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Vaccine engagement starts…in your university networks

We're proud to showcase this case study in our 'Vaccine engagement starts...' series, part of our wider public engagement campaign. Our hope is that, through highlighting a range of the wonderful and impactful activities our members have been carrying out, others will be inspired to begin engaging with the public on vaccines.

BSI member, Dr Natalie Riddell is a Lecturer in Immunology and Ageing at the University of Surrey. She has been working with her local networks and the alumni community to build vaccine confidence by addressing concerns about COVID-19 vaccines in informative online sessions. Here, Natalie talks about the role of immunologists in public engagement, how you can use your networks to reach different audiences and other useful advice.

If we don’t speak about COVID-19 vaccines, who will? As immunologists I feel that we should be leading the charge…

We’re the ones who have the expertise to understand and critically evaluate all the data that’s being released from the clinical trials. There has been a tremendous amount of work during the past year to develop these vaccines so now we have a responsibility to inform the public and encourage vaccine uptake.

But, speaking out about vaccinations for COVID-19 can be nerve-racking. 

I work in immunology and ageing at the University of Surrey and I have been engaging with the community and with Surrey alumni through networks within the university and local community – here’s my experience.

When the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved in the UK at the end of last year, Professor Deborah Dunn-Walters and I thought it was an ideal time to host a public engagement event online. We felt that there were a lot of understandable concerns from the public and that it was our job to try alleviating them. We already had a big cohort of engaged older people from a public engagement initiative that we run which bring together members of the local community and academics from a wide range of disciplines that work on ageing, so we decided to run a session over Zoom. We discussed how vaccines work, the vaccine development process and vaccine safety, among other key topics. We also explained the differences between the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines using the BSI’s infographics.

From this, the Surrey alumni team asked us to hold a similar session as part of their monthly event series ‘What it takes’. Our session ‘What it beat a pandemic’ had hundreds of people attending, and we did our best to answer all the questions coming through.

The scary part of doing this type of public engagement is that you can never predict what you’re going to get asked and you might have completely unrelated questions that can be difficult to answer. I learned that there’s safety in numbers – you can have a few colleagues there to help answer questions and you can have some time to think while someone else is talking. Another approach that works well is giving people the opportunity to submit questions beforehand to get an idea of the type of concerns they have.

It’s also important to be open and honest – you can always say ‘I don’t know what the answer is’ or ‘We predict it might be something to do with this, but we don’t know yet’. This can actually help you come across better and build trust.

My last piece of advice is to take advantage of your networks and think of opportunities for collaboration. Look up local community or charitable groups which might already have networks you can use. In my experience, carrying out public engagement with researchers from other disciplines enriches the share of knowledge to the general public and helps build networks between researchers, for me this had led to new multidiscipline research projects and collaborative grant submissions so it can also be beneficial for your career progression.

I’d like to encourage BSI members and immunologists to begin their public engagement journey. You don’t have to reach a huge number of people, but you can share your knowledge with friends, family and colleagues. At least it’s a start!

Follow Natalie on Twitter @N_Riddell_Immun

Are you a BSI member involved in public engagement around COVID-19 vaccines? We'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch with our Marketing & Communications Manager, Teresa Prados, to share your experience as part of our new case study series 'Vaccine engagement starts...'.

Click here to find out more about the BSI's public engagement campaign Vaccine engagement starts at home. We’re always looking for members to help bring the expert immunology voice so if you'd like to get involved with our public engagement work, don't hesitate to contact our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino.