its essence, and you can only really do that if you truly understand it. I’ve also worked with people who don’t speak English as their first language, which teaches you to use really accessible language. Images can be very powerful too – there’s a lot you can convey with an image and almost no words. 

What would you say to a scientist making the first steps to engage with the public about their work?

It’s good to begin by doing it in a safe space, with something that feels manageable. Confidence is very important, and this has to be built up over time. I’d also encourage people to think early on about who they want to reach with their message, and what platform is best for that. In the case of social media, this is evolving all the time, and the various platforms have quite different groups using them. Choose the one that is most relevant to your target audience. 

I would also recommend being prepared and having a strategy in case things get tricky, particularly if you are tackling a controversial topic on social media. Who will be your allies and how will you respond if you come up against resistance? I have a rule that if someone asks a question, I may choose to reply, but if they are in any way disrespectful, I don’t engage. More recently, I’ve restricted which replies I see. I also have ‘social media holidays’ where I stay away from it for a time. 

But there are so many ways of engaging besides social media. I have done a lot of writing since the pandemic. Editors can be incredible in helping shape a piece and improve my writing, which in turn is useful for grants and research papers. Some people might want to make videos, or hold focus groups – there are lots of different options. Apart from that, it’s just so much fun. You get so much out of it, and you meet such wonderful, interesting people. 

You have previously expressed a belief that public engagement can influence and improve research. Can you give an example of how this has happened with your own work?

When I first started as a lecturer, I was working on infection responses, particularly with parasitic worms. This kind of infection is quite rare these days in the UK, so I set out to connect with communities from other countries, who were more likely to have first-hand experience. Their feedback was hugely thought-provoking, and one question that kept coming up was about new allergies they were experiencing now they lived in the UK. I didn’t specialise in allergies, but this question seemed really important, so we looked at how we might generate data that would shed light on this. We decided to take a citizen’s science approach and developed a programme called Britain Breathing, for which the BSI has been a hugely supportive partner. 

It turned into a huge research partnership drawing on a range of disciplines. Ten years ago, I would never have thought I would be working on how pollution and our environment affects our immune system. It’s sent me in a whole new direction, discovering new funders and new wonderful collaborations across several disciplines, and I’m still thinking about how we can bring that research back into the community. It’s a constant loop of questions and exploration.

What do you think the future holds for public engagement in science?

One thing that’s very important to me is that the engagement we do is purposeful. What I mean by that is that we think hard about who should be involved, and what everyone taking part hopes to achieve with it. We must also evaluate the project throughout its lifecycle. That’s what I’d like us to be thinking about more as a sector. We are getting there, but there is a lot more work to be done, and barriers to be overcome. 

If we are able to articulate the concrete outcomes of engaging the public, how it has fed back into our research and teaching, then we are properly equipped to demonstrate its value and encourage more people to do it. 

What did it mean to you to win the BSI Public Engagement Award?

It really did mean a lot. I’ve been a member of the BSI ever since I was a PhD student so to be recognised by the Society is very special. I feel really proud and very honoured. 

The BSI Awards Ceremony was held on 20 April 2023. You can read more about the all the winners of the 2023 BSI Awards here.