I am a researcher at the University of Birmingham and I have worked in the field of immunology for six years. Currently, my research focuses on the immune system of patients suffering from multiple myeloma, a type of cancer affecting almost six thousand new patients in the UK each year. The cancer decreases the immune defenses in these patients which are then left exposed and at higher risk of dying from infection.
As a member of the British Society for Immunology (BSI), I have participated in several events aimed at networking and professional development, however I was looking for an opportunity to be actively involved in an event. When I heard the BSI was looking for members to volunteer at the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham last month, I put my name forward. The theme of the BSI's activities on the day were to be vaccines and herd immunity - due to my research, this topic is of particular interest to me.
This was my first time at the Fair and I was not prepared for the vast size of the exhibition area! Our stand was part of the Royal Society of Biology's “Biology Big Top” and was near the exhibition entrance in a busy area. Expecting young people between 7 and 19 years old and families, we had three activities planned for the day suitable for every age. For our first activity, we had coloured modelling clay and various objects for decoration (beads, strings and pasta!) for visitors to create their own microbe or antibody. During this activity, which very popular with the youngest of the visitors, we showed the attendees pictures of viruses and bacteria, highlighting their features and differences. Through this engagement activity we addressed the topic of “what makes you sick?", encouraging visitors to use their imagination to show what they think harmful microbes could look like. We also introduced them to antibodies, showing their structure and functions.
The second activity was centred on antibody specificity. In a tray we had counters representing a mix of bacteria, and one type of bacteria had a magnetic disc attached to it. With the aid of a magnet – which represented an antibody – visitors had to bind to and remove bacteria to “clear the infection”, although of course they remove the type attached to the magnetic disc. The activity worked perfectly well for the audience to learn about antibody specificity. Asking the visitor to repeat the task a second time demonstrated how a second exposure to the same microbe could be cleared faster by the immune system, which also introduced them to the topic of vaccinations.
The subject of the third activity was herd immunity and was more popular with older visitors. Three baskets filled with coloured cotton balls represented three scenarios in which 0%, 50% and 95% of the population had been vaccinated. Non-infected individuals were represented by yellow balls while infected were red. Attendees had to role-play being a virus and try to infect as many ‘people’ as possible in each basket by pulling out as many red balls as possible in a short time. The activity helped explain the concept of herd immunity based on the fact that in the basket where 95% of the population had been vaccinated, visitors were unable to pull out the one red ball in basket full of otherwise yellow balls.
Our activities were well attended and, while kids played at the stand, parents engaged in conversations about vaccines and showed support for our work. The atmosphere at the Fair was exciting and from our stand I could see the Royal Navy stage where scuba divers greeted people passing by from a tank full of water, the Shell’s area where kids were racing salt-powered radio-controlled cars, and our fellows from the Royal Society of Biology helping visitors to plant various seeds in pots that could be taken away. Overall, volunteering at the Big Bang Fair for the BSI has been a valuable experience that gave me the opportunity to interact with people of different age and made me discover their perception of immunology. It was challenging at times to describe complex subjects to all the inquisitive people attending the stand, but it is highly motivating to know they might have learned something more about immunology.
Dr Ilaria Chicca
Clinical Immunology Service
Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy
University of Birmingham
If you would like to run any of the activities described in this article, or for information on activities surrounding other immunological themes, go to our Activities and Resources page.